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Image: Michael de Greasley Added to website: 23 July 2021
Saltaire people - Mitchell, Julia (nee Spalding)
Written by Julia Mitchell, 2021

Two years at Albert Road Infants’ School
1946 - 1948

A very enlightened education

Julia Mitchell writes: I was born in March 1942 at the Norman-Rae Nursing Home at the junction of Bingley Road and Kirkgate next to the Ring of Bells pub. Life, during and for a few years after the Second World War, was spartan. I spent my first few nights of life in an air raid shelter as planes flew nightly over Bradford on their way to bomb Liverpool. Coal rationing meant that at home my family and I lived in the only heated room in the house which had a rolled-up mattress in one corner ready for emergencies and where my brother and I were bathed in a sink in another. When my mother ventured into the kitchen in the winter she donned her fur coat and gloves and every night, upstairs we were tucked very quickly into cot or bed warmed by hot water bottles, wearing thick woolly vests under and fleecy ‘siren suits’ over our night clothes.

I remember just a few things from that time before I started school: nibbling the corner of a warm loaf of bread as my mother pushed me in my Silver Cross pram up Moorhead Lane, going home after shopping at Gordon Terrace; the sight of searchlights criss-crossing the sky when I looked, at night, over Northcliffe playing fields; crying as I walked home, refusing to push a new, but very crude wooden toy pram, because one of the wheels did not go round; the blackout curtain, threaded on a garden cane, being lodged carefully behind the pretty curtains on two nails driven into the window frame. Visits to ‘The Clinic’ took place on a regular basis where my mother collected bottles of orange juice and cod liver oil which, at the time was, I suppose, very welcome, but my brother and I hated the daily doses. Fortunately, the orange juice tasted little like the oranges which eventually became available so I was not put off eating the fruit when my mother finally found some but I can still feel revulsion at the taste and texture of a whole spoonful of cod-liver-oil slipping down my throat. We also had spoonsful of ‘Virol’, a yeast extract with bone marrow added which was reputably ‘good for us’. There was no junk or excess food, very few toys for children, no private cars, freezing houses, lots of walking, but it was all we children knew and there was no sense of hardship and we were very fit and healthy.

Some time before the Autumn term started in September 1946 I was taken by my mother to Albert Road Infants’ School, which was about half a mile away, to be interviewed by the headmistress as I was turning five in that academic year.

Image: Julia Spalding, aged 4
Courtesy of Julia Mitchell, nee Spalding

We went in from the playground, past the outside lavatories, between the cloakrooms, into a big hall with raked seating against the far end wall. There were classrooms on either side of the hall. The headmistress’s office was accessed from a flight of narrow steps and must have been above the cloakrooms. The headmistress showed me a picture book and asked what was wrong with the pictures. One showed a family at the seaside, father reading the paper, mother taking sandwiches out of a hamper, children playing in the sand with buckets and spades and dressed ready for a swim, all in torrential rain. I only knew of the seaside from picture books - no seaside holidays in those years - but I said that I thought it looked rather silly that the family was sitting on a beach in heavy rain. That seemed to be the right answer!

After the ‘interview’ we went downstairs and had a look at the empty classroom where I would be and I remember thinking that I would work very hard. Work, in my four year old mind, meant something physical such as sawing wood, sweeping the floor or digging the garden and I was determined that I would do it well. I wondered what all those tables and chairs would be used for.

On my first day at school my mother took me and met me afterwards but from then on my brother, aged eight and who was in the Junior School, was given that responsibility. He was warned that crossing Bingley Road by the tram sheds had to be negotiated carefully - no zebra crossings for another few years. Mothers had to leave their children at the school gate and I went into the playground on my own on that first day to be met by a kind, friendly woman who took me to where all new children were being collected together. The older children were running around in the seemingly huge open space of the asphalt playground. We were taken inside to sit on the bottom rows of benches at the far end of the hall ready to be sorted into classes and then we went to our classrooms where we were allocated tables which were grouped in fours, seating eight children. The tables were flat but I seem to remember that they had opening lids as we each kept our own slates and slate pencils in them and perhaps a book or two. The classroom was pale green but was decorated with colourful posters and charts but what was actually displayed escapes me now. There was a blackboard on one of the walls. The windows were too high for us to see anything other than the sky - no distractions there!

