Tatworth Village/The early life of Elsie May

Chapter VII: The early life of Elsie May


Tatworth school was built in 1872, in the same Early English style as the church, built some twenty years before. These two institutions gave the village a new status: recognised as a separate community from Chard - to became a parish in its own right. Thirty-percent of the population was aged fourteen or less, and it was deemed highly desirable to have a local school. The new school was built of local flint stone with brick quoins around the windows and doors. Two gable ends faced the road, separated by two lean-to aisles and a front porch. Two sets of steps mount the pavement to meet at the arched wooden doors, which led into cloakrooms. Topping the whole was a bell tower, whose ringing bell called the children to school.

The pupils were mainly from homes who’s parents worked at the mill or creamery - they all knew each other or knew of each other. It was that sort of village school. Very few lived at a distance and most walked or rode a bike. Living opposite, gave the Collins children an even greater sense of belonging, not just to the school but to the community and to its inhabitants.

When the school day was over all the children came out in succession - the youngest first, making the otherwise deserted road alive with their shouts and calls. It was a happy place remembered fondly. They were all oddly dressed especially the younger ones. Their chatter was joyful if rather quaint not in the least embarrassed by their local patois. The boys in their caps and the girl’s hair tied up in ribbons skipping along in their pinafores. The majority would come from poor homes but that does not explain how they were brought up. The village was in the main a god-fearing place, its inhabitants Low Church, ridged in behaviour, and set in their ways.

The boys and girls who lived at the other side of the village - near the railway station, or Chardstock, used lane, path and short cut, to reach school. Along the way they could usually find some stick or special find to show-off with… betting each other that theirs the greater find, and couldn’t be bettered. It was the boys who liked to find a stick to make a bow or make-pretend sword, catapult or pipe. The girls, who kept well away from the nettles and briars, were the authority on what could be eaten safely or which leaf would make the better print. They chatted and giggled, keeping to their own little group, as they weaved their way past the cowpats refusing to take notice of the boys… by now, carving their name on the beech tree.

Their past-times, games, hobbies, and interests, are little different from those played generations before, or now. The boys kick a ball or tin and the girls skip, play catch or hopscotch – the same the world over. Their clothes less tattered today although fashions have changed slightly - but childish behaviour remains much the same… The bullies demand subservience and the meek consideration, the confident were heard, and the shy tried to hide. That, after all, is the way of the world!

The village was lucky having the mill and creamery, with all their ancillary trades, giving training and employment to its inhabitants. The Chard Road station and sidings, gave employers the means to import labour and transport goods. Both the warehousing sheds and ironmongers provided all those ancillary pieces of equipment necessary to support both these firms engineering shops.

Ten years before the school was built, education standards were linked to ‘student results’ – under the Revised Code. There was an annual examination, an attendance record level, religious instruction and needlework for the girls. Specific subject grants for grammar, history and geography, were brought into being in 1867, which raised the number of subjects - giving a broader curriculum; these subject became ‘class’ subjects, eight years later. Shortly before, a number of other subjects were included: Latin, mathematics, science, modern languages and domestic economy – cookery and gardening. By the turn of the century, the curriculum as we know it, was in general use, and not long afterwards ‘payment by results’ ended.

Child labour under eight was forbidden, six years later the employment of children on farms was not allowed [in a group less than ten] even though eight-year-old children could be employed, if they had attended school for 250 days during the preceding year. However, all the laws passed to regulate labour were widely evaded. The Elementary Education Act of 1870-73, compelled Chard authorities to ensure that there was adequate provision… to establish a Chard Board School. The cost of the board was met by local taxation. Church Aided Schools had to rely upon voluntary donations topped up by donations from the local gentry. The Board Schools provide national elementary education for over two million children. There was now a universal curriculum, which had to be followed. Secondary education did not have the same encompassing system until the School Boards tried to instil order. Eventually the Education Act of 1902, ensured the basis of all public education, and lasted until the Education Act was brought into being by Rab Butler in 1944.

