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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Reading and 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic

     My mother had eight years of schooling, from the ages of 6 to 13, which would cover the years 1915 to 1922. Of the older children, only Alf went on to high school, because he was "brilliant", and then to law school. (He was actually the dux of New South Wales; I have seen the newspaper reports.) So did Hilda, the youngest, and Doug, the second youngest, but only for 18 months. Since the nearest one was in Wagga Wagga, they were forced to board with relatives in town. Obviously, by the late 1930s/early '40s it was becoming more in vogue, but in the early days it was exceptional. In those days, high school was only for the affluent few, nor was it considered necessary. At age 14, a boy was expected to go out and find work. TAFEs did not exist, but the school leaver might take an apprenticeship, gaining training while earning a little money.  And, of course, if he lived on a farm, he worked for his father. Australian schoolchildren assume that the long holidays in December and January is because of Christmas, but their fellows in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy similar "summer holidays" in mid-year. It was originally all about getting the sons home to work on the harvest. Even when my Uncle Alf returned from high school, he was given just one day's relaxation before being consigned to farm work. According to some informants, this was generous.
     Malebo School, according to my mother's recollections, was situated about 6 miles (9-10 km) from her home, and 8 miles (13 km) from Wagga Wagga itself. Its single classroom, along with the adjoining teacher's cottage, was constructed in 1883, the year my grandmother was born, although the lessons had been provided in a tent for more than a year beforehand. The enclosed photograph, along with the one further down this post, was copied from a 95-page booklet entitled, Malebo Memories, back to Malebo celebration 1997, edited by Phil Sheather and Patricia Galloway. To quote from the publication:
The first permanent school opened with 24 children and by 1920 there were 33 enrolled. In those first 40 years, the enrolment was never more than 40 children.
Getting There
     How do children get to a school six miles away? Well, in those days there were no school buses, and farmers and their wives ran no children's taxi service. The only recourse was the horse. Sending a six-year-old child six miles to school all alone? Well, by that age they were all expert riders. Just the same, Jack, the first-born was held back a year. His parents were reticent about sending him off until the second son, Alf was also old enough to go. They rode off together, presumably bare-backed in tandem on the one horse. Even so, an older boy from a neighbouring farm was asked to accompany them the first year. The following year, my mother joined them. Two years later, when offspring no. 4, Olga came of age, that it was decided to purchase a sulky.
     The family now possessed two sulkies: a good one for the parents, with good rubber tyres, and a lesser one for the school children equipped with steel rimmed wheels. Despite what you might think, this did not lead to an excessively bumpy ride. However, over time the metal would expand, and become loose, at which stage the wheel would be soaked in water as a short-term fix. That allowed the wood to expand to fit the metal, until such time as the wheelwright could tighten it by removing a strip. Also, the boys had the responsibility of applying axle grease to the hubs.
     At the same time as the sulky was acquired, so was Darkie, a half-draught horse, with a glossy black tail. Like all the horses appointed for the children, he was quiet and slow. He took a good hour to reach Malebo, so I presume the horse's pace was simply double that of a sprightly adult. Eventually, as many as five children were squashed into that sulky, like sardines. It could get awfully boring on that twice-a-day ride. The boys often rode on the back of the sulky, although they were not supposed to, holding on to the back of the seat, while their feet rested on the spring. At times, they would cling firmly spread-eagled to the wheel, and allow themselves to whirl them in a complete circle. (I don't suppose they told Mum and Dad about that.) A simpler passtime was the game of counting white horses, the aim being to see who could first catch sight of a white horse in the distance. But if a pied horse appeared it meant disaster: their white horse tally would be reset at zero, and they would need to start again. Meanwhile, as she grew older, my mother developed the habit - which I've also acquired - of reading everything she could lay her hands on. She read while driving the sulky. The girls were provided with veils to protect their skins from the sun, and were told not to read in the sun, as it would damage their eyes (a myth I also grew up with). So she read the books under her veil. When her younger siblings, Olga and Halley complained that it was her job to guide the horse, she tied the reins around her foot, and kept on reading.
     And while we are on the subject of reading, you may ask where the books came from in the country. When I lived in the country for a short time in the period 1957-8, a mobile library called the "Bookmobile" used to do the circuits of the schoosl every week. In Mum's day, the visit was once a month, and she would take two books home over the weekend to ensure that she had enough. To ensure a sufficient variety, the teachers would send away for certain books. And, of course, when she got older, she would visit the library whenever she was in town. Her all-time favourite novel was The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne, which she and her sister, Olga read over and over again while lying in their room - a story I often heard, and which inspired me to read it myself. (I would highly recommend it.)
     In those days, there were no school uniforms; they went dressed in regular, everyday clothes. Even in winter, the boys wore short pants, but with long socks. But in winter it was terribly, terribly cold. They donned their heaviest coats, and packed themselves into the sulky under heavy horse rugs.  Entering school, they would hang their coats up in the lobby, ashamed at all the rain water dripping onto the floor. Their clothes were always frozen.
     The school and its playground amounted to about two acres, or a bit less than a hectare, but attached to it was a 28-acre (11 ha) paddock for the horses. Some of the children let their horses run loose, but that would mean catching and harnessing them again at the end of the day. The Dennises preferred to tie them up under the pine trees, with the sulkies. It must have been pretty boring for the horses. "What did they eat?" I asked. "Horses don't have to eat," replied my mother. "You wait till they get home." Apparently, however, here was a "dam" or two to provide water, but who watered the horses, and cleaned up after them, was something I neglected to ask.

