A Victorian School on Every Corner

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A Victorian School on Every Corner 

 A Victorian School on Every Corner.

During the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period  the district of East Leeds was epitomised by its warren of back to back terrace houses, pubs, picture houses, church and chapels and especially memorable a myriad of great old high windowed, Victorian schools complete with even higher ceilings and primitive plumbing.

These schools were colloquially referred to as: ‘Mary’s,’ ‘Hilda’s,’ ‘Vicky’, ‘Ellerby,’ ‘Saville,’ ‘South Accomm,’ to mention but a few and served the Anglican, Catholic and secular preferences of the local population. ‘Ossy’ and ‘Corpus’ were schools on the periphery of the district and slightly more modern in character. Although the pupils of these schools were fiercely competitive towards each other, especially at sport, in the evenings all were merged into the homogenous street corner society of the district.  A further school Richmond Hill, had of necessity re-located its pupils after being hit by a stray bomb seeking the adjacent railway line.  Folk law relates that partisan crowds in excess of four figures would flock to East End Park when Richmond Hill and Mount St Mary’s played each other at football before the war. These tales are embellished by accounts of mothers running onto the field wielding umbrellas to excerpt vengeance on the opposition for rough play on their sons.

Schools had been closed completely for a while during 1941/42 either for renovations to combat air raids or the air raids themselves. As early as I can recall however, which would be 1943, most schools were already back in full swing with wartime precautions installed.

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These precautions included a brown ‘gungy’ material, that covered the windows in order to contain the glass from being blasted in from an exploding bomb. Black out curtains were also installed to dampen light as seen from above. The kids themselves carried gas masks in brown cardboard boxes slung around the shoulders. From the point of view of the children, who had never known anything else, this passed as the normal way of life and was in no way frightening.

A huge brick built air raid shelter dominated the schoolyard in fact it managed to remain standing long after the war was over and to my knowledge was never used in anger. This was probably just as well as the interior was black as pitch and your nose indicated

That the shelter had found an alternative use as a clandestine toilet.

In the process of the school day we were given a free gill of milk in the morning to be sucked up through a straw and normally entailed much gurgling and blowing of bubbles much to the teacher’s displeasure. School dinners did not arrive upon the scene until around 1950.  Kids who were considered to be undernourished were force-fed castor oil or malt from a spoon in front of the class; one or two of these unfortunates regularly entertained the rest of the class with a show of resistance

As a result of the residue of chalk dust and spilled milk there was always a distinctive smell in the classrooms, especially on Monday mornings when the doors and windows had been closed over the weekend.  Such smells take me back to my early days at school unlocking a chest of memories some pleasurable others harrowing. School came as a

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shock to the system for me as I suspect for many others.  On the first day at school I found things very strange, for instance, they sat me behind two girls both sporting plaits – not having witnessed plaits before I was puzzled. When I arrived home I said to my mother ‘Mam I was sat behind two girls at school today and they had cracks right down the backs of their heads.’ (partings).   I recall too, that I immediately fell in love with a girl called Sylvia – and told my mother, ‘There’s a girl at school called Silvia and she has silver hair and silver glasses and where she lives they have a silver door knob.’

Other times are recalled as being rather more traumatic, like the time in Standard One when the teacher told me to go into the hall and tell her the time by the hall clock. Unfortunately I didn’t know how and stood there looking at that big round ‘Potts’ clock

on the wall, praying for someone to come along whom I could ask or alternatively hoping the floor would open up and swallow me up (There was no’ Scotty’ to beam you up in those days).  And all the time the teacher’s voice could be heard thundering through the partition.  ‘What are you doing boy? How long does it take to tell the time?

In addition to being unable to tell the time I must have been one of the children she called a ‘slow reader’ for, as it was her policy she sat me next to one whom she deemed as a ‘fast reader’. This lad usurped his authority and took it upon himself to grasp my finger tightly and prod it onto each word on the page. The – prod – cat – prod – sat – prod – on – prod – the. I recall a swift kick on his shins restricted him from reaching the word mat and that was the end of that, though it did spur me on to greater effort in the reading stakes.

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One final traumatic experience to relate: my mother had been hospitalised with appendicitis and I had been staying with a remote aunt miles away – hence I could not attend school for a period of around six weeks.  The Monday morning arrived when Mam was well again and I could resume school.   Whether or not her idea was to break me back into school gently or not I don’t know but I remember she said. ‘Oh go on as it’s the first day back you can start at dinner time.’  So she got me ready to start in the afternoon but we messed about until I became late even for the afternoon session. When finally I opened the classroom door after six weeks, half a day and half an hour the class were already heads down working. As I opened the door every head turned up in astonishment at my untimely arrival. It was as though I’d just dropped in from the planet Zog. The teacher was so surprised to see me she had apparently forgotten my name!

