Brightwell School 70 Years Ago

The first bell rang from the school tower at ten minutes to nine. This was to warn those children still sailing sticks and leaves on the stream running down the side of Brightwell Street that they had better be at school by five minutes to nine, when the bell would ring again.

The school, now the Village Hall of course, looked very much the same apart from the recent additions at the rear. The interior was very different. The large room you enter into the Hall today held four classes of children, from 5 to 14 years old, in only three classrooms.

The infants' teacher Mrs Sutton, had a small classroom nearest to the road. 

The poor infants, when they needed to be excused, had to go out through the heavy main door of the school, if they could open it, then walk, or run, depending upon the degree of urgency, all the way along the side of the school to the unheated bucket lavatories by the playground, then back of course, even if it was pouring with rain.

At the northern end of the room was another very small classroom. There was just enough room for Mrs Reynolds and her blackboard and easel at the front of the class. The large middle room held two classes. The younger children, aged 9, 10 and 11, teacher Miss Steel, had the northern half, while Mr Rowe, the headmaster, had a class of 12, 13 and 14 year old children. Most children stayed in this one room for five or six years. The two classes, all children facing east, were separated by a well-worn curtain strung partly across the room. If you sat by the curtain and had good hearing, you could almost choose which lesson to listen to - but woe betide you if you couldn't answer later questions.

As the curtain didn't stretch all the way across, Mr Rowe was able to observe both classes and also, he could hear practically every word Miss Steel spoke, as she was only a few yards away from him. How this good lady ever stood the strain of teaching under such conditions, I shall never know. No teacher today would countenance such a situation. Not for one moment.

Many years later matters improved dramatically. The older children of 12, 13 and 14 were moved to other schools and Miss Steel's class was given a room at the Stewart Memorial, halfway along Brightwell Street.

The main classroom was heated by a large tortoise stove, not far from the headmaster's desk. Mr Rowe often leaned against the fireguard while talking to his class. One morning, in winter, I think the draft door had been left open too wide and the stove had become very hot. Suddenly there was a strong smell of scorching and Mr Rowe's trouser leg was almost on the point of catching fire! I can't remember the reaction of the class to this. It must have ranged somewhere between awed silence and excited expectation. My contemporaries remember this. But then, they would, wouldn't they!


The playground was totally inadequate for the number and age range of the children using it. Its hard, sloping surface was guaranteed to produce a steady crop of cut knees and bruised elbows. I think the younger girls and infants were allowed to play by the side of, and in front of, the school, where spiked iron railings, a danger in themselves, prevented them from straying into the road in the path of any horse and cart.

Back in the playground, tig was a common game. You touched your play-mate, then ran away until you were touched, then the reverse occurred. Imagine this in a crowded playground. Some girls skipped individually with short ropes, but sometimes a long rope was used when several could skip together. Even a few boys, in favour with the girls, were allowed to join in, provided they skipped properly. Conkers were all the rage in autumn, of course, and even a game of marbles was played in a quiet corner, if you could find one. Corner, I mean. As ball games were impossible, the boys had to devise others. "Divers" was one of these. 

A boy stood up straight, while several boys lined up behind him, crouching down, heads to bottoms, so forming a line of backs. Then the diver would run up from behind and hurl himself along the line to see how far he could get.

The second game was called "Camels", why, I don't know. Two boys stood side by side, facing the same way, with arms linked behind. Then a third boy would bend down behind them holding on to their arms. A fourth boy would then jump on his back and all four would go careering round the playground, scattering children in all directions. Of course, it had to happen, one tripped, and they all fell heavily on the hard surface, and one boy had to receive hospital treatment for a dislocated collar-bone. That was the end of "Camels".


The dinner "hour" was a long one, from 12 o'clock to 1.30. This was to allow the children living in Sotwell and at the bottom of Mackney to get home for something to eat and drink. I think that the Mackneyites cut across the Haycroft, then along "Witches' Walk" and into the lane. Children then had two journeys to school and home each day, regardless of the weather. Only two children, a brother and sister, from way up on Sires Hill were allowed to stay at school and eat their sandwiches round the stove in winter.

Gardening lessons

Mr Rowe was a very keen and knowledgeable gardener. He had an allotment along the Didcot Road, where the last two houses are. This large area of allotments was very important to the villagers who, in those days, had to grow most of their own vegetables and soft fruits. He allowed part of his garden to be used by the older boys for valuable gardening lessons on Friday afternoons. For the boys, carrying their forks, spades and hoes, this was undoubtedly their favourite lesson of the week.

During the winter a combination of heavy rains and un-dredged ditches sent flood water all across Mackney Lane in an area between the two bridges, where the bank had been cut away to allow farm horses to drink there. It was called the "Dippin". Whether sheep were dipped there long ago - I don't know. As the flood water was several inches deep, the children, wearing only boots or shoes, couldn't get through (or so they said!) and had to stay at home. On returning to school - "the floods were out, sir!" was always a cast-iron excuse. To my knowledge no one in authority ever ventured down into the wilds of Mackney to check on these floods.

Sometimes the Schools' Attendance Officer visited the school. He would leave his bicycle by the railings and come into the classroom. He was a tall, imposing man, wearing shiny brown, hard leather gaiters. While he and Mr Rowe were studying the absentee list, the children, supposedly reading, would eye him with great interest. Apart from the local rector, visitors to the classroom were a very rare breed.


As for discipline at the school, the cane was in the background, but its use was almost non-existent. Mr Rowe had a much better remedy. He made it known to the older boys, where any serious misbehaviour would come from, that anyone over-stepping the accepted level of indiscipline, would have to miss his next gardening lesson on the allotment and stay at school and sing with the girls. To the girls this would have been hilarious. To the boy it would have seemed like the end of the world. He would also know that at least half a dozen girls would want to stand next to him, to hear him sing! I don't think this punishment was ever carried out; the mere threat of it was enough to curb even the most likely candidate. So, on Friday afternoons, with the gardening tools cleaned and stored away, there was just time for a quick drink at the fountain in front of the school before running after friends, already half-way home, and so make plans, no doubt, for that magical day, called Saturday.

Ron Wood

First printed in The Villager (June/July 2002 edition)