In 1935, when I was five, I started school at Victoria Road in Harpenden (until recently the Library). Even then it seemed old, a Victorian school building, typical of those built in that era, and my mother had gone there before me, so you can imagine! Dark brown and cream painted bricks inside, and tall windows so high that you couldn’t see out of them – only the sky, be it dark with storm clouds or blue with cotton-wool mountains of summer. The asphalt playground, sloping from the fence bordering the railway down to the school building, was divided to separate young and older children – or was it boys and girls? Toilets were outside and bitterly cold in winter, so if the need arose a mad dash whatever the weather was necessary across the playground to the austere and very basic facilities.
One of my memories of those early days was entering the tall, rather forbidding iron gate at the infant side of the building and negotiating the narrow passageway between school and the house next door. It was barely wide enough for a grown-up to walk through, and the red brick walls towered up each side, hemming you in so that if you looked up you saw only a thin strip of sky above the dark fissure of the passage – awe-inspiring to a five year old whose mother was already out of sight at the gate. In those days Mums didn’t seem to see you inside as they do now.
I lived at Westfield then, and with no school meals, or even the facilities to eat packed lunch, children were all expected to go home at mid-day and return for the afternoon lessons. No-one had cars in those days, so we walked to and from school twice a day. Sometimes older children in our road took charge of us, but my mother usually met my brother and me in the afternoon – sometimes bringing with her a small bicycle on which we took turns to ride for our last journey of the day. I think we must have walked at least six miles a day, even at five years of age.
Imagine then, our excitement, when we heard a brand new, modern school, was being built for us – although by the time it was completed my family had moved to Cowper Road, much nearer to the ‘village’. The new schools, one for Juniors and one for Seniors, were being built on Sauncey Avenue and what is now Manland Way.
The long walk to and from Batford
When I was little, I’d often walked with my mother from the village to Batford to see my Gran. This was the route my mother and her sister and brother had had to take when they went to school at Victoria Road from Batford to “avoid the traffic” in Station Road, then called Stakers Lane. Can you imagine what my Gran would have thought of the traffic today?
In those days, and when I was little, I remember Thompsons Close in the village, leading up to a narrow footbridge over the railway. You could see through the ironwork of the bridge then, and we loved to run up the steps if we heard a train coming and stand right above it so that the steam and smoke would envelope us momentarily in a dense, smelly fog. Wonderful engines those – no diesels of course – and the drivers would always wave before they disappeared below us – a little like The Railway Children, of the famous story.
Down a shorter flight of hollow sounding, metal steps on the other side we’d clatter and cross into Stewart Road alongside the St. George’s boarders’ building, where flats now stand.
There were very few houses in Stewart Road in those days and it dwindled into a dead end where we cut through a small meadow along a narrow footpath. I loved that little field. There were big, old trees at the entrance, stretching out heavy branches which gave us welcome shade when the sun was hot. Wild flowers grew there which smelled of Summer days, drowsy with the hum of bees and rustle of tall, sun bleached grasses. There was a clump of thorny bushes at one end with a kind of tunnel worn through it which led to the back gate of the tennis courts in Elliswick Road. We thought it quite daring to disappear in those and even more so to take a peek at the white clad figures darting around the courts on the other side of the fence.
Through the gap at the other end of the meadow the rough track opened out into Sauncey Avenue, as yet unsurfaced, and a wider path continued straight ahead to Batford and Gran’s house. To the left of the path below what I believe was once called Manland Common, was a vast area covered in long glasshouses where a nurseryman grew tomatoes and cucumbers etc. for sale locally. They were endless, or so it seemed to me. Below the greenhouses was a long, narrow field bordering the London & North Eastern Railway, with just one track, where two enormous shire horses which pulled the coalmen’s carts, grazed. We’d go through two ‘kiss gates’ to cross this field, then through the subway under the railtrack and out into Coldharbour Lane and Batford beyond. If you look very carefully, one of the old iron gateposts still remains, easily missed in the fabric of the new wooden fence bordering the path today.
It was in the area above the greenhouses that Manland Schools were built, and completed in 1939, coinciding with the declaration of World War II. Some say that there was some controversy as to whether they should be opened for schools for local children as it was intended or whether, because of the war, the building should be occupied by the armed forces.
Moving to our new school
However, fortunately for us, the need for new schools won the day and we left the gloomy classrooms of Victoria Road for the last time, or so we thought, when we broke up that Summer for our holidays.
We could hardly wait! Bright, shining corridors, parquet floors, windows everywhere showering light on everything and everyone, and low enough to see out of when concentration wavered in a particularly boring lesson! We had a playground but as yet no field, there being a high wooden fence dividing this off with just a narrow, fenced-off alley leading straight down from Sauncey Avenue by way of an entrance.
So, in September 1939 it was with great anticipation we approached along the bumpy, rough surface of Manland and Sauncey Avenues to start the new term of a new school year at a new school – Manland J.M.I.. But alas, occupancy of our shining new school was not to be exclusively ours. Much to our disappointment, I’m ashamed now to admit, we were going to have to share it with children evacuated into the area from London, and the same was happening at the Senior School, too. So here we were, keen to make a new start but only having the use of the school for half the day – us in the morning, Londoners in the afternoon. Unfortunately I’m a little vague about how we filled in this ‘time out’ part of the day. I suspect we were set work to do at home, and also classrooms at the old school were utilised for the overflow. Perhaps at that age I didn’t take life too seriously and rather frivolously enjoyed my time out as one of the ‘perks’ of this war looming over us. I do remember it wasn’t all gloom and doom! When the siren wailed, warning us of an impending air raid, we would break off, mid lesson, grabbing a rush mat off the pile at the classroom door and sit on the floor lining the walls of the corridors to wait until the all clear sounded. All the windows by then were criss-crossed with sticky paper to reduce flying glass should blast from a bomb break them. Each of us had a small tin of goodies kept in the store cupboard of our classroom – rations should we need sustenance if raids were bad and it was too dangerous to make our way home. In them were chocolate, a luxury, rationed as it was then, sultanas, nuts and perhaps a small packet of biscuits – definitely out of bounds unless in an emergency!