School yard games

Before school started in the morning and at playtime the school yard game culture reigned.  The staple diet in winter was always going to be football for the boys played twenty odd a side with a tennis ball and with coats for goal posts.  In the summer cricket took over the wickets being chalk marks on the wall and with three or four balls on the go at once.  The whistle for the end of playtime always seemed to blow when it was your turn for an innings.

I spoke to an old school mate at a reunion recently – he recalled playing football in that

old school yard (we called it the field) and how workmen had been mending the road

outside the railings at the time.  He said this old road mender had been particularly watching the game with a whimsical look in his eye and had finally come over to the

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railings and said to him, very sincerely, ‘Do you know son, these are the happiest days of your life’.  The old school mate said ‘I’ve remembered his words all these years and I think he was probably right.’

As an alternative to football and cricket and to suit the seasons more individual games were played. Ice on the ground meant a giant slide with everyone having a go causing the road to becoming like glass endangering un-wary pedestrians. 

These cold days would see us attired in our ‘our long/short’ trousers and long socks, which left only a couple of inches of knee on show to catch cold. I suppose it would have been preferable to go the whole hog and let us wear long trousers but lads rarely did, for mothers kept them in the long/shorts until about the age of twelve. I was even more unfortunate as my mother thought lads in long trousers looked like ‘little old men’ and made me wear shorts until I was a monster fourteen.

Schoolgirls were limited to dresses or skirts, trousers or jeans were never seen on schoolgirls, although the land girls did wear slacks with the zips at the side.  To complete our somewhat bizarre appearance by modern standards our winter turn out included woollen Balaclava helmets that became shiny at the bottom from runny noses.

At Whitsuntide, mostly the girls, would play whip and top – colouring the top with chalks to make an attractive pattern.  In the autumn it would be conkers and bruised knuckles

each time you missed your opponent.  Each player kept score of how many conkers his

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conker had broken, the way this worked was: if your conker broke another which had in turn already broken, say two conkers itself then you added those two to the score as well, so if you broke the conker in this case three was added to the score.  

Lads would try to make conkers harder by baking or pickling in vinegar. Sometimes they had become tiny hard things like a walnut kernel but providing they had not broken away from the string hole they were still considered to be ‘alive’. When a crack occurred the shout was, ‘It’s laughing!’  Last year’s conkers were like iron and wouldn’t be played against if recognised. ‘It’s a ‘laggie’ I’m not playing that’ would be the cry.

Another game was played with cigarette cards or the big bus tickets of the day, which all had a sequential number on the back. In this game a lad would take a wadge of cards or tickets of roughly the same number in each hand and another lad would take a similar number in one hand and bank on one hand or the other – then the bottom ticket or card would be turned over in each hand. If he had banked on the hand bearing the larger number of the two then he would win the cards in that hand. If he had banked on the lower number then he would lose his cards to his opponent.  As school bags were a

‘no – no’ in those Victorian schools a lad’s pockets would often be bulging obscenely with all his winnings.

Marbles or ‘tors’ as we called them was another favourite game.  There were several different types of marble: ‘allys’ (coloured marbles), ‘bottle-washers’ (clear glass), and ‘stonkers’, (made out of stone.)  Some lads were real experts with calloused knuckles to

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prove it.  These experts would have a favourite marble, which they always used when playing – normally it would not be a pretty one but rather a gnarled old thing, which would give a good grip.  They would surrender any of their stock of marbles rather than their ‘player’ should they lose the game. The rules of the marbles game we played to were as follows: two lads would normally play with a marble each – more could play if required – a small hole was excavated in the earth and called the ‘knack’, the idea was for the lads to take it in turns to try and hit his opponents marble.  After a ‘hit’ had been made it was still necessary to ensure the marble was not a ‘needer’.  A ‘needer’ meant their opponents marble still ‘needed’ to be hit more than two shoe lengths away from the hole, big shoes were an advantage if you were the one wanting to be a ‘needer’ little shoes if you didn’t want him to be a ‘needer’. To win the game it was only then necessary to roll your own marble into the hole.

The girls had their own playground, a raised concrete affair higher than our dirt ‘field’.

