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Comberbach Boys in Antrobus

Memories of Antrobus C of E School
(Spring 1941 to Summer 1943)

Brian Maddock
Pointe-Claire, Québec, March 2016

When I returned from Scotland in early 1941 my parents had to choose a new school for me because I was too old to be able to return to Comberbach Infant School.  Barnton and Winnington had bigger schools with several classes and more equipment, but there was no suitable bus service and it was far to walk and somewhat dangerous for a nine-year-old to cycle there because of steep hills and traffic.  So the choice was reduced to two rural schools – Great Budworth and Antrobus.  The teacher at Budworth had a doubtful reputation.  Since I knew some of the children who attended Antrobus from the Frandley Brow area it decided that I should go there – a bicycle ride of about three miles from home.

Antrobus C of E School consisted of two classrooms and a cloakroom bordering School Lane near its junction with Knutsford Road.  The small room was assigned to the infants (the “babies”).  A larger room with two fireplaces housed the older pupils.  The cloakroom was divided into two portions – one for the girls and infants and a smaller space for the older boys.  There was an outside privy for the girls and a urinal corner for the boys.

Miss Dorothy Irene Pearson presided over the “big room”.  She faced a daunting task.  For starters, she was an outsider (i.e. not born locally).  Many of the senior pupils nicknamed her “Fanny”. Charged with educating a diverse group of pupils ranging in age over five standards using limited and out-of-date resources Miss Pearson must have faced each day many organizational challenges.  She persisted and continued to live in Antrobus for many years.  Miss Pearson was a founding member of the Antrobus branch of the Womens’ Institute.  Late in life, she moved to a seniors’ residence in Lymn.  She was over 100 years old when she died.

Miss Stelfox was in charge of the infants’ room.  She lived in Northwich and travelled by bus to Antrobus.  The bus schedule was very convenient: the bus to Warrington dropped her off at about 9 AM just in time for school opening and a bus returning to Northwich arrived at 4 PM when the school day was over.  There was a piano in the small classroom so there was much singing.  The two teachers had their lunch in the big room while those pupils who stayed at school for lunch ate in the small room before going out to play in the yard.  (Many pupils walked home for their midday meal.)

Most of the senior pupils had one main objective – to reach their fourteenth birthday, the official school-leaving age, so they could go to work full-time on the farms or help their father with his small business or go into service in suburban middle-class homes.  Because it was wartime older boys were permitted to work ten half-days a year helping farmers so yet another escape strategy was used to great advantage.  Once school was over for the day several boys went to help with afternoon chores on farms.

Miss Pearson wanted to buy a wireless set so that her classes could listen to some of the BBC school programmes that were broadcast on the Home Service for an hour each school morning and also during each afternoon.  Senior pupils were eager to help to raise money to acquire a wireless.  A particular favourite dodge was collecting waste paper for recycling.  Newspapers were very thin during the war but farmers often received lime and fertilizers in strong paper bags.  As soon as they were emptied some senior boy would alert Miss Pearson as to their availability.  Of course, quite a number of boys would be required and the distance was considerable (if a roundabout route was taken!) so the task lasted most of the day.  The boys enjoyed a day away from school.  The girls thought it was unfair that they did not go on the expedition.  (Miss Pearson was probably secretly relieved!)  Another ruse to get out of class was to claim that the waste paper being stored in the unused stable at the vicarage needed to be tidied up.  Half a dozen lads could spend a couple of hours on that chore.  When enough paper had been accumulated it was collected and a small fee went into the wireless fund.

In the autumn two other wartime fundraisers appealed to pupils eager to escape classes  They were collecting acorns (to be used as pig-feed) and rosehips (a rich source of vitamin C) which were in short supply since oranges were very scarce and often reserved for children.  Some rosehips were split open to collect their fluffy seeds which were the raw material of “itching powder”.  The trick was to sneak behind a victim (preferably a girl) and stuff some of the tickly seeds down the back of their neck.  It was hard to get rid of the irritant.

On one special day, each year pupils were encouraged to bring 10 shillings or a pound to buy a War Savings Bond at the post office near the school.  Many homes were unable to afford this.

Another wartime effort was called “Dig for Victory”.  Senior boys were keen to participate.  A part of the playground furthest away from the school was dug up and vegetables were planted.  Of course, poles were required to support the runner beans and that was another excuse for escaping the classroom.  The tools were stored in the air-raid shelter.

The air-raid shelter had been made earlier in the war.  It consisted of a rounded metal frame covered with corrugated steel sheets over which a considerable depth of sand had been placed.  It was large enough to shelter all the pupils in case of an enemy raid.  (The school itself was an unlikely target, but bombers that had been crippled would release their bomb-load before they crash-landed.)  From time to time there was a practice evacuation to the shelter which was cool, dark and damp inside.  Just in case there was a real emergency and the pupils would have to remain in the shelter for a long period all had to have an “Iron Ration Box”.  These boxes were kept in a big carton ready to be rushed into the shelter if an emergency occurred.  From time to time we had to check the contents of our boxes.  Imagine our consternation when one day we discovered that all the chocolate bars had disappeared.  We had a good guess as to who was the culprit.

