Penn Parish Local History

Penn Church School Memories – Part 1

Did you know that Penn Church Hall opposite Penn Church
(and next to the Crown Pub) started life as a school?

A little while ago, I was hugely fortunate to be in conversation with some of the former pupils of this school, known as Penn Church School. They generously shared their memories and anecdotes of day-to-day school life pre-war and during the war years when evacuees joined local children. In the next newsletters I will document some of these wonderful stories. This edition will focus on the school in the 1920s.

A quick introduction to the building

The eagle eyed might spot the initials H.G.H and the coronet above the gable window. The initials are those of Harriet Georgiana Howe in whose memory a Girls Working School was built by the 1st Earl Howe in 1839. From 1870 when their school at Church Knoll was dismantled, and until 1949 when the school closed due to dwindling numbers, boys joined the girls at what became known as Penn Church School. The school was extended in 1910 (probably just after the photo of the children gathered by the door). Just as a note, it seems apt that the Hall is now home to another school, Little Oaks One Nursery.

The school day in the 1920s

At this time Penn Church School was attended by around 60 children from the ages of 4/5 to 13/14. Everyone walked to school without their parents and in all weathers – indeed this was the case throughout the school’s history. The group from Forty Green would walk through fields except when it was very muddy when they would use Paul’s Hill – either way quite a distance for a 4/5 year-old to walk! Some might wear the “Penn C of E” school badge on a blazer if they had one. One contributor recalls that the only day they missed was when the path by the Vicarage was like a “sheet of ice”. The day started at 9, sometimes with “drill” (physical exercise). At mid-morning break, on a very cold day, cocoa and sugar was mixed together by one former pupil and brought from home in an OXO tin. There was no running water. Water was either pumped from a well or drawn from the storage tank in the loft, which “tasted horrible” but on a more positive note a hot lunch of stew, shepherd’s pie or sausages and mash (a favourite) would sometimes be served at the Parish Rooms, no. 4 Church Cottages, adjacent to the Church on Paul’s Hill. This would be organised by Mrs Murray from the big house close by, The Knoll.

The schoolroom and lessons

The main room in the now Church Hall was then the large schoolroom, partitioned so that infants were separated from the slightly older children. The older children would be taught by the then Headmistress, Miss Dawson. They would sit two to a desk, backs to the partition and facing the fire which would be lit in the morning by the caretaker and then taken care of by older boys. Miss Summers was the infant teacher where there were “scribbles and painting… to get us into the hang of being away from home.” Children graduated from writing in pencil to pens with detachable nibs and inkwells. T he older children, “as they got on” would help with the youngsters. There was no homework. Children who misbehaved might be sent into the North Room (a smaller room at the back of the building), but generally behaviour was good.

A Church school at the heart of the community

The decade before, the headmaster would live in, in rooms above the school (now the Parish Office.) Miss Dawson would lodge at the public house next to the school, The Crown, and be taken by “taxi” (usually the Baker’s van) to stay with her sister at the weekend. Other notable figures at the time were the attendance officer on his bike, the inspector Mr Mumford, later the vicar of Holy Trinity, and the nurse, “the bug nurse!” Naturally, for a Church School, links with the Church were strong. Mrs Winter, the organist’s wife, took Sunday school and children might also be involved in bell-ringing or choir and a nativity, attending Church several times on a Sunday (and walking there). One of the accompanying photos shows that the children took part in a local fête, making costumes for the occasion. There was scripture and a hymn over at the school each morning, accompanied on the piano. Some sports, including “baseball” and  football, formed part of the boys curriculum whilst girls did needlework. There would be coveted prizes for different school subjects including the best kept garden patch (round the sides of the school site), a drawing prize and the Bishop’s Prize for Scripture.

Penn Church School pupils, some reluctantly, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses for a local fete in the early 1920s.

An evocative school photo from Edwardian times, before the 1910 extension.
(Thanks to Eddie Morton & Miles Green for finding this).

Acknowledgment

Particular thanks to Mr Herbert Druce, a parishioner, who recently celebrated his 104th birthday and who attended from 1921. Parts of our conversation are directly reported above and he shared with me the fête photograph in which he appears. Herbert’s memories of Penn Church School are overwhelmingly positive, “I enjoyed it… the teachers were so caring.”

Memories from other contributors to follow!

If anyone has association with Penn Church School please do contact me, Zoë Clark, via the church office on 01494 813254, or office@holytrinityandstmargarets.co.uk


Penn Church School Part 2: The pre-war 1930s

This is the second part of the story of Penn Church School, as seen through the eyes of former pupils. We now enter the 1930s. Huge thanks to Joy Feast (née Allen) for hosting a reunion with Dorothy Bates, Wendy Howard (Jackson), Barbara Higgs (Baker) and Peggy Walker (Pusey). I was generously welcomed into the home of Jeff & Sylvia Adams – and met older brother John. I chatted to Roy Allen by phone. Thanks to those who shared personal photos from their own collections.

