Chalk Dust

Small Voice Calling > The Echo > Chalk Dust

“Chalk dust floating in the rays of sunset through the window-panes.”

Being an Army child meant moving house a lot. And school. By the time I took the eleven plus exam in 1963, I was attending my eleventh school environment. Things settled down a bit after that.

1952 to 1957. Pre-school. Germany and England. Age 0 to 5.

I was born in the Royal Air Force Hospital at Rinteln in Westphalia, Germany. Dad was a regular soldier in the British Army of the Rhine Command Pay Office in nearby Lübbecke. He was posted back to England before I was one, firstly to Dorchester and later to Newcastle upon Tyne.

Summer term 1957. Unknown school in Newcastle upon Tyne. 1st Infants. Age 5.

We lived in married quarters at Fenham Barracks. I remember being bathed in a tin bathtub on the stone kitchen floor, but my brother says that was in Dorchester. We had a small black and white television that showed Watch with Mother, Champion the Wonder Horse and The Lone Ranger. As Bonfire Night approached, squaddies came round with goodies for the children, including  coloured Lone Ranger masks; but we all wanted black ones because that’s what we saw on the telly.

In those days children started school in the term after their fifth birthday, which for me meant after the Easter holiday. We got a trolley bus from the main road at the top of the Barracks. There were two playgrounds, one for the junior boys, the other for the junior girls and the infants. The toilet block was in the playground and the teacher rationed the loo roll, which was disguised as greaseproof paper and didn’t work. Before the end of my first term Dad was posted to the Far East.

14 June to 15 July 1957. At sea from Southampton to Singapore.
Troopship SS Asturias. Age 5.

The sea voyage to Singapore took four weeks. Whilst the adults enjoyed the sun decks and whist drives, the children were kept occupied in what I suppose was more play-group than school. We had to sail round the Cape of Good Hope because the Suez Canal was shut. This meant we crossed the equator twice and we were treated to a celebratory party.

Crossing the Line party, SS Asturias, 1957.
I don’t think I was enjoying it.

Christmas term 1957. Unknown school in Singapore. 2nd Infants. Age 5.

Our first house in Singapore was in Serangoon – a bungalow on stilts on the edge of a swamp that was home to very noisy frogs. I remember the school bus stop but nothing else. We weren’t there long.

Christmas term 1957 to Summer term 1959. Pasir Panjang Infants School, Singapore. 
2nd & 3rd Infants. Age 5 to 7.

We were soon allocated a house on Goodwood Road in the Sussex Estate that had been built in a clearing in the jungle within sight of the sea. There was an inadequate fence that was supposed to keep us out of the tank training ground, where an open storm drain doubled as a slimy slide for the children of the adjacent kampong. We got the school bus on Dover Road and all shouted ‘faster’ as we approached a humpback bridge on the way to the school compound that was guarded by Gurkhas.

Christmas term 1959 to Summer term 1960. Pasir Panjang Junior School, Singapore. 
Junior 1. Age 7 to 8.

I was the class milk monitor so I got to choose my flavour. There were white, pink and brown milks. My favourite was the chocolate. I didn’t like the strawberry.

Summer 1960. At sea from Singapore to Southampton. Troopship SS Dunera. Age 8.

Army postings were for three years, and Dad’s next assignment was back to the UK – to Chester. We spent our last night in Singapore at the Seven Storey Hotel, which was said to be the tallest building on the island. The school year having finished, we were expecting the freedom of the ship, but the adults had other ideas – they put us back into school for the three-week cruise. We were allowed onto deck to see the flying fish and porpoises, and the scuttled ships that still littered the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

Summer 1960. St Mary’s RC Junior School, Radcliffe. Junior 1. Age 8.

Whilst Dad went off to Chester to take up his new post, the rest of the family stayed with Mum’s parents in Radcliffe until an army house was made available for us. It was now well into the summer holiday that had so far been denied us. But in Radcliffe the Wakes Weeks holiday was taken before schools in other towns broke up, resulting in the Radcliffe school year being resumed whilst others were off. So we were once more dumped into school when we should have been on holiday. My eight-year-old vocabulary wasn’t up to expressing my resentment at this injustice (which is probably just as well). I was put into Junior 1 at St Mary’s until the end of term. They wanted to put my Junior 4 brother into Junior 3 because his birthday fell the wrong side of their cut-off date; but they relented when told he’d already taken and passed his eleven plus in Singapore and had a  grammar school place waiting for him in Chester. 

