Edith M. Courage (1)

I was born in 1915 and my father was a cowman at Gote Farm.  Large families were common in those days, and I had five brothers and three sisters.  Like most people we lived in a small cottage.  Ours was in Gote Lane.  My father worked seven days a week.  From Monday to Saturday he started at 5.0 a.m. and worked until 5.0 p.m. and then returned, carrying a lantern in the winter months, at 8.30 pm for the third milking of a few heavy milkers.  One Sunday in seven was called his day off but he still had to work from 5.0 to 8.30 am.  Mother was up at 4.45 a.m. to light the fire and make tea.

I started school when I was five and left at fourteen.  My first memory of being at this school was that it was so terribly cold.  There were two classes in each of the big rooms with just a big old boiler in one corner.  The old building was all there was.  The rooms were awfully cold and we got chilblains on our feet and I don’t like remembering that at all.  There were about 200 pupils but it was very difference from nowadays.  Now there are so many families in Ringmer, but then most of the families here were children of workers on either the farms or the building works, the saw mills or the brick works of the Glyndebourne estate or the children of local shopkeepers.  Many families had five or six children going to this one school so you had lots of brothers and sisters.  As they were in the same school as you, you felt you had a bit of company from home.

Mr Gurr, the headmaster, was very strict.  He would call out “One” and we put our hands on the seats of our desks, “Two” and we stood up, “Three” we let go of our seats and stood upright, and then left turn.  This we did every time we moved out of class, like a regiment of soldiers.  Woebetide the boy who did not raise his hat to him when he got to school.

There were two infant teachers, one teacher took Standard 1 and 2, another 3 and 4, another 5 and 6 and then the headmaster took Standard 7.  In those days you went up by your ability to do the work in a class, not by your age.  If we were good enough we went up and got into Standard 7 quite quickly and we stayed there for two or three years.  If you  were not so good then you could leave after Standard 5, so I think we had to work extra hard to try to get up out of Standard 5.  There were three terms in the year and no half term holidays or any other holidays during the year except Empire Day.  In those days attendance was very important.  At the end of each year the children who had full attendance for the year had their photograph taken with the headmaster.  This we thought a great honour.

The subjects taught were reading and recitation, which went together, writing, arithmetic, scripture, history, geography, composition and dictation.  For dictation we used to have a story read to us and we had to write it down, spell it correctly and punctuate it.  In the infants I don’t remember ever using a slate.  We had a book and a pencil from the start.  Later we wrote with pens.  A metal nib was fitted into the wooden handle and we had to keep dipping the pen.  There was an ink well in a hole in the desk and this was filled with blue-black ink by monitors.  We had to make thin up-strokes and thicker down-strokes.  There was a dictionary in the room but we would not be allowed to look words up to find out how to spell them.  Teacher would never have admitted that she could not spell a word or that she did not know anything.

The arithmetic seems fairly hard to me now.  My second cousin was 12 years old in 1900 when she answered these two questions in the headmaster’s periodical examination:-

1.      A pavement of 59ft. 7ins. X 58ft. 9ins. Consists of square tiles of equal size.  Find the greatest possible surface of each tile.

2.      A bankrupt paid his creditors 3s 9d in the pound.  What was the amount of his debt if his assets were £269 15s 4½d?

We had drawing and painting, needlework and the dreaded drill.  We had to stand in straight lines out in the cold and do bending, stretching and twisting exercises in time with each other.  There was no P.E. apparatus at all.  For needlework we used to practise very small and neat stitches.  We also learned to make neat patches.  This was a very important skill for clothes were repaired again and again when they began to wear out.  Dresses were passed down through the family.  Once I had a new serge dress and it scratched and itched horribly but I didn’t tell Mum.  It was the first new dress I ever had and I was not going to risk losing it.  When it was washed it got better and didn’t itch so much.  A lot of girls wore starched pinafores with bits of lace round the bottom.  They looked very smart but I don’t ever remember wearing one.  All the boys wore short trousers or ‘knickers’ as they were called.  They did not go into long trousers until they were 13 or 14 years old.

