Childhood and School Days
Return to Memories
I was born in 1922 at Mundford in the County of Norfolk, on the East
Coast of England. My Father was a village policeman and as was the custom in
those days, we were moved from one village to another every two or three years
to prevent the local representative of law and order from becoming too
friendly with any particular individual or group. For all of my childhood we
lived in rural communities. We had no motor car until a few years before I
finished school, indeed in those days there were
not many people who could afford this luxury. The villages were small, however
they were self-contained societies and provided all the necessities of life, including a
village doctor, blacksmith, carpenter and general store. When other needs arose
we hired a taxi or cycled the ten miles or so to the nearest small town, where there was usually
a train station that would enable us to get to Norwich or Kings Lynn, the two
largest towns in that part of the county. My
Father policed the area for which he was responsible on foot or on his bicycle.
The social life in the villages was so much superior to that found in the suburbs today and in many respects I believe we were much happier. There was no TV and the radio was still in its infancy; it was not easy to get into town and the citizens had to make their own entertainment. Whist drives were popular and one or two were held almost every week. There was generally a theatre group that put on a few plays each year in the village hall and the women of the village had their own club that helped to take care of those neighbors in need, as well as enjoying weekly meetings for tea, talk, knitting and sewing. A cricket club, soccer club and a bowling club provided sports at a very low cost. Of course most villages had two or three pubs that provided beer, conversation and the occasional game of darts. Most villages were surrounded by open fields or woods with the occasional large house standing in many acres of parkland owned by the "Lord of the Manor', in other words the most wealthy man in the area. Generally we could walk where ever we wished in the countryside except in the few places that were marked as private. In spite of the lack of formal "social security" the old, infirm and sick were looked after by their neighbors and the rest of the community.
"Jimmy" together with his second wife;
my fathers mother died when he was small.
I have no idea who the little girl is.
My Father had left school (and home) when he was twelve years old and started work. He was determined to make a way for himself in the world, he taught himself to read and write while he worked at many odd jobs to make a living, until he was able to take the entrance examination for the Norfolk police force and became a policeman. He wrote all his reports in a meticulous hand with every word formed exactly. If he found one mistake he would immediately write the entire page over again until it was perfect. He met my Mother when he was sent to police the area in which she lived, but was immediately called up for the army and WW1. He was sent to France as a military policeman and the wedding had to be delayed until the end of the war. He kept a detailed diary of his entire war experiences. By the time I was born, four years after the end of the war, my Father had been appointed policeman for the Mundford area. I remember being taken to see my grandfather Woodgate or "Jimmy" as he was known, when I was only four or five years old. He lived in a tiny village called Besthorpe which was a mile or so outside the town of Attleborough in Norfolk. He was by then an old man but still hale and hearty. I clearly remember that he was digging his garden when we arrived and he pulled a handful of peas off the vine for me to eat. The little cottage that is in the picture was straw thatched and very old, with a narrow staircase to the tiny bedrooms. Otherwise I have few recollections of my Father's family.
One of my earliest memories also occurred when I was about four years old and I was introduced to the world of electronics or "the wireless" as we knew it in those days. My Father took me to a neighbor's house and placed a pair of headphones on my head. The neighbor had erected a long, tall antennae in his back yard, and after he had twiddled the "cats whisker" on his crystal set I heard Big Ben striking the hour in London about 70 miles away. I also remember playing in the long days of summer in the sunshine with the other kids in the neighboring meadows and I remember my Father taking me along the road one winter to see the deep piles of snow left by the snow plough. The snow plough was horse drawn, but there were few vehicles on the roads and the snow caused little hardship.