 Fun and Games
     So, what did they do for fun during recess? Essentially, what schoolchildren have been doing during recess since time began. There were some currajong trees on the grounds. They used to come in useful as forage for the horses during drought years. They also came in useful as playthings, because some of the branches were just low enough for the children to grasp and swing on them.
     There was hopscotch: the familiar game of hopping around squares, except that they added a variation of kicking objects, such as stones. It was not popular with the parents, as it tended to wear out the shoes faster than they would be grown out of.
     They used to play rounders. For any Americans reading this blog (I should be so lucky!), rounders is an English game very similar to baseball. The major difference is that the fielder who catches the ball throws it at a moving target - the runner - instead of the catcher. It is a children's game in Australia, and baseball has never caught on here.
     But the game referred to most often by Mum was "Sheep, sheep, come home", which must be a perennial school favourite. My generation called it "Red Rover"; yours may give it a different name. One of its advantages lies in the fact that there are no teams, and no size limits; in a small school like Malebo it would be possible for every pupil to join in. No only that, but individuals could join or depart as the whim took them. They would assemble together into two lines of roughly equal size, spaced an arbitrary distance apart, except for one standing in the middle. He/she was the "wolf". When all was ready, the wolf would shout: "Sheep, sheep, come home! The wolf's away, and won't be back for seven years." (In my day, it was the much simpler, "Come over, Red Rover!") That was the signal for both lines to dash helter-skelter across the field to the opposite side, while the wolf attempted to seize anybody who passed. Whoever was thus captured, joined the pack of wolves, dedicated to catching someone else on the next run. Pretty soon, the wolves would outnumber the sheep. Eventually only a single sheep would be left to run the gauntlet of a whole school of wolves. And, as often as not, that sheep was Margaret Dennis, who was very fast, and very cunning, adept at veering away from the hands of the catchers at the last minute.

