Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools came once a year on a date of which previous notice had been given. There was no singing or quarrelling on the way to school that morning. The children, in clean pinafores and well blackened boots, walked deep in thought; or, with open spelling or table books in hand, tried to make up in an hour for all their wasted yesterdays.
Although the date of ‘Inspector’s’ visit had been notified, the time had not. Some years he would come to Fordlow in the morning; other years in the afternoon, having examined another school earlier. So, after prayers, copybooks were given out and the children settled down for a long wait. A few of the more stolid, leaning forward with tongues slightly protruding, would copy laboriously, ‘Lightly on the up-strokes, heavy on the down’, but most of the children were too apprehensive even to attempt to work and the mistress did not urge them, for she felt even more apprehensive herself and did not want nervously executed copies to witness against her.
Ten — eleven — the hands of the clock dragged on, and forty odd hearts might almost be heard thumping when at last came the sound of wheels crunching on gravel and two top hats and the top of a whip appeared outside the upper panes of the large end window.
Her Majesty’s Inspector was an elderly clergyman, a little man with an immense paunch and tiny grey eyes like gimlets. He had the reputation of being ‘strict’, but that was a mild way of describing his autocratic demeanour and scathing judgement. His voice was an exasperated roar and his criticism was a blend of outraged learning and sarcasm. Fortunately, nine out of ten of his examinees were proof against the latter. He looked at the rows of children as if he hated them and at the mistress as if he despised her. The Assistant Inspector was also a clergyman, but younger, and, in comparison, almost human. Black eyes and very red lips shone through the bushiness of the whiskers which almost covered his face. The children in the lower classes, which he examined, were considered fortunate.
The mistress did not have to teach a class in front of the great man, as later; her part was to put out the books required and to see that the pupils had the pens and paper they needed. Most of the time she hovered about the Inspector, replying in low tones to his scathing remarks, or, with twitching lips, smiling encouragement at any child who happened to catch her eye.
What kind of a man the Inspector really was it is impossible to say. He may have been a great scholar, a good parish priest, and a good friend and neighbour to people of his own class. One thing, however, is certain, he did not care for or understand children, at least not national school children. In homely language, he was the wrong man for the job. The very sound of his voice scattered the few wits of the less gifted, and even those who could have done better were too terrified in his presence to be able to collect their thoughts or keep their hands from trembling.
But, slowly as the hands of the clock seemed to move, the afternoon wore on. Classes came out and toed the chalk line to read; other classes bent over their sums, or wrote letters to grandmothers describing imaginary summer holidays. Some wrote to the great man’s dictation pieces full of hard spelling words. One year he made the confusion of their minds doubly confused by adopting the, to them, new method of giving out the stops by name: ‘Water-fowl and other aquatic birds dwell on their banks semicolon while on the surface of the placid water float the wide-spreading leaves of the Victoria regia comma and other lilies and water dash plants full stop.’
Of course, they all wrote the names of the stops, which, together with their spelling, would have made their papers rich reading had there been any one there capable of enjoying it.
The composition class made a sad hash of their letters. The children had been told beforehand that they must fill at least one page, so they wrote in a very large hand and spaced their lines well; but what to say was the difficulty! One year the Inspector, observing a small boy sitting bolt upright gazing before him, called savagely: ‘Why are you not writing — you at the end of the row? You have your pen and your paper, have you not?’
‘Yes, thank you, sir.’
‘Then why are you idling?’
‘Please, sir, I was only thinking what to say.’
A grunt was the only answer. What other was possible from one who must have known well that pen, ink, and paper were no good without at least a little thinking.
Once he gave out to Laura’s class two verses of The Ancient Mariner, reading them through first, then dictating them very slowly, with an air of aloof disdain, and yet rolling the lines on his tongue as if he relished them:
‘All in a hot and copper sky,’ he bawled. Then his voice softened. So perhaps there was another side to his nature.
At last the ordeal was over. No one would know who had passed and who had not for a fortnight; but that did not trouble the children at all. They crept like mice from the presence, and then, what shouting and skipping and tumbling each other in the dust as soon as they were out of sight and hearing!
When the papers arrived and the examination results were read out it was surprising to find what a number had passed. The standard must have been very low, for the children had never been taught some of the work set, and in what they had learned nervous dread had prevented them from reaching their usual poor level.