This was in the 20's many years before the days of TV, which started in the UK in the late 30's and only a few homes in those days had comparatively crude radio receivers. We had no electricity in any of our homes except for the few years when we lived in Titchwell where we had electric lighting only. Several years later when we finally acquired a radio, it was only used for an hour or so each day to conserve the batteries. A van from the radio shop in the nearest town came around each week with a fully charged lead/acid battery, and took the used one away for recharging. We had to be self sufficient, making our own amusement. Together with the other village children, when the weather permitted; we always played outside, and I enjoyed exploring the fields and woods that stretched for miles in every direction. In those days there was not the slightest concern about the safety of children and we could wander for hours where ever our fancy took us and drink from any stream or spring that we came across. Otherwise I have few memories of Mundford as we were moved after a few years to Titchwell.
This was the village school I attended
from the age of four.
Our house was directly opposite the school . A very old picture.
My parents read a great deal and our evening entertainment, especially in the winter, was for my mother to read aloud for an hour or so while we sat around the fire. Detective stories were our favorites and Edgar Wallace our best loved author. My parents encouraged me to read; buying me the many volumes of the Children's Encyclopedia, which I eagerly devoured and I also read all the books I could borrow from the local library.
By the age of ten I had been a scholar at three village
schools. I briefly attended the two-roomed village school in Mundford, but I was
only four years old and remember little of my schooling at that time. We then
moved to Titchwell on the Norfolk coast and I had to walk a mile or so each day
to school in the neighboring village of Brancaster. Some of my earliest memories
were of attending the village school there, run by Mr. Burton and his
wife. Mr. Burton was a small dapper man who stood no nonsense, but tried hard to
educate his students, most of whom left school at the age of 14.
A picture of the "Old Cross" at
It appears to be unchanged from my childhood days.
We always lived in comparatively poor agricultural areas. Homes were heated by open fires or the old fashioned cast iron stoves fueled with wood or coal. Water came from a central pump or well that served several homes, and toilets were always outside and the contents buried in the garden every few days. A few children walked in bare feet when the weather was good and the children were expected to go to work at 14 and help the family finances. I remember Burton chiefly from the two quotations that he constantly used in his teaching. "Empty pots make the most sound" and "If you have nothing to say, --- say nothing". He could not stand idle chatter, and his philosophy still lives with me. To this day I find it very difficult to just "make conversation".
Even in the summer there were few visitors to Titchwell, although it bordered on the North Sea with miles of sandy beaches. The village only existed to house the people who labored in the hundreds of acres of farmland that surrounded it. Titchwell and the farm were owned by one of the Cambridge colleges, and had been built as a "model agricultural village". We even had electric light, from a tiny power station built in the center of the village. It only provided power for lighting but that was an improvement over the kerosene lamps we had been used to. The power came from a bank of lead-acid batteries that were charged each day by a diesel generator, which was a source of interest to all the kids as we peeped around the door at the monster engine chugging away. We also had a tiny post office that also sold candies and tobacco and similar items and a couple of "pubs", but the school and the general store were in the much larger village of Brancaster where I went to school, which was about two miles away. How times have changed. The five or six of us kids from Titchwell walked to school and back every day along the road, summer and winter, rain or shine. There were very few cars or trucks but we would occasionally get a ride in the horse drawn cart that delivered the milk to the neighborhood. There was never the slightest concern for our safety.
Titchwell was only a short distance from the North Sea,
My Mother and Father would walk with me for miles along the deserted beaches.
Leading down to the seashore was a wide grassy lane called the "drove road" primarily used to drive the cattle down onto the lush grass in the drained marshes by the sea. From time to time gypsies would come through the village in their tiny but brightly painted caravans, and camp overnight in the "drove road". This was private property but my Father turned a blind eye on the gypsies unless they overstayed their welcome. He cycled down to their encampment on one occasion as they had been there several days and the local farmer was complaining. The head of the gypsy family asked if they could stay for a further day or two until his daughter, who was expecting her first child, gave birth. My Father told them it would be alright and he would talk to the farmer. He also checked back whenever he passed by to see if all was well or if the girl needed the help of a doctor. A day or two later the girl not only had her baby but was bathing it on the steps of the caravan when my Father checked on her just after dawn. The gypsies made clothes pegs from the willow trees that grew locally and sold them to the local people. When they left the next day they gave my Mother a large bundle of pegs and from then on every time they passed through our village we would find a bundle of pegs on the doorstep.