Christmas term 1960 to Summer term 1961. St Werburgh’s RC Junior School, Chester.
Junior 2. Age 8 to 9.

We moved into an army house in Western Approach, Newton, in time for the new school year. The bus fare from Brook Lane  to Chester Town Hall was three ha’pence, and a short walk through the Cathedral grounds took us to a dilapidated school in a back street.

Christmas term 1961 to Summer term 1962. St John’s CE Junior School, Chester.
Junior 3. Age 9 to 10.

Presumably due to health and safety considerations, the Junior 3 class was relocated to St John’s on the other side of East Gate. We were asked to bring a bowl from home that could be used as a template for a papier-mâché dish. The only bowl of suitable size Mum had was from a Chinese dinner set that had survived the journey from Singapore. I remember that Mum was reluctant to let me take it. And that the teacher dropped it.

Christmas term 1962 to Summer term 1963. St Mary’s RC Junior School, Radcliffe.
Junior 4. Age 10 to 11.

When Dad returned to civvy street in 1962, we moved to Radcliffe to be near Mum’s parents. We were given a council house on the Bolton Road estate, a ten-minute walk from Nan and Granddad’s. I found myself at St Mary’s again, this time legitimately. Mum had been to this school, and my own children would go there in due course. The first thing the local lads wanted to know of any newcomer was, “Are you cock o’ schoo’?” Of course I had no idea what they were talking about, until a younger-and-smaller-than-me waif set about me. So I sat on him until he yielded and they seemed satisfied with that.  

A Saturday morning, Spring 1963. St Thomas’s CE Junior School, Radcliffe.
Eleven plus additional paper. Age 11.

Junior 4 was eleven plus year. We took mock exams in preparation, then the real thing, at St Mary’s. Then I was told to go to St Thomas’s on a Saturday morning to take another test. Apparently the Army had not forwarded my school records to the Lancashire Education Committee, and whatever knowledge they were missing would somehow be remedied by this additional paper. Whether it helped or hindered I don’t know, but the result was that I was allocated a place at secondary modern school.

Christmas term 1963 to Easter term 1965. St Joseph’s RC Secondary School, Whitefield.
1st & 2nd forms. Age 11 to 13.

St Joseph’s was a school for 11 to 15 year-old Catholic children who failed the eleven plus. To get there we took the train from Radcliffe Central to Besses o’ th’ Barn, and then walked half a mile along a dirt track in a cutting that would later become the M62 and is now the M60. On wet days we walked along Thatch Leach Lane, or, for a change, Cuckoo Lane.

I quickly settled into secondary life and was soon top of the class. After the  second form half-year exams, the headmaster called me out of the line going up the stairs and said ‘Wait there’, then ‘Come with me’, and off we marched to his office. I was terrified. Whatever could I have done? The charge was, ‘Do your parents want you to go to grammar school?’ Not knowing, I said I’d ask. Which I did. And they said ‘Yes’. So, after a cursory interview with the head of Stand Grammar School for Boys, I was transferred to Thornleigh, where my brother was doing his O Levels.

Summer term 1965 to Summer term 1968. Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton.
2nd to 5th forms. Age 13 to 16.

Thornleigh was a direct grant grammar school for boys, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic teaching order. It had a three-form entry with Alpha, Beta and Gamma streams. I was placed in the middle tier and had some catching up to do, particularly with French grammar and learning Latin from scratch. Something must have gone in (even a little Latin – see As Far as I Can Tell), and at the end of the third form I was eighth in a class of 34.

For the fourth form we had to choose between arts and science subjects, and then select eight to take on to the fifth year. I chose sciences and was surprised and delighted to pass all eight O Levels. Although I’d been accepted for an apprenticeship scheme, I was disappointed that, in the light of these results, nobody suggested I stay on for the sixth form.

Oh it’s far too easy to erase
The hard planned lessons
Of another day

From ‘Chalk Dust’ by Ralph McTell
Full lyrics in ‘Time’s Poems’, p 146