Memories of Primary School During WW2
A wet afternoon and a box of old photos needing labelling and sorting, but soon I found myself remembering back to the 1940s. One memory led to another and though the photos are still largely unsorted, I had a fascinating afternoon, even going right back to commencing school during the early days of WWII.
Blockhouse Bay Historical Society
Starting school at Blockhouse Bay Primary, meant meeting Miss French. Even today, over seventy years later, simply saying her name is sufficient to produce an immediate picture. She was a tall, thin lady, always dressed in a grey or brown two piece “costume” with a blouse fastened at the neck with a bow or brooch. She wore sensible lace-up matching court shoes and carried a handbag and gloves. A practical plain felt hat, held in place with a hat pin, completed her outdoor ensemble. Indoors, she removed her hat to reveal very short, very straight hair.
She taught multiplication with everyone chanting out loud from two times to twelve times. We all knew our tables and remember them still. Her weapon of choice was a pencil. It was used to point out words on the blackboard or when reading from a book, and to help remember spelling, each letter was tapped on your skull. The main entrance to the school was from Blockhouse Bay Road near Gill Crescent. Going up the drive on the right hand side was a small wooden building – the dental clinic. It was known as “the murder house” by the pupils. The dental nurse wore a white smock, white stockings and shoes and a white veil on her head. In the cooler weather she wore a red cardigan as well. The more ghoulish among the pupils, said it was red to hide the blood stains on her uniform. We all hated going to the clinic and would watch the nurse crossing the playground, breathing a sigh of relief when she went past your classroom. The building is still in the school grounds, looking unchanged apart from a ramp instead of steps for access. It is no longer used as a dental clinic.
After the Japanese attacked Darwin, the decision was made for each school to have an air raid plan in case the unthinkable happened. The school had bush around it on three sides and so when the siren went, everyone left their classroom and followed the tracks into the bush. There was a great deal of elaeagnus hedge forming a thick ceiling between ti tree and bracken and assorted weedy bushes. Each class went to their designated place and teachers checked the roll, then we just had to sit and not talk or move around. Apparently if we talked the enemy planes might have heard us. By hiding in the bush we were thought to be safe as the school buildings would be bombed and not the surroundings. Each child had to wear I.D. This was carried in a little cotton bag worn round the neck. A small card with name and address, date of birth and father’s place of work was carried in the bag together with ear plugs or cotton wool to lessen the noise of bombs, and a piece of rubber to bite on instead of biting your tongue.
Fortunately we were never under threat of attack. It was extremely boring sitting still and being quiet. I used to catch small insects in the leaf mould and try to get them to race or even fight. There was quite a variety from wood lice and earwigs, small spiders that jumped, occasional crickets and best of all, wetas. There weren’t many of these since they seemed to prefer rotting wood. Occasionally there were tiny skinks that would drop their tails if touched, but they were very fast.
Sometimes I took an insect back to the classroom and let it go when unobserved. Perhaps in a desk or just on the floor and once on the teacher’s table. Occasionally I was asked to remove the offending insect which no-one seemed to realise I had put there in the first place.
One year at the end of the first term we were told that the school was getting too big and more classrooms were to be built. While this was happening classes were to be held in the picture theatre in Donovan Street. We were wildly excited, dreaming of days spent watching movies. Even wondering if the refreshment shop would be opened. The reality was a shock. We walked in crocodile along from the main school to the theatre and found disaster waiting. The theatre seats were stacked away and desks and chairs had taken their place. The teacher’s table and chair and blackboard were on the platform at the end where the screen hung. It was dark and gloomy as the interior was painted black, with the only outside light coming from the open fire doors on the side of the building. At interval, we filed outside onto a patch of rough grass. There was nothing to do, not even a seat to sit on. At lunchtime we walked back to the main school, then back to the theatre for afternoon classes. Eventually some seats were put around the patch of grass. If it rained too hard we had to stay in the theatre rather than get wet going back to main school.
There was worse to come. The promised brand new classrooms, pre-fabs, looked like a row of hutches. The buildings were very basic. Wooden frames filled in on the outside and lined with wire netting., The roof was tin and as it was not lined and there was no ceiling, whenever it rained, it was impossible to hear anything or anyone. A disastrous term and not a single movie.
Every year a Parents’ Day was held. This involved a Flower Show, a display of pupils’ work and entertainment. For the Flower Show, every child was given three sweet pea seeds and instructions for growing these so that they would be in flower for the show. There were other classes such as mixed flowers, arrangements, single blooms, and even decorated saucers and a sand garden. Pressed flowers and leaves were also popular entries. Enthusiastic pupils produced some beautiful displays, but many, like myself, lost interest even before the seeds germinated, and did not participate.
On Parents’ Day the classrooms were cleared so that desks were put together to form tables for the entries. Chairs were back against the wall. Neat and tidy exercise books were displayed while the poorer efforts were out of sight in the teacher’s cupboard. After the judging and presentation of certificates, came the entertainment. Usually this took the form of a “footie” match for the boys and basketball for the girls. The girls not involved in basketball, had to play rounders.
However, one year an edict was received stating that primary school children would benefit from participation in English Country Dancing. It was decided that this would be of interest to the parents instead of the usual team games. The boys were horrified. Dancing! That was girls’ stuff. Two of the teachers were put in charge of teaching this new subject, Since no- one admitted to any knowledge of folk dancing, it was given to two ladies who happened to have been born in England. Classes were taught in groups and were hysterically funny. The teachers had a handbook and somehow managed to produce something vaguely resembling folk dancing, though anyone who knew anything about it would have shuddered. We started with girls holding out their left hand for boys to take hold of with their right hand. Watching a large kiwi lad try to skip was hysterical. When the music was added, total chaos ensued. However, on Parents’ Day several groups of girls and boys performed their version, ending with a maze type of dance involving everyone. The parents thought it was lovely except a couple of fathers who definitely preferred “footie.”
The school got involved in community work as part of our war effort. On one occasion we were told to bring old clothes and went down to the beach round by the changing sheds. There had been a seam of rock just out from the steps and this had been broken up and our job was to carry the small pieces of rock to the shore to be taken away. We managed to get gloriously wet and muddy while doing this. Some of us acted as bodies for the Red Cross ladies to practice bandaging. At that time there was a special type of bandage for every known injury. Bandages were made from torn up old sheets. Head injury bandaging was the most popular with the ladies since they could bandage our mouths shut.
The school was ideally placed from our point of view. There was Sandy Bay just down the road where we learnt to swim and plenty of bush for nature study. A big event in our lives that did not happen very often was going into town (Auckland City) on the bus.
Over seventy years remembered in an afternoon. Looking at the Primer One and Two class photo, I wonder where they all are now.
Memories by Audrey Thomas.
Published in the society newsletter April 2018.