My mother had been a Froebel trained teacher for ten years before marriage, having attended St Paul’s and St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Cheltenham from 1914 - 1916, so I was very well prepared for school! I knew the alphabet and the sounds letters made and could actually read simple books and write a little. I could also do some basic arithmetic. It was a great sadness to my mother that married women were not allowed to teach in those days and she had resigned on her marriage in 1930 and was very pleased that she could use her knowledge to benefit her own children.

On that first day we discovered what our routine would be. Activities began with drawing and colouring, listening to a story, copying from the blackboard onto our slates, all very interesting. When was the ‘work’ I had imagined going to start I wondered? I had a slate at home and already knew how to use it as did very many of my classmates.

Part way through the morning crates of milk were brought into the classroom - a third of a pint bottle of milk and a straw each. Two of our number were allocated the task of removing the cardboard top from each bottle which proved to be rather a messy business. A third of a pint is rather a lot of milk for a small child to drink quickly before going out for playtime. In September the milk was warm but in the winter, when the top half was sometimes frozen, drinking it gave me a headache. After playtime it was back to our classroom for more entertainment as I saw it.

I had never eaten a meal outside my home before and sitting at long tables in the school hall for Dinner with many other children all chattering loudly was quite an experience. Sometimes the noise became too loud and we were silenced for a few minutes and then allowed to talk quietly. This quiet talk would last for a brief time then gradually it rose to its previous level. I think quite a number of children went home for dinner but it was too far for me. I cannot remember what we ate but am sure it was good, plain wholesome food, carefully cooked to make full use of every scrap! We could not be fussy in those days of rationing, you either ate what was put in front of you or you went without! After Dinner we went to lie down on small, green canvas beds at the other end of the hall and some children went to sleep, then it was another playtime outside until the bell was rung. That first day we were all rather quiet and shy, especially after our rest. There was no play apparatus in the playground but later on, when a bit more confident, we took part in the traditional games organised by the duty teachers: Statues; Grandmother’s footsteps; In and out the windows; What time is it Mr Wolf; Hopscotch; skipping, to name but a few. The boys, of course, just seemed to run around firing imaginary guns or pretending to be planes.

Next came more fun in the classroom. Singing and listening while our very talented teacher played the piano to us, then yet another short playtime! We all listening to the music quietly but I cannot name anything she played. Some was jolly but some was soothing and it almost sent us off to sleep, heads on desks. After that it was ‘Storytime’ and then it was time to go home! I wondered if the ‘work’ I had imagined would start the next day but it didn’t and it gradually dawned on me that it probably never would.

Unfortunately, somehow, I must have missed picking up one vital piece of information during that introduction to school - what to do when I needed the lavatory and I had an unfortunate accident which I felt was very shameful. The headmistress was the guardian of replacement underwear so I was escorted to her office up that narrow flight of stairs feeling very frightened and at the end of the day my teacher took me out to the gate so that my mother could be told of my disgrace and discreetly given a small newspaper wrapped parcel!

The class room was a very happy, busy, productive place and punishments were few. A boy who was being very loud and demanding was told to stand on his chair for a few minutes but his reason for demanding attention became clear when he was violently sick from on high all over his table and quite a number of children. I cannot remember who cleared up the mess or the unfortunate children. After that, standing in a corner seemed to be the preferred punishment option.

That winter of 1946/47 was extremely cold but the real snowfall did not begin until mid January of ’47. I seem to remember that school was closed for a time due to frozen pipes in the outside lavatories but I could be wrong.

Image: Julia Spalding (4) and her brother (8), winter 1947.
Courtesy, Julia Mitchell, nee Spalding

Coal was still rationed and it was really quite difficult to keep warm at home but we still had hot(ish) water from our fire when it was lit. Electricity was available for limited hours each day so even my parents went to bed in the early evening or used candles which soon became scarce. We changed our clothes only when really necessary as washing them was very difficult and drying even harder. As demand for gas was high the pressure was reduced and cooking took a long time. Heating the gas oven was impossible so my parents either bought or had made a tiny oven from a large biscuit tin which sat on one gas ring. It was a cube and had a very crude, hinged door cut into one side. There was a slatted shelf across the middle and the tin lid sat on top. I have no idea if it was effective but I was never hungry.