From this lofty perch they would carry out their skipping games: ‘pitch -. patch  – pepper’ etc.  Or dance around singing their traditional songs:  ‘The wind, the wind, the wind blows high, the wind comes scattering from the sky, she is handsome she is pretty she is the girl of the golden city.  The wind the wind the wind blows free, please can you tell me who it can be?’    Then they would shout some lad’s name, say ‘Tommy Johnson’ then continuing: ‘Says he loves her’ then they would all let out a great scream (silly Beggars) – ‘All the boys are fighting for her’ and so on.  The lad in question probably playing football in the field would blush to the roots of his hair but be secretly delighted – alas it was never me!  Sometimes much to the annoyance of the girls we would sing along with a much ruder version.

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Sport was always king, every year we would have the school sports incorporating track and field although the field sports were only the simple ones for which we had the equipment: long jump, high jump and throwing the cricket ball   Winners at the school sports would represent the school at the District Sports, where more names of schools spring to mind: Prince’s Field, Green Lane, Primrose Hill, Harehills and Brownhill.

Those talented enough to win through at District Level earned the honour of competing at Roundhay Park on ‘Children’s Day’ This was a big day in the calendar and included the crowning of the Queen of Children’s Day’ who had been selected after elimination from the whole of the Leeds school areas.  Those who won an event at Children’s Day proved to be the best in Leeds and earned cult status with their peers.

Football remained the jewel in the crown for us.  Because schools were so much smaller then, perhaps only fifteen/twenty boys in each year and remembering too that the school life terminated at the end of the fourteenth year (it had only shortly risen from the end of the thirteenth year) – it was not unusual then for young footballing prodigies to be knocking on the door of the first team aged eleven or twelve, which was very exciting for them. To be able to ‘dribble’ well was the benchmark against which all these prodigies were measured: Kerrigan at Corpus Christie, Sedgewick and Whitehead at St Hilda’s and Monk at Ellerby Lane are just a few names which fall easily into this category. 

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Victoria had a boy’s own character who transcended all, not in the art of dribbling but in pure power.  He was the amazing Willie Knott; best in Leeds at every sport he put his hand to. Already complete with a moustache and legs like tree trunks at age thirteen he could hit those size four balls the length of the field and woe betide any schoolboy goalie that tried to stop them. He was also king at cricket, swimming, sprinting, and fighting.  When Willie walked by we would just stand aside and gawp.

Modern educational policy has seen a sweeping away of these small Victorian senior schools in favour of the huge comprehensives, so colossal that although probably educationally sound it is unlikely a twelve year old lad will ever again have the magical thrill of seeing his name on the first eleven team sheet.

Inter school football had generally been suspended during the war and even after the war non-essentials such as footballs and football kit could only be obtained on ‘permit’ and permits were as hard to land as rocking horse dung.  This meant that unless footballs and football gear had been stored since before hostilities had begun then improvisation was a necessity.

Our improvisation was to elect to play in white.  This allowed the lads to use their own white shirts when playing for the school team. Not all lads managed to get hold of a pair of proper football boots either and were forced to revert to playing in ordinary black working boots. In spite of this rag tag outfitting I recall with fondness those who formed that first post war school football team in their white shirts and sugar bag blue shorts.

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Those lads were giants in our eyes.  I don’t think they won many matches, we were a particularly small school even for the day, but it seemed their charisma as well as their boots were hard to fill.   Should I meet any of that old team, now well into their sixties – I always try to mention how they were our heroes which invariably brings a glow of pride to their cheeks.

Eventually we did manage to obtain some proper football jerseys and treated  them like gold.  I think this was after a fund rising campaign.  They were green with lace up fronts.  The girls made it a project in their sewing class to sew a red ‘V’ onto each jersey accompanied by a monographic ‘SH’ for St Hilda’s

Because changing accommodation was almost universally un-available on school playing fields we were allowed to wear the football jerseys to school on the day of a match.  Odd lads could be seen dotted around different classrooms proudly wearing the green jersey with the red ‘V’.  Some seemed to drag it out to wearing the jersey to school for a week before the teacher had to tell them off.  Visits to all away fixtures were undertaken by public transport. Few teachers aspired to cars before 1950. Once at the pitch we had to leave our togs on the grass, rain or shine and often had to travel home on the bus with clothes dripping wet.

