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On the 5th February 1922 I was the third child to be born of unmarried, very poor parents, my cot being a cardboard box and the covers being an old towel. The two children before me are both boys, the first being named after my father, Joseph Alfred George, the next being named Albert Thomas, I am named Richard Charles.My father who was injured during the Great War of 1914-18 was unable to do much work, that is if any was available. My mother used to do washing for other people to earn some money to feed us, but a very dear cousin who was very fond of my mother has told me that we were always moving house, because my parents were unable to keep up the rent payments.
On 23rd October 1929 we all went to Court and the magistrate said that Tom and me would be taken to a school in Ashford and remain there until we were fourteen years of age. Mum and Dad were allowed to say goodbye to us and then the tears really started to flow. One of the men said "Come along sonny, we are going for a train ride and maybe a bus ride as well". This cheered my up a bit as I had never been on a train before.
ARRIVAL AT STANHOPE INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL 23rd October 1929
First we are given some new clothes and then we are taken to a large room where there are two long rows of wash basins and some showers and one bath. We are told to take off all our clothes and get into the bath which is almost full of water, I have never seen a bath like this one before, and I am afraid to get in in case I drown, but I am told that at school you do everything you are told to do or you get punished, so in the bath I get and am scrubbed until I am quite red! Then we are taken back to a room where there are four women, one is called "Matron". She tells me to stand against the wall where a long piece of wood is fastened, with a lot of numbers on it. Matron then brings another piece of wood down onto my head, which does not hurt, and tells one of the other women that I am three feet and eleven and three quarter inches. I am told that I am the youngest and smallest boy that they have ever had in the school. I am then told to finish dressing and to put my boots on. They are new boots and have studs and heel and toe specks and leather laces. These clothes and boots are the best I have ever had in my life but the boots are very heavy!
Now it is time to meet my new teacher, he is a tall, fairly thin man and his name is Mr Neat. He says "Hello!" to us and of course I start to cry again. He shows me where to sit and says "You will soon get used to living here and then you will like it, and you will soon make friends". Then he asks me my name and what my school number is ( I am number 54 and am in the Red House). Soon the day's lessons come to an end and we are allowed to play until teatime, when a whistle is blown and we have to wash our hands before we have our tea. We march up a long corridor to the dining room. I am given a place to sit and am told that it is to be my place all the time unless the Headmaster tells me to move to another place or another table. Each table seats six boys and we have to say grace, of course all this is quite new to me. Our tea is one slice of white bread and half a slice of brown and a mug of tea. The bread is cut fairly thickly and has been made at the school. One and a half slices of bread does not sound very much, but it was plenty and to me it was like a good meal. Tea over we say grace again before we are allowed to leave the dining room and go to the playroom. Here we make our own amusement. Not many of the boys speak to me except to ask why I was sent to Stanhope, but I am not very interested in talking right now, all I want to do is sit and cry for my Mum and brothers and sisters and wonder if they have had any food today. I am getting very tired but then a whistle is blown and this means it is time to have a wash. We then sit on the seat that goes right round the playroom and one of the boys and the officer on duty come round with a trolley with hot cocoa and a very large biscuit each. After my supper I am quite full and ready for bed. Of course, we can't go to bed when we want to, and anyway I don't know where to go! Soon another whistle blows and this time it is for us to parade in our respective "houses" and wait for the Headmaster to come and say prayers with us, after that he speaks to the officer on duty.
The Headmaster is very tall and must weigh twenty stones! His left slipper makes a funny noise every time he puts his foot to the ground. He wears very funny glasses, they do not fasten behind his ears, but just clip onto his nose, someone tells me they are called pince-nez.
To reach my bedroom (which is called a dormitory) I have to march along the long corridor and up a flight of stairs. Another boy shows me the way and shows me which is my bed. It has two nice white sheets and two blankets, one red and one with two black stripes, and on top of that is a large cover which I am told is a counterpane. Under my pillow is a long, thick shirt. I have a problem putting it on because I have never seen anything like it before, but at last I get into my bed. I cry myself to sleep, but after what seems a short time, the light goes on and we are woken up and have to go to the toilet. It is very hard to manage my long shirt to have a wee, but I soon go back to bed, although I get into the wrong bed and have to move to my own! I am soon asleep again, and the next thing I know a bell is ringing, it is six-thirty, and it is time to get up.
