Starting school in Crawley during World War One

Stanley Burr
Stanley Burr

As the new generation of five-year-olds prepare for their first day at ‘big school’, lets look back almost 100 years to the day another little boy headed to his first lessons.

Stanley Burr moved to Crawley in 1914 at the age of two and lived in the town for 97 years.

Robinson Road School

Robinson Road School

In 2008, he shared his memories of the village that was destined to become a sprawling new town.

“I started school at the age of five in January 1917. In those days education was a legal requirement for everyone up to the age of 14.

The thing that is most in my mind is that at the age of 5, my mother took me to school and introduced me to the headmistress, who was a Miss Coward. She then left me. At lunch time I walked home on my own and returned to school on my own after lunch. My mother never came near the school again.

At that time in Crawley, there were two schools with a playground shared between the two. There were the Infants and the Primary school which we called ‘The Big School’. Teachers I remember from that time were Mr Tongue, Miss Polly Bennett and Miss Holman. Polly Bennett remained a teacher in Crawley for many years and taught not only my wife and I but many years later both our daughters.

Sarah Robinson

Sarah Robinson

The building was divided into three classrooms with a folding partition separating them. With the partitions open it made a big hall which was used for assembly every morning but it was also used for social events such as concerts. The lavatories were all outside and the pupils had to use them in all weathers even in the coldest of winters when most of the time they were completely frozen up.

The two schools were known jointly as The Council School and were situated in what later became Robinson Road. There was also a Church of England school called St Margaret’s and this still continues to this day on a new site at Ifield.

Robinson Road was named after Sarah Robinson, who lived at the Manor House which gave its name to Manor Royal. The Manor House stood at the entrance to the estate. She came from a Quaker family who were famous for making Lemon Barley Water and other soft drinks. She was a 19th century lady and local philanthropist. She was instrumental in setting up both the Crawley Hospital and the first school known initially as The British School.

They came into being through her work so the name of the road was changed to honour her.

The road was originally known as Church Lane. In those days it ran from the top of Horsham Road near the current junction with Goffs Park Road, straight down into the town ending at St Johns Church. The railway was not there at the time but it later cut the road in two and the road was named Post Office Road because it was the site of the Post Office and the Telephone Exchange.

I don’t remember much about the actual education but I do have an abiding memory of the visit of the school dentist. Each term the whole school would have their teeth examined by the school dentist. I remember having to have a filling. This was done without any anaesthetic and with a drill operated by a treadle and very slow moving. It was the most appalling agony that I can remember.

Another frequent visitor was the nit lady. Most children at the school had head lice because if one had them we all had them. I had them from time to time because standards of hygiene were not all that good in those days. The nit lady combed out hair with a very fine comb and it was very painful because children’s hair was invariably tangled in those days. Children who had nits were given a letter to take home to their parents who were advised to wash their hair in carbolic soap.

The school leaving age was 14 and there was no universal secondary education. Most of the children would have gone out to work from the age of 14. The boys would have gone into a trade like building. The largest employer in Crawley was Longleys the builders and the second largest was Cheals Nursery at Lowfield Heath.

The girls would either have gone into domestic service or would have worked as shop assistants or seamstresses until they married. It was usual for girls to give up work when they got married and in fact in some jobs girls were forced to leave employment when they married. In particular girls who worked in the civil service and in banks could not continue their employment once they married.

It was possible for a small number of children to gain scholarships to go on to secondary education. These were awarded by the County Council on a means tested basis.

There was a private commercial school in Crawley where youngsters could go after elementary school to be taught bookkeeping and typing etc. It was privately owned by a Mr Morris Rushton who lived in a house called Boscobel House in Crawley High Street.

I was fortunate in that my father could just about afford to pay for me to go on to school in Horsham. The school is now called Collyers but in those days it was known as Horsham Grammar School. It was a fee paying school and took both day pupils and boarders.

We had to go by train on the London Brighton and South Coast Railway which used to run a special shuttle service between Three Bridges and Horsham. The driver would either sit in a cab at the front or the rear of the train. It was a steam train with two coaches which had a corridor but no doors to the compartments which were open to the corridor.

The train was pulled by Terrier class engines which I believe are still in use on The Bluebell Railway.

When a new boy started at the school we used to get hold of them and put them under the seat on the train. Then we would take the seat cushion off and put it in front of them so that they were trapped under the seat. Then we would all beat the cushions as hard as we could so that all the dirt and dust came out and went all over the poor ‘new boy’.

If they were wearing a new school uniform it would be completely filthy and as it would have been a major cost to the family this was quite a serious issue.

School uniform was optional and not everyone wore it but the one thing you did have to wear was a school cap. You had to wear it properly at all times, not only at school but also during the holidays.

I still have an old photograph of me with my mother on the beach at Deal in the summer holidays and I still had my school cap on.

At the end of your education you got the Oxford School Certificate or if you stayed on The Higher School Certificate issued by Oxford University. Many employers insisted on it.

I remember as a child, the great influenza pandemic when millions of people died. There were quite a few people in Crawley who died including a number of children.

In the period following the First World War there was a very deep depression and no state support. It was quite common to see children begging in the streets in Crawley and I can remember seeing children coming to school barefoot in the summer.

One of the best butchers in the town was Horace Yetman who was a pork butcher. His shop was always besieged on Saturday morning by people seeking his pork sausages which were one and three pence a pound. Beef sausages were only eight pence a pound which meant that you could buy a sausage of a penny and many people used to do that.

In my childhood, most o f the road transport was by horses and there were far more horses than cars which were the exception. There were two blacksmiths and at any time you could smell the burning of horses hooves.

There were several fishmongers in the town but no refrigerators but there was a firm from Burgess Hill call Faccenda who used to deliver huge blocks of ice every day. I think they would have been about 1 cwt each. The fish was submerged under chunks of ice to keep it fresh. It would have been delivered to Crawley by train from Billingsgate Market and the fishmongers would collect it from the station on little wooden carts.”

Mr Burr died in 2011, aged 99.

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