Working Lives

A Career in Primary Schools (1940s-1990s)

Location: Norwich

Rowena always wanted to be a teacher and trained and worked in Norwich as a primary school teacher.

What were you thinking about as a future career when you were about to leave school?

I always wanted to be a teacher and I just went straight for it! I stayed on at school till I was 18. You had to pass in 5 subjects in what was called the School Certificate, and if you were successful then you could apply to College.

I wasn’t living in Norwich then, and I applied to Norwich because it was the start of the War and we felt it would be wise to be nearer home under the circumstances.

Did you have the full support of your parents in going to College rather than working and earning a living?

Oh yes, they were very keen.

We had to live at the College. There were student hostels.

I enjoyed it. The course was two years. I made many friends and kept in contact with quite a few, though many of them are dead now.

Can you tell us something about how you were feeling when you became a teacher and first walked into that classroom?

It was 1941 during the War and it was the practising school attached to the College. They used the children for sort of demonstration lessons. But then the College was bombed, so we had to get other jobs elsewhere. I was sent to Larkman Lane, which was a Primary School. I trained specifically for Infants. The children loved to carry their gas masks to school every day. The masks were in a cardboard box and were hung on the backs of their chairs during lessons.

Can you tell me something about life as a Primary School teacher during that time?

Well, of course, all the fathers were away in the War, so the mothers were left alone with the children. Families were very big in those days. There was no pill, for instance, and there would be quite often 6 children in a family and no Children’s Allowances, so it was very tough for mothers with their husbands away, bringing up children on their own, and some of them were quite young.

So what age did they arrive at school?

There was a Nursery School at Larkman, and I think they went at 3 there but they didn’t all go. There wasn’t room for them all, so mostly they started at 4 to 5. Lessons began at nine o’clock and finished at about quarter past three.

Can you give us some idea of the nature of the lessons you would be giving the children in those days?

It was very difficult because the Air Raid siren would continually be going and we would have to take the children to the underground Air Raid Shelters, which were under the school field, like big trenches dug under the field and they had to go down steps to them, and we could be down there two or three hours sometimes. It was very difficult. We sang and we clapped and we chanted times tables.

So was it more entertaining the children and reassuring them than teaching them?

Yes, well you had to keep them occupied and keep their minds off wanting to go to the toilet, for instance! There was a bucket at one end of the trench with a sack over the entrance, but you tried to keep their minds off it because once one wanted to go they all wanted to go!

And how many would be in your class?

Forty. And at the beginning of the time there was no electricity and no heating, so we were all in the dark down there. But later they did get electricity and heating. The children were very brave. They really were wonderful. They just put up with it. They thought it was part of life, you see. They’d never known anything else.

And did you have refreshments down there?

No. And it went on after school. The mothers would come for them, some of them, not all of them would come for them. .. you had to stop there until every child had been collected. And if they were hungry, they had to be hungry. Well, there was the milk .. .. Somebody would probably go up and get the milk bottles. They had a third of a bottle of milk every morning. Very difficult times.

How did the school change once the War had ended and how long did it take for life to get back to some kind of normality?

Fairly quickly actually. You see once they stopped having bombing – if there was an air raid at night after 12 o’clock, school didn’t open till 10 and many children did not turn up at all.

So when the War finished was the school still in one piece?

They did have one bomb on the school, but quite a small bomb. It wasn’t one of those huge ones they had at the end of the War, and I think a couple of classrooms were destroyed, but they built those up fairly quickly.

How many classes were there at your school?

I can’t really remember. The Infant part there would be about 8 classes. They left the Infant Section at seven, and they went to the Junior Section from seven till eleven.

How long did you stay with the Larkman? And were they happy times in spite of the difficult years?

Six years.

Oh yes. You see families had just been taken from their homes in the slums of Norwich and sent out to this new housing estate. Because Norwich was very good at clearing the slums between the Wars They ringed the whole city with new council housing estates. Round the Station and King Street and all there, they cleared the slums from there and sent the people up to Larkman.

And were the parents moved out of the slums because they were poor? So that the majority of your children were in difficult circumstances? & how did that affect your input into them as a teacher?

Yes. Well, they were naturally more retarded than children from homes where there were plenty of books and where they had been read to. Some of these children had no books in their homes at all and parents didn’t read to them.

You must have had a great sense of achievement by the time they were seven.

Oh yes, if you could get them to read by seven it was wonderful!

Have you ever met up with children from that time?

Oh yes, sometimes I do, yes.

So what happened to make you leave the Larkman? Was there a promotion or what happened?

No, I decided that six years was enough in my first position, so I left and thought I would come a bit nearer home.

So where was your next school?

On the Catton Grove Estate which was only one step . .. . (laughs)

So was that in any way different? Had things changed at all?

It wasn’t very much different from Larkman, no. It was a smaller estate.

And how long were you with them?

Oh . . . can’t remember. . . four or five years, I think.

So you moved again to another school?

Yes, to a school in a much more affluent area. I’d had quite a long time with deprived children, and I thought I’d try a different type of child, so I went to St William’s Way when it first opened in Thorpe.

About how old would you have been then?

In my thirties, I should think.

And you were Miss C., so you never got married? Was that a decision you made or just circumstances?

Well, it was just circumstances. Actually I was very friendly with an American and I was going to marry him. And he said “Well I’ll go back and get demobbed and then I’ll come back for you”. And he went back to get demobbed, but he got rheumatoid arthritis and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. I went out to see him. You see, I couldn’t teach out there. I would have had to retrain. They didn’t recognise our qualification. And it would have cost about £8,000 for me to have retrained. But I kept in touch with him until he died at the age of 50.