My father, who worked in the Education Office in Bradford Town Hall, still struggled to work through the unrelenting snow, travelling to Bradford by trolley bus but as the blizzards continued there were days when the roads were impassable and the streets became hushed under deep drifts, cars buried and buses immovable. It snowed almost continuously for approximately six weeks throughout the country and drifts as deep as seven feet were reported on many roads and railways. Distribution of food was difficult, shops ran out of supplies and the army was called in to help. My brother, father and I made a very large snowman when the snow first fell, not knowing that it would stand in the garden for weeks. One sunny Saturday morning I was taken out for a walk by my father. We struggled on the icy pavements up past High Bank Cottages in Moorhead Lane to Northcliffe playing fields where there were swings and a slide. These were partially buried and unusable but also walking was a problem, at least for my father. I was small for my age and at four years old I was able to scamper about on the frozen snow surface, but he sometimes sank through the crust. He struggled, like a Polar explorer, but without their specialist clothing, sledge and dogs, sometimes on the top of the snow but then suddenly thigh or waist deep when the crust gave way. We had to cut the ‘walk’ short much to my dismay! It was not until mid March that our snowman began to shrink as a thaw began causing severe flooding all over the country but especially badly in the West Riding. The misery continued. I am not sure how much school we missed but I do remember that we wore our outdoor clothing in the classroom.

During the Summer Term of 1947 a friend of my mother’s, who taught at the Nursery School adjacent to my school, became ill with poliomyelitis which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. Some young children at the Nursery were also infected. Of course there was no vaccination or NHS and neither was there any effective way of treating polio patients who could die or be left with life-changing disabilities. Children whose legs had been affected wore heavy calipers to enable them to walk and both adults and children were vulnerable. She had visited us at home some days previously and so a cloud of fear descended on us for a time. The weather was warm and it was thought that polio spread more quickly in warm weather and was especially associated with swimming baths. The weekly swimming lessons I attended at the baths in Bingley ceased immediately. The incubation of the paralytic form of the disease is up to twenty one days so activities and contacts all stopped for that period of time and my brother and I were watched very carefully for symptoms. I cannot remember if there were special measures taken in the schools. My mother’s friend endured some time in an ‘iron lung’ when her chest muscles became paralysed but apart from weakness in one leg she had almost fully recovered by the following summer and returned to teaching. When I reached secondary school there were quite a few girls there who who had survived polio, one needing walking sticks and calipers but the others had been lucky enough to be left with minor weaknesses only.

The summer holidays came round and I was very excited because there was a real holiday planned. My father, busy with work, had to remain at home but the rest of us went to stay for two weeks in a wooden house which was somewhere near Dobrudden Farm on the edge of Baildon Moor. It was rather primitive and I remember the smell of paraffin, perhaps for cooking or heating. My father came for the middle weekend bringing our rations and also games such as Ludo and Snakes and Ladders for us to play. We went for walks on the Moor and played in the stream running through Shipley Glen. The farthest we reached was Dick Hudson’s pub. The weather was good and I remember it as an idyllic time.

In September 1947 I ‘moved up’ to a different classroom and teacher but I enjoyed school, my friends and life just as much as before. 1947 had been the year when Britain had reached its very lowest ebb following the War which had already brought stringent rationing, devastated buildings, damaged, inefficient industry, an unimaginable National Debt as well as vast War Loans owed to the USA which were not finally repaid until 2006. The country was in ruins and there was serious unemployment, partly because 4.3 million servicemen had been demobbed since 1945. The year had started with weather which brought the country to a standstill for months causing even more economic devastation. Morale could not have been lower. We children, of course knew nothing of this and our lives were untroubled. Our teacher, however saw an opportunity for some joy and this was to be found in the forthcoming wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten set to take place in November, 1947. We learned about the Monarchy, we drew flags, horses and coaches, mapped the likely route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey, collected pictures from papers and magazines and decorated the classroom walls, we made scrapbooks from snippets of news and then afterwards continued with information about The Dress with its exquisite and meaningful embroidery, The Service, Prince Philip’s origins and the British Commonwealth of Nations which at that time had seven members. Our scrapbooks were bursting by Christmas time. The wedding was broadcast live on the BBC Home Service but we did not listen to it at school and highlights were shown on TV that evening but I had not even heard of television and did not live in a house with one until twenty years later. We had witnessed and recorded and learned from a happy national event through our teacher’s enthusiasm and imagination.