A traveling cinema brought "talking pictures" once a week to the village hall in nearby Brancaster, where we sat on very hard backless wooden benches to view the programs. Outside a mobile generator provided power and we all looked forward eagerly to this glimpse of the outside world. Here we also had a bus service and once a week we could take the bus to the nearest town of Hunstanton, which being a seaside resort had a pier, a theatre and several shops. We also had the service of the "Co-Op" a cooperative grocery business that came around once a week bringing groceries and at the same time taking our order for the coming week. We had here a "coal shed" attached to the house and several times a year the coal man came around and filled it up with coal for our fires. A large hand operated pump in the garden between the houses served all four families with drinking water, and soft water for washing and laundering the clothes came from a large barrel that collected all the rainwater from the roof. We even had a "washing house" opposite the back door that contained a large cast iron bowl heated by a fire underneath. Every Monday it was filled with rain water, soap added and the clothes were boiled. After being rinsed they were passed through a "wringer", consisting of two wooden rollers turned by hand that squeezed out the surplus water. The clothes were then hung out on the "linen line" to dry, or in bad weather hung on a wooden rack in front of the fire.
At this time I learned one of the more important facts of life. --- Never give in to the bully. One senior boy dominated our school of about 60 students at Brancaster: I became the focus of his attention and received several punches and slaps from him. If I complained I knew he would deny everything and the other students were too frightened to back me up, so I went to my father for advice. He explained that being the village policeman he could hardly take any official action without appearing biased, but suggested that the next time he attacked me I should "Hit him hard in the gut", and showed me exactly where and how to do it. The very next day the bully cornered me in a hidden spot in the playground and began punching me. My head only reached to his chin, but I gathered all my courage and strength and hit him hard in his stomach. He collapsed immediately, open mouthed on the ground and lay there groaning. I was now quite sure I had killed him and ran and hid in the boy’s cloakroom until school began again. He was by now recovered but kept well away from me and neither I nor any other classmates ever suffered again from his attentions.
Brancaster was an old Roman town, known in those days as "Branodunum" and was situated on the Norfolk coast. It had retained some of its importance, and a major golf course had been built that was frequented by the royal family, when they were in residence at their country estate about twenty miles away at Sandringham and several very wealthy year round residents. Brancaster had an enormous village church, almost as big as many cathedrals. The wealthy wool merchants who had dominated the local society had built it in the Middle Ages.
The interior of Brancaster church. I sat at the far end of the pew at the bottom of the picture on the right. My mother, also in the choir, sat immediately behind me and would poke me through the carvings if I talked too much to my buddy sitting beside me.
The choir had about 40 members and was well known for their choral presentations. Here I learned a love of classical music that has stayed with me, even if the religious teachings have not. Each summer, the local parson went on vacation for two or three months and the vicar who took over for him was a choirmaster at Kings College, Cambridge. He was a first class musician and a tough teacher, but with him in charge we would practice two or three nights every week. Finally we would present a summer choral service to the parishioners and the wealthy summer visitors who came to enjoy the sea and the golf links that spread a mile or so along the coast. We also always presented a choral service at Christmas and a sung Eucharist every Sunday.
A few years later my Father was moved inland to East Winch. This was only about 6 miles from Kings Lynn, a very old town with a harbor on the river Ouse that ran into the North Sea. I was by now bored with the lessons in the village schools that covered much of what I already knew from the many books that I read. My Mother was finally able to get me accepted into the King Edward VII Grammar School in Kings Lynn, a "boys only" public school. In the perverse manner of the English educational system this inferred that it was a private school and my parents had to pay for my education. This was a severe strain on their budget, and made me all the more determined to succeed. My Father gained permission from the police force to allow us to stay in this village at least until I had finished my education.
