BY DAVID JENKINS
I'm a very old pupil of Church Street School which is now known as Charles Dickens School. I went there 67 years ago in the first week of May and I spent my whole school life in Church Street School starting from the infants. Church Street School was built in 1875 which makes the part which is still standing over one hundred years old - which is rather a long time for a school. You had one year or two in the infants, and when you first went you had toys to play with, sand to play with and all things like that, then they taught you your A.B.C. and tables: once one is one, two twos are four and so on; we used to chant them. Well, the first thing they did when we came to school as little children five years of age, the teacher gave us two needles and some wool and said we had to knit a little square. Most of us could do it really because we had brothers and sisters and they had already been taught. To me it was quite easy and in about five minutes I had done my little square and once you had done it ycu never had to do it again. So you carried on learning.
At about seven years of age the boys went up into what they called the "Big Boys" and the girls went into what they called the "Big Girls". When you went into the boys or the girls school you was segregated. At nine o'clock in the morning the boys went in one section and the girls went in their section (only the girls being stronger than boys, they had to go upstairs). So all the girls were upstairs and a11 the boys were downstairs. You had three playgrounds: the infants' playground, the girls' playground, which had a big wall right round it, and then the boys' playground, which was the same. So, when you went to school at nine o'clock in the morning and if you had a little sweetheart, you would say goodbye to her and you wouldn't see her no more until twelve o'clock. The same thing applied at dinner time: you went home, - (there was no such thing in those days as having dinners in schools, you all had to go home - whether you had any dinner or not, you had to go home), and so the boys and girls never saw one another all day. That seems rather strange today because they are all together, boys and girls.
In the old school the walls were always painted a very dark brown up to so high. And the ceilings were not like they are now; they went right up to a point with the roof so you can imagine how big the rooms looked where you could see right up to the rafters. Today the halls are plastered but in those days you could see the bare brickwork and they were always painted white above and dark brown underneath so as not to show the childrens dirty handmarks. In those days, in each room there was a big fireplace, you can see it still in the old school, and there was a big iron fire in there ... They used to light it in the winter but not until it got really cold did they light the fires. If you were good and you paid attention to your teachers and did what they told you, you were lucky because you had a seat in the front and you could see the fire burning up ... beautiful...with the flames going up the chimney. If you were naughty you had to go right up, the back and it was very, very cold up there, terribly cold, and so everybody used to try and be the best in the class so as they could get a front seat. If you were good the teacher would look round and he'd say to you, "You can go and put a bit of coal on the fire" and that was a great honour. In the old school they used to have gas lighting and the gas lamp used to hang down with what they called a mantle on it. Always on them you had a pilot light and it was always alight even though you could not see it. The caretaker used to come over when it was getting dark, say about 3.30 p.m., with a great long pole and he used to go around all the classrooms. On the pole was a hook and on the lamp was a chain that used to go up and down ... when you pulled one side down the gas lit up and when you pulled the other side down the gas went out.
In some of the classrooms you had platforms. As you went into the class you went up steps, then there were the rows of desks, then you went up another step and there were rows of desks and so on. Those up at the back were sitting right up high and the teacher could see everything that they did. You couldn't get away with anything at all, you couldn't fumble you had to keep still all the time. If you were naughty the teachers in the boys school - the masters, had two canes, big long canes. You've got to remember that the master was the king and what he said went and if you made a mistake he'd waggle his little finger and call you out. He had two canes, one was a thin one and one was a thicker one. Well if he wanted to really hurt you and make you cry he'd use the thin one, and they used to say that they soaked them in vinegar to make them more pliable so as to put more sting into it. So when you were naughty you had to come out and the teacher would say, "You'11 have two, one on each hand." So you had to hold out your hand. If you pulled it away quick he would say "Right, you'11 have another one" and so you had three right across the palm of the hand and with all the boys looking you dare not cry. If you cried or had tears come into your eyes you'd be a baby, and you never had to be a baby in those days at any cost because everybody was competing with each other.... You never had desks like today, you had desks with two sitting at each desk, you had no cupboard to put your books in only a ledge underneath and on the side the desks were made of iron and the wood was put on top with inkwells in. So what you would do the iron was so cold that when you had the cane you used to catch hold of the iron and the coldness of the iron used to make your hand feel better - it didn't really but it made you feel better.
