St Giles C of E School Memories

1945 - 1951

Cedric Gilson

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The 1884 (1) rebuild of the school stood in Blanche Lane just above the village centre and was aligned roughly on a SW-NE axis. Externally, it looked pleasantly mellow for a Victorian public edifice of its time but the interior was austere. Architecturally, it comprised three major compartments: an infant school with two classrooms, a two-storey teachers’ residence in the middle of the building and a junior compartment at the north-eastern end with two main rooms. One of the classrooms in the infant school was used for storage but, crucially, it doubled as an air raid precaution shelter during the Second World War. To effect this, the ceiling was reinforced by several stout wooden beams. In the event of an enemy attack, there was an emergency route for children from the north-east end of the school to the improvised shelter via the teachers’ residence. Little bomb damage is recorded for South Mimms but there are contemporaneous eye-witness accounts of a German V1 flying bomb passing nearly over the school. It must have been one of the last to be launched as it was towards the end of the war but still sufficient to cause concern.

The bigger of the two classrooms at the north-eastern end of the building could be divided in two by a folding half-glazed (obscured glass) heavy timber partition or screen. The older children (see comments below) occupied the space created by it that was nearest the teachers’ residence and a class of juniors the other half. There was also a connected smaller classroom used by juniors on the side nearest Blanche Lane. A belfry was positioned over the north-east end in which was a calling bell, the ringing rope for which hung down into a quarry-tiled floor cloakroom and entrance lobby.  The bell never was rung in the memory of the writer.

Prior to 1947, there had been three departments in the school: infants (5 – 7 years), juniors (7 – 11 years) and seniors (11 – 15 years). As the school leaving age then was 15 years, many children finished their secondary education at that point and with no qualifications (2). After 1947, the secondary school department transferred to Parkfield in Potters Bar, thus vacating space at St. Giles. Consequently, there was no further need to divide the big classroom with the partition and it became an assembly and activity hall for the juniors. The aforesaid smaller classroom became the main teaching space for junior children. Curiously, It was marked by having two racks of books enclosed by frames along one wall that could be let down as rests on which to inspect the books and it is believed this arrangement constituted a lending library for the village. It was open only on certain evenings.

The interior of the school would now be considered primitive. Throughout, there were bare floorboards. Lighting was electric but no hot water was available anywhere in the building. It cannot be recalled whether there was any in the teachers’ residence but it is suspected they heated their own.  There was a single cold tap in the latrines that froze in winter. Heating in the classrooms was by means of open coal fires that were unequal to the task. Solid fuel stoves stood in some of the classrooms but some never were used for safety reasons (apparently). Thermal insulation had not been discovered then and daylight could be seen around the edges of the external doors when closed. The windows all were high, presumably to prevent distraction of the children, but the rooms were very light. The boys’ urinals were open to the sky. The entrance lobby/cloakroom under the belfry had a floor that had become concave with time and this filled with dirty water if it rained heavily, necessitating  interesting gymnastics in order to get to the coats! There was a high brick bomb blast wall outside this entrance and it remained for a while after the war.

Until 1947, the head teacher was Frederick Gowar MBE (1881 – 1968). He had been a stalwart of local education and was also a local councillor. After his retirement there was a succession of teachers, including a Mr and Mrs Smith (Mr Smith was Head Teacher), who were very hard line disciplinarians, and a Richard Bootman, who had then only recently married and qualified. Ever present was Dorothy Louise Philpott, a teacher for forty-four years at St. Giles. A testament to this is inscribed on her gravestone alongside the nave in the local churchyard. She was also Lady Sacristan in the church and Sunday School teacher. Infant school children were taught by the Misses Buxton and Hadley, who emerged directly into the classroom from their residence. The writer remembers doing sums with chalk on wooded-framed slates in the infant department and taking them to the teacher’s table for marking. There was also a board showing number pairs, that is, those that add up to ten, and this is still remembered. The vicar was the Reverend Allen Hay, who was the incumbent from 1898 to 1954 (3). The School Caretaker was Mrs Blackman, who lived in the nearest of the cottages that were then next to the school in Blanche Lane.

Teaching in those days was rigorous and basic, though sound. Much of it was by rote, repetition and rules. Handwriting, for instance, was a taught subject with much stress placed upon it. It was assumed that strong discipline and class order were fundamental necessities for learning and there were punishments for inattention. Use of a light cane on the hand was practised according to the regime at one time and could be, for instance, for failing to have memorized a passage of biblical text. The overall educational standard was high, though, many final year juniors succeeding in passing the (then) 11+ examination and gaining places at grammar schools such as Michenden in Southgate (closed 1974). The remainder went on to Parkfield. As a church school, there was a daily assembly entailing worship and the first period of teaching always was scripture study. There was always one church service per week. On religious festivals like Ascension Day and any others that did not fall within school holidays, the children marched to the church from school first thing in the morning and attended a service. Afterwards, the day was free.

The playgrounds were extensive with asphalted surfaces. There was loose segregation between infants and juniors and between boys and girls. On Empire Day, now a long defunct occasion, a large union flag was fixed to the rear wall of the building and seemingly very high. The children marched in a circle in the playground, saluting the flag as they came up to it. The practice was terminated, rather vehemently, when Mr Smith became head teacher. A small kitchen garden was in a corner and, for a time, two or three beehives produced honey for home consumption by families of the children. Chickens were kept in a chicken house in the grounds but what became of the eggs cannot be recalled. The view from the playgrounds was an arc from the north to the west to include Earl’s Farm, Ridge Hill, then still at its full elevation, and otherwise unbroken countryside.

No dining facilities existed at the school. Those able to go home for lunch were allowed to do so. For the remainder, meals were taken in St. Giles Parish Hall in the village centre. Since there were no cooking facilities there either, it is assumed that meals were brought in by Council transport and were pre-heated.

Unusually, St. Giles possessed a radio on which were broadcast educational programmes for schools by the BBC. These events were eagerly anticipated by the junior school and the writer still remembers programmes describing such disparate subjects as diabetes and counterpoint in musical composition. St. Giles might have been ahead of its time and its contemporaries in this respect.

Text Box: DText Box: EText Box: CCText Box: BText Box: A 


St. Giles C of E School, Blanche Lane, South Mimms. Elevation from the South-East
Reproduced from a sepia-toned photographic postcard circa xxxx
KEY (to be set up!)
A: Infant School
B: Teachers’ Residence
C: Junior/senior school
D: Main entrance to Junior/senior school and cloakroom lobby
E: Belfry

21st August 2016.

2 The GCE Ordinary Level Examination (the forerunner of GCSEs) was not introduced until the 1950s and usually required children to be 16 years of age before sitting it. There is no information on the numbers of children going on to other schools from St. Giles in order to achive a fuller education.