It seems that schools traditionally kept the same style and colour jerseys year after year – perhaps this made more economical sense in that they could replace the odd worn jersey rather than replace a full set. It also had the effect of setting a tradition, an expectation of

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what was in store when you saw that particular jersey. For instance I recall St Mary’s

played in all green, Coldcoates in green with red sleeves and Osmondthorpe in all red. Squares were very popular, Ellerby Lane played in red and white squares, Corpus Christie in light blue and dark blue squares and Victoria in blue and gold squares which were extra glamorous being near to the blue and gold halves sported by Leeds United at the time.

Numerous school football competitions were on going for Leeds schools at the time.  Those that come to mind are: The Meadow Cup, the Teachers Shield, the Denmark trophy, the Daily Dispatch Shield and perhaps the most prestigious, The Schools Cup, the final of which was played at Elland Road, every lad’s dream.  The Catholics had an additional competition: The Bishop’s Cup which produced many hard fought finals between St Mary’s and St Charles’

I recall Osmondthorpe winning, in addition to the Leeds schools trophies the Yorkshire Cup in the 1940s and understand that Stourton a tiny school just south of the river, swept the field of all the Leeds school trophies year after year in the 1930s. Finally one year to become all England School Champions.

As the school years roll by a close knit relationship develops among the group of lads and lasses destined to spend their whole school life together from start to finish from (age five to age fifteen) without the hindrance of moves to middle, or senior schools etc.  The girls develop from bairns to beauties and the lads gel together in a good climate of Esprit de corps.

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At age eleven a loss is sustained to the whole as the brightest half dozen or so in each year are successful in passing their eleven plus examination and leave the comfort of those small Victorian schools to become elevated to the larger secondary or private schools.     Alas I did not number among these successful students, but would have been proud to have sported the brown and gold blazer of Cockburn, the royal blue of the Central High, navy blue of West Leeds or the red and black of Leeds Modern at Lawnswood.  Not to mention the green and black of Roundhay High School that seemed to be outside our catchment area and of course the numerous private schools.  The girls of Ralph Thoresby (all girl’s school) looked good in their maroon.

No doubt the successful students who embarked on life in these schools of higher education have their own tales to tell.  I can only relate the story of we who were left, generally destined to be the ‘factory fodder’ of the next generation, with no opportunity to take the School Certificate which was the then gateway to university.  No chance to learn a foreign language, work out in a gym or compete in the ‘House’ teams of which they talked so enthusiastically.

There were compensations: no new big informal schools to break in with associated new smells and hundreds of new faces. No homework either – but not, thankfully, no hope!

In my personal opinion our teachers never gave up on us. They were a continuing inspiration for which I am eternally grateful. and I am only saddened by the fact that by the time I realised this they were all gone and I will never be able to thank them for igniting in me and I imagine many others, a love and thirst for knowledge.

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Generally it is true to say, that our teachers were, for better or worse, stricter disciplinarians than their modern successors.  One has to remember that they were either Victorians themselves or had been educated by those who were.  In addition they had suffered the rigours of two world wars.  With this in mind it is not hard to understand that the world was a harsher place in the 1950s/60s and expected different standards of behaviour than we do today.

In view of this transgressors expected and received the cane.  This seems to be a horrific way of administering punishment to twenty-first century society, but for us it was no big thing, one would normally have preferred to face the cane than miss a sports session given the choice. Life has many hardships in store and taking the cane might well be seen as preparing for this.  If you could take your punishment without rancour then your stock rose with both teacher and peers. Sometimes a teacher would congratulate a boy for taking his punishment like a man. (Girls were spared the cane)   In fact the cane was only a problem for those who made a fuss about it!

There were other compensations too for staying on at those old Victorian schools, not least playing great inter schools football (many of the high schools played rugby union) and perhaps even trying out for Leeds City Boys.  Better still the chance to spend a week at the Leeds schools camp at Langbar, near Ilkley. Where one could become a blue-eyed boy or a green-eyed boy at the dinner table, take your first girl to a dance (compulsory) and climb Beamsley Beacon, so becoming an honourable member of the League of Mountain Men.

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Eventually like all golden ages school days trickle away and the close companionship of schoolmates has to end.  Only perhaps to be re-kindled again some three years later for National Service.  Meetings now become rarer but a chance encounter with an old school mate or indeed any member of that old street corner society is a red-letter day for nostalgia.

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 A Victorian School on Every Corner.

During the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period  the district of East Leeds was epitomised by its warren of back to back terrace houses, pubs, picture houses, church and chapels and especially memorable a myriad of great old high windowed, Victorian schools complete with even higher ceilings and primitive plumbing.