I get up and once again have a lot of trouble with my nightshirt and with getting dressed, but my biggest problem is making my bed! The counterpane has two lines across it near the bottom and these lines have to be in line with those of the two beds next to yours, so that all the lines are straight right down the room. I find this very difficult but the boy in the next bed helps me and the bed looks as tidy as it did last night before I got into it. We all go to the washroom where we wash; we have to use our hands as a flannel, and although we each have a nice toothbrush, there is no toothpaste, and I really don't want to use soap to clean my teeth, not many of the boys do, and the toothbrushes are so hard they scrub your teeth clean anyway. We each have a metal comb for our hair, I have never combed my own hair before, because my Mum always did it for me; thinking about Mum sets me off crying again!
Soon a whistle blows which means it is time to fall in on parade and then it is time for breakfast, so we march along the corridor to the dining room and there we say grace and sit down to our breakfast. There does not seem to be much for breakfast, but we have a mug of cocoa instead of tea and then I feel quite full. Before we leave the dining room the Headmaster comes in and we sing a hymn and say a prayer, after this the Headmaster takes some small books from his pocket and reads out reports of any wrong things that boys have done and says what punishment they are to have. In some cases he says "T.P. and twenty", this means that the boy has no playtime for the day and loses twenty marks. One of the punishments read out was "office" and I asked what this meant and was told that it meant that the boy had to go to the Headmaster's office where he would be punished by having the cane or "towse" which is a leather strap, cut into eight or nine strips. I think that this sounds awful and really hope that I never misbehave myself enough to receive that sort of punishment, in fact I make up my mind then and there to try not to get any punishments at all, and I have seven years to get through!
After the Headmaster has finished reading the punishments a whistle blows and it is time for us to parade in our house colours ready for the Headmaster to inspect us before we go into school. Some of the elder boys will go to help in the kitchen, garden, metalwork shop, tailor's shop, carpenter's shop or on the farm. The school is quite self-contained, even our boots are repaired here. On our way from the dining room any boy in need of medical treatment has to stand outside the Surgery and wait for his turn. The Headmaster's wife is the Matron and she has another woman to help her but she has very little medical knowledge.
So, I arrive in class and the teacher is trying to teach me my 2 x table, I am not getting on very well, but the teacher is very good and he says "Soon you will be able to read and write and do your sums, we all have to learn and the more you try the better you will get." Now I want to do a wee, so I tell the teacher but he says it is nearly play time and I will have to wait for two or three minutes, before he finishes saying it the bell goes and I run as fast I can to the toilet and get there just in time! Playtime goes very quickly and the bell goes for class again. Now it is time for a writing lesson and the teacher asks me if I know my ABC, of course I have to say that I don’t. The teacher writes the alphabet on the blackboard and we have to copy it, my writing is not very good, but I do my best and the teacher gives me some marks for trying. After this it is time for dinner, so we wash our hands and march up the long corridor to the dining room, going through the kitchen on the way where we take a plate and then line up and take our turn to be served. In the dining room we say grace before we are allowed to sit down. I managed by luck to go to the right table, although my dinner was quite cold before I started to eat it. I still enjoyed it because I was very hungry, and we even had a pudding after. There was a jug on water on each table and we were supposed to drink some of it, but not many of the boys did.
After dinner as the weather was fine we were allowed out into the playground to amuse ourselves until afternoon lessons started at 2 o’clock. We begin with a reading lesson, my reading is very poor but the pictures are very nice and most instructing, and it is soon playtime again. We all try to get out through the door at once and Mr Neat has to raise his voice to say “Go steady, or someone will get hurt!”. After play the next lesson is drawing. The teacher is very good at drawing, but hardly any of the boys can draw, and mine is probably the worst of all.
So school is over for the day, and now it is dark outside so we have to go to the playroom until teatime and the long march up to the dining room. Tea seems to be the same every day, but it is much better than being hungry, and I think of my brothers and sisters at home and wonder if they have had any food at all, and if they have a fire to keep warm? I cry for my Mum a lot during the evening, but now it is time for supper. Tonight we have a mug of hot milk and a very large biscuit. I am ready to go to bed, but we have to wait for the Headmaster to come for our evening prayer, then we can go to bed until 10 o’clock. I have a very good sleep until the half past six bell. The bell is so loud I think it must wake up not only the entire school but all the people who live nearby as well!
