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Haworth History - Schools

Haworth school 1910-17

The following reflections on school life are by Herbert Scarborough who attended from 1910-17. He won the "Scott" Scholarship in 1917 and went on to Keighley Grammar school. 

Note: © belongs to Mr. M. Scarborough and no part may be reproduced without his permission. 


I began school on my third birthday. All of us began school at this age, not because my parents believed in education but because my mother needed to send us off at the first possible date. I was enrolled in Infant's Department of Haworth Board School. Haworth had had day-schools long before the state made schooling compulsory. An ancient grammar or free school (which poor John Kitson had attended) had functioned passably until Mr Brontë’s days: then church and chapel day-schools had given some sort of schooling for two generations to people like my parents. My oldest sister began her schooling in West Lane Methodist day-school before the big board-school opened in 1902. This large building, built in open fields below the steep main street, was no doubt considered the last word in modern school-building. Two blocks of buildings - Infants and Main School - stood in a wide expanse of ashphalted yard: they were stone built, of course, solid, finished with ornamental gables, well-lit and made to last. Each block had a central hall with block floors and raftered ceiling, surrounded by classrooms and six rows of oak desks, firmly bolted to the floor, with equally well-anchored iron-framed seats between them.

I recall the terror that filled me when my sister left me in the hands of Miss Bestwick, the Head of Infants, a thick-set lady with a pair of gold-rimmed glasses dangling from her bosom by a black ribbon. I was taken into a lofty room to join other little mites. A young lady lifted me up into a wooden chair which hung from the rafters like a swing. She strapped me into the seat and pushed me until I was swinging in a fearful arc above the heads of the other children. Each time I swung forward I could see out of the window of the asphalt yard far below me: I expected at each surge of the chair to be projected through the tall window onto the asphalt: so I screamed. She took me out of this instrument of torture and a little later set me high on the saddle of a huge rocking horse whose dappled neck, bristling mane, flaring black nostrils and red open mouth were as terrifying as the swing: its long undulant gallop set me off screaming again. These first attempts to suggest that school was a fairy-playground only convinced me that school-life was to be filled with nasty surprises. If this was a modern approach to schooling it was a very short intensive course, for I remember no games after this initial session. Schooling proper soon began in earnest, with slates on which the slate-pencil screeched excruciatingly and bags of cowrie-shells, a joy to handle. There were sand trays, bead-racks, coloured chalks, skipping ropes - all the apparatus of play - but no atmosphere of play. Three young women in long black skirts and white blouses had to manage about a hundred tiny tots: they kept a good level of order by sharp repressive discipline. We were taught to sit still and keep quiet, to speak only when spoken to. How we passed the long hours of each day I do not recall. There was from the beginning much learning-by-rote and much hymn-singing. Today on television classes of children singing -

all things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small etc. ..................ad nauseam

I am appalled to think how many millions of children during the last seventy years have had to memorise and chant this maudlin doggerel and sing it to a fatuous sing-song of a tune. If little tots must sing together, they might at least sing something as purely and deliberately nonsensical as Jabberwocky, something brilliant and funny, instead of enervating sentimentality.

The Board School Infants’ Department was no doubt publicly applauded as a means of bringing the benefits of enlightenment to the village children. In fact it was built because so many married women were needed in the mills. Girls could tend the spinning-frame, but women did all the weaving. The mills would have come to a halt without the labour of young housewives. The infants’ school was economically a sound investment: what it did for the children was neither here nor there. In 1910 young teachers were paid sixty pounds a year. Education was cheap. Parents were undemanding, largely indifferent to what happened in school: it was place where you learnt to read and write and stayed until you could go into the mill. . 

