West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



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 day.

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 froze up.

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


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