Lots of children, especially the boys, wore boots.  A new pair of boots was a great event.  Fathers mended shoes and boots in those days.  They would get a piece of leather and cut it to the size and shape of the sole and then nail it on top of the old sole with brads.  I remember mother telling me to keep out of father’s way when he was snobbing the boots.  He didn’t like the job anyway and he used to snob his fingers as well as the boots so he would get into a very bad mood.

There was no transport so you had to walk to school and home to dinner because there was no school dinner in the early days.  If it was a very rainy day, my mother did not want five of us coming home soaked through at midday and then having to go back, so she used to walk to school with a great big case full of dinner for us and then we could stay there and mother got the soaking.

In the playground we played with hoops, tops, skipping ropes and ball games and these all came in seasons.  During my time Mr Christie gave the school field which was a great event.  We were able to play cricket, football and stoolball and we competed against the schools in the district.  Because of this gift of the field we were able to keep up a high standard of sport and had an annual sports day of our own, again competing against Lewes and other teams in running, high jump, long jump and relay etc.  We went to stoolball matches.  Mr Shelton of Lovegrove Villas has a big van.  He was the taxi driver a well. He took us to matches.  Mr Christie also gave to the school three giant Christmas trees which were plentifully supplied with presents.  This made a very exciting Christmas for us and we would sing carols round the tree and then have our gifts.  We had an orange and a bag of sweets given by local traders.  It was a great event in our lives.  We had more Christmas presents off the tree at school than we did at home because Christmas stockings at home contained perhaps a chocolate mouse, an orange or apple and a few nuts and perhaps one other present and that was usually a pair of socks for the boys and a pair of knickers for the girls.

However another and more important occasion in the school was Empire Day, which was 24th May.  The flags used to be flying and we were all very proud.  On this day the May Queen who we used to choose by ballot, was crowned and we would then perform country dances which we had been practising.  Two of them were Gathering Peascods and Circassian Circle.  Then we would sing national songs such as Jerusalem and our school song which was written by Mr Gurr and was revived for the Centenary Celebrations in 1979.  Tea was provided by the W.I. and served on the desks.  The desks were arranged in groups of four and we were asked to bring a tablecloth, and we had to decorate our little table with paste-pots full of wild flowers and there was a prize for the one who had made the best job of it.  We walked out to pick our own wild flowers and we were only allowed little paste-pots not bought vases so that we were all alike.  We were served a lovely tea and then came prize-giving.  One year I saw all these books stacked there, quite thin little books, but one book was twice the size of all the others and we all wondered who would get the lovely big book and I got it.  Inside it had: ‘1927-1928.  Ringmer Council School, Edith Richardson, Seniors. For Attendance, and Reading and Recitation’.  Teachers decided to give this big book as a combined prize.

School uniforms started in my time.  Mr Gurr was keen for boys to wear caps with the badge on – and to raise them!  Girls had no hats so the Needlework teacher bought a large amount of navy blue material and we sewed this up the side and put a button on each side and a badge on the front and then we had school hats too – and funny looking hats they were!  Children wore these for Sports Days in races.  That was the start of school uniform.

This was one of the first schools in the county to serve school dinners.  A two-course meal was cooked in a small canteen by the school house and served by senior children.  The needlework class made them all little white hats and aprons to wear.  I thought the school dinners were lovely.  We had liver, bacon, casseroles, sausages and milk puddings or custard.  The price of the dinners was 1s 3d per week for the eldest child and 10d for other in the family.  Even this was too expensive for many children.  It can been seen that even in the short time I was at school three important changes were made; one, the school field, two, School uniforms, and three, school dinners.

Today I have six grandchildren attending Ringmer schools.  I look back with great affection to my days at Ringmer school, but I regret that I did not have the opportunities my grandchildren have, of learning not only a much wider variety of subjects, but playing instruments, visiting places of interest, swimming etc., and all this in comfortable warm surroundings.

I hope they make the most of their opportunities.

(1)          This article was edited by Derek and Kathleen Denyer from a tape recording of a talk given by Mrs Courage to the children of Ringmer Primary School.