CHILDREN’S SONGS AND GAMES

Memories of Pennycross by Stephanie Verhoeven (1956–1962)


I started at Pennycross Primary School in September 1956 about a week after my fifth birthday (having already spent one term at Stoke Damerel Primary School). My family had just moved to the newly-built Tintagel Crescent, and many children in this part of the Manadon Vale estate then attended the school. My sister Melanie started two years later in 1958.

Pennycross Junior Mixed & Infants School, to use its full name, had an excellent reputation, and children came a long way in order to attend. As a result it became very full, and although there was only one class per year-group, in my time this class always consisted of at least 40 (and sometimes over 50) pupils. There were no classroom assistants, and parents were only allowed inside the classroom once a year, on Open Day. In practice, only mothers came, as it was held in the afternoon when nearly all the fathers were at work.

Open Day July 1962Above: Picture of Open Day, July 1962, taken by the Western Evening Herald,
but not printed in the newspaper. I am showing my mother my work; on the left is
Susan Byrne; on the right is Joy Collacott; and in behind is Jennifer Clark

Overcrowding was so severe that the gymnasium could not be used for the purpose for which it was intended, but was occupied by the slower children, with just a screen separating the infant and the junior classes. These children did not take the 11+ examination (which we always called “the scholarship”).

At the back of the platform of the hall were three doors. In the middle was the scary Headteacher’s room; on the left was the school secretary’s office; and on the right was the staffroom. As the school was so overcrowded, some smaller classes were held in the staffroom.

Pennycross Primary School: Staff, 1956–1962

I
N
F
A
N
T
S

Class 1
(Reception)

1956

Miss Williams
(soon to become
Mrs Stratton)

Class 2
1956/57

Mrs Gross

Class 3
1957/58

Miss Allen

Class 4
Extra class for children who needed to catch up held on one side of screen in gymnasium (I believe that it was later held in the staffroom). Children who did not improve went straight into Mr Blake’s non-scholarship class

Miss Green

J
U
N
I
O
R
S

Class 5
1958/59

Miss Trice
(also deputy head)

Class 6
1959/60

Mrs Merton

Class 7
1960/61

Miss Brook

Class 8
1961/62
The Scholarship class

Mr Morgan

“Remove” class, generally known by an unkind name.
Held on other side of screen in gymnasium for
children who would not be taking the scholarship

Mr Blake

  Head

Mr Uglow
(always pronounced
“You-glow”, and never as in “Ugly”!)

  Caretaker/
Lollipop man

Mr McCarroll

  School secretary

Miss Ellis

There was also a Miss Netherton, who I think may have succeded Miss Green

Very early on in the infants I remember learning this rhyme:

Grandmother had a little grey billy goat,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat,
Grandmother loved her little grey billy goat,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat.

Little grey billy goat thought he’d go a walking,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat,
Big bad wolf came stalking, stalking,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat.

Now Grandmother sits by the fire and mourns,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat,
All that was left were his hooves and his horns,
Dinkum Dunkum, little grey billy goat.

The infant school was fairly gentle and we used to have a play session with jigsaws and toys in the assembly hall, where we also had PE and music. After lunch there was a rest period in the classroom, when we had to put our heads down on our desks and close our eyes.

But there was still plenty of drilling, because after just two years we were expected to be proficient at reading, writing, and “number” (as basic arithmetic was then called), ready to enter the junior school. Serious work began here at the tender age of seven, and we were introduced to new subjects such as history, scripture, and geography; but the three Rs remained of paramount importance, because in the scholarship examination we would be tested only on these (plus the subject that we called “Intelligence”).

Hence from the age of 7 we were drilled for the 11+, and had weekly tests. These tests even determined where we were to sit in class, as we sat according to our rank, changing seats regularly as our marks went up and down.

When we entered Mr Morgan's class, we joined about seven children aged twelve who had styed behind to repeat their final year in order to have another go at the scholarship: they seemed much bigger than we were.

Good work, both in class and at home, was rewarded with a red star. A certain number of red stars amounted to a silver star, which was stuck on a cardboard chart on the wall, and these added up to gold stars. This was the main way that children who were good at academic subjects but not at sport could earn house-points.