An outdoor life

What is really striking is the enjoyment found by all contributors in their natural environment. As a group, the children of Forty Green would walk up to school and Sunday Church activities and “knew where every bird’s nest was.” It was a childhood of “amazing times” where people could leave their doors open and their bikes outside, where there were “no worries about money.” Occasionally the laundry man would come past and give the children a lift to school in his van. Other children walked from Crown Lane, Knotty Green, Tylers Green and Penn Street.

During the school day there were sometimes games on the field down by the Crown public house. “You would go through a kitchen gate to the wood for nature walks where you would learn about birds and flowers.” Girls and boys enjoyed gardening (with each child having their own strip around the playground). Dorothy Bates had blue irises in her patch. Roy Allen told me he had no problems when he moved on to school in Beaconsfield, except that he was punished with a caning when he tried to set up an allotment there!

Church Family

So, to most, school was “like a happy family.” Two of the contributors’ said that their parents attended before them. The opportunities for involvement in the life of Holy Trinity Church were extensive, expected and aided a sense of belonging. On Sundays, the children would go up and down to church 2 or 3 times for Sunday School, the 11 o’clock service and Evensong, or for bell ringing and choir. Each child would have a Churchyard grave to look after and would collect wild flowers to decorate the Church Porch.

There was an afternoon walk with some fraternising with members of the opposite sex! All Christian festivals were celebrated. The nativity play was quite an occasion (see several well-lit photographs reproduced here).

There were annual prizes and awards including a Bishop’s Prize and a prize for Scripture as well as a prize for perseverance; contributor Joy’s name appears more than once against these accolades.

Daily life

In this period the Head was Miss Mitchell who was “always very strict”, and never ill! She used to drive a car and was respected by the children. Miss Davis was the “lovely” junior teacher. The school day ran from 8.45 – 3.30, starting with the register, a hymn and a prayer. Desks were in pairs, with lids that lifted to store books. “At morning break there was milk, coming by horse and cart, frozen in the winter and half sour in the summer!” and “The outside toilets left a great deal to be desired… there were ashes in the bottom…” Boys and girls had separate playgrounds – with the girls at the front and the boys to the side where the car park is now and where the alms-houses were. The Walls ice-cream van might sometimes stop outside after school.

Practical skills were encouraged. In early 1938 five senior girls attended a domestic science course whilst, on Fridays, three senior boys attend the handicraft course at Beaconsfield Senior School. Dressmaking was offered as a subject. A party of girls attended the Folk Dance Festival at the Town Hall, High Wycombe in July 1939, the same month as a trip to Whipsnade – and, of course, very shortly before the outbreak of war.

I was told by separate contributors of light-hearted teasing of the younger children with talk of the ghost of Daddy Carstairs, living on the upper floor of the school! There was also an incident where a snowball was thrown and the window of the North Room broken which resulted in a “bit of a telling off.” Overall, behaviour was good and discipline firm. There were “a handful of rulers” in the head teacher’s drawer for those that didn’t toe the line! One male contributor remembered how walnuts, collected on the way to school at Penbury Grove, stained their hands. This led to accusation of smoking and was punished with a caning.

School Inspection

In the old bindings of this bulletin, formerly the “Penn Parish Magazine,” there are consistent reports of praise for the “good work” of the Penn Church School in the regular Diocesan Inspections. In April 1938, at Prize-Giving and Open Day, a local council official speaks of the value of small schools in the “development of character”, with the “most valuable asset being the close contact between teacher and pupil.” Penn Church School roll was at most 70 children, and towards its final years much smaller. This was despite the fact public subscription had raised £1250 to double the size of the school in 1910. (This investment was not matched in provision of local housing for young families.)

The 1918 Education Act, as well as raising the school leaving age from 12 to 14, brought medical inspection into schools. “Nitty Nora” the nurse and the doctor and the dentist would see Penn School pupils on the upper floor of the school building (now the Parish Office). One female contributor recalled that after her dental treatment her mum had to bring the pushchair to take her home! Another told me that she was supposed to have one tooth out and they took out about six! The school attendance officer would visit. There were absences for measles and mumps.

The School in wartime

Wartime brought different opportunities and challenges – including refugee children joining the school. When attendance fell off at Sunday School in early 1940 the May Parish Magazine exhorted parents that it was their “duty” to continue to send their children. A write-up of the school from 1939 until its closure in 1949 will feature in the next newsletter edition. Thank you for reading.

