Memoirs of a 1950s schoolboy
I was at the Downs County Primary School (formerly Ditchling Road Council School) from, I believe, 1954 until 1960. The reason for the doubt about my start date is that I was born with a severe leg disability – bilateral talipes, or clubfeet – which through the wonder of surgery was totally cured eventually but which left me unable to walk properly until I was five years old. As a result, at a time when the normal starting age for infants’ school was four, I did not start till I was at least five. I also know that I was ‘jumped’ a year in the infants to catch up with my own age group, which I did before being elevated to the juniors.
Severe ladies and cod liver oil
The headmistress of the infants’ school throughout that time was a Miss Steers, a grey-haired and quite stern-looking lady. (Indeed, a large proportion of the teachers at the Downs, both infants’ and juniors’, seemed to be middle-aged unmarried ladies, and many of them appeared quite severe to this youngster.) The caretaker was a Mr Durrant, who lived in the caretaker’s house on the corner of Ditchling and Grantham Roads. The only other things I recall clearly from the infants are the compulsory cod liver oil capsules that we were all obliged to take daily – this being only a year or two past the end of rationing, and malnutrition being still quite common. A contrast indeed to today’s tendency towards obesity in young children. I also remember the obligatory post-prandial lie-down in the school hall on camp-beds. I recall that I never once slept, but just lay itching for lessons to restart.
Moving to the junior school
At seven I moved up to the adjacent junior school. In those days the infant and junior schools lay totally within the rectangle formed by Ditchling, Rugby and Grantham Roads and Edburton Avenue, apart from the small annexe across the road in Florence Place. The site now occupied by the newer building across and along Ditchling Road, was then still a small run-down industrial area. (Incredibly the annexe is, I believe, still in use today by the school, with the same wooden buildings.)
Magical mental arithmetic
I have clearer memories of the juniors school. I recall a change of headmaster; the retiring gentleman was a Mr Emmons, and his replacement was a Mr Morgan whose party trick was complex mental arithmetic. He impressed us pupils by being able to multiply together, immediately and effortlessly, extremely large numbers. I also recall a Mr Taylor, a very tall man who took the second year juniors in the Florence Place annexe, and, I believe, a Miss Beeston who took the third year.
The ordeal of country dancing
My time in the juniors was not all sweetness and light. I recall that my fourth year teacher, a Miss Cox, took an irrational and unjustified dislike to me and frequently threatened me with physical chastisement, never actually carried out although certainly within the remit of teachers in those days. There was also the ordeal of the weekly country-dancing period, in which we boys had not only to dance reels and polkas barefoot, but also to perform this ‘cissy’ exercise in physical contact with – ugh! – girls, to the music provided by a wind-up gramophone and 78rpm records. I still cringe slightly at the sound of Jimmy Shand!
The sporting life
I also recall football and cricket periods, for which we all marched in pairs on Wednesday afternoons down Rugby Road and Stanford Avenue to Preston Park in the care of a Mr Phillips. I detested cricket, preferring rounders, which we played very occasionally, but quite enjoyed soccer, which was hard for me because I was one of the minority of boys whose parents could not, or would not, provide them with football boots. We bootless individuals were rather callously left on a side pitch, unsupervised, to get on with it, while those with boots took part in supervised matches.
Each day at playtime, however, I was pleased to take part in the impromptu playground football games in which thirty, forty or more boys hacked an old ball around the lower playground with great enthusiasm and little finesse. The wartime air-raid shelters were still present in both playgrounds but blocked off with heavy concrete slabs; we would delight in climbing on these and jumping off, to the dismay of the duty teachers who were responsible for preventing us from injuring ourselves.
Academia and sweet dreams
I have no memories of the academic side other than learning the Marion Richardson style of loopless joined-up writing, and the ritual reciting of multiplication tables, up to twelve times twelve – no doubt thought necessary for manipulating shillings and pence in those days. However, I must have fared reasonably well in this respect, as I passed the Eleven Plus and moved on to Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School in the summer of 1960.
Memories of the sweet shop
Another memory is of the elderly couple who ran a sweetshop from what was effectively the front room of their house, a couple of doors along from the pub on the corner of Florence Place. In those days I was given one (old) penny a day for sweets after school, and it’s surprising to recall how much you could buy for a penny, or better still for tuppence if you saved your money up for two days. My personal favourite was the sherbet fountain, with the licorice ‘straw’ up which you sucked the said powder, and how it got up into your nasal passages and made you sneeze. Ah, simple pleasures!
Champions at chess
Probably my fondest memory of the juniors’ is of the primary schools’ chess competition which we entered during my final summer term. I had just taught myself to play the game from a library book, using a cardboard chess set which I made myself, and after playing just four games with classmates was selected to play at board five of six. We went to the Knoll School one Saturday afternoon and duly won the competition by a large margin against, I believe, five other schools. The school was presented with a magnificent chess set, and each player received five shillings, a small fortune to me in those days.
Where are you now?
I recall the names of some of my classmates, and can see many more of their faces clearly in my mind. The names include Edwin Jenner; Margaret Carpenter; Margaret May; John Young; Christopher Mason; Andrew Wakeford; Ivor Edwards; Rosemary Payne; Jane, whose surname escapes me but who lived on Rose Hill; Francis Ward; Brian Reeve; David Yates; David Kydd; and probably my closest friend, David Marum, who lived along Roundhill Street and was even at the tender age of ten a keen St John’s First Aider. If my name rings any bells with any pupils of the Downs in the second half of the 1950s, I’d be delighted to hear from them on firstname.lastname@example.org.