School Days on Mow Cop

A few years ago I found myself back in Mow Cop to attend a funeral at St. Luke’s church.  It was a weekday and lessons were in progress in Woodcock’s Well school opposite.  We stood outside the church gates, listening to the sound of children’s voices coming from the classrooms.  As it was a nostalgic sort of occasion my thoughts went back to the time when I attended that same school many years before, bringing to mind a series of memories that seem to have remained with me ever since.

 In the late 1930’s a passer-by would probably have heard the children in the infants’ school giving a morning recital under the direction of their teacher, Mrs. Wasdell. The opening chorus consisted of the letters of the alphabet sung to the tune of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” followed by the numbers 1 to 20 which somehow managed to fit the same tune. Next came the multiplication tables, chanted confidently to a rhythmic beat. Understanding the mathematical principles was not really important at that stage – hopefully it might come later.  This daily ritual seemed to settle everyone down in preparation for a period of academic activity, using slates, chalks, and dusters to erase mistakes.

 Most of my generation were taught like this once we had been eased into school life by spending a year in the “babies’ class.”  I entered this class at Woodcock’s Well in 1937.  The teacher was called Mrs. Bailey.  She had short dark hair parted in the middle, and a rather flamboyant style of dress.  I can see her now in a dazzling red satin frock keeping an eye on us as we took turns to ride on a large grey rocking horse that stood at one end of the classroom. There was also a set of brightly coloured hoops for us to bowl around and giant-sized rubber balls that we threw at each other when Mrs. Bailey wasn’t looking.  However, a major focus of attention was the enormous open fire in the corner.  It was always blazing away, continually stoked by the caretaker who came in at frequent intervals to throw on a bucket of coal.  Three or four times a day he brought in a big black kettle full of water and put it on to boil.  Watching this kettle was part of the daily routine, and of crucial importance as it was the only means for the teachers to make a cup of tea.  When steam started coming from the spout it was time for our “signature tune.”  “Please Mrs. Bail-ey the kettle is boil-ing!” was delivered in strict four time with a crescendo at the end.  Sometimes we had to turn the volume up a notch because Mrs. Bailey had gone to the next classroom for a gossip with Mrs. Wasdell.  She would come rushing back, thankful no doubt that it was time to make tea for the teachers, and they could send us out to play while they sat in front of the fire to take refreshment.

 Our main play area was a bleak expanse of rough ground behind the school.  There were a few patches of grass and millions of stones.  At the far end it became a kind of adventure playground with rocks asking to be climbed and clumps of tough grass and bilberry bushes.  As far as I can recall there were no restrictions on playing up there, but we seemed to spend most of playtime constructing houses with the plentiful supply of building materials that were lying about.  Strangely enough it was usually the girls who set up in business and recruited the youngest children to collect the stones while they themselves planned the layout and supervised the dry-stone walling operations.  Some of these edifices were quite elaborate with interconnecting rooms, but alas none of them lasted very long.  Demolition squads got to work when arguments broke out between rival firms, industrial relations broke down, and the workforce took themselves off to go and play skipping or hopscotch in the road outside the front of the school.

 At that time there was virtually no traffic, and no parked cars as is the case nowadays.  Hardly anyone owned a car then, and Mow Cop children were accustomed to walking to and from school.  For some this was a considerable distance, particularly for a few who lived in Roe Park, which was in the catchment area for Woodcock’s Well. Getting from there involved a trek along the top of Mow in all kinds of weather.  For a while my brother had to get to school from a bungalow in the middle of Roe Park.  He made his way there through Big Wood along a path that was often very muddy and there were also streams to cross.  He carried a plank of wood to put down over the wettest places, leaving it at the edge of Big Wood ready to pick it up again on the way home.  For a small boy this was a test in self-reliance.  By the time I started school we had moved to Bank and the route was straightforward, although steep. Children living there and in Mount Pleasant had a hill to climb every morning – those from the top of Mow walked uphill at the end of the day.  Nobody had weight problems and we developed iron constitutions!  Staying away from school was regarded with suspicion, and had to be explained to the “Board Man”, who was liable to walk into a classroom at any time to inspect the register.  Anyone who had been absent could be called out in front of the class to state the reason why.  One was presumed guilty until proved innocent – not very fair - but an effective deterrent to any would-be truants.  The School Attendance Officer was simply doing his job, yet we were always glad to see the back of him.

 As far as I was concerned the most unwelcome visitor to darken the doors at Woodcock’s Well was the school dentist.  From the moment he appeared to check our teeth and select his victims my spirits were at rock bottom.  Every time he came I was given one of the dreaded white cards to take home stating that I needed treatment and was to bring it back duly signed plus sixpence to cover the cost.  The “surgery” was set up behind a curtain in one corner of a classroom where there was a sink, normally used to wash paint brushes after an art lesson.  Dentistry was rather crude at that period, and teeth were extracted without much preparation in the room where lessons continued as normal.  With luck you might have been given a shot of cocaine – but that could be worse than the extraction!  No parents were ever present.  We had to go through it alone and walked home with thick scarves round our faces.  On one occasion I had a socket that bled for three days, but the perpetrator had moved on to set up shop elsewhere. I don’t suppose he had much job satisfaction on the whole.  Thank goodness he only came once a year!

 Woodcock’s Well was a Church of England school and all the pupils received instruction in the contents of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The priest-in-charge at St. Luke’s came to enlighten us at intervals on the latter, but the Old Testament and the life of Jesus was part of the regular time- table.  The main teaching aid was a large folio of illustrations depicting scenes of the most exciting events in biblical history.  This was slung over the board and easel and we gazed at the exotic characters while hearing the stories from the teacher.  These pictures made an indelible impression – Joseph giving out the corn rations in Egypt, the infant Samuel looking like an advert for Pear’s soap, and best of all, the heavyweight champion Goliath, with magnificent black curls and beard and a fine set of white teeth bared in a mocking grin.  He could have eaten a plateful of school dentists for breakfast.  How I wish he had!  Every year an ecclesiastical gentleman from “head office” visited the school to conduct a verbal scripture exam.  We were well versed in the subject and knew all the answers, often responding in a unanimous chorus.  As a reward the rest of the day was a holiday.

 Mrs. Priestman and Mrs. Lawton were in charge of our education for four years in the junior school and they taught us a great deal more than the basic three R’s.  We learned something of early English history and also the geographical features of Great Britain.  I always thought that the forest of Rossendale must be a very romantic place.  Having lived on the edge of it for the past forty years I assure you it is not!  We recited poems and had books read aloud to us.  From Mrs. Priestman we heard “Alice in Wonderland” and the “Just-So” stories of Rudyard Kipling.  Mrs Lawton treated us to “Wind in the Willows” and books written by a chap who called himself Romany and lived in a caravan known as “The Vardo” somewhere near Alderley  I wonder if anyone remembers him.  We also did sewing and art, which made for a very full curriculum.

 At the age of eleven I was one of a handful of pupils who left to go to Grammar School at Macclesfield.  The majority remained at Woodcock’s for three more years, taught by Mr. Foster, Mrs. Dale and Mr. Lowry.  After that most entered the world of work.   It was not long afterwards that the school leaving age was raised to fifteen and Secondary Modern schools were introduced to provide a broader education and greater opportunities for the less academically inclined.  Schools like Woodcock’s now cater only for children up to the age of eleven, before they go on to secondary education.  I think it is important to remember that many of an older generation had to learn a lot in a short time and that old school on the hill gave them their only chance to do so.