The one experience common to us all, wherever life takes us in later years, is school; it is perhaps the only event about which we can all compare notes,not only one with another, but one generation with another. Consider the large proportion of our early years spent within its walls; so the schoolroom seems a fitting place in which this new series should start looking back into the past through the eyes of those who were there at the time, and who talked about it to members of Ambleside Oral History Group.
This week local people recall what their classrooms actually looked like, how comfortable or uncomfortable they were, what the desks were like to sit at and how the teachers themselves viewed their classrooms:
"Scholars were seated in long parallel desks which had four or six places, with backs upright; no fluttering hands or scraping feet, speaking only by permission and addressing the teacher as 'Sir' or 'Ma'am'".
That was a teacher recalling her classroom at Ambleside in 1909; and this is how one of her pupils viewed it:
"If you fidgeted you had to sit with your hands on your heads, or with your arms behind your back, folded... and we sat like that for half an hour, it was really terrible. And we weren't on comfortable chairs that fit your contours, we were on a long desk seating eight on an iron framework, and the desk in front was hinged to a seat so there was no give anywhere and the seat used to become very hard by the end of half an hour and you were dying to put your elbows on the desk and of course you daren't, you daren't let your hands stray anywhere ..."
If that seems very strict and uncomfortable, it was positively enlightened when compared with what happened to one little girl about 1885 when she started a new school in Kendal, run by two sisters under St George's Hall. At ten years old, she was smaller than the other girls of her age, and the teacher decided it was untidy to have an under-sized pupil in the classroom:
"The teacher looked us over and she said, 'Well, I can't do with you in this room amongst all these, you are too small'. It wasn't a case of any examination or anything - it depended on your own size. I was taken into the younger sister's school, and we didn't learn reading, writing or arithmetic... they learnt fancy things like painting, and they didn't know how to write or do sums most of them. Well, I never got out of that room..."
Selection by size of the pupils may well have been a rather extreme example of classroom tidiness, but teachers worked hard to keep their classrooms neat, which was easier with slates and slate pencils than after the first modern desks with individual inkwells arrived on the scene in the 1900s:
"After slates and pencils it would be about 1910 that we were provided with dual desks, very modern indeed, beautifully new and shining and the children kept them polished; and they had inkwells in these desks, so they had pen and ink and it was a bit messy - it was the ink, but they had to wipe up every drop of ink they spilled. I won't tell you what the handerkerchiefs were like!"
The children were expected to help with classroom cleaning;
"The classroom looked very trim and very tidy. Every Friday afternoon we got out our polish and polished it and made it even more trim and tidy. Albeit we had very good caretakers who were also trim and tidy. But we did our bit, it was part of our education I think."
A classroom with no paintings on the wall would seem a very unimaginative place nowadays, the sort of school that few parents would choose for educational inspiration and excitement for their children. But the very sight of pupils' art work pinned to the walls of a modern classroom threw one very elderly retired teacher into fits of disapproval:
"My dear old school was closed down two years ago and I was invited to the closing day ... it was so nice of people to come, grandparents who had been my little scholars; and then I noticed - we always kept the school very neat and tidy and I noticed all these childrens' drawings and funny little paintings making the place look so untidy! It hurt me looking so untidy because our headmistress (and I myself learnt it from her) we always kept our schools looking like a drawing room nearly. They always seem very untidy to me - and of course the children walking about and talking to each other - they never thought or dared to do such a thing in our time!"
Heating was usually provided by a stove in the centre of the room, a favourite place from where teachers often served hot malted milk for those who had walked sometimes three or four miles in winter weather to school. It was, without doubt, the best place to be:
"It had its nice side - teacher used to make treacle toffee on the stove on cold winters' afternoons, we all got a piece. They don't do that now, do they!"