MEMORIES OF WARTIME SCHOOLDAYS
by MISS S. RICHARDS
On 7th March 1996, as I was walking across the Quad
at New College Pontefract, I realised that I had come full circle in
my life, for in September 1938 I came to school as a first former and
now was on my way to start a computer course as a student again. I experienced
an even stranger feeling when the room for my course was exactly the
same room as I had started, all those years ago in 1938, one year before
the Second World War. At that time this educational institution was
known as Pontefract and District Girls' High School. My generation spent
their teenage years and secondary education during the war; so many
things were unique to that period and today's pupils would find them
alien and strange.
It was at the beginning of my second year that war was declared, in
September 1939. As no air raid shelters had been built at that time
and few places in school offered shelter from bombs, second year pupils
attended school for only one half day each week and were given homework
in the main subjects for one week. This meant that many text books and
notebooks had to be carried to and from school on that day. School satchels
or small attache cases were used to carry books etc in those days, so
these were usually heavy and bulging.
School consisted of only the main building and a long wooden hut. At
the east and west ends of the ground floor main corridor were washrooms,
where there was a line of about twelve wash basins along one side of
the room, and roller towels along the other side. The rooms were open
to the corridor and had a long window from ceiling to floor on the outer
wall. These washrooms were our temporary air raid shelters until the
real shelters were built. We were protected from the long glass window
by a bank of sandbags, so no light came from outside. The floor was
concrete and therefore more solid than the other floors in the building.
I believe we were supposed to lie on the floor if we had a raid, but
goodness knows how everyone could have found a space. The first few
months of the war saw very few air raid warnings and these came mostly
during the night, so the effectiveness of the washroom air raid shelter
was not tested.
Our half day attendance at school continued until the end of term when
the regulation shelters were built. These were constructed in long lines
along the boundaries with the Park.
Today they would be approximately where the dining area is, and along
the western side of the craft block. We hated going into them because
they were very cold, damp and dark. Most of the time the floor was covered
with puddles of muddy water which oozed from the springs on Park Hill.
A member of staff would lead the way with each group. She would have
a light (a hurricane lamp if lucky, a candle if not). If your surname
came in the middle or the end of the register, you followed the person
in front in the dark and shrieked, when splashing into the unseen puddles
of muddy water! We did at least have strong outdoor shoes on, because
once war started, we had to wear outdoor shoes all the time. Before
the war, all pupils wore special slippers inside the building. Outdoor
shoes were put in the cloakrooms, which were locked, and only opened
at the start of the morning , mid-morning break and the end of the school
The cloakrooms were cased in by iron railings and gates. If pupils arrived
late, they had to report to the office, where a disapproving secretary
frowned on you for being a nuisance.
As the air raid shelters were cold and some distance from the building,
we had to carry our coats round with us, and, of course, gas masks.
These were issued in cardboard boxes with string attached to them. The
boxes were rather fragile and soon disintegrated, so most pupils got
box covers of durable material or had cylindrical shaped tins. Gas masks
and coats were hung on the backs of one's chair during lesson time.
Some uniform regulations had to disappear due to wartime shortages.
I was disappointed not to be able to wear the indoor slippers, for they
were comfortable and made movement very quiet. However, I was delighted
by one change. White ankle socks were allowed in summer in the first
year, but after the first year horrible, thick, beige coloured, lisle
stockings had to be worn. These became unobtainable, so ankle and knee
socks were substituted. We wore black or brown wool stockings in winter.
They were not glamorous but they did keep one warm. Panama hats had
been the regulation summer head gear but, to my joy, these also became
unobtainable, so the winter velour hat or the cloth beret were accepted.
Headgear had to be worn to and from school but some of the hat styles
created by the pupils were quite ingenious.
No pupils were allowed inside the building at morning recess or dinnertime,
so when fine, most juniors played games, such as skipping, spinning
tops, playing with balls or chucks and tig. Many of the seniors would
walk round with staff on outside duty, so forming long lines on either
side of the member of staff. If the weather was wet, pupils used to
shelter under the glass awnings at the back of the building or in the
warehouse-like bicycle shed. A friend and I taught ourselves ballroom
dancing in the bicycle shed as there was plenty of vacant space.
On the whole, games and gymnastics were popular, but facilities were
limited. There were two netball/tennis courts - one on the site of the
present craft block and one where the hall is now. To accommodate a
full class for tennis, senior pupils had to walk to the Miners' Welfare
building on Halfpenny Lane. This took at least ten minutes, so lesson
time was shortened accordingly. Junior pupils walked to the swimming
baths and back for their lesson once a week. Actual swimming time was
therefore very short and one scrambled back to school half-dried, badly
dressed and breathless!