These schools were colloquially referred to as: ‘Mary’s,’ ‘Hilda’s,’ ‘Vicky’, ‘Ellerby,’ ‘Saville,’ ‘South Accomm,’ to mention but a few and served the Anglican, Catholic and secular preferences of the local population. ‘Ossy’ and ‘Corpus’ were schools on the periphery of the district and slightly more modern in character. Although the pupils of these schools were fiercely competitive towards each other, especially at sport, in the evenings all were merged into the homogenous street corner society of the district.  A further school Richmond Hill, had of necessity re-located its pupils after being hit by a stray bomb seeking the adjacent railway line.  Folk law relates that partisan crowds in excess of four figures would flock to East End Park when Richmond Hill and Mount St Mary’s played each other at football before the war. These tales are embellished by accounts of mothers running onto the field wielding umbrellas to excerpt vengeance on the opposition for rough play on their sons.

Schools had been closed completely for a while during 1941/42 either for renovations to combat air raids or the air raids themselves. As early as I can recall however, which would be 1943, most schools were already back in full swing with wartime precautions installed.

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These precautions included a brown ‘gungy’ material, that covered the windows in order to contain the glass from being blasted in from an exploding bomb. Black out curtains were also installed to dampen light as seen from above. The kids themselves carried gas masks in brown cardboard boxes slung around the shoulders. From the point of view of the children, who had never known anything else, this passed as the normal way of life and was in no way frightening.

A huge brick built air raid shelter dominated the schoolyard in fact it managed to remain standing long after the war was over and to my knowledge was never used in anger. This was probably just as well as the interior was black as pitch and your nose indicated

That the shelter had found an alternative use as a clandestine toilet.

In the process of the school day we were given a free gill of milk in the morning to be sucked up through a straw and normally entailed much gurgling and blowing of bubbles much to the teacher’s displeasure. School dinners did not arrive upon the scene until around 1950.  Kids who were considered to be undernourished were force-fed castor oil or malt from a spoon in front of the class; one or two of these unfortunates regularly entertained the rest of the class with a show of resistance

As a result of the residue of chalk dust and spilled milk there was always a distinctive smell in the classrooms, especially on Monday mornings when the doors and windows had been closed over the weekend.  Such smells take me back to my early days at school unlocking a chest of memories some pleasurable others harrowing. School came as a

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shock to the system for me as I suspect for many others.  On the first day at school I found things very strange, for instance, they sat me behind two girls both sporting plaits – not having witnessed plaits before I was puzzled. When I arrived home I said to my mother ‘Mam I was sat behind two girls at school today and they had cracks right down the backs of their heads.’ (partings).   I recall too, that I immediately fell in love with a girl called Sylvia – and told my mother, ‘There’s a girl at school called Silvia and she has silver hair and silver glasses and where she lives they have a silver door knob.’

Other times are recalled as being rather more traumatic, like the time in Standard One when the teacher told me to go into the hall and tell her the time by the hall clock. Unfortunately I didn’t know how and stood there looking at that big round ‘Potts’ clock

on the wall, praying for someone to come along whom I could ask or alternatively hoping the floor would open up and swallow me up (There was no’ Scotty’ to beam you up in those days).  And all the time the teacher’s voice could be heard thundering through the partition.  ‘What are you doing boy? How long does it take to tell the time?

In addition to being unable to tell the time I must have been one of the children she called a ‘slow reader’ for, as it was her policy she sat me next to one whom she deemed as a ‘fast reader’. This lad usurped his authority and took it upon himself to grasp my finger tightly and prod it onto each word on the page. The – prod – cat – prod – sat – prod – on – prod – the. I recall a swift kick on his shins restricted him from reaching the word mat and that was the end of that, though it did spur me on to greater effort in the reading stakes.

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One final traumatic experience to relate: my mother had been hospitalised with appendicitis and I had been staying with a remote aunt miles away – hence I could not attend school for a period of around six weeks.  The Monday morning arrived when Mam was well again and I could resume school.   Whether or not her idea was to break me back into school gently or not I don’t know but I remember she said. ‘Oh go on as it’s the first day back you can start at dinner time.’  So she got me ready to start in the afternoon but we messed about until I became late even for the afternoon session. When finally I opened the classroom door after six weeks, half a day and half an hour the class were already heads down working. As I opened the door every head turned up in astonishment at my untimely arrival. It was as though I’d just dropped in from the planet Zog. The teacher was so surprised to see me she had apparently forgotten my name!

School yard games

Before school started in the morning and at playtime the school yard game culture reigned.  The staple diet in winter was always going to be football for the boys played twenty odd a side with a tennis ball and with coats for goal posts.  In the summer cricket took over the wickets being chalk marks on the wall and with three or four balls on the go at once.  The whistle for the end of playtime always seemed to blow when it was your turn for an innings.