Another Inspector, also a clergyman, came to examine the school in Scripture. But that was a different matter. On those days the Rector was present, and the mistress, in her best frock, had nothing to do beyond presiding at the harmonium for hymn singing. The examination consisted of Scripture questions, put to a class as a whole and answered by any one who was able to shoot up a hand to show they had the requisite knowledge; of portions of the Church Catechism, repeated from memory in order round the class; and of a written paper on some set Biblical subject. There was little nervous tension on that day, for ‘Scripture Inspector’ beamed upon and encouraged the children, even to the extent of prompting those who were not word-perfect. While the writing was going on, he and the Rector talked in undertones, laughing aloud at the doings of ‘old So-and-So’, and, at one point, the mistress slipped away into her cottage and brought them cups of tea on a tray.
The children did reasonably well, for Scripture was the one subject they were thoroughly taught; even the dullest knew most of the Church Catechism by heart. The written paper was the stumbling-block to many; but this was Laura and Edmund’s best subject and both succeeded in different years in carrying off the large, calf-bound, gilt-edged ‘Book of Common Prayer’ which was given as a prize — the only prize given at that school.
Laura won hers by means of a minor miracle. That day, for the first and last time in her life, the gift of words descended upon her. The subject set was ‘The Life of Moses’, and although up to that moment she had felt no special affection for the great law-giver, a sudden wave of hero-worship surged over her. While her classmates were still wrinkling their brows and biting their pens, she was well away with the baby in the bulrushes scene. Her pen flew over her paper as she filled sheet after sheet, and she had got the Children of Israel through the Red Sea, across the desert, and was well in sight of Pisgah when the little bell on the mistress’s table tinkled that time was up.
The Inspector, who had been watching her, was much amused by her verbosity and began reading her paper at once, although, as a rule, he carried the essay away to read. After three or four pages he laughingly declared that he must have more tea as ‘that desert’ made him feel thirsty.
Such inspiration never visited her again. She returned to her usual pedestrian style of essay writing, in which there were so many alterations and erasures that, although she wrote a fair amount, she got no more marks than those who got stuck at ‘My dear Grandmother’.
There was a good deal of jealousy and unkindness among the parents over the passes and still more over the one annual prize for Scripture. Those whose children had not done well in examinations would never believe that the success of others was due to merit. The successful ones were spoken of as ‘favourites’ and disliked. ‘You ain’t a-goin’ to tell me that that young So-and-So did any better n’r our Jim,’ some disappointed mother would say. ‘Stands to reason that what he could do our Jimmy could do, and better, too. Examinations are all a lot of humbug, if you asks me.’ The parents of those who had passed were almost apologetic. ”Tis all luck,’ they would say. ‘Our Tize happened to hit it this time; next year it’ll be your Alice’s turn.’ They showed no pleasure in any small success their own children might have. Indeed, it is doubtful if they felt any, except in the case of a boy who, having passed the fourth standard, could leave school and start work. Their ideal for themselves and their children was to keep to the level of the normal. To them outstanding ability was no better than outstanding stupidity.
Boys who had been morose or rebellious during their later schooldays were often transformed when they got upon a horse’s back or were promoted to driving a dungcart afield. For the first time in their lives, they felt themselves persons of importance. They bandied lively words with the men and gave themselves manly airs at home with their younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes, when two or three boys were working together, they were too lively, and very little work was done. ‘One boy’s a boy; two boys be half a boy, and three boys be no boy at all’, ran the old country saying. ‘Little gallasses’, the men called them when vexed; and, in more indulgent moods, ‘young dogs’. ‘Ain’t he a regular young dog?’ a fond parent would ask, when a boy, just starting work, would set his cap at an angle, cut himself an ash stick, and try to walk like a man.
They were lovable little fellows, in their stiff new corduroys and hobnailed boots, with their broad, childish faces, powdered with freckles and ready to break into dimples at a word. For a few years they were happy enough, for they loved their work and did not, as yet, feel the pinch of their poverty. The pity of it was that the calling they were entering should have been so unappreciated and underpaid. There was nothing the matter with the work, as work, the men agreed. It was a man’s life, and they laughed scornfully at the occupations of some who looked down upon them; but the wages were ridiculously low and the farm labourer was so looked down upon and slighted that the day was soon to come when a country boy leaving school would look for any other way of earning a living than on the land.