After breakfast we all have to queue up in a single line and we slowly move up the corridor towards the dining room where Matron and Miss Hammond are, and as I get closer I can see that we are being given some medicine. Now it is my turn and Matron says “Open your mouth”, and she tips a small spoonful of medicine into my mouth and pinches my nose at the same time. I have never tasted anything so horrid in all my life. I ask one of the other boys what it is called and he says “It’s Black Jack, and you’ll soon know what it’s for! We have to have it every month”. I am getting used to being here now, but the medicine gives me such a tummy ache I do have a cry for my Mum again.One of the other boys has become quite friendly , I do not think I should mention him by name, so I will refer to him by his number which is number 48. He tells me that any letters we receive are opened by the Head Teacher and that if any money is sent to you it is put into the school bank for you. All parcels are opened and inspected, if the teacher thinks you have been sent too many sweets he will keep some back for another day (we think he takes some for himself as well).
Each month we are allowed to write home but as I am unable to write properly a boy from a higher class is told to sit down next to me and write down what I say. He writes very nice and neatly, and after he has finished I have to hand the letter to the teacher who reads it and then sends it to the Headmaster. He puts the letter with one that Tom has written into an envelope and addresses it for us, and eventually it is posted.
Some time passes and many of the boys are talking about Christmas. Christmas has never meant much to me before, but perhaps this one will be better than those that I remember, and perhaps my family at home will have a better Christmas without me and Tom there. I still cry sometimes when I think of home, but not so much now I am getting used to being here. I have not made many friends, but perhaps that is my fault because I don't go and join in any of the games but just sit around thinking about my Mum and brothers and sisters at home.
We only have one more week of lessons before we break for Christmas and two of the boys who work in the garden have brought in a lot of holly leaves and given the teacher two funny needles and a ball of string. Two of the senior boys thread the needles and stick them into the holly leaves and make a holly chain long enough to go across the classroom. There are going to be some other decorations as well, but a lot of this will be done after we have gone to bed and it will be Christmas Day before we see the complete decorations. A Christmas tree has been brought up from the garden and has been put into the dining room and covered with lights and other decorations, and it looks as if some presents have been tied onto it. More presents are arranged around the tub that the tree is standing in. I spoke to one of the other boys about the decorations and he said "Never mind the decorations, wait until you get your Christmas dinner!".
At last it is Christmas Day and I think it is going to be like any other day when the bell rings at half past six and we do our usual chores and have our usual breakfast. The only thing that has been different so far is that the Headmaster did not read any reports, but instead wished us "A Happy Christmas". So breakfast is finished and a hymn sung and prayers said and we get ready for the nine o'clock inspection and after that we make our own amusements (indoors because it is too wet and cold to go outside). Eventually, the whistle blows for dinner and we go to wash our hands, but instead of going to the dining room we have to go to our classrooms where the partitions have been pushed back to make the three classrooms into one large room. We say grace and then the chef comes in with a very large dish with part of a roast pig on it and everybody gives three cheers. The Headmaster and Head Teacher carve and serve the meat while the other officers serve vegetables and gravy and bring the dinners round to us. I have never tasted anything so lovely in all my life and as soon as we have finished the officers take the dinner plates away and chef comes in again with a large dish with a huge Christmas pudding on it. Something is poured over the pudding and it is covered in small blue flames! These go out and some more puddings are brought in with containers of custard. The Headmaster and one of the officers serve the puddings and two officers serve the custard and it is brought round to us. When our meal is finished our plates are taken away and we say grace and then off we go to the playroom.
We are much too full to do anything much and we just sit and talk. Some of the boys are talking about what will happen after teatime and it all sounds too good to be true (some of the boys are very good at spinning stories!). I wonder what has happened at home and if my family have had anything much to eat and if there were any presents? The afternoon passes slowly until the whistle blows for us to go and wash our hands before the entertainment which starts at half past six. We are all looking forward to it, especially as it means we will stay up late. The entertainment goes on until half past eight and then there is supper before bed. We each get a present from the tree, mine is shaped like a carrot and makes a noise when you blow it. So I go to bed very happy and fall asleep very quickly, when it is time to get up for the toilet we are all so sleepy that there are a few puddles on the bathroom floor!All too soon it is time for the half past six bell and Christmas is nearly over, along with the old year. I think again of my parents and brothers and sisters and have a little weep, but someone calls me to join in a game. I am asked to join in more often now and because of this I do not cry very often and I am a much happier boy than when I came to Stanhope.