I spoke to an old school mate at a reunion recently – he recalled playing football in that

old school yard (we called it the field) and how workmen had been mending the road

outside the railings at the time.  He said this old road mender had been particularly watching the game with a whimsical look in his eye and had finally come over to the

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railings and said to him, very sincerely, ‘Do you know son, these are the happiest days of your life’.  The old school mate said ‘I’ve remembered his words all these years and I think he was probably right.’

As an alternative to football and cricket and to suit the seasons more individual games were played. Ice on the ground meant a giant slide with everyone having a go causing the road to becoming like glass endangering un-wary pedestrians. 

These cold days would see us attired in our ‘our long/short’ trousers and long socks, which left only a couple of inches of knee on show to catch cold. I suppose it would have been preferable to go the whole hog and let us wear long trousers but lads rarely did, for mothers kept them in the long/shorts until about the age of twelve. I was even more unfortunate as my mother thought lads in long trousers looked like ‘little old men’ and made me wear shorts until I was a monster fourteen.

Schoolgirls were limited to dresses or skirts, trousers or jeans were never seen on schoolgirls, although the land girls did wear slacks with the zips at the side.  To complete our somewhat bizarre appearance by modern standards our winter turn out included woollen Balaclava helmets that became shiny at the bottom from runny noses.

At Whitsuntide, mostly the girls, would play whip and top – colouring the top with chalks to make an attractive pattern.  In the autumn it would be conkers and bruised knuckles

each time you missed your opponent.  Each player kept score of how many conkers his

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conker had broken, the way this worked was: if your conker broke another which had in turn already broken, say two conkers itself then you added those two to the score as well, so if you broke the conker in this case three was added to the score.  

Lads would try to make conkers harder by baking or pickling in vinegar. Sometimes they had become tiny hard things like a walnut kernel but providing they had not broken away from the string hole they were still considered to be ‘alive’. When a crack occurred the shout was, ‘It’s laughing!’  Last year’s conkers were like iron and wouldn’t be played against if recognised. ‘It’s a ‘laggie’ I’m not playing that’ would be the cry.

Another game was played with cigarette cards or the big bus tickets of the day, which all had a sequential number on the back. In this game a lad would take a wadge of cards or tickets of roughly the same number in each hand and another lad would take a similar number in one hand and bank on one hand or the other – then the bottom ticket or card would be turned over in each hand. If he had banked on the hand bearing the larger number of the two then he would win the cards in that hand. If he had banked on the lower number then he would lose his cards to his opponent.  As school bags were a

‘no – no’ in those Victorian schools a lad’s pockets would often be bulging obscenely with all his winnings.

Marbles or ‘tors’ as we called them was another favourite game.  There were several different types of marble: ‘allys’ (coloured marbles), ‘bottle-washers’ (clear glass), and ‘stonkers’, (made out of stone.)  Some lads were real experts with calloused knuckles to

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prove it.  These experts would have a favourite marble, which they always used when playing – normally it would not be a pretty one but rather a gnarled old thing, which would give a good grip.  They would surrender any of their stock of marbles rather than their ‘player’ should they lose the game. The rules of the marbles game we played to were as follows: two lads would normally play with a marble each – more could play if required – a small hole was excavated in the earth and called the ‘knack’, the idea was for the lads to take it in turns to try and hit his opponents marble.  After a ‘hit’ had been made it was still necessary to ensure the marble was not a ‘needer’.  A ‘needer’ meant their opponents marble still ‘needed’ to be hit more than two shoe lengths away from the hole, big shoes were an advantage if you were the one wanting to be a ‘needer’ little shoes if you didn’t want him to be a ‘needer’. To win the game it was only then necessary to roll your own marble into the hole.

The girls had their own playground, a raised concrete affair higher than our dirt ‘field’.

From this lofty perch they would carry out their skipping games: ‘pitch -. patch  – pepper’ etc.  Or dance around singing their traditional songs:  ‘The wind, the wind, the wind blows high, the wind comes scattering from the sky, she is handsome she is pretty she is the girl of the golden city.  The wind the wind the wind blows free, please can you tell me who it can be?’    Then they would shout some lad’s name, say ‘Tommy Johnson’ then continuing: ‘Says he loves her’ then they would all let out a great scream (silly Beggars) – ‘All the boys are fighting for her’ and so on.  The lad in question probably playing football in the field would blush to the roots of his hair but be secretly delighted – alas it was never me!  Sometimes much to the annoyance of the girls we would sing along with a much ruder version.

