Thornhill Road School: my first day in 1949

My first day in infant school in 1949 wasn’t the best. I wasn’t used to being bullied by adults. My two older brothers had told me horror stories in our shared bedroom.

You have to obey orders straight away… if you don’t – well you might be lucky to only get the cane. All teachers bark orders, as if they’re on a parade ground.”

Mum had explained the LCC (London County Council) had said all five year old children had to go to school. If I didn’t the school would tell ‘The School Board Man’ who’d be very disappointed and could charge her and Dad with breaking the law. She could even be sent to prison, if I didn’t go! She said I should go to school like my older brothers, and be a big boy. I really didn’t want to! She patiently explained, there’s no choice. In my childish way I tried to dissuade Mum from the idea but she was adamant – I had to go. Outside the gates of Thornhill Road School, that Monday morning, I made my last plea, Please Mum, please will you go to prison for me.” She smiled and I was going into the school.

Inside it was big. Bigger than any house I had ever been in and cold with green and brown tiled walls. I got to a hall with loads of other kids in it. We were told to sit on the floor with our legs crossed in front of us. I don’t think I was paying attention to what the Head-Teacher was saying as, in my mind, I was at home, listening to the light programme on the wireless. Back in the hall the droning voice fell silent. We all stood up and me and bunch of others were led by a teacher up concrete stairs, with the same green and brown wall tiles. We climbed two levels. I was lost. I remember the very long corridor with a fancy wooden floor and the classroom. We entered. It seemed enormous with high ceiling and big windows with wire over them.

I was told to sit at a double desk with a girl. Apart from my Mum I’d no understanding of girls. They were clearly frightening and beyond comprehension. The two desks (I had never seen one before) was a wooden plank seat across some iron framework, with wooden boxes in front. Each box had a lid hinged at the back, so the lid stood upright. The seat lifted for us to get into the desk. That’s when I and the girl next to me got told off, for letting the seat down with such a bang. It was a loud clang and made me jump. The teacher wanted to make an example of us both for making such a noise in her class. Her shouting was at a level that I felt my bladder threatening to leak wee into my trousers. She was a terrifying sight. But for the fact that there was a girl next to me and there were a good number of other girls in the classroom I felt sure I’d have wet myself.

That first day, started with the teacher shouting each child’s name and we replied, “Present Miss” and she’d mark her register. I can’t remember any of the lessons that day I was too busy trying to understand what was happening. It was an alien world where nothing made any sense.

It’s only now as an adult that I can describe that day as dystopian and truly horrendous for a five-year old boy.


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