Today I am a trustee on our Board of Education here in Brewster NY and I note how much the school system has changed: unfortunately not always for the better, especially with respect to personal responsibility and discipline. I was very fortunate in one vitally important factor; I never went home to an empty house. My mother was always there to care for me, to have a meal ready, and equally important, together with my father, to provide the discipline all children need. So often today I see that the school is expected to provide these services and one cannot but wonder why people have children and then expect others to bring them up. I am happy to say that this is not always the case, while consulting a few years ago at a company up in MI, the engineer I was working with took me out to lunch and apologized for the fact that he was driving a truck. He explained that he and his wife decided to start a family and therefore could not afford a car as his wife had stopped work. He said that they would not have a child until his wife could stay at home and look after it until it left school. What a refreshing attitude.
I enjoyed my years at the Grammar School, although discipline was extremely strict. We all had to wear the school uniform, which consisted of gray flannel trousers, shorts up to age 15, the maroon blazer and the "beanie" cap. The cap had to be worn at all times when in school uniform, even when we were away from school, and any student could be reported and punished for being seen in the town without a cap, or for behaving badly in public, or being rude. Teachers could mete out punishment, as could senior students appointed as school prefects, and also by "House" prefects. Every student was placed into one of four "Houses", York, Lancaster, Windsor and School House. Each student wore a distinctive necktie to identify his house, and was required to support his house in all school activities. House prefects maintained discipline among their own house members. Punishment by teachers or prefects consisted of writing so many lines, for example 'I must always wear my cap" 500 times, or so many strokes of the cane or the "gym shoe" (sneaker) applied to the hand or to the backside when bent over a chair.
The ultimate punishment was to be sent to the headmaster, whose office opened onto the ground floor of the enormous two story main hall. All the many classrooms also opened off this hall which had a balcony on three sides, The physics and chemistry labs and lecture theatres and the gymnasium were in a separate wing. If you misbehaved badly, you were sent to sit outside the headmaster's office, waiting for him to emerge on some errand, the only sound being the distant hum of lessons from all the classrooms and the loud tick-tock of the huge gold faced striking clock that was mounted on one wall with both indoor and outdoor faces. The headmaster would eventually walk out of his office. "What are you doing here boy" he would ask quietly, and after being ushered inside you had to explain which particular sin had caused you to be banished from the class-room. After a lecture that was far worse than any physical punishment, he would select a cane from the five or six on a rack behind his desk, and after explaining that "This hurts me more than it will you", he administered the requisite number of strokes. You were then allowed to return to your classroom, after a quick visit to the washroom to clean away the tears. Strangely, most students preferred the quick pain of physical punishment rather than the prolonged labor of writing lines.
Hard discipline? Yes, but we all knew and accepted the rules of the school. We all knew that if we broke the rules we would be punished, and in those days our parents always backed the school, right or wrong, in order to maintain discipline. Each student had to decide for himself if it was worth the chance of being caught. But we never had any violence of any kind, in fact I cannot recall any case of students attacking each other, except in the usual rough play of boys and even this was controlled. Any students seen milling around were immediately taken to the gymnasium, where they were given boxing gloves and had to box so many rounds according to the "Marquis of Queensbury's Rules", with the gym master acting as referee. Of course the schools of that day had a much easier time, as there was not the level of control and interference by the government that we see today.