At that time I remember reading the A. A. Milne poem ‘Now we are Six’ and thinking what fun life would be when I too became six. Sure enough, when it finally came, I was given greater freedom. My brother, who had taken me to and from school, had left the Junior School and so my mother walked back and forth with me but after my birthday, just before Easter, 1948, it was decided that I was old enough to walk up and down Moorhead Lane and cross Bingley Road on my own to. The first time was quite daunting but I soon became used to the daily walk. Friends walked to and from school from other areas but I was the only one from from Moorhead. A school friend, who lived in Caroline Street, introduced me to the pleasures found in a very small sweet shop where, after afternoon school, we could buy ‘off ration sweets’ such as liquorice twigs. I chewed these as I ran home, not wanting my mother to know what I had done as I was sure she would have disapproved. The sweet ration at the time was 4 ounces/113 grams per week and it was my father who took my brother and me to buy them every Saturday afternoon - perhaps a very small Fry’s Cream bar and about 50g of sweets such as lemon sherbets, liquorice torpedoes, jelly babies, or Pomfret cakes. I never saw or knew an overweight child in the forties and fifties. In the present day it might not be considered a good idea for a six-year-old to walk unaccompanied to and from school, crossing a main road every day but for us, when petrol was not available for private use and no-one I knew had ever so much as travelled in a car, walking was what we did and self reliance was what we learned. The only mishap I suffered was banging my head on a lamp post when I was walking backwards up Clarence Road!

One of the teachers in Albert Road Junior School was my godmother, Aunty Kitty. She had been in the same class as my mother at the Salt’s High School both leaving in 1914 to attend Teacher Training colleges. Sometimes she did duty in the Infants’ playground and I boasted to others about her being my aunt. I joined in the playground games she organised but am ashamed to say that I showed off to my friends by calling her ‘Aunty Kitty’ in a loud voice and just being silly. She must have told my mother and I was given a very severe dressing down by her. I did not do it again!

A feature of the higher class was a ‘Nature Table’. We were encouraged to bring interesting items into school and no item was left unexamined. The child who had brought it described where it had been found and told us as much as they knew about it and then the teacher enlarged upon the subject, writing and drawing on the board. We then each drew it in the middle of a large sheet of paper and then drew and/or wrote the interesting things we had learned, using the facts on the board but also adding ideas of our own, such as if and where we had seen something similar. The sheets were collected and then some of us had to go to the front and hold up our sheets for everyone to see to explain the extra information we had included. Almost a whole day’s activity could to devoted to an item a child brought in. This was one of the reasons why school was such fun and so very interesting - certainly never boring. I particularly remember an owl pellet brought by one of the boys which was fascinating in so many ways, the tiny mouse bones and teeth found inside it for instance, but most particularly because we thought of it as bird poo! That made us all laugh.

I loved going to school because every day was busy and entertaining! The only thing I remember being taught was how to draw a tree but after two years I could read well, knew a great deal about ‘nature’ and was competent in arithmetic so quite obviously there had been a great deal of ‘work’ done, but none of the type I had imagined in September 1946. As far as I was concerned, Albert Road Infants’ School had been fun from start to finish and it was there that I developed a lifelong love of books.

That autumn of 1948, I moved to another school in Bradford. Some time during the summer I visited the new school, taken there, by trolley bus of course, for an interview and some tests. We walked down a tree-lined driveway to a Victorian Gothic building and went into a hall with a winding staircase. At the top was the headmistress’s office. We were ushered in and after a few words with my mother she turned to me with a picture book in her hand. She showed it to me and asked what was wrong with the pictures. One showed a family at the seaside, father reading the paper, mother taking sandwiches out of a hamper, children playing in the sand with buckets and spades and dressed ready for a swim...! I gave her the same answer as I had given two years previously to the headmistress of Albert Road Infants’ School.

On my last day at Albert Road I told all my friends that it was the last time I would see any of them and sadly that turned out to be the case. Years later in 1962/3, when I too was training to be a teacher (our family business!) in Dartford in Kent, my father sent me a newspaper clipping. It was about my friend from Albert Road, now aged twenty, who had taken me to the sweet shop. Her mother had found her lying dead on the floor of a gas filled kitchen with all the cooker taps turned on full and windows and doors tightly closed. The verdict in the paper was of ‘suicide while the balance of mind was disturbed.’ What a waste. I had missed the funeral and I never discovered the reason for her tragic suicide and I felt very sad that we had not kept in touch over the intervening years.

Copyright: Julia Mitchell, 2021

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