At that time boys of a roving disposition who wanted to see a bit of the world before settling down went into the Army. Nearly every family in the hamlet had its soldier son or uncle or cousin, and it was a common sight to see a scarlet coat going round the Rise. After their Army service, most of the hamlet-bred young men returned and took up the old life on the land; but a few settled in other parts of the country. One was a policeman in Birmingham, another kept a public house, and a third was said to be a foreman in a brewery in Staffordshire. A few other boys left the hamlet to become farm servants in the North of England. To obtain such situations, they went to Banbury Fair and stood in the Market to be hired by an agent. They were engaged for a year and during that time were lodged and fed with the farmer’s family, but received little or no money until the year was up, when they were paid in a lump sum. They were usually well treated, especially in the matter of food; but were glad to return at the end of the year from what was, to them, a foreign country where, at first, they could barely understand the speech.
At ‘the hiring’ the different grades of farm workers stood in groups, according to their occupations — the shepherds with their crooks, the carters with whips and tufts of horsehair in their hats, and the maid-servants relying upon their sex to distinguish them. The young boys, not as yet specialists, were easily picked out by their youth and their innocent, wondering faces. The maids who secured situations by hiring themselves out at the Fair were farm-house servants of the rougher kind. None of the hamlet girls attended the Fair for that purpose.
Squire at the Manor House, known as ‘our Squire’, not out of any particular affection or respect, but in contradistinction to the richer and more important squire in a neighbouring parish, was at that time unmarried, though verging on middle age, and his mother still reigned as Lady of the Manor. Two or three times a year she called at the school to examine the needlework, a tall, haughty, and still handsome old dame in a long, flowing, pale-grey silk dustcloak and small, close-fitting, black bonnet, with two tiny King Charles’s spaniels on a leash.
It would be almost impossible for any one born in this century to imagine the pride and importance of such small country gentlepeople in the ‘eighties. As far as was known, the Bracewells were connected with no noble family; they had but little land, kept up but a small establishment, and were said in the village and hamlet to be ‘poor as crows’. Yet, by virtue of having been born into a particular caste and of living in the ‘big house’ of the parish, they expected to reign over their poorer neighbours and to be treated by them with the deference due to royalty. Like royalty, too, they could be charming to those who pleased them. Those who did not had to beware.
A good many of the cottagers still played up to them, the women curtseying to the ground when their carriage passed and speaking in awed tones in their presence. Others, conscious of their own independence — for none of the hamlet people worked on their land or occupied their cottages — and having breathed the new free air of democracy, which was then beginning to percolate even into such remote places, were inclined to laugh at their pretensions. ‘We don’t want nothin’ from they,’ they would say, ‘and us shouldn’t get it if us did. Let the old gal stay at home and see that her own tea-caddy’s kept locked up, not come nosing round here axin’ how many spoonsful we puts in ours.’
Mrs. Bracewell knew nothing of such speeches. If she had, she would probably have thought the world — her world — was coming to an end. Which it was. In her girlhood under the Regency, she had been taught her duty towards the cottagers, and that included reproving them for their wasteful habits. It also included certain charities. She was generous out of all proportion to her small means; keeping two aged women pensioners, doling out soup in the winter to those she called ‘the deserving poor’, and entertaining the school-children to a tea and a magic-lantern entertainment every Christmas.
Meanwhile, as the old servants in and about her house died or were pensioned off, they were not replaced. By the middle of the ‘eighties only a cook and a house-parlourmaid sat down to meals in the vast servants’ hall where a large staff had formerly feasted. Grass grew between the flagstones in the stable yard where generations of grooms and coachmen had hissed over the grooming of hunters and carriage horses, and the one old mare which drew her wagonette when she paid calls took a turn at drawing the lawn-mower, or even the plough, betweenwhiles.