Later in the war shelters were built under the ground outside, long underground tunnels with benches either side, to escape to should it be thought too dangerous to stay inside the main building. I don’t remember using them much, except perhaps for doing handstands and other acrobats on the grassy mound of earth on top of them. Apart from sharing our schools and the presence of evacuees, two of whom we had living with us, I think the war in the daytime had little affect on us as children, though our parents, while struggling to cope with shortages and difficulties of wartime conditions, must have been concerned and worried for our safety.
I do recall one isolated incident when a stray German single-engined aircraft circled over us during one playtime. I was in the top class then, indoors because I and two of my friends were ‘monitors’. Having completed one or two jobs we had to do, we were leaning, gossiping, on the radiator by the window when we heard the distinctive throb of the engine, unlike the constant drum of our own ‘planes. Horrified, we ran out to help get the children inside, only to hear the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. Some children screamed and ran for the building, others stood transfixed and to this day I will remember the two white overalled painters who had been decorating a house in the avenue, running down the alleyway, shouting to get the children in. Teachers ran out having heard the pandemonium, got the children hastily gathered in. No-one was hurt and the aircraft, having made another low circuit over us, flew off and disappeared into the distance. How he got through the defences I never heard, or where his companions were. Maybe having separated and perhaps lost his way he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, just frighten us – and he certainly did that! Typical of a 10 year old though, other, more fun things filled my mind and I appear to have heard and thought no more about the incident – just left it to the grown-ups!
Perhaps because we shared our schooldays, we certainly wasted no time whilst we were there. There were 60 children in my class, normal in those days! So many that individual desks were out of the question. The problem was solved by pushing long, heavy tables together, end to end in about three or four rows from back to the front of the classroom. We sat in long rows either side of the tables, and our teacher (mine was Mr. Rees in the top year) would walk up and down behind us looking over our shoulders as we worked noticing instantly any careless mistakes and giving us a sharp tap with his stick to bring us to our senses. Every Friday we would line the walls all round the classroom for tests. He would fire questions at us, mental arithmetic, spelling, general knowledge, expecting a speedy – and correct – response! It certainly kept us on our toes! He was strict with us, as one would expect with sixty children in his care, but we were all happy to be with him. We knew if we were reprimanded it was justified, or nearly always, and never resented it. He had fun with us too, and not so many years ago, if I were early enough, I would sometimes see him in Sainsbury’s and still be hailed as ‘my girl’. I’d feel 10 years old all over again! To this day I remember him with affection, respect and gratitude for his part in building the foundations of my life.
Mr. Rees had previously taught at St. Nicholas’ School in Harpenden as had Mr. Smith, our Headmaster. Mr. Smith was a jolly, kindly man as I remember, who took our assemblies and sang lustily. Due to an injury he had a bad leg and walked with an uneven gait; a spring fixed to his shoe to aid his walking squeaked every time he took a step, hence we always knew when he was coming and were forewarned if we were somewhere we should not have been!
Mr. Rees took us for nearly all our lessons – reading, writing and arithmetic, artwork, the beginnings of history and geography. One exception was needlework for girls. We had this huge wicker basket in which all our work was stored between lessons. We’d begin with small strips of cloth on which we learned to hem. Minute, even stitches, they had to be, before we were allowed to progress eventually to the inevitable apron. It took months to complete, a few inches of hand stitching per session. I’d grown out of mine by the time it was finished, and possibly it needed a good wash, too. But beautifully sewn it would be – nothing less would do, or Miss Franklin would insist on bad work being unpicked and done again!
Still no school meals and no cars, so there was much to-ing and fro-ing though being older now I was allowed to travel on my bike, as did quite a few of us. We used to have great fun swerving between puddles and humps along the avenues and sometimes ride right through muddy pools with huge, satisfying splashes, never expecting to meet an oncoming vehicle. Roads were much safer then.
One of my responsibilities during my final year was helping with National Savings. One day a week those who saved brought their money up to Mr. Smith’s office where we would record its receipt and stick the appropriate number of stamps into each individual’s passbook. It was quite a privilege to be involved in this and especially to be working alongside our Headmaster in his room.
Preparing to move on
It was after one of these sessions towards the end of our last year when were invited individually to speak to Mr. Smith about our hopes for the future and the forthcoming 11+ exams to decide where we would go for our secondary education.
Eventually, exams and interviews were over and decisions made. Suddenly the future seemed quite awe inspiring. We were leaving our school, separating from some of our friends. We’d been at the top, felt secure and begun to feel a mite superior perhaps. We were about to start again – at the bottom! Manland JMI had been a good place to be; we’d learned much and would always look back with affection and appreciation for our time there until it was time to move on.
Long after leaving, having received my secondary education at St. Albans Girls’ Grammar School, taken up a career, married and had a family, I returned to my old school, Manland JMI, as secretary to Mr. Walton, who took over when Mr. Smith retired. I found it still a happy place to be and made many friends of children, staff and parents and will always be proud of my connection – and then, even longer after leaving a second time, I returned yet again – but that’s another story! ……