Parish Newsletter, April/May 2019. Zoë Clark


Penn Church School Part 3: Approaching War

In this third instalment we will hear about how Penn Church School (now the Church Hall), and its community adapted to the coming of World War II.

The preceding months

During early 1939 the threat of war grew ever closer, but the school continued with its usual activities. In July the children enjoyed their annual outing, this year to Whipsnade Zoo (which had opened in the 1920s). Pupil Margaret Hill commented “We reached Whipsnade at about 2 o’clock and wanted to see the chimpanzees have their tea. They had grapes, oranges, apples and bananas. I had a ride on a camel which was most bumpy.”

Sports day had this year taken place in June in the grounds of Mrs Cuthbert’s home Hatchits. This large detached house and gardens is behind the Church Cottages adjacent to the Church and was also the HQ of the local Home Guard. Former pupil Roy Allen won the potato race!

Roy had joined the school in 1936 at 4 years old and recalls with great fondness “happy days”, “amazing times” and being “like a family”. He remembers the Forty Green group walking up together, learning about nature and feeling part of the Church community (and, if they were lucky getting a lift in the laundry van!) Roy says that he remembers more of his time at Penn School than at Beaconsfield where he went next.

The arrival of refugee children

Fear that German bombing would cause civilian deaths prompted the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities during the Second World War. The first wave was on 1 September 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland and two days before the British declaration of war. Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered to be safe. Five-year-old Barbara Baker travelled from the East End of London with her mother before arriving at Penn School which was being utilised as the billeting office; the place where children were allocated to their “billets” (host families).

Barbara felt very fortunate to go to a lovely home with Colonel Nicholson and his daughter in Knotty Green. Her description of the allocation process is vivid as there was a last minute change of plan: “I remember being there as clear as anything, because these people came to pick us up… but someone said that’s all wrong, you’re going with this person (the Nicholsons). I wonder what life would have been like with that other family?” Barbara settled in the area and continued at the school until it closed in 1949. She said, “when the bombing seemed to stop the others went back.” Please see the recent group photo which includes Barbara and school friends.


Parish Newsletter, August 2019. Zoë Clark


Penn Church School memories Part 4: The War Years

In this penultimate instalment we will hear from those who attended Penn Church School (now Holy Trinity Church Hall) during the war years. The comments of former pupil Dorothy Bates, whose funeral was recently held in Holy Trinity, highlight the challenge faced by a small school that almost doubled in size with evacuee children. Dorothy was a valued member of our Church community, and contributor to Parish life in Forty Green, and this feature is dedicated to her.

A challenging time

The evacuees “fitted in really well” at Penn Church school, I was told (see girls group photograph in Sunday school best). New faces were welcomed but it was agreed that that school life was inevitably transformed by that the sheer numbers of children (around 50) joining, approximately doubling the size of the school in a few weeks. 1939/40 were particularly difficult, with Dorothy Bates recalling that she “lost out completely …there were so many children….they couldn’t really teach properly…” Jeff Adams and John Adams of Forty Green have vivid memories of carrying gas masks to school and practising going out and standing against the wall when the teacher blew the whistle; “it was really strict.”

School children try out their gas masks in 1939

Jeff recalls how Miss Mitchell the headmistress, for some reason, took a ration book from a child. The mother was soon down to take this up with her! On a lighter note, contributors recounted with fondness how they would salute the gentleman driver of one of the very few motor cars in the area. The gentleman lived at the top of Paul’s Hill and at Christmas would take sweets into the school for them. A rare treat.

The valiant efforts of teachers to sustain the work of the school is evidenced in the Diocesan inspections. In May 1939 the school was judged as “very good”. In both 1941 and 1942 the inspector found that despite “a very difficult time due to evacuations… good solid work has resulted.” Down the road at Tylers Green School the pupil roll was doubled overnight to 334, and the school was run in two shifts. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that life would have been more chaotic still in the cities. My mother-in-law Beryl Clark, from Luton in nearby Bedfordshire, often tells us how she missed out, spending time aged 6-12 when she should have been in school “down the air raid shelter” due to frequent bombing of local factories.

The school community at work and play

The December 1940 Penn Parish Magazine reports how the school gardens were put to work for “dig for victory” and an appeal was made for donations of “ any variety of cabbage plants”. Children were given a responsibility each for a strip of garden and took this responsibility seriously. In 1943 a Junior Red Cross link was set up at the school and sent £5/10/0 to the Red Cross Fund (about £250 in today’s money).

Penn School pupils dressed for Sunday School. Joy Allen left facing and Wendy Jackson behind with evacuee pupils Barbara Baker front right and another young evacuee, centre. (Thanks to Joy for sharing this photo.)

