Wartime at Woodcocks' Well
I started full time education at Woodcocks' Well School in 1937, and had been attending for 2 years when war was declared. I have some clear memories of how we were affected by the potentially serious situation which seemed possible at that time.
For several months at the beginning of the war every child walked to school carrying a cardboard box slung over the shoulder on a piece of string. The lid was embossed with large letters indicating that it was the TOP, and inside was a black rubber gas mask with a bright green ‘nose’ together with a postcard bearing the owner’s name and address. The entire population had been issued with the masks and instructed to carry them at all times.
In the classroom we had daily training sessions to ensure that we could put them on properly. The chin had to go in first, then the straps pulled over the head. We then had to breathe in and hold the postcard on the end of the ‘nose’ to check that all was in working order. With a little practice it was possible to produce curious vibrating effects- something that we quickly discovered, and used to full advantage. The spectacle of rows of small children sitting at their desks wearing gas masks and making rude noises must have been rather comical.
The cardboard boxes were not very practical especially if it rained, and it was not long before some enterprising manufacturers produced canvas covers for them with a proper shoulder strap instead of string. My mother, to whom thrift was second nature, made one for me out of an old coat, fastened with a large button and button-hole instead of the business-like buckle and strap on the shop bought versions. It was quite serviceable, but I felt conspicuous and was relieved when shortly afterwards the threat of a gas attack receded. The masks were consigned to the back of the wardrobe, and the ‘old coat’ gasmask case became a peg bag which remained in use for many years.
The next thing I remember was spending long periods out of the classroom in the air-raid shelters that had been erected right next to the school. The headmaster, Mr. Lowry, was an air-raid warden and responsible for supervising the evacuation of all his pupils to safety in the event of an attack. He would put on his tin hat, blow a whistle, and we all ran outside, assembled in the yard, then proceeded directly into the shelters. Our teacher, Mrs. Priestman, called the register then we settled down while she read stories to us with the aid of a torch. There were groans of disappointment when the signal came for us to return to the classroom as the story had invariably reached a crucial point. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that our school would have been targeted and we only ever went into the air-raid shelters for ‘practice’.
The nearest city to be bombed was Manchester, and children from there were evacuated for safety. Two groups were billeted with us. The first small contingent came from a Roman Catholic school in Ardwick. Special arrangements were made for them to attend church and school in Alsager.
The second much larger group were from Stretford, and all of them attended Woodcock Wells school. This had profound effects on our schooling for what seemed to be a considerable length of time. I recall arriving for school one morning to be ushered into a packed classroom full of evacuees 3 or 4 to a desk, and being shouted at by a complete stranger. I think his name was Mr. Lloyd – he was one of the evacuee teachers and clearly at the end of his tether. Everything was in absolute chaos and it was obvious that our school was too small to accommodate so many extra children
It was decided that part-time education was the only solution. Half of the pupils were to attend in the mornings and the other half in the afternoons. The sessions were swapped over at intervals. My memory of how long this continued is rather hazy, but I know that it was most unsatisfactory. Morning school followed by a half holiday every day was quite acceptable but the other arrangement was simply a non-starter. Nobody wanted to stop whatever they were doing- usually playing out somewhere- to go to school in the afternoon. I don’t think I went at all for weeks at a time. There were unfamiliar teachers and we didn’t seem to be learning anything.
Eventually a degree of normality was restored. A small room was converted into a classroom and I spent several months in a class with a young evacuee teacher. I think she was called Miss Dale and we all liked her very much. The following year was not without difficulty. Another evacuee teacher, Mrs. Cotton, was in charge of our class. She was a good teacher but not as sweet tempered as Miss Dale – hardly surprising as her working conditions were impossible. Two classes, back to back in one classroom, were divided by a blackout curtain. There must have been a high level of tolerance and co-operation between the teachers concerned. If there wasn’t we certainly didn’t know about it although we were constantly aware of what was going on behind the curtain. I remember that for a time my handwriting became so small that nobody could read it. An educational psychologist would no doubt have found this very significant but I don’t think there were many of them around at that time. Therapy consisted of a few short sharp words from Mrs. Cotton – and it worked! Perhaps there is a lesson there somewhere.
When most of the evacuee children went home we lost some of our friends but had the school to ourselves again. After the pressure we had been under it seemed like heaven, and I expect the Stretford children were glad to be back on familiar ground. It is worth mentioning that one of them, Joe Agnew, stayed on and became a valued member of the local community.