As she got poorer, she got prouder, more overbearing in manner and more acid in tone, and the girls trembled when she came into school. especially Laura, who knew that her sewing would never pass that eagle eye without stern criticism. She would work slowly along the form, examining each garment, and exclaiming that the sewing was so badly done that she did not know what the world was coming to. Stitches were much too large; the wrong side of the work was not as well finished as the right side; buttonholes were bungled and tapes sewn on askew; and the feather-stitching looked as though a spider had crawled over the piece of work. But when she came to examine the work of one of the prize sewers her face would light up. ‘Very neat! Exquisitely sewn!’ she would say, and have the stitching passed round the class as an example.
The schoolmistress attended at her elbow, overawed, like the children, but trying to appear at her ease. Miss Holmes, in her day, had called Mrs. Bracewell ‘ma’am’ and sketched a slight curtsey as she held open the door for her. The later mistresses called her ‘Mrs. Bracewell’, but not very frequently or with conviction.
At that time the position of a village schoolmistress was a trying one socially. Perhaps it is still trying in some places, for it is not many years ago that the President of a Women’s Institute wrote: ‘We are very democratic here. Our Committee consists of three ladies, three women, and the village schoolmistress.’ That mistress, though neither lady nor woman, was still placed. In the ‘eighties the schoolmistress was so nearly a new institution that a vicar’s wife, in a real dilemma, said: ‘I should like to ask Miss So-and-So to tea; but do I ask her to kitchen or dining-room tea?’
Miss Holmes had settled that question herself when she became engaged to the squire’s gardener. Miss Shepherd was more ambitious socially. Indeed, democratic as she was in theory, the dear soul was in practice a little snobbish. She courted the notice of the betters, though, she was wont to declare, they were only betters when they were better men and women. An invitation to tea at the Rectory was, to her, something to be fished for before and talked about afterwards, and when the daughter of a poor, but aristocratic local family set up as a music teacher, Miss Shepherd at once decided to learn the violin.
Laura was once the delighted witness of a funny little display of this weakness. It was the day of the school treat at the Manor House, and the children had met at the school and were being marched, two and two, through garden and shrubbery paths to the back door. Other guests, such as the curate, the doctor’s widow, and the daughters of the rich farmer, who were to have tea in the drawing-room while the children feasted in the servants’ hall, were going to the front door.
Now, Miss Holmes had always marched right in with her pupils and sipped her own tea and nibbled her cake between attending to their wants; but Miss Shepherd was more ambitious. When the procession reached a point where the shrubbery path crossed the main drive which led to the front door, she paused and considered; then said, ‘I think I will go to the front door, dears. I want to see how well you can behave without me,’ and off she branched up the drive in her best brown frock, tight little velvet hip-length jacket, and long fur boa wound like a snake round her neck, followed by at least one pair of cynically smiling little eyes.
She had the satisfaction of ringing the front-door bell and drinking tea in the drawing-room; but it was a short-lived triumph. In a very few minutes she was out in the servants’ hall, passing bread and butter to her charges and whispering to one of her monitors that ‘Dear Mrs. Bracewell gave me my tea first, because, as she said, she knew I was anxious to get back to my children.’
Squire himself called at the school once a year; but nobody felt nervous when his red, jovial face appeared in the doorway, and smiles broke out all around when he told his errand. He was arranging a concert, to take place in the schoolroom, and would like some of the children to sing. He took his responsibilities less seriously than his mother did hers; spending most of his days roaming the fields, and spinneys with a gun under his arm and a brace of spaniels at his heels, leaving her to manage house and gardens and what was left of the family estate, as well as to support the family dignity. His one indoor accomplishment was playing the banjo and singing Negro songs. He had trained a few of the village youths to support him in his Negro Minstrel Troupe, which always formed the backbone of the annual concert programme. A few other items were contributed by his and his mother’s friends and the gaps were filled up by the school-children.
So, after his visit, the school became animated. What should be sung and who should sing it were the questions of the moment. Finally, it was arranged that everybody should sing something. Even Laura, who had neither voice nor ear for music, was to join in the communal songs.
They sang, very badly, mildly pretty spring and Nature songs from the School Song Book, such as they had sung the year before and the year before that, some of them actually the same songs. One year Miss Shepherd thought it ‘would be nice’ to sing a Primrose League song to ‘please Squire’. One verse ran:
O come, ye Tories, all unite
To bear the Primrose badge with might,
And work and hope and strive and fight
And pray may God defend the right.
