The Schools of Walkern
An article by Cecil Beadle from the Feb and March 2005 issues of the Walkern Journal
The first school in the village, a church school opened in 1829. In earlier times the children of the wealthier parishioners were taught in the priest’s room at St Mary’s church. In the mid 18th Century John Smith was Schoolmaster and he was also ‘Overseer to the Poor’. With tipstaff in hand, he must have been a busy man at that time with so many of the villagers in ‘Poverty Street’. To add to these duties he was called to serve in the part time militia and served for several years.
In 1829 John Izzard Pryor bought Clay Hall and the estate (now known as Walkern Hall), only moving in during 1830 after extensive alterations. On arrival he had become friendly with the Revd Camper-Wright and while waiting to move in, they decided that with the help of the parishioners they would build a church school for all children to attend.
The school was built to the east of the church just off the lane and consisted of one rectangular room made mainly of clay, flint and straw, with a large tortoise stove for heating. There was also one earth closet for the boys, one for the girls and a tiny play area, although not big enough for games. This became the first Walkern School. Later a second room was added as numbers increased and more staff were required. Eva Savage a pupil at the school when 14 years old, took over as a teacher and stayed as a teacher at Walkern Schools until she retired receiving an award for her services to education.
Life was not easy at the old school it seems, some will remember Teddy Askew as a hard man and class photographs show sad faced kids probably the result of constant use of the cane, least that’s what my older brother told me! Fortunately I only started school on the first day that the new Council School opened on 15th June 1925 (more of my days at school later).
The old school remained as a Sunday school and was used as a Baby Clinic, Youth Club headquarters and many other functions including the sixpenny hops with Mr Lowe and his wind up Gramophone. I can recall him sometimes forgetting to wind it up and the dance became a quick quick SLOW!!!
The new school was built on part of the field known as Smithymeade, which got its name from the Blacksmith in the early days taking the crops as payment for work done over the year for the farmer.
The move from the old school to the new school saw senior boys with wheelbarrows, prams and soapbox trucks transporting books, chairs and other small items down the High Street, resembling human ants.
The new school consisted of a main block of three classrooms, two playgrounds (which although now tarmac were in the early days just gravel) and a small area between the school and Finches Farm used for gardening lessons. The rest of the field was used to house some 80 to 100 pigs.
Sliding partitions divided the classes and this allowed the three rooms to be made into one large room for concerts, dances or plays. The classes were quite crowded as there were some 120 children in attendance.
The playground had a dividing fence – boys north, girls south – and for a boy to be caught in the girls’ side he could expect to be caned. I always thought this silly as we mixed in class.
The toilet block at the bottom of the playground was modern for the times. As Walkern had no mains water or electricity, the Wrights factory opposite supplied both water and electricity to the school until the mains arrived.
The cupola on the top of the school is often thought to have housed a bell: this is not so, it is just an air vent. Some of the bricks are Walkern reds from the old brickfield, whereas the yellow stocks are from Arlesey. Both brickfields are long gone.
The classes were divided by standards 1 to 7A and when I arrived at the seniors the head, a Mr Holmes, was I am sure far more likely to use the cane than Teddy Askew at the old school. A hard man, at six foot three inches tall and with a yard long cane, Mr Holmes would position himself between the lights and with a vicious look on his face bring down the weapon with as much force as was possible leaving numb hands, I have to say I had my share.
It was not unusual as an alternative punishment to be sent into the girls sewing class to do knitting, which was very embarrassing, and fights in the playground were always sorted out by the rest of the class forming a ring around the combatants and, with boxing gloves fitted, there would be no surrender until the head decided so.
Mr Peate – who was the School Attendance Officer – with his plus four trousers and high stepping green bicycle, came every other day so unless the absence was genuine there was no way to dodge attending. He covered all the schools around the Watton area.
I decided one morning to spend three hours in Finches Farm orchard adjoining the school until going home at midday for lunch; it was the longest three hours of my life and the next day a visit to my home by Mr Peate added to my troubles.
One pupil – Joan Tilbury now living in Suffolk – was given an award of a ‘Laminated Scroll’ for perfect attendance for one year (not one day off) and on leaving the area gave it to me for my collection. Not many people achieved this and I certainly did not.
Another interesting fact is that whilst digging to fit the gates at the north end of the school a roman cinerary urn and decanter were found and are now in Letchworth Museum.