My mother, started school at the age of four, in 1912. Academic standards in the Board Schools still did not rise sufficiently, even after the 1902 Act set out targets levels for Standards I and II. Standard I required an ability to read from a textbook, including words of more than one syllable: dictation, writing down a few common words, in a neat hand, the ability to add up, and subtract - not more than four figures, and the recitation of the multiplication table up to six. Many children did not reach even this low minimum standard and it is unfortunate that teachers resorted to harsh methods to improve their standards.

Village schools, at the turn of the twentieth century, laid great emphasis on the principles of Christian religion, morals, reading, writing, and the casting of accounts with beads. Some pupils went on to grammar schools. Girls were accepted into the village school but not allowed into the grammar. The grammar school’s curriculum consisted of Latin grammar and literature, history and geography - to some degree, and a little Greek... The scriptures were obligatory, so too arithmetics - mental and addition. Diction and manners were given special regard, along with National heroes. Marching, some games, and physical exercises, considered fitting in short measure. Boys attended six-days of the week and church on Sundays. Those parishioners who valued education – the ability to read and write and reckon, were usually those who could afford to do so without their child being ‘put to labour’, for as long as was necessary. Those folk were tradesmen, yeoman farmers, and lesser gentry. When the School Boards were put in place it was to those citizens – those unable to afford individual lessons by tutors and public schools, they were planning for.

The School’s Inspectors - noticed in both town and country, the bad treatment of schoolchildren. The nation’s children were, from this time forward, going to be better educated. The ‘payment, of teachers, by results’ had disappeared by the time Elsie went to school. Although the children in Tatworth had the benefit of an education in a new school, operating a regulated curriculum, they still lacked the cultural benefits available to town children. Eight years before, the Board of Education defined elementary education as ‘forming and strengthening the character of children, and developing their intelligence’, assisting boys and girls to, ‘fit themselves for the work of life’. Girls were expected to be self-sacrificing, domesticated, and moral… boys, hard working, loyal, and brave, both boys and girls extolled as, ‘Children of the Empire. The Nation was proud of itself believing that there were, ‘further noble deeds to be done’, the Empire was supported throughout the country. Heads of rural schools not only maintained discipline within the school but were sometimes expected to control the behaviour of their charges outside as well. In many outlying hamlets, sending older children to school was looked on as 'wasted labour' by the poor.

When Elsie went to school in 1912, children were being given cocoa or some other warm drink for a 1d during the midday break. The local nurse still discovered ‘dirty heads’ during a school inspection, teachers were always taking care that when children scratched they were inspected for lice or flea bites. Inferior meals at home caused some of the children to be undernourished. Giving free school meals afforded the school the opportunity to instil good manners and proper eating habits – to eat properly with a knife and fork. A full-time dentist travelled from school to school checking the children’s teeth. He carried out inspections whilst the children were sent out to play. Cheap spectacles were obtainable free of charge and instruction given about the correct way to clean one’s teeth. The health of the nation’s children had become a national issue and initiatives started to improve the general state of health, and other child welfare matters. The Rowntree Foundation highlighted the ‘serious physical deterioration amongst the poorer section of the community, in their 1901 publication. The First World War evened out the vast difference between children health, in good and bad areas, by government inspection.

Every day began the same for all children. At the turn of the twentieth century, most working-class families expected their children to contribute to the running of the household. Tasks were learnt by following their parents round the home helping as they went. The boys took on the heavier work whilst the girls helped with the sewing and food preparation… water had to be bought from the stream... each day had its routine of household chores. All this work had to be done before going to school… It was expected that Elsie and her sisters helped their mother look after the chickens, fetch the eggs, and clean them out. The washing had to be mangled, hung out, turned, and then ironed, when dry. The vegetables gathered from the garden, washed and put away for the next meal. There was a half-time system at the mill; children over the age of ten could work limited hours, whilst receiving their education. This continued until after the First World War.