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Sport was always king, every year we would have the school sports incorporating track and field although the field sports were only the simple ones for which we had the equipment: long jump, high jump and throwing the cricket ball   Winners at the school sports would represent the school at the District Sports, where more names of schools spring to mind: Prince’s Field, Green Lane, Primrose Hill, Harehills and Brownhill.

Those talented enough to win through at District Level earned the honour of competing at Roundhay Park on ‘Children’s Day’ This was a big day in the calendar and included the crowning of the Queen of Children’s Day’ who had been selected after elimination from the whole of the Leeds school areas.  Those who won an event at Children’s Day proved to be the best in Leeds and earned cult status with their peers.

Football remained the jewel in the crown for us.  Because schools were so much smaller then, perhaps only fifteen/twenty boys in each year and remembering too that the school life terminated at the end of the fourteenth year (it had only shortly risen from the end of the thirteenth year) – it was not unusual then for young footballing prodigies to be knocking on the door of the first team aged eleven or twelve, which was very exciting for them. To be able to ‘dribble’ well was the benchmark against which all these prodigies were measured: Kerrigan at Corpus Christie, Sedgewick and Whitehead at St Hilda’s and Monk at Ellerby Lane are just a few names which fall easily into this category. 

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Victoria had a boy’s own character who transcended all, not in the art of dribbling but in pure power.  He was the amazing Willie Knott; best in Leeds at every sport he put his hand to. Already complete with a moustache and legs like tree trunks at age thirteen he could hit those size four balls the length of the field and woe betide any schoolboy goalie that tried to stop them. He was also king at cricket, swimming, sprinting, and fighting.  When Willie walked by we would just stand aside and gawp.

Modern educational policy has seen a sweeping away of these small Victorian senior schools in favour of the huge comprehensives, so colossal that although probably educationally sound it is unlikely a twelve year old lad will ever again have the magical thrill of seeing his name on the first eleven team sheet.

Inter school football had generally been suspended during the war and even after the war non-essentials such as footballs and football kit could only be obtained on ‘permit’ and permits were as hard to land as rocking horse dung.  This meant that unless footballs and football gear had been stored since before hostilities had begun then improvisation was a necessity.

Our improvisation was to elect to play in white.  This allowed the lads to use their own white shirts when playing for the school team. Not all lads managed to get hold of a pair of proper football boots either and were forced to revert to playing in ordinary black working boots. In spite of this rag tag outfitting I recall with fondness those who formed that first post war school football team in their white shirts and sugar bag blue shorts.

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Those lads were giants in our eyes.  I don’t think they won many matches, we were a particularly small school even for the day, but it seemed their charisma as well as their boots were hard to fill.   Should I meet any of that old team, now well into their sixties – I always try to mention how they were our heroes which invariably brings a glow of pride to their cheeks.

Eventually we did manage to obtain some proper football jerseys and treated  them like gold.  I think this was after a fund rising campaign.  They were green with lace up fronts.  The girls made it a project in their sewing class to sew a red ‘V’ onto each jersey accompanied by a monographic ‘SH’ for St Hilda’s

Because changing accommodation was almost universally un-available on school playing fields we were allowed to wear the football jerseys to school on the day of a match.  Odd lads could be seen dotted around different classrooms proudly wearing the green jersey with the red ‘V’.  Some seemed to drag it out to wearing the jersey to school for a week before the teacher had to tell them off.  Visits to all away fixtures were undertaken by public transport. Few teachers aspired to cars before 1950. Once at the pitch we had to leave our togs on the grass, rain or shine and often had to travel home on the bus with clothes dripping wet.

It seems that schools traditionally kept the same style and colour jerseys year after year – perhaps this made more economical sense in that they could replace the odd worn jersey rather than replace a full set. It also had the effect of setting a tradition, an expectation of

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what was in store when you saw that particular jersey. For instance I recall St Mary’s

played in all green, Coldcoates in green with red sleeves and Osmondthorpe in all red. Squares were very popular, Ellerby Lane played in red and white squares, Corpus Christie in light blue and dark blue squares and Victoria in blue and gold squares which were extra glamorous being near to the blue and gold halves sported by Leeds United at the time.