Reports

Reports were sent home every term right from the start. Below are examples from the infant and junior school:

Report 1956

Report 1960

Food and drink

Every day we had school milk, in bottles measuring a third of a pint, taken through a straw. In the winter, these were left on the radiator to warm, and sometimes they were so frozen that the milk expanded and pushed off the foil top.

Many children went home for dinner (never called lunch), as very few mothers worked in those days. Those who remained in school had their school dinners in the assembly hall. Packed lunches were unheard of.

Photographs

Every summer we had a class photograph taken out in the playground, and at Christmas our class play was usually photographed. Here are some pictures

Class photographs, with names:

Christmas plays, with names:

Reading and writing

In the infant school, the three Rs were of paramount importance, so no other academic subjects were taught. We learnt to read with the Janet and John books, and the first book I ever read was one in this scheme called The House on the Hill.

We started off writing with old-fashioned slates and chalk, only graduating to real paper and very fat pencils with huge leads when we became reasonably proficient. We then had to copy row after row of the same letter into small, square-shaped exercise books with wide-spaced lines.

We had gummed paper squares which we folded in half twice and then cut out shapes. When opened out, the tracery was anything but delicate (thanks to the blunt-ended scissors), but when stuck on the front of our books it made them easy to identify.

As soon as we entered the junior school at the age of 7, we had to buy Osmiroid fountain pens and blotting paper, and immediately learnt to join up our writing. We were taught a very plain style with no loops, and great emphasis was laid on making the letters slope forward (which must have been very hard on the left-handers). “Penmanship” was a subject in itself, and we had to copy poems down from the blackboard in our best writing. I remember copying the following poem in Miss Trice’s class:

Look downwards from Thy hidden throne
And take my hands of prayer
And hold them, hold them, in Thine own
In church and everywhere.
And I will hold them up to Thee
Quite often in the day,
Do Thou each time take hold of me
That I may never stray.

(We must have copied that many times for me to be able to quote it by heart.)

We had to indent all our paragraphs, and were made to put down our forefinger to get the indent the correct size. We were taught to write letters, with our address at the top right also in the indented style.

We were not allowed to bring ink to school, but each of the dual desks had an inkwell with a sliding cover. Good handwriting was considered so important that a whole mark was deducted from an English essay for every word that did not sit properly on the line.

Arithmetic

We usually called Arithmetic “Sums”. Right from the start, we chanted our tables incessantly up to “Twelve twelves are 144”. Addition and subtraction (including “borrowing one”) started almost immediately, followed by adding up columns of shillings and pence. Our exercise books had squares to help us line up the figures neatly, and we put “h”, “t”, and “u” at the head of the hundreds, tens, and units columns, and later “£”, “s”, and “d”. When we subtracted, we always “borrowed one” the old-fashioned way.

There were no pocket calculators in those days, and in the junior section we progressed to long multiplication and long division, moving on to using it with pounds, shillings, and pence as well as stones, pounds, and ounces and miles, furlongs, yards, feet, and inches. Then fractions were introduced: these were important, as decimals were rarely used, and until 1961 we had farthings as well as halfpennies.

Spelling and grammar

In the junior section there were regular spelling tests. There were also spelling bees, from which the weaker children were soon eliminated, and Miss Trice in particular used to provide prizes out of her own pocket such as chocolate. The canny children came armed with words designed to confound their classmates: two favourites of mine were Physiotherapy and Psychology (I hadn’t a clue what they meant at the age of seven, but I could spell them). The winner at the end of term was given a small Collins dictionary, and I still have mine; but the people who lost might have benefited more from it.

In Miss Trice’s class there was a competition to list all the nouns we could find in a large poster; and we were told what words to avoid in our “compositions” (e.g. nice, lovely); but grammar proper was left for the grammar schools at 11.

Music

The only instrument taught at the school was the recorder (at lunchtime), but in class we used to have something euphemistically known as the “band”, where the boys always got the best instruments, such as the drums and cymbals. Some girls got tambourines, but I never had anything more exciting than a triangle.