After the war, the troops were dismissed and returned home. They might have been informed by letter that the village had changed or they might have seen for themselves a few of these changes when they were sent home on leave. However, it was a different thing altogether when they had to face the changes day after day. Younger people were not content to put up with things that had gone on for centuries. They wanted to sample the so-called good living to be found in the towns and cities. Women too had seen for themselves their sex working on the land and others had gone to work in factories. The industrial age had started the decline. The First World War had carried the momentum further, shattering the old ways. Things were never to be the same again. It was not just the working class that had to adapt. The upper classes, particularly the large landowners lost their sons who were going to take over. Working arrangements at the mill continued, but not for long…!

Children still worked at the mill crawling under the looms, with bare feet to stop slipping, to retrieve the ends of broken threads. These ends had to be instantly repaired in very hot and damp conditions to quickly get the gliding jennies back into action again. They felt proud they were contributing to the family’s income as they felt the sixpence in their pockets. The children of farm workers also turned their hands to the work in the fields. Picking up stones, weeding the crops, and collecting potatoes. No child of the poor was allowed to get away from, ‘working for their keep’.

The bell on the roof tolled at 9am. It seemed very loud and the pigeons scattered at its sound… the noisiness of the children greeting friends subsided and the running around stilled… lines were formed outside the door and all waited for the teacher to admit them. No talking was allowed and each child allotted a seat - after the girls put on their pinnies. Any late comer received a black mark and this was entered in the term report. The roll was called when attendants were ticked off in red. All the Collins children went to this school – there was no escaping either the building or its influence – it stood before Rosalie Cottage and dominated the skyline!

Prayers and Hymns started the day - always the well-known favourites learnt by heart… just as the scholastic subjects were reinforced, by repeating them in rhyme - intoned in a singsong fashion. It was an unchanging ritual going back generations. Classes started at nine o-clock, and lasted until three thirty every day; these went on until she was fourteen. The school hall divided by a large curtain, which did not reach the top of the pitched roof, one side for the younger children and the other side for the older ones. The sun’s rays, finding a gap in the curtain, penetrating the dusty haze, created a spectrum on the opposite wall as they passed through the glass … normally drawn back for morning assembly and special occasions.

A trained certificated male assistant teacher received £100 per year; his female colleague received £10 less. Teacher training colleges insisted upon a strict religious calling for their student intake – they must be free from all faults. It was about moral ascendancy over literary knowledge. It was not always the case that properly trained teachers filled the vacancies. Acting teachers, who were usually the brightest girls in their final year, were preferred – heads considered that they understood their jobs better and had an empathy with their charges. Elementary teachers were, ‘uncultivated and imperfectly educated’, commented one Chief Inspector. It was not unusual for the local squire or magistrate to require schoolteachers to attend Sunday school, play the piano, and organize out of school educational trips, without payment...

The first and second year children followed the seasons with calendar records noting when the first snowdrop showed itself, when the first cuckoo called, and the first swallow flew. The class would be given the task of drawing these and the best ones displayed on the wall.

All the younger children and newcomers used slates and squeaky slate pencils and approved lessons like English and arithmetic checked by the local authority. Scripture was compulsory for all and once a week the vicar would come to talk about moral behaviour - told in the form of a story. Country children were taught to observe and appreciate the countryside and local history sometimes by a village elder. When the class was considered capable, they were given lead pencils and told to copy letters of the alphabet and words from cardboard specimens. The next stage, after obtaining the correct standard - exercise books with faint green lines were passed out, was to copy off the blackboard simple sentences, this carried them to the next stage, linking sentences together to make a paragraph.

After the two years, the class graduated to the use of pen and ink. Every day the ink monitor would pass out the filled china inkwells placing them in the drilled holes at the top of each desk. It was found difficult to control the ink at first or even to make the pen work at all. The nibs had to be clean and the points not splayed out or crossed - by too much pressure – if so a new one was issued from the store cupboard. Blots and smudges appeared as if by magic. Sleeves and hair sometimes got in the way. But these hurdles were soon overcome and the class settled down to perfect their copper plate hand writing – less pressure on the pen for up strokes and a firmer pressure on the way down. There was always a controversy whether strokes down should follow directly on top of those going up instead of making a loop.