Numerous school football competitions were on going for Leeds schools at the time.  Those that come to mind are: The Meadow Cup, the Teachers Shield, the Denmark trophy, the Daily Dispatch Shield and perhaps the most prestigious, The Schools Cup, the final of which was played at Elland Road, every lad’s dream.  The Catholics had an additional competition: The Bishop’s Cup which produced many hard fought finals between St Mary’s and St Charles’

I recall Osmondthorpe winning, in addition to the Leeds schools trophies the Yorkshire Cup in the 1940s and understand that Stourton a tiny school just south of the river, swept the field of all the Leeds school trophies year after year in the 1930s. Finally one year to become all England School Champions.

As the school years roll by a close knit relationship develops among the group of lads and lasses destined to spend their whole school life together from start to finish from (age five to age fifteen) without the hindrance of moves to middle, or senior schools etc.  The girls develop from bairns to beauties and the lads gel together in a good climate of Esprit de corps.

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At age eleven a loss is sustained to the whole as the brightest half dozen or so in each year are successful in passing their eleven plus examination and leave the comfort of those small Victorian schools to become elevated to the larger secondary or private schools.     Alas I did not number among these successful students, but would have been proud to have sported the brown and gold blazer of Cockburn, the royal blue of the Central High, navy blue of West Leeds or the red and black of Leeds Modern at Lawnswood.  Not to mention the green and black of Roundhay High School that seemed to be outside our catchment area and of course the numerous private schools.  The girls of Ralph Thoresby (all girl’s school) looked good in their maroon.

No doubt the successful students who embarked on life in these schools of higher education have their own tales to tell.  I can only relate the story of we who were left, generally destined to be the ‘factory fodder’ of the next generation, with no opportunity to take the School Certificate which was the then gateway to university.  No chance to learn a foreign language, work out in a gym or compete in the ‘House’ teams of which they talked so enthusiastically.

There were compensations: no new big informal schools to break in with associated new smells and hundreds of new faces. No homework either – but not, thankfully, no hope!

In my personal opinion our teachers never gave up on us. They were a continuing inspiration for which I am eternally grateful. and I am only saddened by the fact that by the time I realised this they were all gone and I will never be able to thank them for igniting in me and I imagine many others, a love and thirst for knowledge.

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Generally it is true to say, that our teachers were, for better or worse, stricter disciplinarians than their modern successors.  One has to remember that they were either Victorians themselves or had been educated by those who were.  In addition they had suffered the rigours of two world wars.  With this in mind it is not hard to understand that the world was a harsher place in the 1950s/60s and expected different standards of behaviour than we do today.

In view of this transgressors expected and received the cane.  This seems to be a horrific way of administering punishment to twenty-first century society, but for us it was no big thing, one would normally have preferred to face the cane than miss a sports session given the choice. Life has many hardships in store and taking the cane might well be seen as preparing for this.  If you could take your punishment without rancour then your stock rose with both teacher and peers. Sometimes a teacher would congratulate a boy for taking his punishment like a man. (Girls were spared the cane)   In fact the cane was only a problem for those who made a fuss about it!

There were other compensations too for staying on at those old Victorian schools, not least playing great inter schools football (many of the high schools played rugby union) and perhaps even trying out for Leeds City Boys.  Better still the chance to spend a week at the Leeds schools camp at Langbar, near Ilkley. Where one could become a blue-eyed boy or a green-eyed boy at the dinner table, take your first girl to a dance (compulsory) and climb Beamsley Beacon, so becoming an honourable member of the League of Mountain Men.

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Eventually like all golden ages school days trickle away and the close companionship of schoolmates has to end.  Only perhaps to be re-kindled again some three years later for National Service.  Meetings now become rarer but a chance encounter with an old school mate or indeed any member of that old street corner society is a red-letter day for nostalgia.

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2 Responses to “A Victorian School on Every Corner”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thank you Peter for rekindling those memories. I too share your regret that it is too late to express gratitude to some of those teachers, stern though they were, who nurtured our education. I think particularly of Mr Banwell at Ellerby Lane. How I wish I could thank him.

  2. Jim Dick Says:

    What a great reflection on life in Leeds in those days!
    I went to Osmondthorpe from 1957 to 1962 and have great memories of all the things you relate, Tors, Conkers, school sports but can’t remember the card games!
    I was vice captain of the soccer and cricket teams which were reasonably successful and also ran in the relay and participated in both the long jump and high jump at the “Wembley” of Leeds, Roundhay Park in 1962!
    I was one of the lucky ones who went on to Central High after the 11 plus and after emigrating to Australia in 1971 completed my education at Melbourne University.
    Once again a great reflective on life in those days!
    Best
    Jim Dick

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