Nearly all of the teachers could play the piano, and there was plenty of hymn practice in the hall. The teachers did their best to eradicate our Plymouth accents, with Miss Brook making us sing “toe” instead of “to” (which we tended to pronounce as “tew”). In class, with the help of Singing Together on schools radio, we learnt many well-known English, Welsh, Scottish, and American folk-songs. These included “Linden Lea”, “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”, “Oh no, John”, “Michael Finnegan”, “Aiken Drum”, “Bonnie Dundee”, “D’ye ken John Peel?”, “Men of Harlech”, “The Drummer and the Cook”, “Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me”, “Dashing away with the smoothing iron”, “Hearts of oak”, “The lass of Richmond Hill”, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”, “The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies”, “The Jovial Beggar”, and “Camptown Races”.

Here are the words of many of the songs

Projects

In the infant school, we made a little booklet about ourselves, saying what we wanted to be when we grew up and including a self-portrait. In the junior section, we sewed up little books (no long-armed stapler in school in those days) in which we wrote up projects we had studied, or wrote illustrated stories. With Miss Trice, we did an investigation into the countries from which we got our food, which meant bringing in tissue wrappers from oranges and stickers from bananas (all Fyffes in those days).

In each of the four years of the junior section we entered the Cadbury National Essay Competition for Schools: we were sent packs of information that included real cocoa beans, and literature, and had to write essays about cocoa and chocolate production. The winners were given certificates like the one below:

Cadbury certificate

Art

In the infant school, art consisted of nasty grey absorbent paper and enormously fat crayons, too large for our small hands, and nothing beautiful was created.

In the junior section, we had to put groups of four desks together to form large tables (taking great care to avoid spilling the ink from the built-in inkwells, or the books from the open shelves underneath) and then cover them with newspaper. We were supplied with hefty brushes, powder paint, jam-jars full of water, six-hole palettes, and again the paper was nasty, grey, and absorbent. Sometimes we used charcoal. There was a print of Monet’s Fife-Player in the junior corridor to inspire us, and I think I remember some Degas ballet dancers too.

At Christmas, we made cards for our parents: this involved paste and a lot of cotton wool both for snow and Father Christmas’s beard.

There was no room to make big models, although we used to make little gardens in bowls with plasticine figures, using silver paper for rivers and ponds, and shells for decoration; we brought in moss from our gardens to fill in the spaces in between. The only plants which seemed to survive in these bowls were grape hyacinths.

Every classroom had a termly frieze, usually on a theme, where figures done by every child (cut out with small scissors with blunt ends) were mounted.

Once we had to bring in empty matchboxes and stuck them together and decorated them to make a miniature chest of drawers.

Other handicrafts

The girls did needlework once a week from the age of 7, learning to knit, embroider, and sew. We started of with knitting dishcloths (where holes didn’t matter), and made dolls’ beds by bringing in small cardboard boxes and sewing mattresses and pillows stuffed with chopped-up nylon stockings, embroidered samplers in cross stitch. We moved on to French seams, and when we were in the top class we actually hand-sewed a real garment. Needlework was taught in the school hall by an elderly lady with her hair in earphones, and we particularly enjoyed it because it was the only lesson in which we were allowed to speak.

The boys stayed in the classroom while we did needlework, and I think that they did elementary woodwork.

French knitting (done on cotton reels with four nails hammered in the top) was very popular, but this was done for fun in our spare time rather than during lessons.

History & Current Affairs

We learnt interesting stories from history, including Horatio defending the bridge, Roland and Oliver, Pocahontas, and Joan of Arc. We drew pictures of them, but were given no overall view, and no sense of the dates involved. Although Pennycross was not a church school, there was a heavy emphasis on religion, and we learnt about St Francis of Assisi and the missionary Mary Slessor.

The only thing I remember relating to current affairs is when the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959.

Geography

We had a series of books that today would be considered politically incorrect. They started with Bombo the African, who lived in a hut and wore very little in the way of clothes, and Tooktoo the Eskimo, who lived in an igloo and spent his time sitting on the ice, fishing in a hole.

We had to bring in labels from tins to show which countries our food came from.

When we were in the top class, we drew a ground plan of the school, and learnt how to indicate doors and windows.

Science

The only science we did was nature study. Each class had a nature table, and we listened to nature programmes on the radio, which naturally concentrated on the sounds that animals made rather than their appearance, although there was an accompanying BBC booklet with black-and-white pictures. (We had no television at school in those days, and people were only just beginning to get them in their homes.) Mr Morgan kept a fish tank, and changing the water involved first sucking a mouthful through a tube….