It was consider important by school authorities that ‘drill’ superseded random gymnastics. The class was told to march swinging their arms forward with the opposite leg – in military fashion. All the arm and leg movements were to be done in correct order - following an accepted pattern – so that each exercises known in advance. Every muscle had an approved exercise and running strictly regulated. If the day were particularly cold then: marching, swinging the arms, hopping and coordinated exercises proceded in turn - the class all following round and round folding and unfolding like a snake. There was never enough space for games, and no equipment if there were. Once a year there was sports day, when all the classes did their exercises before their parents. There were three-legged races, egg and spoon and sack races, throwing the beanbag and catching the ball. All the children had to bring an enamel mug to school so that lemonade could be served out. There were iced and currant buns, provided by the school authorities. Prizes won and achievements recognised, usually in the form of a book with an inscribed insert.

Music lessons consisted of practising singing the National Anthem, the national songs of each country making up Britain, popular patriotic songs and folk songs. This involved much practice, which was taught using the tonic sol-fah system, using a tuning fork to start on the right note.

The whole school marched into the playground to salute the flag and sing all the songs practised…. on Trafalgar Day - with an emphasis on why it was so important to have a navy to protect the country, its Empire, and its trade. After the First World War, Armistice Day was observed when once again the whole school assembled to salute the flag and observe the two minutes silence with the flag at half-mast. National and Saint Days celebrated - Flying the Union Jack and the flag of St George a prerequisite for all organizations and groups. Empire Day considered the most important national event next to the Kings birthday. Patriotic songs sang and tales of daring do – exploration, discovery and invention, read aloud and cheered. All these national events were celebrated during the Sunday church service, which following on from where the school left off.

My mother and her class were taken for country walks where the names of plants and trees were written down and the local wild-life pointed out. Collections of grasses, leaves, butterflies and other insects mounted and named. Records of when certain things happened throughout the year were copied down and older children made their own sketchbooks, which were initialled and coloured up. Prizes were presented in the hall at the end of each year, these, once again were mainly books.

There were three teachers taking different groups called standards. Infants were taught to knit dishcloths and to patch holes and darn. Elementary dressmaking, buttonhole stitching and pleating was also taught. Reading was considered especially important and frequently checked by the School Inspector. The quality of writing - using correct English grammar, neatly set out on the page a necessity: Geography, History, and Nature Studies, Needlework, Cooking and Gardening, all given attention.

Most girl pupils had long hair, plaits or ponytails [on leaving school hair was ‘put up’ either in a bun or braids round the head or draped either side below the ears]. Where possible in large families most of the clothes would be hand-me-downs. If these were not available, they were purchased at ‘bring and buy sales’ or made by mothers, except shoes and hats. Generally, the dresses were of checked gingham, knitted socks, and cotton knickers. Winter wear usually navy skirt attached to a bodice, with hand-knitted jumper, knee high socks, brown lace-up shoes, knitted woollen vest, a liberty bodice buttoned down the front, and an assortment of other buttons to hold up suspenders and knickers. In extremely cold weather, fleecy knickers were worn with a pocket for a handkerchief.

Nothing was ever wasted in the clothing line. Discarded clothes were: cut down, shortened, taken up, patched, darned, or cut into squares - for rag rugs. Worn sheets turned side to middle or made into pillowcases. Worn pillowcases became handkerchiefs, liners or tea towels. There was no end to the amount of make do and mend necessary to look after a large family. All families had a rag bag the contents useful for repairs or making up patchwork quilts and mats.

The only outside building was the coal shed and a row of lavatories in the playground. They contained a wooden seat over a bucket that was emptied each week by the school caretaker, who also provided the torn-up newspapers on a string!

There were lessons on Health & Hygiene – the importance of washing hair emphasised, as were: brushing teeth, cutting nails, and what was good to eat. The importance of bathing; the girls were taught how to look after babies. However, there were no lessons on sex. Girls were instructed on how to look after and run a home and this was linked to sewing - the make-up of curtains and covers. Boys were instructed how to dig, why to dig and how to plant out vegetables, and run a greenhouse. There were talks on how to avoid common ailments by a local nurse who cautioned about practising old country remedies, dispelling superstitions, and tales of false beliefs - especially about the menstruation period. Some children smelled strongly and no one wanted to share a desk with them… much of the nurse’s talk was trying to make children aware without spelling out the truth. Children sometimes wore underwear all the year through, never taking them off.