When I moved at the age of five to the main school I met at once a ruthless system of work. It was expected that all but a very few of the pupils would at the age of eleven become ‘half-timers’ in the mills: their schooling had to be completed in six years: there was no time for fal-de-dals., for music making ( apart from hymn-singing) painting or games. We sat day-long at our desks in classes of about forty-five scholars under teachers, men and women, who browbeat us into silence and obedience. We learnt what it was necessary to learn by relentless drill. Multiplication tables were hammered into us by rote-learning, memorising and steady use of a cane. Innumerable hours were spent in reciting Tables: the rhythmical sound of these recitals was half-hypnotic, strangely pleasurable like tribal incantations. Today it would be thought wrong to subject seven-year-olds to such massive doses of memorising and sing-song repetition: but the experience was neither stupefying nor painful. Children enjoy such repetitive acts more than their teachers intend they should. It was unquestionably an effective mode of learning and had its own satisfaction. We had a clear sense of achievement each time a new table was mastered and we quickly reached a high standard of competence in arithmetic: we could do swift calculations in rods, perches, bushels, gills, gallons, furlongs, fathoms: we could juggle with every variety of scales - pints, gallons, feet and inches, shillings and pence, with no difficulty or hesitation: which only proves that these ancient and honourable modes of measurement have been taken from us not because they were difficult but because they were no longer commercially advantageous. Decimalisation is only one symptom of the national decline through which I have lived: it is a regrettable surrender of a part of our national identity, something as indefinably English as the length of a cricket pitch, the size of a pint-pot, the value of a guinea.

Reading and writing were taught even more thoroughly than arithmetic. I can remember nothing of the method by which we learnt to read. I read without difficulty from an early age: the act of learning to read has for me only the most pleasant associations. Mastering copper-plate handwriting must have been more difficult because I recall painful efforts to satisfy teachers when using a copy-book. The pages of the copybook were ruled with many lines between which our letters must fit exactly, neither too big nor too small, too wide or too narrow. On the top line of each page was printed a moral maxim or proverb of resounding rectitude - ‘Procrastination is the thief of Time’, ‘Honesty is the best policy’ or ‘ Punctuality is a virtue’ in a flowing sequence of pothooks and rounded letters presenting an idealised image of handwriting, plain, impersonal and like all ideals unattainable. We were required to copy the adage five times down the page, keeping precisely to the lay-out and spacing of the top line: but my pen was always headstrong and unbiddable so that my lines grew shorter and shorter, leaving a triangle of empty space, or grew longer and longer until the last line carried no more than half of the truth I was copying. The remedy for these faults was simple and automatic: I was caned until I learnt to fill each line with the message, the whole message and nothing but the message. Again handwriting was taught effectively: the general level of handwriting in the school and in the community was remarkably high, even if the calligraphy was utilitarian. We were taught to write well: whether we made any use of this skill after leaving school was neither here nor there.

Our English lessons were divided into Grammar and Composition. Grammar was taught with extraordinary thoroughness. It bore no relation to the language we spoke out of school. King’s English was unknown to us: our speech was our own dialect. The Grammar we were taught was a detached discipline pursued by the school for its own sake: I cannot imagine that our teachers thought that it would have any effect upon our speech, though they must have thought that it would help us in the mastery of Standard English if we ever freed ourselves from dialect which they had to regard as a vulgarity to be discouraged. I look back now with incredulity on the mastery of one sort of English Grammar which I had acquired by the age of ten. Beginning with the parts of speech we were taken through all the complexities of Parsing and analysis under the guidance of Nesfield’s English Grammar. I could itemise and definitively label all the characteristics of any word in any conceivable sentence: could say at once of any noun I met whether it was Proper, Common, or Abstract, Singular or Plural, Masculine, Feminine or Neuter, Nominative or Genitive, Subject or Object or In Apposition: if necessary I think I could have said what colour or fragrance it had. We spent hundreds of hours in Parsing, unravelling all the mysteries of Gender, Number, Case, Tense, Mood, Person and Voice in sentences specially designed to trap the unwary Teacher would rule on her big blackboard a series of columns: we took in turn each word of a winding sentence and categorised its every feature of form and function. Even the smallest word was given a description which ran across all the columns. Such a sentence as ‘ Foreign ships were busily unloading grain in the docks at Hull’ would keep us busy over a whole lesson: the harmless words ‘were unloading’ became: Verb, Third person, Plural, Past continuous, Transitive, Indicative, Governing the object ‘grain’. If the pupil top whom this verb fell failed to identify correctly each of these characteristics he took one stroke of a bamboo cane on his right hand and the verb passed along the row of desks for scrutiny by his neighbour.

