• Brian Simmons

1949-50 - School Begins at Leatherhead.

Thanks for coming back. Following my book extract last week about life on the council estate in those early days when I even discovered and repeated the "F" word picked up from builders, this week I'd like to share a few memories about my days at St Peters in Leatherhead. It may have been written in a very 'location-specific' way but in reality I'm sure that anyone of my generation with identify with much of what I describe.


St Peters, Garlands Road, Leatherhead

As I’ve said, life on the Bramley Way estate for us pre-school youngsters was really quite idyllic. Being among the first residents of these newly built houses meant that many of the tenants were of an age, - i.e. relatively young parents with young children. As a consequence, there quickly developed a sizeable network of playmates as well as numerous ‘aunties and uncles’ and that’s not including the builders.

As well as being able to enjoy our games and adventures in and around the on-going building, there were fields, woods, common land and the allotments where we played safely for hours on end and all the while were never more than a couple of hundred yards from our homes.

Inevitably the time came when those totally carefree days had to come to an end and arrangements were made for me to go to school.

Because Mum was Catholic and Dad wasn’t, the church required that she promise to bring us up in the faith. Consequently my sister Angela and I had been put down to attend St Peter’s Catholic Primary school at Leatherhead rather than the local C of E primary where most of my friends were going to go and I remember that as a cause of great distress at the time.

St Peter’s occupied an austere looking detached villa in Victorian Gothic style with grey stone walls, steeply pointed gables and intricately carved fascia boards painted a sort of magnolia colour.

It was situated in Garlands Road, a pleasant residential road on the outskirts of the town and sandwiched between the catholic church of the same name and Well’s builder’s yard that ran along beside and behind the playground that had obviously once been the rear garden of the house.

Inside, walls had been knocked through and the house had been arranged to accommodate three classrooms with a staff room in the former kitchen while a toilet block had been built in the playground. At lunch times the ground floor room had to be quickly re-arranged to serve as a dining room in time for the arrival of the grey Surrey County Council dinner van.

A variety of insulated aluminium pots and trays from the van would be set out and in the early days the teachers would serve the meals as we filed past. It really was a bit Dickensian and I can’t imagine the response had anyone had done an ‘Oliver’ and had the temerity to ask for more. Mind you, that would have been a bit unlikely as in general the meals were not that appetising. Who can forget the gristly meat of those early school dinners, the thick lumpy gravy and solid semolina?

There were just a few exceptions that I recall were almost universally popular. These were the crisply overdone roast potatoes that would ooze fat when jabbed with a fork, chocolate sponge pudding with chocolate sauce and the baked jam roly-poly with custard. It’s amazing we survived knowing what we do now about diet and nutrition but in those days we used to run any fat off rather than sitting for hours with a video game.

Teaching staff comprised two nuns and two lay teachers. The headmistress, Mother Catherine was a severe-looking elderly nun who I guess must have been approaching retirement because she was soon replaced by Mother Mary Anna.

She was a younger but only slightly more kindly looking woman who unfortunately had a brown mole to one side of her mouth that sprouted several stiff dark coloured whiskers. These moved as she spoke in a strangely mesmerising manner that made it difficult to look her in the eye because you were so busy watching the whiskers.

The second nun, Mother Theresa was a much younger and gentle woman who took the reception class which was just as well if the new arrivals were not to be put off school for life by their first meeting with the head mistress.

Classes two and three were taught by the lay teachers Mrs McKay and Miss Dyke. Miss Dyke was the typical ‘school marm’ with her substantial build, severely bobbed hair, rimless spectacles, tweed suits and sensible shoes.

As there were initially only three classes, each teacher was looking after two year groups which must have been quite challenging for them. I think it was in my second or third year that some land on the other side of the church was developed to provide a building with three more class rooms, a proper dining and games hall and a much larger playground.

The three junior classes moved to the new building while the three senior classes remained in the old house and class 6, Miss Dyke’s or the Top Class as it was known, occupied the large upstairs room and was literally the top class to which of course we all aspired.

Although she could be more than strict enough when required, I was to discover as time went on that she would make a more positive impression on me and my attitude at the school than anyone else.

Being a catholic school, at about the age of eight or nine we made our first Holy Communion which was a pretty big thing in the life of a young Catholic

All in all, the years at St Peter’s were really very pleasant and in their different ways the teachers were quite inspirational.

I remember that reading was a huge priority, a fact for which I have always been very grateful. Reading was taught from first principles in real ‘Janet and John’ style that meant no-one I knew left primary school with any reading problems. In addition the teachers used to read stories to us on a regular basis.

It was usually a period on Friday afternoons before we were all trooped off to the church for the Benediction service and we looked forward to it in almost the same way that a child today might look forward to a weekly TV episode. The whole system imbued in me a love of books and reading that I’ve never lost. It also introduced us from the earliest years to some of our greatest literature including Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. All good inspirational stuff, but The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons were adventurous and great fun too.

One thing that St Peter’s did lack at first was any form of playing field and the playgrounds were quite small which limited the amount of sport we could play on the premises.

We played mixed rounders in the playground and the boys could play five-a-side football after a fashion while the girls were introduced to netball. But the hard tarmac surface was very unforgiving and there were frequent bumps and grazes although fortunately nothing more serious.