There was neither school milk nor lunches – sandwiches were eaten at the lunch break… there was always water from the tap in the playground. The eldest children did not finish until three-forty-five to give the infants and their mother’s time to clear the front entrance. Those children who had an elder brother or sister, to take then home, had to wait inside.

The rooms were well lit because there were such large windows set into the gable ends. In winter, it was always cold due to the high ceilings. Two large round stoves heated both ends of the room. However much the stoves were stoked it was never sufficient to heat the corners. The floor was bare boards, which gave off clouds of dust whenever there was any movement, particularly during the morning assembly, and for the dancing class.

Infants were taught to knit with two needles and then four. Darning, using a wooden mushroom, how to turn, hem and take-up and gather in, how to sew on buttons, make floor cloths and cover buttons and taught fraying out – removing each separate thread from a patch of material and un-picking – unravelling an old woollen garment, were methods used to provide material to make-up new. Sewing bags made and each girl’s initials graced the sides – these were end of first term tests and used by the teachers to keep one class quiet whilst the other in the room carried on with their reading and writing. Material was supplied by the council – always-white cotton. From this articles of clothing were made, pillowcases and nighties. Patterns had to be traced, suitable for the child’s size. There was a communal box of thimbles, needles and thread. Embroidery with coloured wool made simple samplers.

A school inspector of the day noted that a number of children had died through diphtheria. The winter always brought the usual bout of illnesses: whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, scarlatina, diphtheria, scarlet fever, colds and influenza. The Schools Medical Officer had to be notified especially in an outbreak. These problems affected the standard of education. Special lessons were arranged for children to catch up with lost lessons. Regular attendances by the Doctor and Nurse, to inspect for infections and general cleanliness.If there were, the parents were visited to check that action had been taken... Heads were examined by the Nurse, for nits, and general health. Proper clothing and shoes for winter wear identified, reported and logged. There were no aspirins or cold remedies. Antibiotics had not long been discovered. Infections were easily spread by contact. In the early twenties, there was a national epidemic of mumps and influensa.

The senior classes had to fill in nature notebooks mostly by personal observation, making sketches and writing explanatory notes. It was encouraged that everyone should be observant and knows what to look for when each season arrived. Poetry was used to promote a good memory. Popular writers of the day discussed and passages read out. On Speech Days, prizes would be distributed for every subject. As with national songs, poems and noted authors - these works committed to heart - to the extent that they could be remembered all through one’s life. In rural areas, in the early twentieth century, most children left school at twelve, to start work. The Education Act of 1918 raised the age to fourteen. The School’s Inspector noted, ‘that arithmetic was not a strong subject but that the discipline was good and the children attentive to their lessons’.

In the early afternoons, before the youngest children pored out of the main school doors, shouting and screaming, their mothers had done the shopping and made courtesy calls... pushing their coach-built, second-hand, much used prams, containing the latest addition. It was a time relished by the mothers knowing their peaceful existence about to be extinguished when their little ones came out of school. They remembered their time in the same school, sometimes even the same teachers. The layout of the schoolrooms recalled - the smells and sounds the same. There were brothers, sisters, cousins, and even more distant relations, mingling with friends, made many years before, all doing the same lessons, in the same manner.