When Laura’s father heard this, he wrote a stiffly polite little note to the mistress, saying that, as a Liberal of pronounced views, he could not allow a child of his to sing such a song. Laura did not tell him she had already been asked to sing very softly, not to put the other singers out of tune. ‘Just move your lips, dear,’ the mistress had said. Laura, in fact, was to have gone on to help dress the stage, where all the girls who were taking part in the programme sat in a row throughout the performance, forming a background for the soloists. That year she had the pleasure of sitting among the audience and hearing the criticism, as well as seeing the stage and listening to the programme. A good three-pennyworth (‘children, half-price’).
When the great night came, the whole population of the neighbourhood assembled, for it was the only public entertainment of the year. Squire and his Negro Minstrel Troupe was the great attraction. They went on, dressed in red and blue, their hands and faces blackened with burnt cork, and rattled their bones and cracked their jokes and sang such songs as:
A friend of Darwin’s came to me,
A million years ago said he
You had a tail and no great toe.
I answered him, ‘That may be so,
But I’ve one now, I’ll let you know —
Very few in the audience had heard of Darwin or his theory; but they all knew what ‘G-r-r-r-r-r out!’ meant, especially when emphasised by a kick on Tom Binns’s backside by Squire’s boot. The schoolroom rocked. ‘I pretty well busted me sides wi’ laughin’,’ they said afterwards.
After the applause had died down, a little bell would ring and a robust curate from a neighbouring village would announce the next item. Most of these were piano pieces, played singly, or as duets, by young ladies in white evening frocks, cut in a modest V at the neck, and white kid gloves reaching to the elbow. As their contributions to the programme were announced, they would rise from the front seat in the audience; a gentleman — two gentlemen — would spring forward, and between them hand the fair performer up the three shallow steps which led to the platform and hand her over to yet another gentleman, who led her to the piano and held her gloves and fan and turned her music pages.
‘Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle’, went the piano, and ‘Warble, warble, warble’ went the voices, as the performers worked their conscientious way through the show piano pieces and popular drawing-room ballads of the moment. Each performer was greeted and dismissed with a round of applause, which served the double purpose of encouraging the singer and relieving the boredom of the audience. Youths and young men in the back seats would sometimes carry this too far, drowning the programme with their stamping and shouting until they had to be reprimanded, when they would subside sulkily, complaining, ‘Us’ve paid our sixpences, ain’t we?’
Once, when the athletic curate sang ‘You should see Me dance the Polka’ he accompanied the song with such violent action that he polked part of the platform down and left the double row of schoolgirls hanging in the air on the backmost planks while he finished his song on the floor:
You should see me dance the polka,
You should see me cover the ground,
You should see my coat tails flying
As I dance my way around.
Edmund and Laura had the words and actions by heart, if not the tune, and polked that night in their mother’s bedroom until they woke up the baby and were slapped. A sad ending to an evening of pure bliss.
When the school-children on the platform rose and came forward to sing they, also, were applauded; but their performance and those of the young ladies were but the lettuce in the salad; all the flavour was in the comic items.
Now, Miss Shepherd was a poet, and had several times turned out a neat verse to supplement those of a song she considered too short. One year she took the National Anthem in hand and added a verse. It ran:
May every village school
Uphold Victoria’s rule,
To Church and State be true,
God save the Queen.
Which pleased Squire so much that he talked of sending it to the newspapers.
Going home with lanterns swinging down the long dark road, the groups would discuss the evening’s entertainment. Squire’s Minstrels and the curate’s songs were always unreservedly praised and the young ladies’ performances were tolerated, although, often, a man would complain, ‘I don’t know if I be goin’ deaf, or what; but I couldn’t hear a dommed word any of ’em said.’ As to the school-children’s efforts, criticism was applied more to how they looked than to their musical performance. Those who had scuffled or giggled, or even blushed, heard of it from their parents, while such remarks were frequent as: ‘Got up to kill, that young Mary Ann Parish was!’ or ‘I declare I could see the hem o’ young Rose Mitchell’s breeches showin’,’ or ‘That Em Tuffrey made a poor show. Whatever wer’ her mother a thinkin’ on?’ Taken all in all, they enjoyed the concert almost as much as their grandchildren enjoy the cinema.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00