During the summer holidays most of the children in this rural area were expected to help with the harvest, which was the primary reason for the long summer recess. After the age of twelve I spent most of this holiday time working in the harvest fields. The first job given to the youngest kids was to stand at one corner of the standing crop and pull the sheaves of corn away so that the horse drawn "binder", that cut the crop and tied in into sheaves, could maneuver past on its next circuit without the horses stamping on the corn. Then when I became older I became a "Haller howgee boy". It was some time before I realized what this phrase meant. I rode on the first horse of the team that pulled the large cart into which the sheaves were piled 10 to 15 feet high. To pack them in efficiently two or three men rode on the top of the load and could easily be knocked off and injured if they were not warned when the team of horses were about to move the cart. The "Haller howgee boy" sat on the leading horse and had to keep the team still while the men were loading the corn and shout "Howgee" before moving off to the next "stook" of corn. If the cart moved before the warning was shouted, the boy was in serious trouble as he was totally responsible for the men’s safety. It was several years before I realized that "Haller" was a derivation of holler or shout out loud and "Howgee" was a version of the old medieval phrase "Hold Ye", in other words a warning to hold on tight that had probably been in use for several centuries. Once the cart was full it was then my task to drive the cart about half a mile to the "stack yard" where the sheaves were built into rectangular stacks with sloping tops that were thatched to keep out the winter rains. In the Spring a large steam engine came around the farms and would pull the thrashing gear into the stack yard. It was always fascinating to us boys to watch the machinery as the grain was thrashed out and the straw built into another stack to be used as bedding for the cattle and horses.
Every summer we spent my father's 2 weeks holiday with my mother's parents. My grandfather was a signalman on the London and North Eastern Railway, (the LNER), and together with a second man ran a signal box at a place called Breydon Water. This consisted of nothing more than two cottages for the families of the two signalmen, and a hundred yards away the signal box that controlled a busy railway junction. It was situated in a lonely marsh a few miles outside Great Yarmouth, on the "Acle New Road". This was a long road, with only one bend, and had been built to provide a route between the town of Acle and the port of Great Yarmouth across the long stretch of open marshland. A lonely road, about 20 miles long, with only two or three houses in it's entire length and a water filled drainage ditch on each side behind a row of willow trees. The scenery was flat and only broken by the windmills that drained the marshes to provide grazing for cattle. My parents and I usually cycled the 65 miles to grandma's house, taking a full day and stopping for tea and sandwiches. The bicycles then provided us with an easy way to reach the pleasures of Great Yarmouth; otherwise we had the long walk into town and then back again after a day of shops and entertainment.
To a young boy, used to living in the country, Great Yarmouth was a magical place. It had four cinemas, one complete with an organ that rose up from the depths in front of the screen. There were two piers, each with a theatre; a funfair and miles of sandy beaches, not to mention the many shops laid out to attract the visitors and a large weekly market that sold almost everything. Every day we would cycle into town, leave our bicycles in a friend's back yard and just wander around and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the many visitors and residents. My favorite treat was to visit the brand new cinema and see the organ rising from the depths playing the latest tunes.
I have vivid memories of my grandfather and the days I spent sitting with him in the signal box watching the trains roar by, and seeing him hand over the "tablet" that gave permission for the train to pass through the next section of track. This involved standing very close to the speeding train and handing over the leather covered loop to the driver who leaned out of the cab to catch it. I also remember waiting with him and his wheel barrow for the one train that stopped each day to bring wooden casks of fresh water for the signalmen and their families. This was the only way to provide drinking water for the two families as the houses were very near Breydon Water, an inlet of the sea and the water in the surrounding area was brackish. I remember the luscious raspberries my Grandfather grew in his garden and the tall hedges that surrounded it. A few years ago I drove along the Acle New Road once more and the rectangle of the hedges was still there but was the only reminder that anyone ever lived in that remote spot. The houses have long since been demolished and there is no longer a junction at "Breydon Water"..
Except for the holidays, the Grammar School was open six days a week with a half-day each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. One of these half days was taken up by compulsory sports, Soccer in the winter and Cricket or swimming in the summer. I was never much good at sports, probably because I had to cycle to school each day. Every student had to find his own transport as there were no school busses and almost all of us walked or cycled. One or two with wealthy parents arrived by chauffer driven limousine. One side of the school yard was lined with cycle sheds to handle the several hundred bicycles that brought most of the students each day. I lived about six miles from the school and cycled every morning and night, summer and winter. It was quite pleasant when the weather was good, as there was little traffic on the country roads in those days. I used to look forward to the comparatively slow moving trucks coming by as I could often hang onto the back and get towed for several miles. In the winter however it was dark for the homecoming journey and rain, cold and wind could make it extremely unpleasant. Not something to look forward to after an afternoon of playing sports. In any case I always felt my cycling was sufficient exercise. During the last few years I was allowed to work on additional physics instead of sports, which helped fuel my interest in electronics.