With such a variety in age and ability among the pupils, it was sometimes hard for Miss Pearson to maintain discipline, especially among the boys eagerly awaiting their fourteenth birthday.  Occasionally she had to resort to using the cane.  “Come out John so and so.  Hold out your hand,“ she would say.  All of us would stop what we doing to witness the punishment.  Usually, the miscreant was bigger than she and had strong hands that were hardened by farm work.  Sometimes the boy would withdraw his hand quickly as she swung the cane.  We had to contain our giggles when she missed.

At first, Miss Pearson used a bamboo cane which she kept near at hand in the cupboard ready for use.  Quite often the instrument was not there – nor anywhere else to be found.  (We knew that the caretaker’s son pushed the canes down one of the several rat holes in the floor).  One by one Miss Pearson brought new canes from her garden until that supply was exhausted.  Then she had to resort to trying to wield a big bean pole that had been used in the school garden.  Watching a slight woman trying to use a heavy sapling to cane a big strong boy with a dodging hand was great entertainment for the rest of us.

Miss Pearson lived some two miles away from the school so she used a bicycle to get there.  She kept it in the boys’ cloakroom to protect it from inclement weather.  One day a boy was particularly naughty so she dismissed him into the cloakroom as a punishment.  When she was ready to leave for home she discovered that both her tyres were flat.  The boy had spent the afternoon pushing a big pin through each tyre many times.  They were beyond repair and impossible to replace in wartime.  She had to resort to walking to and from school.

All pupils dreaded the visit of the school dentist.  The Cheshire County Council provided the service because the dental health of children was generally poor.  The dentist was a woman so this raised doubts about her competency.  She had to use the bus service to bring her rudimentary equipment.  The purpose of her first visit was to examine each pupil’s teeth and send a consent form home with each child who required treatment.  Quite a few parents refused to consent - much to the relief of their offspring!  Not such a bad idea if you saw the primitive apparatus used to drill decayed teeth; it was made of wood and resembled a spinning wheel.  The dentist had to treadle the wheel with her foot as she drilled into the tooth with a slowly rotating bit.

A frequent visitor was the Reverend Oliver Tyndale, the vicar of Antrobus parish.  He was a bachelor who lived in a fairly big Victorian vicarage not far from the school.  All year round he conscientiously visited his flock even though few went to services except for Harvest Festival (mainly to see who had produced the best flowers, fruits and vegetables) and less so at Easter and Christmas.  Mr Tyndale had served in the army during the First World War.  Possibly his experiences had caused him to have a serious speech impediment which could render his sermons hard to understand.  He was given a nickname – “Quack” – which was widely used.  Despite this, he was respected for the devoted work he did in this big country parish.  Like Miss Pearson, he persevered in Antrobus till he was forced by health to retire.

My happy days in Antrobus C of E school came to an end in the summer of 1943.  Ernie Battison and I were the first pupils in many years to have passed the scholarship exam that earned a place in Sir John Deane’s Grammar School in Northwich.  Miss Pearson wanted to give us an advantage so she started to teach French to the senior pupils.  What a crazy language!  Instead of our simple “the”, the French used “le” (pronounced “lee”) and “la”.  Their pronunciation was decidedly “funny”.  It would have helped us more if she had explained nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, etc. to us because this was another strange language that we had to learn at the grammar school.  Unlike the other pupils who stayed on until their birthday, we were doomed to have to stay in school until we were at least sixteen.  Poor us!

Nevertheless, pupils left Antrobus C of E School able to read and write in well-formed handwriting, and they had the basics in arithmetic.  Indeed they would never forget the multiplication tables that were essential in the days before calculators became common tools.  It was a success story.

An anecdote
This amusing story was told to me while I was in my teens and I am always amused by it.  It reveals something about the traditional thinking of some farmers almost a hundred years ago.

Miss Gough lived with her elderly parents on a fairly large farm in Antrobus.  Few people knew her by name.  She had already inherited Senna Green Farm and was expected to inherit her father's property too.  An enterprising man became friendly with Miss Gough.  He was invited to visit her home one evening.  (I don't think they had reached the stage where they would be allowed to sit alone in the parlour!).  When it was time for the suitor to leave to catch the last bus back to Warrington it was raining cats and dogs on a cold dark night.  Miss Gough kindly offered to take him in the car to the bus stop which was about a mile away.  

So she went to get the car.  She brought the car to the back door.  (Front doors were only used for weddings and funerals!)   The visitor said," Oh!  I'll sit in the front with Miss Gough."

"Tha wunna.  Tha'll wawk! " bellowed her protective father.  And so the hopeful suitor had to rush down the dark lane, in the cold rain, hoping to reach the bus stop before the bus passed by.