There were wild flowers in every field around us in those days. A few of the everyday flowers were bluebells, primroses, violets, lady’s smock, speedwell, cuckoo pint, and milkmaids (the name we used for the lesser stichwort, but apparently in other parts of the country it is an alternative name for lady’s smock). We ate the leaves of the hawthorn, and called them “bread and cheese”.

Languages

Foreign languages were not taught in my time, but in 1963, just after I left, Pennycross became one of the first primary schools in the country to teach French under the new Ministry of Education scheme.

Homework

Evening homework started in the second class of the infant school (around the time of our sixth birthday), and most children had a leather satchel in which to carry work to and from school. It was set in the Autumn and Spring Terms on every night except Wednesday, but we were given a rest in the Summer Term. In the summer holiday before the scholarship examination, we had to do an essay a week for each of the six weeks we were off.

Homework usually consisted of:

  • A list of words such as aeroplane and parliament which we copied one to a line in our homework book, and then wrote twice more and learnt
  • A list of words to incorporate into sentences; or a list of adjectives for which we had to give the comparative and superlatives
  • Sums. We had to show all our workings neatly: the total of farthings had to go under the pence column and then be divided neatly by 4; the total of pence had to go under the shillings column and then be divided by 12, and the shillings had to go under the pounds column and be divided by 20. When we had to “borrow one” to aid subtraction, we had to cross it neatly off the next column to the left and show it at the top of the column where it was needed. There was usually a remainder of some farthings with the long division, which meant that there was no certainty we had got the sum right: we had to double-check everything

While we did yet more sums in class, the teacher marked our homework books (hardback books, which our parents had to buy in Smith’s) so we could have them back in time for the next lot of work the same evening. In addition anything we had got wrong in the previous day’s homework had to be done again as a correction.

Page of sums
A typical page of maths homework done by a nine-year-old in November 1960
and marked by Miss Brook. One of the sums is marked “C.W.” (copied wrongly),
as the final farthing in the sum on the blackboard was miscopied as three-farthings

Sport

Sport was greatly encouraged by the Headteacher, Mr Uglow, but only the boys were allowed to play football, and the girls did square-ball instead.

As Pennycross was a newly-built modern school, we had a proper gymnasium with bars and ropes, but we could not use it in school time, as because of the overcrowding it was divided into two classrooms. (In 1961, however, a lunchtime gym-club started and we rushed back from home full of dinner and learned to climb ropes.) Instead, we had PE in the hall, which meant either floor-work or benches, which could be used for balancing when turned upside down. Skipping ropes were often used, and we were taught by by Miss Trice to put them away carefully: fold them at the middle, then in the middle again, then in a single knot.

There was also folk dancing, although I don’t think that the boys liked it very much. Beanbags featured prominently in PE lessons in those days, and I can also remember having to pretend to be a four-legged animal. Coloured plastic hoops were used for marking the positions of where children should be in a game so that they did not edge forward. Teaching us to do up the laces of our plimsolls was a lesson in itself in the infant school.

We played rounders, and I can remember going up somewhere near the allotments in Ham Drive to play. These smelt strongly of soot, as people always had coal fires in those days and soot was deposited there.

By about 1957 the Parent Teacher Association had raised enough money for the materials for an outdoor swimming pool, which the parents built themselves. From 1 May each year we had to use this unheated pool – no matter how cold or wet the weather – twice a week, and Mr Uglow used to threaten that no child would be allowed to move up from the infant to the junior school unless he or she could swim. We had to get changed for swimming in the toilets, one small group at a time, until the changing rooms were built beside the junior playground in about 1961.

Every year we had a swimming gala and a sports day, when the three houses – Windsor (red), Buckingham (blue), and Balmoral (yellow) – competed against each other. The house badges we wore to school which facilitated the award of house points were much too small to be identified in sports events, so coloured sashes, worn diagonally over the right shoulder and under the left arm, were provided.

Discipline and Punishment

To keep us from fidgeting, we had to fold our arms (and cross our legs too, if we happened to be sitting on the floor of the hall). Sometimes we were made to sit on our hands.