Just in front of the school there used to be a little shop and they used to sell sweets and what they called Tiger Nuts - Tiger Nuts were very hard. They used to sell another thing called locusts - locusts was like a long bean and it was also very hard and brown coloured but it was beautiful to taste so when you had only a farthing to spend, that was what you used to buy.
Some of the children that went to school were very, very poor and some of them came to school in rags. No nice clothes, they would have a pair of shoes or boots on (they were not allowed to come into the school without boots or shoes on), but they came to school with boots or shoes with no soles on the bottom - all worn away and rough, and those children were so poor, and so were their parents, that they could not buy them any clothes. What used to happen in those days was that if you had a big family of brothers and sisters, the eldest one was lucky because they had anything new or good second hand. As your brother or sister got bigger, and you got bigger, those clothes used to be handed down, so the last one that had those clothes were really tattered because they had been worn so much. That is what used to go on.
Then again you had men who were working who had good jobs in the dockyard. The dockyard was the biggest industry in Portsmouth and thousands of men worked in there and they were getting a good wage so their children were better dressed, they had better shoes, everything better, they had better food because their fathers were working.
Then, of course, they formed what they called a Brotherhood: men came out of the services, - the army and the navy - and they formed the Brotherhood and tried to look after poor people. They came out with a scheme, where, if a boy or a girl went to school and they had no boots the mother used to go to the Brotherhood and she had to prove that they were absolutely down and out and had no money, you would get a new pair of boots. The unfortunate thing about these boots were that when you put these boots on they buttoned up at the side, and it was the same with the girls and the boys boots. So if anyone saw you walking around with these boots on they would say "Ah, Brotherhood boots!"...and it would make the owners feel very small because they did not like the other boys talking about their boots because they knew that their parents could not afford anything better. As time went on things got better.
They have got handbasins out in the toilets or cloakrooms now but then you had nothing like that because all you had was one big old iron bowl. There wasn't much hygiene taught in those days and in those times there were a lot of diseases about like scarlet fever and diptheria and T.B. If you got Scarlet Fever they would take you away to the hospital and you would stay there for six weeks because you would come out with pimples and blisters all over your body, but since then all that is wiped out and you don't get things like that now: most diseases were caught by the children because they were not in very good shape owing to the fact that they did not eat the right kind of food and were therefore unhealthy anyway. Vaccinations came in about 1920 and this prevented a lot of the diseases like smallpox.
People had big sized families ... if somebody only had about three or four children that was a small family, but they had six, seven, eight or nine children to some families .. now you just imagine living in a little tiny house. Your mother and father had one bedroom and you had the other bedroom ... they used to have one great big bed and this bed filled the whole of the room up. All of the chi1dren instead of you lying in your bed from top to bottom you all laid longwise the other way ... and then at night if you were on the end you were unlucky because the other end were pulling the clothes off you all the time ... you were playing the tug of war nearly all night trying to get warm. Boys and girls all used to sleep together right up to the age of about eleven or twelve so when you got to about twelve, mother used to make a bed down in the front room so all the boys used to go down in the front room. This was a little tiny room and to some people their front room was untouchable - they always kept the front room for special occasions and nobody was allowed to go into that room. They would have a bit of furniture, a nice chair and perhaps what they called a sofa and they would have a gramophone on a stand. In those days you had no radios, no television and the only thing that you had for children and adults were cinemas.
All the time it was daylight you were not indoors, you were always in the street, it was not like it is today with big wide roads and traffic but there were all little side streets where you could play all sorts of games, you had no fear of getting knocked over. You never rea11y sat down to a tea because the real meal was always on Sundays. That was a special day, and mother always cooked a lovely dinner and so you all sat round the table on Sunday. It was a bit of a squeeze in a tiny room when there was about nine of you with your mother and father and that was the only day that you sat to the table. Other days you would never have a cooked dinner, all you would have is a sandwich and you would take that out in the street and eat it while you were playing with your friends and that's how you carried on. Or mother would go to the butchers on the corner and would buy tuppence worth of cuttings, and make a soup of that. You would have a plate of soup with a piece of bread and you would gobble that down and you might sit up to the table with that but you never had that every day. At teatime when you went home at 4pm. you would probably run indoors about four or five times and get a slice of bread and then run out in the street again. You would only have a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter: most times it was margarine because you could not afford butter...I am only talking about the poor class of people but you would get people who had a better living coming in they lived under different conditions because they could afford it their mothers and fathers could afford to buy better things.
Published by kind permission of the WEA Local History Group. Copyright is retained by the WEA and the author. Originally published in 1980.