This is my first day at school, Easter term 1937.
I remember vividly, walking into the playground of Stepgate’s infant’s school. Holding hands with Barbara Walden, I was so excited, but poor Barbara was creating merry hell. But as soon as Miss Payne, a lovely, rather plump young woman with bright ginger hair, took both our hands the tearful Barbara calmed down like magic. I sat next to Barbara for most of the time we were in the infants or juniors, but going up to the the seniors at age of eleven, Barbara was put in the higher ‘C’ stream.
In the senior school, children were placed in one of three streams, ‘C’ was for the brightest kids, ‘T’ was for average kid’s, and ‘M’ was for the rest of us. I now think that we were not so much selected for this or that stream, because of our intelligence , but what part of Chertsey we came from—or even what we smelled like!
Children from the top of the town—non council houses—were easily identified by their clothes, and in particular their shoes. The boys always seem to wear brown shoes, highly polished, and clothes that were worn according to to the season, such as gloves and balaclavas in the winter and so on. Apart from a couple of council house kids, the rest of us seemed to wear the same stuff regardless of the weather, with maybe an extra heavy jersey when it was cold.
A standard ‘uniform’ for the boys in my part of Chertsey was; short grey flannel trousers, a shirt, a green woollen jersey with a small collar and no under clothes! In the summer the jersey would be left off. There would be a variety of footwear, a child with a father at home, would have leather boots covered with hobnails, they would last for ever. We had plimsolls in the summer, and boots in the winter—very poor quality, and no hobnails. They hardly lasted through one winter let alone two. I can’t remember the trousers ever being washed, they had holes in them within a week or two, so it was hardly worth while. The jersey was another thing that was rarely washed, in the winter the sleeve would be our hanky. You could always tell if a boy was left or right handed by how glazed one of his sleeves were. Some boys must have been ambidextrous!
We brought all our clothes from a ‘Tally’ man, he would come round every Saturday for some money—if he was lucky—it was quite often a game of hide and seek. He used to creep round to the back door, ducking under the kitchen window to surprise us. I think he had the same trouble with all his customers, it never seemed to bother him. I suppose he would just add a shilling or two to the account, Mum would never know, I don’t think she was ever in credit. It was just the way people lived.
The way children were herded together at school, never bothered us, as it meant we were all more or less put together with our friends—segregation started very early in those days. But it did not prevent some of these lower stream kids from passing the ‘scholarship’ (a sort of eleven plus) and given the chance to go to a grammar school. More than one child had to give up this opportunity, because they could not afford the uniform or they were needed to earn a wage for the family as soon as the were were fourteen.
To me, and most of my friends, school was a nuisance, it interrupted our games, our parents weren’t too bothered about keeping us home from school either.
After the first few weeks at school my memories of school are very vague. I was soon dismayed at being so far behind my mates, I was always the one who couldn’t quite grasp how to write or spell. Although I was fairly good at mental arithmetic—until I was asked how I had worked it out. I realise now that this slowness was down to my brother Donald, he was just fourteen months older than I. And he was a very bright boy and would answer for me, and I was pleased to let him do it. I didn’t need to learn anything. I have been told I was far behind in everything because of this, even in talking.
Playtime, was for me the highlight of the day, games seemed to be seasonal, in the winter it was always football. But at other times a sort of craze would appear, like spinning tops, fag cards, milk tops and marbles. These would soon disappear and be replaced by a new craze. I think these crazes were engineered by the local shops, they always seemed to have plenty of the latest things to sell us.
Gangs have a bad reputation today, but it was essential for us to belong to one, our gang was centred around Cowley Avenue and started when we about seven and continued until we left school at the age of fourteen. We called ourselves ‘Apaches’—cowboy and indian films were very popular and we fancied being the baddies. There were several other gangs in nearby roads, but were never much trouble, it was just a way of belonging. The Barker road gang also liked to be called after an indian tribe ’The Sioux’. They were lucky enough to have a trolly, an old soap box nailed to a plank and fixed to some pram wheels, they had painted their gang name on the box ‘The Soo’ —that’s Barker Road for you.—I think this is one of those stories that was always levelled at Barker Road, and is probably completely untrue, but worth mentioning all the same.
Cowley Avenue was ‘Our Road’. It was a no-through road and perfect for kids to play uninterrupted by traffic, apart from the horse and cart from Stanford’s Farm delivering milk. We could play football, cricket and even boxing. There was only one fly in this wonderful ointment—girls, they tried to control everything, they were total pests!
Our head quarters was in Teddy Wade’s back garden, he had an old Oak tree stump that was hollow, perfect as a lookout. There was a small stream at the bottom of his garden, with tiddlers and newts and Mr Wade’s ducks. It was quite a small garden but even so, had a couple of pigs and chickens. Mrs Wade never seem to mind her garden full of children—possibly because she had such a large family, she might have though they were all hers!