It is striking how the community rallied around the school during the War Years. Mrs Cuthbert at Hatchits co-ordinated the hot lunches (some enjoyed more than others) and hosted country dancing. The annual Sports Days took place at large local houses such as The Knoll to the rear of the Church Yard. Dorothy again gets a special mention here as in 1940 she won the senior girls running race and then the wheelbarrow race in 1941 – no doubt fit after all that walking to school with the Forty Green group! A May Festival “Open Day” for parents and friends was held at the school to keep everyone’s spirits up. The “excellent programme of songs, recitations and dances” culminated in the crowning of the 1941 May Queen – not one of the ladies in our group they told me!

In January 1942 the older children visited the cinema in Beaconsfield (now Prezzo Italian Restaurant) with tea afterwards and a “butter slide” brought in for infants at the cost of £1.5d. Every year there would be the opportunity to go out on a rowing boat on the pond at Watercroft and this was much enjoyed by those I spoke with.

Dorothy Bates is second from right, in blue (taken in 2013)


Parish Newsletter, October 2019 – Zoë Clark


Penn Church School memories Part 5: Post-war to closure

This is the final article in the series of recollections by former pupils of Penn Church School (now the Church Hall) from the 1920s to the 1940s. This final account begins when the school shared in the nation’s celebrations after the war. On Friday May 11th 1945 pupils were taken to Beaconsfield to see King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as they passed through by train. At the special school victory sports at Knotty Green cricket club on Saturday 8th June there were prizes and an elaborate tea and in September there was a big party along with Tylers Green children (see newspaper article photo).

A new vicar

At the end of the war new vicar Rev. Oscar Muspratt was appointed and a children’s service alternates with Sunday School every Sunday at 2.30pm. It was the “duty” of parents that their children attend; many would attend more than one Sunday Church activity. The ladies in my interview group spoke very fondly of their involvement in the Girls Friendly Society with Mrs Muspratt. The “GFS” was founded in 1875 with the support of the Anglican church to promote girls’ self-esteem and wellbeing. It supported the war effort and it was reported in the Parish Magazine of 1947 that there was a big rally at the Albert Hall with displays of keep-fit, netball, folk dancing and even sword dancing!

Back in school, in 1945 the inspector records that “the relationship between the Church and the school is a very happy one and full of encouragement.” In 1945 Tony Bates – formerly of Forty Green, and Joy Allen gained certificates for good work. In 1947 Joy won the Bishop’s Prize for Scripture. In 1948 Barbara Baker, the evacuee from London we met in the previous article, received the infants “general ability and good conduct” prize. All my female contributors remember reciting their times tables and still being able to remember them now!

Promotional Image Girls’ Friendly Society

So, did the children enjoy school? Roy Allen’s view is that it was “like a family. I can’t remember anyone not wanting to go to school.”

Dwindling numbers

In the post-war years promised council housing did not materialise and dwindling numbers meant all children were taught together. Peggy Walker (Pusey) recalls the only teacher Miss Mitchell sitting the 6 or 7 remaining children in a semi-circle together. One contributor commentated that the scope of what could be taught inevitably narrowed: “there were things that we’d not even done when we went to Secondary School, it was very difficult. You were overwhelmed with all the people”. The school finally closed its doors in 1952. To counter a sense of loss, it’s worth highlighting the enduring strength in the Church School model to the present day. According to the Church of England website 1 million children are currently educated in C of E schools, and about 15 million people alive today went to one.

An enduring legacy

Inspectors commented that in a small village Church school “education is not simply the imparting of knowledge but the development of character and the capacity to make use of knowledge.” The then vicar, Rev. Muspratt observed that when the Butler Education Act of 1944 created larger schools for older children in towns, “parents who live at a distance have not cared to risk sending the younger children on a long walk by themselves.” I’m left pondering on this shift in the light of the “happy times” of Penn Church School. As a Forty Green resident I frequently reflect on the long walks to school and appreciation of nature described by contributors to this set of articles. The strong Church/ School partnership was a resilient one that supported the school and its pupils through challenging times – remember it doubled in size with refugee children. Of school life in general (and the war years in particular) the late Dorothy Bates sums up the strength of character of the pupils “We weren’t pampered, that’s probably why we are as we are now.”

The Church Hall

Do visit the school building which is now the Church Hall if you are passing along the Penn Road. It retains original features such as such as the initials H.G.H after Harriet Georgiana Howe in whose memory the original Girls Working School was founded in 1839. The building also houses the Parish Office and is a community resource. Rather aptly, the building is currently being used by a thriving pre-school. If you do drop in, it may even be that you are fortunate enough to meet a former pupil, several of whom remain current valued members of our Church community. My heartfelt thanks again to all who have contributed to this series of articles.

Parish Newsletter, December 2019 – Zoë Clark