Punishments included standing outside Mr Uglow’s office, while Mr Morgan, who was Welsh, had a habit of throwing the chalk at boys who exasperated him (particularly at Bates – he always called boys by their surnames). The cane was the ultimate punishment, not used very often and never on the girls, although the ruler was.

One teacher used to shake children violently, but most managed to keep strict discipline without resorting to physical punishment.

We were no saints, however, and gave a hard time to a Mr Driscoll, a young man on teaching practice whom we called Drizzly Driscoll: he tried to teach us Geography when we were about 9, and got us to draw a map of Australia. And the story of the boy in an older class who had once locked Miss Brook in a cupboard filled us all with awe.

With nearly 50 children in each class, discipline was often draconian. Once, someone borrowed a rubber from me and as I handed it over I must have murmured “Here you are”. For this offence I was made to stand in terror outside Mr Uglow’s office.

I remember coming to school once wearing colourless nail varnish, and being made very ashamed by Miss Trice. As we had no nail varnish remover at home, my father had to take it off with sandpaper, otherwise I would not have been allowed into school next day.

Playtime

We had two playtimes, one in the middle of the morning and one in the middle of the afternoon (school did not finish until 4 p.m., as children needed a long break from 12 to 1.45 to give them time to go home and back for their dinner). Moving from the infant playground to the junior one was terrifying, as there were big boys of 12 there, who had stayed behind a year to have a second go at trying for the scholarship. All the boys tended to use the playground as a football pitch, so the girls had to keep out of the way around the edges, where they played sedate, old-fashioned games.

Both boys and girls liked collecting things, and Mr Morgan kept a swap-box of Brooke Bond tea cards. Every girl had a treasured tin of beads.

Mr Morgan ran a chess club, but it was mainly the boys who were interested.

Games played by the girls

School Library

This was located on shelves on the hall platform. We were allowed to borrow only one book a week, for which we paid 1d. Most of us were addicted to Enid Blyton, but I was encouraged by Miss Trice to read Dickens as well, and remember enjoying Dombey & Son when I was about eight or nine. Jennings books were popular among girls as well as boys, and we used to listen to them read out on the wireless at home.

Savings

We were encouraged to save our pocket money, and savings stamps were sold at school. I only ever had the 6d ones depicting Princess Anne at the age of about two, but there were 2/6 ones showing Prince Charles aged about four. When the card was full, it was paid into my Post Office Savings bank account.

Clothes

School uniform was not compulsory, but many children had the blue-and-gold-striped school tie and expensive royal-blue blazer with a badge depicting a gold dragon rampant and the motto “My best always”. There was an incentive to wear uniform: those who did not have it were not allowed to take part in the public speaking groups at Harvest Festival, or to be in the choir, although I think I have a dim memory of having to lend my blazer to a more musical person who was too poor to have one.

Boys wore short grey trousers and a V-necked pullover. (Anoraks were unknown, and no boy at primary school wore long trousers.) They all wore school caps outdoors, with the smaller version of the school badge, and often a jacket just like their father’s.

In winter, girls in the infants tended to wear a short pleated grey skirt with two long straps crossed at the back and buttoned on the front waistband. When they entered the juniors, this was exchanged for a grey pinafore over a white blouse and tie, with long grey socks held up with bands of elastic. In the summer they just wore ordinary dresses; the official red-checked school dress was not introduced until the summer of 1963. They tied their hair back with ribbons, or wore rigid plastic alice bands. Party dresses were nylon froth, in pastel shades, with long thin velvet ribbons, worn with a bunny-wool bolero or a hand-knitted cardigan. Lucky girls had special party shoes; most had to make do with their sensible everyday Clark’s, which often had two straps and two buckles. Many wore royal blue berets with the school badge. Everyone wore a coat, because most children came to school on foot through all weather. These were worn indoors if the central heating broke down: we were never sent home if the building was stone cold, but had to endure it. It was closed on election days, however.

Both girls and boys had to wear white singlet vests as underwear so they would be ready for PE as soon as they took off their outer clothes, and girls had to have navy-blue knickers. Black plimsolls were kept in bags hanging from pegs. A couple of girls in my class wore liberty bodices, but these last vestiges of the corset soon died out.

