In August 1943 I moved to the 'Big School' - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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In August 1943 I moved to the 'Big School'

In August 1943 most, but not all, of those in my class at Christ Church School moved to the Big School, St James' Church of England School. Now my daily journey was much shorter. Actually the playground at St James' was directly opposite our house at the bottom of Cotton Street - but out of sight on the other side of the railway embankment, the territorial divide, so I still had to walk through the arches and round via Avondale Street. It would have been unthinkable, and downright dangerous, to have attempted a short cut by clambering up the embankment and crossing the very busy railway tracks. The school was demolished long ago and the area is now home for a group of small businesses.

Above: This is my 2009 image of the 'territorial boundary'  created by the twin LMS railway bridges. Apart from the street lamp, which was not there in the 1940s, little has changed. It used to be a dirt track, often flooded and was definitely out of bounds for small children in the wartime blackout. I do remember having a glorious snow-ball fight one winter's morning on the exit from the tunnel on the way to school so we arrived at Big School wet through and cold. The school was behind the modern railings on the left.

The school's parent church, St James' was, and still is, half a mile away on Denby Dale Road opposite the main entrance to Wakefield Park (see my 2008 image below). There were no regular services at that church during the war, presumably because its vicar was on war service. I don't remember ever going inside St James' Church but the adjacent Parochial Hall was regularly used for whist drives and other functions.


 
There were four classes at the Big School, each with about 30 pupils. Boys and girls had separate entrances at opposite sides of the school building. Every morning as 9am approached, a teacher blew his whistle and we boys would line up in our classes. When we had dressed off to the teachers’ satisfaction in straight, silent lines, we would lead off in single file into school, past the disgusting outside male toilets and on into the appropriate classroom where we joined up with the girls. Two of the four classes used the two smallest rooms at opposite ends of the building, the other classes had rooms in the centre of the school which were normally separated by a folding screen that stretched from floor to ceiling. When the screen was folded back, the resultant large room was used for morning assemblies.
In the assembly hall a large framed print of WF Yeames' famous painting When did you last see your father? hung on the wall. The painting fascinated me. The title was engraved on a plaque underneath the painting and I often stood on my own in front of it, rather like the little boy in the painting, after morning assembly when all the others had moved away and wondered what the answer to the question was. None of the teachers ever volunteered an explanation and I always assumed that, in spite of the peculiar clothes the people in the picture were wearing, it was in some way related to the war against Hitler when so many fathers were away from home fighting for their country. More than once, the Form 1 teacher, Miss Thompson, interrupted my reverie in front of the painting by saying, "Come along, Tony, you'll be late." (The picture actually depicts the son of a Royalist being questioned by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The boy has a dilemma: if he tells the truth about his father's whereabouts he will put him in mortal danger but if he lies he will go against the ideal of honesty instilled in him by his parents.)

School mornings always started with a short religious service conducted by the Head Master, Mr T N Moore. Our own teacher, Miss Thompson, played the piano at assembly. First off, when silence reigned and there was no more shuffling of feet, there was a hymn. There were no hymn books (except for the teachers); all the verses, however many there might be, were sung from memory. One of the first thing new pupils had to do was learn by heart several hymns and their tunes so that after a week or two we could join in. The Head Master would recite several prayers from the book of Common Prayer, always including the Lord's Prayer, prayers for the Royal Family and for our own families and, on Fridays, the Creed. We all joined in the recitation of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Those of us who had just joined from Christ Church School already knew the Lord's Prayer off by heart but we had not been introduced to the Creed so we were allowed a few weeks to copy it out and learn it. If the Head Master had any announcements to make, he would make them next before we all sang a second hymn. Assembly over, we would move quickly and silently to our classrooms.

One of the problems of trying to learn hymns off by heart was that we had to remember words and phrases that meant nothing to us. Why were we singing about "chariots of wrath"? What was "ineffable love"? Why did we have to "pierce the gloom of sin and grief"? We did, however, very quickly learn the words of one of our favourite hymns, Onward Christian Soldiers, because they were written in 1865, allegedly in the space of just 15 minutes, by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould as he struggled up the infamous steep hill through the cutting in his Horbury Parish, just four miles from our school. When lustily singing that hymn, to Sir Arthur Sullivan's splendid march-like tune, we used to put heavy stress on the first and third beats of every bar as though we, too, were marching up that hill to war. What I didn't learn as a child was that the good Reverend Sabine-Gould and his wife produced 15 children.

In subsequent weeks and months we learned whole chunks of the Church of England Catechism off by heart. For those of my readers who are not familiar with The Catechism, the Book of Common Prayer defines it thus: "An instruction to be learned of every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop". Our teacher read out each of the questions and detailed one of our class, boy or girl, to provide the answer. It was very hard going for as soon as I had learned one section, I found that I'd forgotten earlier sections. The learning process was not exactly helped by our teacher who wouldn't, or couldn't, explain what it was all about. The very first question is: "What is your name". The only acceptable answer was "N or M" but, when asked, Teacher could not explain what was meant by that (and I still don't know.) It didn't get any better. I used to worry about how I was supposed to "renounce the Devil and all his works" and I desperately wanted to ask what "the sinful lusts of the flesh" were, but I never dared. In the playground, some of the older boys claimed to know all about sinful lusts; they would brag about what they knew but they would never explain to us first-formers.

We sat at double desks that had two separate lifting lids and individual open-topped inkwells. As far as I can recall, we chose whom we wanted to sit next to. I chose to sit on the front row in the centre. A tall and pretty girl called Maureen chose to sit next to me - probably because she wanted to be on the front row rather than any particular wish to sit next to me. Either Maureen or I came top of the class each term throughout most of our four years at St James' School.

Other pupils I particularly remember from my class of 40 boys and girls included Frankie Eaton and Tudor Gaynor who both lived in Railway Terrace, one of several short, squalid terraces off Thornes Lane nestling very close to the LNER 99 Arches near our Co-op store (Image above from 2009 shows where those terraces were before they were demolished). Railway Terrace had been built as close as it was possible to get to the railway arches and those who lived in the end houses could almost touch the viaduct's superstructure by leaning out of their upstairs windows. Only rarely did I go to Railway Terrace, or any of the other terraces, and I never went inside any of the houses. If I went to 'call' on anyone before or after school, I stood outside in the street and literally called out to them. I do, however, vividly remember the all-pervasive grime, smoke and coal dust that seemed to permeate the entire area, some of it produced by passing trains, some emanating from nearby factories close to the River Calder waterfront, and the rest pouring from house chimneys.

One of the boys in my class was dreadfully disfigured by a cleft palate and neither the children nor the teachers could understand much of what he tried to say and so he was largely ignored. He was never asked any questions in class and he never seemed to join in any of our games. One day we heard that he had gone into hospital "to have an operation to make his face look right". We never saw him again and, to our shame, I don't think we ever enquired after him.

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