David Warwick recalls schooling in Wickham before the First World War when children were held back by low expectations and the requirements of farming

At the turn-of-the-century, in the early 1900s, my father attended school in Fareham, making the four-mile journey there and back in the evening by foot. So too in Wickham, children walking from Kingsmead, Mislingford, Turkey Island and Boarhunt, boots having to be provided from charity if this became necessary. The school itself had been erected in 1860, typical of this age having one long classroom with tall narrow windows. In the early days a lot of the teaching was done by the headteacher to all the pupils assembled before him on long wooden benches. There were also partitions enabling three groups to be taught separately by monitors – the last vestiges of an older system whereby brighter pupils stayed on as the first stage in the process of teacher-training. The only source of heating was an open fire and free-standing “tortoise” stoves, fuelled with coke which belched fumes, scorching the teacher at the front, warming goes in the first few rows but leaving the rest cold. A popular ruse was to fake ignorance in order to be brought forward under the teacher’s eye.

The curriculum consisted mainly of the “three Rs”, and I recall older inhabitants of the village telling me how more attention seemed to be paid to the appearance of what they wrote rather than the content. Ladies of my grandmother’s generation recalled the importance of sewing and needlework, often to specifications laid down by the governors to whom the results – hankies, tablecloths, etc. – would be donated. For the men it was the twice-weekly drill they remembered: marching, running, leg and arm exercises with the use of dumbbells. As this was a church school, Scripture - consisting of prayers, Bible stories and hymn singing - was of major importance. The whole school, consisting of 180 children, would be taken to the church across the road, on special occasions such as Good Friday, Ascension Day, Ash Wednesday, St Nicholas’ (after whom the church was named) and Breaking-up Days. Apart from this there were regular visits from rector and a yearly inspection by an Anglican minister. A banner was awarded to the most successful of the seventeen villages in our region, Wickham winning this on more than one occasion.

Lessons throughout the year would be punctuated by other visitors, the most unwelcome of whom was the attendance officer empowered to visit the children’s homes should they be absent without due reason. There were three main holidays, coinciding with the potato, strawberry and harvest seasons. Pupils were excused schooling on Fair Day and, in Victorian times, Empire day when they were provided with flags and marched down to the Square for a parade, communal tea and general festivities. The school managers, rector and others chosen from among the great and the good, would put in an occasional appearance, villagers of an older generation recalling how they were expected to stand still in the street if one of them passed by, the boys doffing their caps, the girls curtsying.

Another regular visitor was the school doctor, driving down from Winchester in his horse and trap accompanied by a nurse. A perennial cause of concern was head or body lice. Those affected would be would be sent home with a blue card excluding them from school for two weeks until cured. Dirty children were presented with a green card instructing their parents to clean them up within three days. A stock of second-hand shoes and clothing was kept for those requiring them.

All this may seem a draconian approach to what is supposed to be “the happiest days of our life”; not so according to the reminiscences of those who experienced it. Pensioners to whom I interviewed in the 1950s did so with a sense of nostalgia. One of them, aged 88, spoke for the vast majority of them:

There was much less discontent and trouble in my young days than there is today. I still write a clear hand and have a good head for figures. Above all, I can get enjoyment out of the simple country life and have no regrets. Everyone has their ups and downs and life is what you make of it.


For details of David Warwick’s novel Chorus Endings, set in post-war Meon Valley contact dww019@gmail.com