I look back on those countless hours of Parsing and Analysis with almost unsullied pleasure Long after I left school there was a revolt amongst teachers and educationalists against the teaching of Grammar by such ritualised drill. Parsing and Analysis were removed from the curriculum of the primary school as useless educational lumber: their disappearance was hailed as a liberation. It was argued that parsing was a totally false exercise, a crazy academic invention, a tissue of scholastic nonsense like the medieval argument about the number of devils on a point of a needle. The English Grammar we mastered no longer exists: it has given way to linguistics, which has its own mumbo-jumbo of terminology. Whether what we learnt about the nature and behaviour of English words was indisputable truth about the mechanics of our language or was fatuous nonsense does not greatly signify. It may be that Nesfield’s Grammar is now an ingenious fallacy like Ptolemy’s cosmogony. This does not lessen the delight I found in it. Schools can only teach what is currently believed and what is thought to be of value to the new generation: the history of education is inevitably the record of teaching nonsense. We recognise the nonsense that has been taught in age-old systems of medicine, theology, natural science and moral philosophy: but are pleased to believe that what is taught here and now is, if not the whole truth, at least a clear approximation to the truth. Every generation must believe this and must be as mistaken as its predecessors. When I worked away at Parsing and Analysis I did not know that later I should spend years in the study of philology and the history of our language: but I knew then that these hours spent in the painstaking scrutiny of words were for me hours of deep fulfillment. The fact that there may not in fact be such a thing as an Extension of the Predicate does not diminish at all the satisfaction I found in identifying and labelling such an Extension.

Whilst I was still a boy my father one day told me about Joseph Wright, a Yorkshireman who had completed and published a monumental dictionary of English Dialects only two years before I was born. I learnt that Joseph Wright, who was at that time Professor of Philology in Oxford, began life in Thackley, near Bradford, as a poor boy who went as a doffer in the mill at the age of seven, and worked as a woolsorter in Saltaire and Bingley until he was in his twenties. He taught himself to read, studied languages, went to Heidelberg to work at philology, returned to England to teach and study, and ended by being one of our greatest linguists. I remember feeling for this man a kind of admiration and reverence such as my father felt for William Grimshaw of Haworth: and I wondered at the time whether it was right or wrong to esteem individual prowess such as Wright displayed more highly than the fervid piety of Grimshaw..

The whole of the Board School Curriculum, its scheme of work and its method of instruction were accepted by its administrators as beneficent and foresighted, whereas it was riddled with baseless assumptions and the shallowest notions of what was needed. A large part of our time was given to Religious Instruction that was quite useless. It was there because the church which had for centuries controlled schooling had lost control of some schools to the state but still clung on to some of its former power. Our Religious Instruction was the result of a rearguard action by the Church in retreat: it was a token victory for the Church because it was religious instruction without creed, dogma, faith or authority dispensed by lay-teachers who had little of the creed and belief themselves. Our religious instruction consisted of a daily Assembly and scripture lesson. The assemblies in the central hall were managed like military parades: boys and girls were marshalled into lines in their separate playgrounds to enter into school by doors marked 'Boys' and 'Girls' in dead silence except for the clatter of clogs on the block floors and the rhythmical click-click of a small device which Mr. Hirst, the headmaster, operated in his right hand to determine the pace of our tread. White lines were painted on the hall-floor and every child must have his or her clog toes on the right line. There were no hymn-books: the words of the morning hymn appeared, writ large, on a large wall chart above his head. As we sang a teacher directed our eyes to the next line of the hymn with a long pointer. If Mr. Hirst, glowering over the ranks from his wooden platform, spotted a pupil day-dreaming or whispering, fidgetting or staring about, he stopped the hymn at once, called the culprit to his desk, to await the punishment after prayers, then resumed the hymn where he broke off, so that a long and tense silence might occur between-