Sweet shop

We sometimes stopped at the shop in Melrose Avenue to buy sweets with our pennies (the minimum amount the sweet-shop would accept, although halfpennies and farthings were still around). These coins were giant by modern standards, and some of them with head of Queen Victoria on the back were worn almost smooth. We often bought aniseed balls (sold, like most sweets then, from a large glass jar and weighed out by the assistant in two-ounce portions and put in a small paper bag).

Other delicacies included liquorice bootlaces, Barratt’s “Seafood” (yellow and pink lumps sold individually), wrapped Black Jack chews, sweet cigarettes, Barratt’s sherbet fountains at 3d (guaranteed to make you choke if you hoovered up the sherbert with the liquorice straw), and gobstoppers. The older sophisticates affected bubblegum, aiming to blow bubbles bigger than their heads; but all our dignity was lost when the thin bubbles burst and the gum adhered to our faces and hair. (Our parents warned us not to blow bubbles as we would choke to death if we inhaled the gum, but we didn’t let it stop us.)

Health

Children suffered far more from illnesses in the 1950s than today. There was no inoculation for measles, a serious disease that nearly all of us had at some point, and most of us also endured German measles and mumps. Polio vaccination was just coming in (no sugar lumps then: we still have the holes in our arms to prove it), but it was too late for one child in my class, who wore a calliper on her leg.

On the other hand, I don’t remember anyone with asthma or an allergy.

The “nit nurse” came round regularly to go through our hair, but we never heard whether she found anything. The school dentist used to inspect us too: we tended to have a lot of fillings, as there was no fluoride and we were rather partial to sweets, although hardly any child was fat. There were no school eye-tests, although some of the children must surely have needed glasses. National Health glasses for children were little round ones with sickly pale blue or pink frames which had springy wire hooks to go over the ears.

Sawdust was used on the floor when children had accidents from either end, and the school always smelt of Dettol and carbolic soap: I cannot smell Dettol today without envisaging Mr McCarroll and his old-fashioned mop and bucket. Sick children were taken home by other children in the hope of finding their mother in (hardly anyone had a telephone in those days). I took a child home once, and her grandparents made me stop for a cup of tea; this made me later than expected back at school, and that was the only time I was physically punished by the teacher: not only was it very unpleasant, but it seemed unfair.

Plays, concerts, and treats

At Harvest Festival, the assembly hall used to look wonderful, with loaves of bread and all kinds of fruit and vegetables. The choir doubled up as a choral speaking group, who would recite the passage from the bible about the Fruits of the Spirit, and all the usual harvest hymns, such as “We plough the fields and scatter” were sung.

At Christmas, we had a special tea in our classrooms, for which we all brought some food. There was also an evening when plays were performed, with one class always doing a nativity play, with the traditional striped tea-towels on heads, false beards, and dressing-gowns. There was also a carol service in the school hall.

Prize-giving was fine for those who were awarded prizes and certificates, especially as we were allowed to choose the books we would receive; but the same children tended to win them all the time. We were given practice on how to shake hands with our right arm while receiving the book prize with our left hand and remembering to say thank you at the same time.

The school fête, usually held on a Friday evening in summer to raise funds for the PTA, was very popular. There was jumble for sale in the school hall, where every child bought every other child’s rubbish (there was not the profusion of good secondhand toys that there are today), and there were swing-boats and other attractions in the playground.

There were few school excursions during my time at Pennycross: I can remember one to the Elizabethan House, and one to Cawsand, the home of Miss Trice, whose house was called Hardtocomeby. She also took a group on a visit to the circus one evening. And we all turned out with our Union Jacks outside the Guildhall when the Queen came on a visit.

The only visitors I remember at school were the police, who came regularly to talk about road safety and to remind us of our kerb drill.

End of the day

At the end of the day, we said prayers (hands together, eyes closed), and had to put our chairs on top of our desks to make things easier for the cleaners. We often sang “Now the day is over”. And we took ourselves home, with our satchels containing our homework on our backs. No self-respecting child over the age of six or so needed escorting home by anyone, and at the age of seven I was responsible for looking after my younger sister as well.


Pennycross Primary School, Arden Grove, Pennycross, Plymouth, Devon PL2 3RL


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Last updated: 9 August, 2017