THE FIRST WORLD WAR YEARS
The year 1914 opened with all staff present and a pupil roll of 321. It is fascinating to watch the rise and fall of pupil numbers throughout the years, with epidemics, wars, birth control and financial constraints all having had their effects.
Throughout the years Head Teachers have had problems with timetabling and organisation for a variety of reasons – staff absences, a tightening of controls on staff numbers or sudden increases in the number of pupils. One example is to be found in 1915, when from 5th January to 1st March, all 71 pupils from Ightham School attended while that school was rebuilt, though in this case there was at least advance warning! This was coupled with large intakes on 28th September from Borough Green Infants and Platt Church of England School.
The war naturally had its effects on the school. October 1914 witnessed the arrival of Belgian refugee children, the army took over one classroom as an office in 1915, and in June of that year a number of both boys and girls were released under license by the Kent Education Committee to work on local farms. Soldiers assisted at the Swimming Sports in August and at the end of October the children on license returned.
The Christmas party on 21st December provided a happy note on which to end the year, with carols and the first recorded visit of Father Christmas. From 1914 onwards carols were sung and each class had its own party. The whole school would assemble in the hall and invited guests were entertained with national songs and sea shanties. Father Christmas appeared at the window over the staff room and let down sacks of oranges, apples and bonbons for the children which the infants found especially exciting. This custom continued for many years and the impact of the parties on the school was tremendous. The work that went into them, the carols, songs, plays, pantomimes and dances held over nearly 80 years, played a great part in school life. They live for ever in children’s memories. Who was Father Christmas? It’s still a secret.
1916 was a disappointing year for scholars as all Bank Holidays were cancelled in order to help the war effort. In March heavy snow fell causing a week’s closure due to impassable roads On 19th May the clocks were ceremoniously advanced one hour, ready to start the new ‘Summer Time’
on 22nd May. On that day when an aeroplane landed nearby, several boys played truant and were punished according to their age, the eldest receiving four ‘handers’.
1917 was an eventful year for the school in many ways. In April a measles epidemic caused the school to be closed for three weeks. In May a school canteen was opened with voluntary helpers to provide mid-day meals for the children who wanted them. By the middle of June seventy meals were being served and by February 1918 this number had increased to 100. This canteen was the first of many to deliver such a service in a rural district, with second helpings always being available to those in need. It was run at a profit, with the aid of the activities described below.
Eventually it had a paid cook and a helper, a system which continued for many years after World War Two. Prices were 3d for one child, 2 1/2d if there were more than one child in a family and 2d for infants. These prices changed little until the Forties.
Between the wars my mother was a cook. The ranges and boilers were all coal-fired, having to be cleaned out each day and relit early the next morning. All the flues were cleaned out every Friday. I can well remember holding a hose to squirt water into a potato peeling machine, and having to turn the handle at the same time – all of course before school even started.
In their spare time the school children started land cultivation, which later became part of the curriculum for Senior pupils. Produce was either sent to the canteen or bought by the pupils. The field, now the school meadow, was later leased and was ploughed by local farmers. Crops included potatoes and one report claimed it yielded 12 tons per acre. Boys cleared the field of couch grass roots on Saturday mornings, for 4d each. The couch they gathered was sent to the Pullers Dye Works in Perth, for use in dye making. This field was eventually purchased by the Kent Education Committee.
School gardens, 5 acres, 1920
For at least twenty years the Horticultural Superintendent of the Kent Education committee made a yearly report on the gardens and offered suggestions as to the crops grown. In 1920 HMI Mr G.T. Turner reported on the excellent remedial class for 7-9 year olds and suggested that those of 11 – 12 years would benefit from work in the school gardens, as well as from woodwork and cookery. Over the years the school won many awards in various horticultural shows and the school was closed annually for the Autumn Show of the Wrotham and Borough Green Horticultural Society.
Mr George Gomme joined the staff on 17th April 1918. He stayed for a period of some 37 years, becoming a much respected teacher.
Understandably the end of the war was greatly welcomed and an extra week’s holiday was granted in August 1919 to celebrate the signing of the Armistice. On 11th November the first Two Minutes Silence to remember the Fallen, was observed by the children, who had gathered in the hall.
Many visits to the school were recorded, for it was acquiring a growing reputation in educational circles. Among the visitors were teachers from overseas and officials serving in the forces.
My Dad, Frank Hird, often talked about his school days, in particular Mr. Gomme. He would teach dancing which my father disliked and the skills he gained in the school garden he used for the rest of his life.