There was no cafeteria in the school or any provision for drinks of any kind except water. Most boys brought their own lunch to school in the form of sandwiches, and at lunch time wooden trestle tables were set up on the second floor balcony to act as a dining room. Jugs of cold water were provided, but nothing else. Hot meals were available in the dining room in the residential section but were far too costly for most students, and were primarily provided for the living in students or "boarders" who had dormitories in this separate wing of the school.
Our education could not be bettered. Classes averaged 30 students, and our teachers by and large were understanding and caring. They always wore their robes and we were expected to call them "sir" and show them respect at all times. There was none of the intimacy between teachers and students that I see today and none of the efforts to make education "fun". Yet we always knew we had their full support and could look up to them for help when the struggle became too hard. Struggle it was; we were told very clearly that education was tough and demanding and they expected a top performance from every student, which required a total effort on our part if we wished to succeed. Examinations were held at the end of every year in every subject and the results determined the coming year's curriculum and placed each student into the appropriate A, B, or C class. Competition was fierce for the A class, which was the objective of us all, and the hope of our parents. (I managed to stay in the A class, usually 3rd or 4th). No one suggested for one moment that learning was fun. We were told very clearly that our schoolwork was hard, and demanded our full effort if we were to succeed. However it was also made very clear that we could achieve our goals if we wanted to and put our best effort into the task.
In turn the boys demanded a great deal of their teachers. French and Latin were compulsory subjects, and one young Frenchman, imported to help us in our "Spoken French" classes was a very poor teacher. The students quickly recognized his weaknesses and so harassed him that he resigned after one term. This was not physical harassment but questions that we knew he could not answer, deliberate mispronunciation of words and similar tricks that teenage boys find so easy to perpetrate on the unsuspecting and inexperienced teacher.
By the last year of school, the A class had become the "sixth form", and was housed in the school library that provided a spacious and somewhat luxurious classroom. The B class had become "6B" that was given special coaching for the upcoming final exam, while the C class was now called "Reform", and it was generally acknowledged that these students would be unable to successfully complete the final exam. They studied other subjects with the objective of preparing them for an alternative place in society. In the Sixth form, we were the seniors in the school and treated with respect if not fear by all the younger students. We were largely allowed to determine our own subjects and schedules for study. We all knew that we were approaching the "Cambridge Senior School Certificate" examination that was our passport to Cambridge University. With the freedom to do as we pleased, most studied even harder during that last year. With the examination over we finally relaxed and enjoyed the last weeks of school. Yes, I passed the "Cambridge Senior" ------ with distinction.
We had no graduation or other ceremonies. The school was run in the strict "stiff upper lip" British tradition, which did not recognize the need for such frivolities. A few months after taking the "Cambridge", our class master told us the results, and eventually we received the important "Certificate" by mail. The last day at school was something of an anti-climax. I packed all my books and papers in my backpack, shook hands with my teachers and fellow students and rode home on my bicycle. In the late 70's the Grammar School was finally changed from a "boys only" public school and became part of the overall education system..
During my last term at school, World War 2 had broken out with Germany. The funding for my scholarship was cancelled, and it was soon apparent that I would not be able to attend Cambridge University. I began to look at the options open to me and ultimately volunteered for the Royal Air Force.
The last time I was in Kings Lynn, I drove past the Grammar School. Little had changed, the huge red brick buildings still stood serenely at the edge of the green playing fields, looking more like a manor house of the middle ages than a school.
Return to Memories