There were two extensive areas of grass used for hockey in winter and
rounders in summer. These were east of the main building where the music
block and tennis courts are today, and further down the hill along the
Park drive. Unfortunately these were often unusable in winter due to
boggy patches. On the other hand, on good summer days, the top pitch
made a pleasant sitting area and the bank was especially popular. A
large brass hand bell was rung outside to summon pupils in for lessons.
The original school consisted of around two hundred and fifty pupils
and was built for these numbers, so with nearly six hundred during the
war years, conditions were crowded and space at a premium. No extensions
could be built during the war as materials and man power were required
for residential constructions to help the War Effort. The hall doubled
as a gymnasium. At assembly, held each morning, six hundred pupils plus
staff were 'sardined' into place. Staff stood along each side, intermingled
with gym apparatus on the window side. It was no wonder that there were
often faintings on warm days. However, no-one fell to the floor as there
wasn't room. Fellow pupils kept the swaying body upright!
One didn't admit to feeling ill during school time, unless it was desperate,
as the sickroom consisted of an ancient couch at the far east end of
the main corridor, and the toilets were some distance away, outside
in the back wing areas. In winter they were bitterly cold and often
Space was so limited that it was difficult to find anywhere for individual
silent study. School did not possess a library as such. Some shelves
in the upper sixth room had to suffice. The books here were available
during the dinner hour once a week. As the corridors were wide, the
top corridor was lined with desks, so it was here that fifth and sixth
formers were expected to spend free lesson periods. Every corner and
cupboard was utilised for teaching small groups. At this time the upper
sixth had only fifteen members so there were a number of small groups.
I often had a lesson in a book cupboard or a cloakroom.
School served the town of Pontefract and an extensive area around. Pontefract
pupils walked or cycled to school, but a much greater number came from
around and had to travel to school by public bus or train. If the timings
of these services did not fit in with school hours, pupils went to a
special room if they arrived early or had to wait after school hours.
This room was always known as the 'train' room because most of its users
came by train on the Goole line. They arrived about 8.20am and left
about 4.45pm to catch the train at Tanshelf Station. A member of staff
was on duty in the 'train' room both before and after school.
Staff also did 'fire watching' duties every night in case incendiary
bombs were dropped. They had camp beds in the office and (I am told)
used to watch the mice running up and down the curtains. I should imagine
interesting to some and horrific to others.
As the war progressed, a shortage of teachers for certain subjects developed.
For the junior school these subjects, such as physics and chemistry,
ceased to exist, but arrangements were made for sixth formers who required
these subjects. P.D.H.S. girls went to the Boys' Grammar School for
physics and the Kings' School boys came to P.D.H.S. for mathematics.
Every effort was made to isolate these boys and the main school kept
away from them. Co-education was not the done thing!
When the war ended in Europe I was in the sixth form. We heard the news
during school time and celebrated by pulling the netting from our form
room windows. This netting was a very strong fabric attached by glue
to the windows to stop glass splinters from falling into the room. It
made it impossible to clean the windows inside, so over the years they
collected dust and became filthy. We were delighted to remove six years
worth of dust and obstruction to light and could not understand why
our headmistress was so cross with us, when she discovered what we had
done in our jubilation.
Wartime conditions meant that there were no trips abroad and no local
excursions, except for career related trips for sixth formers. Even
these had to be very local because public transport had to be used and
night-time avoided due to the blackout conditions. These problems also
prevented the formation of any societies, though the senior school had
an orchestra and a choir. There was a system of 'Houses' in games, musical
activities, drama and war efforts. One war effort that sticks in my
mind was the knitting of long stockings for seamen. It was quite a laborious
task as the wool was thick and oiled, so was difficult to manoeuvre.
A friend and I did one leg each to make a pair!
People were urged to save money during the war and put it into National
Savings Certificates to help the War Effort. This was popular because
there was very little to spend money on. Every week, school made a great
effort to boost the national campaigns. A school bank collected from
pupils and obtained certificates from a town bank. Targets were set
and progress illustrated on graphs and charts.
At the end of the summer term, when external exams were over, fifth
formers went by lorry, pea-picking in the Whitley Bridge area. One year
this was changed to flax-pulling in Pontefract Park, but this was very
hard on the hands and was not repeated the following year. It may have
been that no more flax was grown in the Park.
Perhaps it seems that wartime schooldays were very restricted in comparison
to those of today, but we were happy and content. Not having experienced
the various activities of pre-war days, we did not miss them. We made
our own entertainment and accepted our schooldays as quite normal.
Miss S.M.K. Richards