So, after the move to St William’s Way, did you stay long term with them or did you move again?

I moved again to get a Headship – after about 4 years, I think.

How difficult was it to progress to being a Headmistress?

Well, the first job I had was at Philadelphia Lane where I had to teach part-time as well as being a Head, which was a very hard job, because you’re responsible for a class as well as being the Head and doing all the clerical work. I didn’t have any help.

You didn’t have a secretary?

Not in those days, no.

Which was the next school after Philadelphia where you got your Headship?

I think it was . . . North Park Avenue.

We’re now up to the 1960s are we? Where were you living?

My brother and I with some help from our parents had this house built, the one we’re in today in Norwich.

From that school where did you progress to?

Woodside School on Heartsease Estate. It was a brand new school.

What age did you decide to retire?

Fifty-nine. I took early retirement. If you gave your job up for somebody else they enhanced your pension. I just thought I might as well have my pension enhanced and retire . . .(laughs) That was Woodside I retired from.

And in retirement, had you got any particular things you wanted to do, to spend your time?

I seem to have spent my time very happily, though I didn’t do anything very much.

Did you travel?

Oh yes, I travelled a lot. I went to Italy. We had a flat in Italy in Amalfi, a friend and I hired it, and it was a flat in a villa belonging to a Russian. He came out during the Revolution, a very old man. We had about 14 holidays there. Got to know the coast well, and all the people in Amalfi. I think in the end we kissed nearly half the population when we came!

I went to Tunisia as well, and we went to Switzerland and France and Germany and Denmark and Holland, and most of the continental countries. And also to America, of course.

And did you travel alone when you did a lot of this?

No, I had a friend come with me most of the time and also my brother. We flew back in the days when flying was quite arduous, before the days of jet planes.

Any other hobbies or interests that have kept you so alert?

I just had plenty of friends and we used to go out; we still do.

Would you say that is the recipe of keeping so well and mentally agile?

Oh yes, I think plenty of things to do and reading a lot and keeping up with the News and things like that.

Can you talk a little bit about the changes you’ve seen in day to day life, the cost of living for instance and concerns people have now compared with the concerns you had in your younger time?

Well, when I first started teaching parents had a terrible job clothing children, especially shoes. And the teachers paid every month a certain sum of money into the children’s boot and shoe club, and they bought shoes for children who had no shoes to come to school in.

I remember one little girl said “I’m going to have a new pair of shoes. Ooh good, my aunty has already pinched one and she’s going to pinch the other one when she comes!” (laughs)

(Aunty worked in a shoe factory!)

And what about the cost of food, and the choice of food?

Oh tremendous choice now compared with what there was then. You see, there was rationing for quite a number of years. You had the basics which were rationed, the meat was rationed. You only had a piece of meat about the size of a playing card for a whole week’s ration. They said people were fitter in wartime than they were before. I think probably the rations were more than some people could afford. And the men in the army they’d never been so well off. They had an allowance, you see, for wives and children, and they earned much better money than they earned before.

Can you remember what your salary was when you first went into teaching?

£20 a month, I think. You see, I really had to live at home because lodgings, you just couldn’t manage on the money you had to pay out for lodgings; salary wouldn’t cover it. Several of my friends still had to have money from home to cover their lodgings if they couldn’t get a job from home.

You were able as time progressed to save up enough to have this house built. Can you remember what the cost of the land was?

We bought the land a long time before we had the house built. We used to come up and see this land on a Sunday (laughs). We were going to have a bungalow, but we weren’t allowed to. We had to build two houses on this size land – that was what the Authorities said. So we had our house built and just sold the land next door.

Was it usual for a teacher to own their own property?

Well, it depended. You see, when some of the men came back they had two or three children and they couldn’t afford it, so they had to rent.

Did you have to pay cash for your land and then employ the builders?

Yes, we employed a local builder. The outside walls are a foot thick. Nice and snug and warm in winter, and cool in summer. With indoor facilities. Not like the outdoor toilet we had in the village, in Somerleyton, when I was a child

How old were your parents when you lost them?

My father was 84 and mother was 91.

Is there anything else you would like to just add before we close?

Just to say how very different teaching was at the beginning from what it was when I finished. We had much more help in the school. We had Welfare Assistants who looked after the children if they had any problems. I mean, some children couldn’t cope in the toilet and they looked after them in that way. At lunchtime they looked after them so that we could have time off for lunch ourselves.

Have you been into any schools since you retired? Have you an opinion about how life in schools is now compared with when you left?

Well, when I was about 70, about fifteen years ago I suppose, somebody asked me if I would go and do some supply teaching. “Oh”, I said, “I haven’t been in a school. . . I couldn’t possibly” “Oh yes you could,” she said, “of course you could. It’s only for a few days. But we’re desperate, absolutely desperate. And you know what it’s like to be desperate when there’s nobody to come and take the children”. So in the end I reluctantly agreed. And I went to Spixworth School. And it was lovely. I enjoyed it very much. I called the register and there was a little girl called Rowena. And I said “Oooh, I haven’t met anybody else called Rowena before. That’s my name.” So they said “Can we call you Rowena?” I said “No, I think it’s better if you call me Miss C.” But they didn’t take any notice. They still called me Rowena! (laughs) So when there was somebody away again, the teachers said “we’ll have to get somebody to come in”. They said “Ask Rowena”!! (laughs)

Rowena (1921-2012) talking to WISEArchive on 11th August 2008 in Norwich.

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