"Fatherlike he tends and spares us"

and "Well our feeble frame he knows. "

during which Mr. Hirst dealt with the feeble frames he knew. After the hymn all eyes were closed and he rattled off a prayer in hard unforgiving voice: we rattled off " Our Father". Then we stood stiff and mute as guardsmen whilst announcements were made, before marching rank on rank to our classroom. Our only concern was to get through assembly without incurring reprimand or the cane. To describe such a tense and meaningless routine as ‘an act of corporate worship;’ calls for uncommon stupidity. The whole undertaking of compelling three hundred youngsters, most of them ill-fed, ill-clothed, intimidated and harassed to join in jubilant song about-

" A home for little children,

Above the bright blue sky"

was a waste of their few years of childhood before they were whisked off at the age of eleven to mind the spinning frames.

The scripture-lesson followed assembly. We read the Bible: a single copy of the Holy Word was passed around the class: each pupil read one or two verses and passed the book to his neighbour. This practice ensured that the simplest and most direct narrative was fragmented until all the story ran away in the cracks: passages of prophecy or homily, unintelligible to us in the first place, lost nothing by this method of reading. After the reading we set about memorising huge chunks of scripture - Commandments, Beatitudes, Psalms and purple patches from the Epistles. Nothing was explained or discussed. We were tested on this memorising and suitable whacked for failure to rattle off the sacred word. We knew that our teachers were embarrassed to find themselves in the parson’s role and were as glad as we were to pass on when the bell rang to some more obviously useful lesson on rods and perches, nouns and verbs, capes and bays. As long as I attended Board School I knew that this so called Religious Instruction had nothing to do with the religion on which we lived at home and in the chapel. The religion of home and chapel might be oppressive and wearisome but it was no empty sham. My moral education was completed out of school: day school played no part in it.

Our Board School carried above the Headmaster’s desk a wooden frame on which was painted a scroll inscribed ‘Mens sane in Corpore Sana’ which from time to time the Headmaster translated for us. But we had no gymnasium, no games-field, no games equipment and no school funds, so that it could provide for each boy and girl only two weekly lessons in Swedish Drill. The name ‘drill’ is more significant than we realised. Every activity in school was one form of drill or another: drill in Assembly, in arithmetic (tables), in Parsing(columns), in Music (tonic-sol-fa) in History( lists of Kings), in Geography (capes and headlands) in Scripture ( Commandments and Books of Old Testament). All these mechanical exercises of mind and limbs were calculated to induce obedience in response, automatic submissiveness. Swedish Drill was considered in 1912 the most modern and efficient method of physical training and it cost nothing: there was no need for bars, ropes, jumping boxes, balls or beams. We had no special clothing: we went through the non-stop sequence of bending, stretching, twisting and flinging ourselves about in our heavy clothes and heavier clogs. If sweat soaked our shirts which we wore for a week, day and night, no one noticed or cared. Our Drill Teacher was a young man who seemed to dislike us and his work: he compensated himself by terrorising us. He always carried a small leather bag full of lead-shot, hung on a short rope: with this weapon he struck us on our shoulders, buttocks or legs if our movements were sluggish. We disliked Swedish Drill just as soldiers dislike parade-ground drill. It was supposed to be good for us, a magic antidote to the evil effects which bad housing, poor food and general poverty had on working class children. The truth is that all this formal drill was quite unnecessary: every child in Haworth lived an active life out of doors when not in school. We had the Pennine moors as our playground. Wet or fine, summer or winter, we could not stay indoors (where there was no room to play): we lived on the streets, on the railway line, by the river, in the fields or on the moors: we ran after our iron-hoops up and down the steep street, leapt over stone walls, balanced on the parapets of railway-bridges, crept through culverts, climbed up the faces of disused quarries , pursued each other through peat-trenches. All our games were full of violent exercise and movement - Relievo, Cowboys and Indians, Robbers’ Den, Tig, Tip-Billet and the like; we had a repertoire of seasonal street-games pursued to the point of exhaustion because they were fun. If in spite of our endless and vigorous gambols some of the Haworth Boys were physically a poor lot it was for reasons of deprivation which Swedish Drill did nothing to put right.