In those days kids were encouraged to shrug off such minor injuries and if not, a hug from the teacher and a quick “rub it better” soon sorted things out. Sadly, such ‘in loco parentis’ behaviour might be frowned on today but was just normal at that time.

I was never much good at sport, not being that out-going or competitive and as a consequence was usually one of the last to be left standing in line when captains were asked to pick out their teams. The problem was that as a result I came to believe that I really was useless whereas with a little encouragement and tuition I probably could have been better.

About half a mile from the school there was a low lying field known locally as ‘The Dip’ and the headmistress managed to arrange for us to go there on Wednesday afternoons for sport. It was wasteland really but somehow she had organised with the local council to get it mowed, marked out and some goal posts installed so it was a tremendous improvement over the tarmac playgrounds and we could even play two games of football at a time. Sadly the The Dip has since disappeared under the M25

If I was mediocre at football my cricketing career never got off the starting blocks.

In an attempt to improve our hand / eye coordination someone had got hold of a catch trainer. This was a device like a giant ‘trug’ basket of wooden slats on a metal frame. The idea was to throw the cricket ball into the frame from which it would rebound at high velocity in unpredictable directions to be caught by the team standing around it.

I never stood a chance. The ball came out of the frame like a rocket and before I could get my hands up, hit me smack on the nose knocking me out cold. I finished up in hospital with concussion and a broken nose so is it any wonder that I have been nervous of cricket balls ever since?

Obviously those days were not all about lessons or sports days. Once we were old enough to go to school by ourselves, I along with two or three mates, used to go by bike and so once mobile and free of adult supervision we were all over the place and up to just about anything. Not malicious you understand, just a bit mischievous.

There was one memorable occasion shortly before Guy Fawkes Day. The shop was to blame of course for selling us fireworks but we had bought some bangers and also a rocket from the sweet shop by The Plough roundabout at Leatherhead.

Not content with dropping the odd banger we wanted to set the rocket off and looked around until we found an old bottle from which to launch it.

My mate Tony was the one who always had matches, but unfortunately just as he lit the rocket and the fuse started to fizz the bottle fell partly over so it was at about 45 degrees. Suddenly the rocket went off and soared away, not vertically as we had intended but in a graceful arc towards the other side of the roundabout where to our horror a policeman on a bike was just appearing around the corner. Seeing the rocket streaking towards him he promptly fell off in a heap on the kerb.

We didn’t wait to see any more although he had clearly seen us. We were on our bikes and away as fast as we could go which thank goodness was a great deal faster than he could pedal. The problem was that he had seen our school uniforms and two days later the whole school was assembled in the playground while the policeman attempted to identify the offenders, which happily he was unable to do.

Fortunately there was no question of sanctions being imposed on everyone if the culprits didn’t own up so we just kept mum and I’m ashamed to say that this is the first time after more than 50 years that I’ve owned up to what was a very stupid stunt. Not, I’m afraid, that it served to put me off a few other daft escapades over the years.

My final year at St Peter’s was with the redoubtable Miss Dyke who despite her somewhat stern appearance was really lovely and a brilliant teacher. Apart from RI and the three R’s it was the subjects of history and geography that she really brought to life for me. I will always remember the big wall maps that she used to use for competitions. Sometimes the teams would be ‘boys v girls’ or sometimes between the red, blue, green or yellow school houses to which we all belonged.

Members of each team would be brought out one by one to answer her questions or point out countries or features like rivers and mountains on the map. It was a wonderful way to learn with the information sinking in almost as if by magic. It was certainly competitive and we were no worse off for that fact contrary to the view of some modern educationalists who seem to believe that issues like winning, losing and failing give kids neuroses.

She also put a history time-line up all around the picture rail of the classroom on which she marked notable dates with picture of the various saints, monarchs, knights and rebels preaching, marching or plundering their way around the walls. The thing was in front of our eyes every minute of the day and once again it was almost impossible not to learn.

Although quite rightly corporal punishment in schools is today very much a thing of the past, that was far from the case at St Peter’s, a fact that is the more shocking given the children were aged from just 5 to 11 years.

There was no cane at St Peters but there was “The Strap”. This was a two-inch wide strip that had been cut diagonally from a rubber floor tile and so was about fourteen inches in length, and when deemed necessary; punishment was administered across the outstretched palm. However as the strap was so flexible it tended to whip over and sting the back of the hand too leaving an arrow shaped weal.

Now I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our teachers were sadistic but they certainly did not shy away from the use of physical punishments that also included hard slaps on the forearm (a favourite of Miss Dyke) and the use of a plimsoll around the calves of the leg. On one occasion I was actually given a stroke of the strap for making spelling mistakes, which was undoubtedly over the top but certainly made me work harder at learning my spelling.

There was one other memorable occasion when several of us got the strap. We had been spotted exchanging notes across the line between the boys and the girls’ part of the playground and when asked what we were doing had said ‘Nothing Miss’. Despite repeated questioning we’d stuck to our story and in the end were punished not for passing notes to the girls but for lying.

It would seem that I had developed a bit of an eye for the girls at quite a young age. It would lead me astray and into the odd scrape over the coming years.

The top class with Miss Dyke. I am front right aged ten or eleven.

I left St Peters at Leatherhead after failing my eleven-plus exam and because my parents decided to pay for me I went to another St Peters at Merrow near Guildford. More about those hilarious years to follow.

You can find all these tales and more in the memoir on Amazon


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