After school my mother roamed the woods and fields with her sisters and brothers in search of birds’ nests and ‘fruits of the hedge’ to take home and present to their mother which might stop her complaining about their torn clothes. She was strict which was necessary considering that at thirty-seven she had eleven children to look after. Her life was a constant endeavour to make ends meet. Gentle, devoted and strong willed, worshipping respectability and constancy. The children played hide-and-seek and Red Indians leaping the streams, climbing the trees, collecting bluebells in the wood and constructing bows and arrows. Mum would be wearing her pinny and hair in ribbons, her brothers, corduroy knee breeches and a jersey. They would search the hedges for suitable sticks to make into pipes, whistles, catapults and peashooters, spud and pop guns, bows and arrows, lances, swords and daggers. The vibrating blade of grass - held between thumbs, made a whistling noise when air blown through… Owl hoots, produced in the same way, but without the grass… betting each other, they could whistle louder or longer... Children still trundled their hoops, bowled marbles – tip-cat'd and skipped; drew hop-scotch chalk lines, spun tops and constructed ‘cats cradles’… Girls played their singing games - joined hands and skipped… here we go gathering ‘Nuts in May’; Jenny Jones visited, Orange and Lemons chopped off heads, and What’s the time Mr Wolf - tempted giant paces… The Big Ship Sails, and The Farmer wants a Wife, gave everyone a chance. Throwing a ball against the school wall, clapping hands, whilst spinning round, sevens, or swapping marbles, or cigarette cards, were all games played at school. Conkers were strung in the autumn and daisies threaded in spring.

All the children in the village went to Sunday school, whose numbers had been built up since the chapel had been erected, thus enabling a choir of boys and young men to be formed - the Morning Service, followed on after the school. The choir was used, as a means of teaching basic music to the children - would make them keener to continue attending. Occasionally there would be special services for a christening, saint’s day or Mothering Sunday. The annual Empire Day was celebrated using paper hats previously painted in the Union Jack colours. Patriotic songs were sung - stories of daring-do – Cecil Rhodes and Captain Cook, atlases perused for its pink areas and places of British influence. It was a day for rejoicing and celebration, greatly looked forward-to. The organist who doubled as the choirmaster religiously stuck to the few Hymns, Ancient and Modern, which were well known and practiced. It was a way of ensuring that there would not be any embarrassing silences of mumbled verses. The church brought together all the various elements of the population cementing the community together. Whether the day wet or fine… the music of the choir, gave the stark interior a softer touch.

In the winter, the cold seemed to be far more intense. Clothing was not so efficient at keeping the cold out and often children had chapped hands and legs. Some cried, when their hands started to thaw out, whilst standing round the coke brazier. Many of the children reached school having to stumble over rutted ground and frozen field still wearing ordinary shoes worn by much use – usually from being passed on from older brothers and sisters. Sometimes the soles would be so thin that studs and blakies would not hold in to the leather. Fortunately, the Collins children lived opposite the school did not suffer these setbacks. This was one of the positive aspects to having the school so near!

My mother told us that her reading was done mostly in bed by the light of a candle. During the evening, before going to bed, time would be filled by knitting in front of the fire, resting her feet on the logs, set before the fire. Her sisters would embroider, make spills – rolling up strips of newspaper, make dolls’ clothes and Christmas presents: kettle or iron holders, gloves, pin-cushions, handkerchief sachets, lavender bags, padded coat hangers, peg bags and tray cloths – many of these would be crocheted or contain crocheted borders. French knitting, using a cotton reel with looped wool over pins, made a long cord that could be tacked in the round to make mats. A useful present could be made from sewing mothballs in red silk… providing leaves, cut out of thick felt, to represent holly, a hanging loop of platted wool would ward off moths in the wardrobe. Dishcloths were knitted from heavy cotton yarn, face flannels from old cut down towels, old dresses made aprons, rag rugs, patchwork quilts and sacking doormats. Cardboard cutouts were decorated with coloured paper stuck on with flour paste to make theatre sets were some of the pastimes, which contributed towards passing long winter evenings. Her brothers designed poker work using red hot skewers spliced onto a wooden handle, cut jig saws out of pictures pasted on boards, and interlaced wooden spills to make mats.

Along with the harvest revels, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were the other two great occasions for the whole family. Both these were holidays celebrated by everyone, although the animals still had to be looked after. Holly and mistletoe – the only decorations, were draped across the tops of pictures and laid across the ceiling beams. Carols were sung, everyone singing one verse on their own, party games enjoyed and simple presents unwrapped. The children went to church three times on Christmas Day and on each occasion they enjoyed a special meal, the highlight of the day's events, the afternoon meal served with parsnip wine for the elders. The church choir did the rounds and the children knocked on doors after singing a carol. Neither, New Year's Eve, or the following day, were marked by celebration.