     Before school,  they would be lined up on parade outside. "Show hands!" cried the teacher. "Clean hands, clean handkerchiefs." Perhaps they sang, "God Save the King".
     You notice I said, "teacher", not "teachers". There were, after all, only 20 to 40 pupils to manage. Readers in remote rural areas will not be surprised, but I can hear a number of city slickers crying, "How can a single teacher manage an entire school?" Well, I attended one such school in the years 1957-58, and the answer is: with a lot of juggling. Sometimes he would give a lesson to two classes at once, and after teaching a lesson to one class, he would give them sums, or some other exercise to do, and then move on to teaching another. Of course, that meant pupils could finish their work early and listen in on the higher classes' lessons, if they were clever - and, of course, the Dennises were. (Mum recalls how, when one new nephew or niece was expected, or had just arrived, some relation said, "Wouldn't it be awful if they were just ordinary!" No danger of that!)
     I'm afraid I neglected to ask Mum about her lessons. I must have just assumed that they were basically similar to what I experienced - and I am sure they were. Having started school in 1955, I am more a child of the school environment of 1905 than of the era of computers and calculators. For a start, modern children will find it absolutely incredible that, when my parents and I started school, we wrote on stone! I am not kidding. It was a flat slab of slate called, appropriately, a "slate", encased in a wooden frame. We would scratch our lessons on the slate with a pencil made of soapstone or pressed clay, and then wipe out the marks with a soft cloth.
     By now several generations of parents have been reading A. A. Milne's book, Now We Are Six to their children. When they come to the poem, "Twice Times", there is a drawing of the "Bad Bear" jumping up and down on something he has broken. I wonder how many modern children know what it is. I wonder how many of their mothers know. It is not a picture; it is his school slate.
     From slates, they graduated to pencil and paper. From pencils, they went to nibbed pens. For this, you need a container of ink called an "inkwell", which fitted into a hole in the front of every school desk. Or else, they could bring their own bottle of ink to school. Girls who wore their hair in long plaits ran the risk of having their tips dipped in the ink of the naughty boy in the seat behind. Or so I've been told; I never saw it happen in my school. But to continue: to use a nibbed pen, it is necessary to dip the nib into the well just far enough to pick up sufficient ink for writing purposes. A larger drop of ink will end up smudging the page, and most children's pages were pretty well smudged before they fully acquired the skill.
     I don't know whether Mum graduated to fountain pens while she was at school. I certainly did. But, in either case, the result was the same: a page covered in wet ink. To dry it, a special paper called "blotting paper" or a "blotter" was used: a sheet of very porous paper which would soak up the surplus ink if you pressed it gently on the wet page. Press it too hard or at the wrong angle, and the ink would smudge. But finally something remarkable happened. I have a collection of old magazines from the immediate post-World War II years advertising the all new, super-duper, revolutionary writing implement: the biro. László Biró lodged the British patent in 1938, but at first they were expensive and temperamental, but now ... In the old days, every writing pad you purchased came with a blotter as its front page, so that you could blot your letter as you wrote it. I haven't seen such a thing for decades.
     As for writing, a nib pen works best if it is not lifted from the page until its drop of ink is exhausted. That means running the letters together in cursive script. Everybody in the old days was taught what was known as "copperplate" script: beautifully, carefully formed cursive letters, copied carefully from a special book until it was perfect. It requires a great deal of attention, and is slow; very few people continued with it into adulthood. It was the ideal from which our rapid scrawls degenerated. But at least we knew how to write clearly if we had to. One day all this will be a thing of the past. Apparently, there are some schools which are no longer teaching cursive writing - only printing, as befits the age of word processors. No doubt the process will continue until cursive script completely disappears. After that, historians and other scholars will need to learn the separate skill of reading old manuscripts.
     I assumed she had been taught to read by the phonic system, but she denied it. At any rate, she learnt it well, and reading soon became her passion. As I said, the school children could avail themselves of the circulating library. Meanwhile, her mother had joined a library in Wagga, and after Mum had finished school, she herself used to attend the library when she went to town to study music. I never knew her to play a musical instrument, but when she was young, she was afraid that she would die before she read all the books in the world. (And so she did.)
     Mum told me that when the Methodist missionaries did their rounds, they used to stay at the teacher's cottage, and they provided very interesting lectures on foreign countries.
     As for discipline, this was enforced with the cane - usually applied to the miscreant's hand, but sometimes to the bottom, at the teacher's discretion (which was seldom contested by the parents). Was this a good or a bad thing? It is controversial today, and obviously the effect depends on the individual. I remember a woman of my generation stating that it would completely intimidate her daughter, but that it was the only punishment her son would understand. But the big picture is fairly clear: no-one can suggest that the generations born in the first half of last century - the ones who weathered the Depression, and made the world safe for democracy with their blood - were more mixed up, violent, antisocial, or less law abiding than the ones brought up under a less strict régime.

The Teachers
    According to Malebo Memories, the teachers whose service overlapped Margaret Dennis's period of education were:
  • Alfred Carroll:     April 1900 to 14 May 1916;
  • Algar Y Burns:    27 June 1916 to 6 October 1917;
  • Norman Lynch:   6 October 1917 to 3 January 1918;
  • Alexander Jennings: 3 January 1918 to 16 September 1922; and
  • Charles McClellan:  30 September 1922 to 14 December 1933.
    The last one must have taught my mother for only a couple of months.
    "What were the teachers like?" I asked.
     "What do you mean, 'awful'?"
     "He was very bad, the one we had for six years."
     Well, they weren't all bad. Mr Carroll was very nice. He once took the sulky eight miles into town to visit her when she was in hospital, fighting for life with pneumonia. Tragically, he died in office - of a brain tumour, my mother heard.
     Next came Mr Burns, who just couldn't cope. Under his supervision, or lack of it, the boys in particular got very bad, cheeky, and rowdy, as well as taking to smoking on the sly. According to Malebo Memories, he was transferred to Canterbury school. Of course, the pupils were told nothing of his fate at the time, but Mum later heard from her own mother that he had had a nervous breakdown, and was "put away" somewhere. He had been heard to say that sometimes the children got so much on his nerves that he just wanted to tear their heads off.
     He was replaced by Mr Lynch, a young, newly married man, who quickly set about "tuning them up". He caned them left, right, and centre. He seemed to be wielding the cane every time he turned around. Mum saw the boys with their hands "chopped up" with the cane. He even caned the girls. You will note that he was there for only the last two or three months of the school year. Mum thinks that they got out of control under Mr Burns, and he was sent by the Board of Education to put them back on track.
    It was Mr Jennings who stuck in Mum's memory as being bad. She said he was there for six years, though it was really only four and a half. His less endearing trait was walking out of school to talk to passers-by. But first he would give an instruction, such as: "Fifth form, go and teach third form!" The older pupils were then expected to go over and instruct the younger ones. On hearing of this, my grandfather was naturally furious, but what could he do?
     But Mum was shrewd. As soon as these orders were given, she would zero in on one of the smarter kids in the lower grades - one of those who needed no instruction. That way she (Mum) could get on with her reading. However, her plans were often foiled by one of the two pretty Jennings girls, Beth and Ena. As often happens when a teacher's own child is in the class, Mr Jennings used to forestall any accusations of favouritism by cutting his daughters no slack. They therefore had a special incentive to learn, and since they were not naturally clever, they would latch on to an older girl who was: Margaret Dennis.
     Mum's older brother, Alf was also very clever, and when he would pose questions, Mr Jennings would say: "Ask your father. He can show you how to do it."
     Needless to say, Alf Dennis Snr was not amused. "That's the teacher's job," he would wail.