One day in morning assembly at school our Headmaster, Mr. Hirst, a terrifying figure to all of us, announced that his Majesty’s Inspector would visit school: and he required that every pupil should come to school on the appointed day wearing boots or shoes. No clogs! Mother absolutely refused to let us wear our Sunday boots on weekdays: we pleaded, whined, sulked, said that we should be caned; but she was adamant. We must each polish our clogs until they looked as good as boots: and this we did. Next morning we walked up Butt Lane to school, our clogs rattling on the setts. The headmaster with his pince-nez, his spotted bow-tie and his cream spats stood in the large ashphalted school-yard with all classes lined for inspection. To our dismay we could see no other pupils in clogs. We, the Scarborough platoon, walked gingerly across the yard to our ranks. The clatter of our six pairs of clogs seemed to fill the whole Worth Valley as with gunshots. He brought the whole group of us to the front of the parade so that we might know how totally we had disgraced our school. All day as the Inspector strolled round our classes I hid my feet under the desk, afraid lest I should be dragged before His Majesty George the Fifth as a disaffected rebel fit only for the gallows.

It was at least a negative virtue of Haworth School that it wasted no time or money on field-games: it did not recognise the existence of football or cricket. We were not indoctrinated into the cult of organised games and sport as are poor devils In better schools. We were not taught that manliness - contrary to all the evidence - is best achieved by spending untold hours in pursuing the flying ball. Opportunities for field-games were not then provided for working-class children, for reasons which must have seemed logical enough. People who have money do not need to work and must therefore be helped to fill their time by some form of physical activity - riding horses, rowing boats, hitting golf-balls, chasing a rugby ball. Such people’s schooldays must be full of games. People who have no money and never will have money must work to live: it would be a waste of money to teach them to play games: if they work as they should work, about sixty hours a week, they will have no time for games. State schools were built to impart a minimum of useful knowledge and not to encourage sporting pastimes. Games were the exclusive sphere of grammar-schools and schools public or private. So by good fortune we entirely escaped the imposition on our young minds of a Belief in games. Out of school we had an ample stock of traditional and home-made pastimes which were varied as the months, purposeful, strenuous and entirely voluntary. School had no more impact on our physical activities than it had on our religious upbringing: and for the same reason - we did not need it, we could provide better ourselves. It was not until I reached grammar-school that I came across games as a cult, Games as a social accomplishment, Games as a key to Character Building and Leadership: and although I was then only eleven years old I knew that this was all nonsense, and that Compulsory Games is a contradiction-in-terms, self-confessed humbug.

What then did Haworth Board School give me during the seven years I spent there? Certainly it taught me the three R’s and taught them extremely well: I not only acquired these basic skills but was left with an eager wish to pursue them further. The school gave us literacy but perhaps little more. It was not then thought that the school should be a general provider, a wet-nurse and social-welfare agent for its scholars. It cannot be said the school provided a vigorous cultural stimulus: I cannot recall any book that we read in school; the school had no library, no supply of reading matter. School, which taught me so much about the mechanics of language, did not awaken in me a delight in print; this I got from my father who was much more widely read than any of my teachers.

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