     Nevertheless, they did manage to acquire an education. Alf went on to law school. The others left at age 14. The sons worked on the farm, initially. The daughters loafed. No, I am not joking; this was Mum's own assessment. Just the same, she wanted to get away from home and become a nurse, so in her spare time she read up the equivalent of a high school education in order to apply.
    Then, one day in their late teens, she and her brother, Jack were going to town, when they discovered that the school and the teacher's cottage had been burnt to the ground. It had happened about midnight Sunday 18 September 1927. The fire was thought to have started in the kitchen, and Mum heard that the fire ran up the walls of the house because the interior had been freshly painted. The teacher, Mr McClellan managed to save the piano.
     The school was eventually rebuilt, and it operated until 1968.

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  1. My grandfather was Alfred Carroll a teacher at Malebo School until 1916 when he died of meningitis leaving Johanna, his wife, Claude his son and 2 yr old twins Ella and Jean (my mother). I note a booklet mentioned : Malebo Memories, back to Malebo celebration 1997; and wonder where I could get a copy. I would love to add the quote mentioning my grandfather in my family history info I am compiling - (with the proper acknowledgement of course.)

    1. This issue has now been satisfactorily resolved.

  2. Mrs Blackburn tells me that she attempted to add another comment, but it didn't come through. I shall therefore copy it from her e-mail. It is essentially one of the last letters her grandfather, Alfred Carroll wrote:

    I have a letter my grandfather wrote while teaching at Malebo school. The letter is to his sister Emma, who was four years older than Alfred and dated 13th April 1916, just a month before he died.
    I will share parts of this letter that may be of interest.

    “ My dear Em,
    Well here I am again excusing myself for the writing paper again. We either haven't got any or I couldn't find it... I am not altogether rid of the complaint I mentioned to you. Sometimes I am better then again I am not as well as I ought to be. But I trust it will wear away in time. My ear (left) gives me a lot of trouble. I had a bad time of it the other Saturday and on the next day (Sunday). I went in to the Doctor again. But I am glad to say that altogether I am better than I was some time ago. I am glad to know that you had some good rain. We had some........ And then about a week after we got a little more. It will do a great deal of good. I was glad of it as I have two horses to feed and already there is just a showing of green grass. I have put in a little barley and it ought to come up soon. About those flowers I mentioned in my letter I remember now they were balsams. What do you call that vine you have growing over the sulky shed? It is a very pretty thing. We have often …. they last all through the dry weather with only a drop of water and they always have a flower or two between them. There will be some nice ones now after the rain. Those crocus flowers are nice too. Almost immediately after the rain came, a couple we had – tiny little things – produced as if by magic a couple of lovely flowers each... The babies are still all right and doing well. They both look the picture of good health. They are such funny little things. They have a noisy hour also before they go to sleep. By a noisy hour I mean a playful one. Jean can say almost anything in a way and it is amusing what she comes out with sometimes. She can partly say little rhymes. She says Ding dong bell, pussy's in the yell so on. I save the waste water in the bath to use for the garden. Sometimes I have a fair quantity. They throw everything they can find into the water. Ella still has the dummy but as a rule only at night. Jeanie gave it up long ago...

    I remain your loving brother Alf.”