11th May 2024

Terence Atkins

School Memory

Every time I hear Percy Grainger’s famous Country Gardens my mind goes back to the early fifties and assemblies at Churchfields Infants’, which always ended with Miss Carr thumping it out on the piano as we trooped back to our classrooms. The ancient Miss Carr had started as a pupil-teacher way back in 1918.


Another vivid memory of infant assemblies is of the wonderful headmistress, Miss Bradford, walking between the lines as we sang, to pick out the best voices. I was proud to be one of those chosen and sent to the front, but what followed I can’t recall! However, I do remember the first Christmas and Miss Chalk teaching us “Snowy flakes are falling softly, clothing all the world in white” to the tune of the carol “Infant holy, Infant lowly”. Miss Chalk’s classroom was heated by an open coal fire and the chimney is still visible on the now Redbridge Drama Centre, on the west side of the building with the narrow pathway (from which departing parents would wave through the window to their smiling or occasionally tearful offspring each morning).


From Miss Chalk I progressed to Miss Cole and thence Miss Harrison (who later became head of Chingford Infants’), but for the whole of my second year I had the fearsomely strict Mrs Hocking. One day she had to take over as acting head because Miss Bradford suffered a car accident driving to school. We were all very impressed to learn that Miss Bradford used to drive every day to Churchfields from Southend, for was not that the seaside and the distant destination of buses and coaches seen at Gates Corner disappearing down the slope of the aptly named Southend Road, often packed to the gunnels at weekends!


A bright moment in my final term of the Infants’ was having a day off for the Coronation, 2nd June 1953. A little later Mrs Hocking was delighted when someone’s dinner money included a brand new shiny Elizabeth II coin. A week of school dinners, by the way, cost 2/11, that is 7d a day (about 3p). Shortly after the Coronation the whole school was taken on foot to see the film of the conquest of Everest and thus Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing became our heroes.


Assemblies in the Junior school were infrequent until the enlightened Mr VH Williams arrived, following the retirement in 1955 of the frightening, cane-wielding, glass-eyed Mr ER Walford, headmaster for 30 years. Rousing hymns like “And did those feet” (Jerusalem) and “Mine eyes have seen the glory” (John Brown’s body) were sung – and accompanied – with gusto. There was no nonsense about changing (dumbing down) the words, lest they be not understood; and indeed Hymns for Use in Schools served us well, not only at Churchfields but thereafter throughout secondary schooling. Class music in the Juniors’ consisted mostly of occasional singing, but the school was fortunate in having the kindly and inspiring Miss Phillips (later Mrs Harding) who ran a fine choir with a reputation for successes in both the Woodford and Stratford Music Festivals. We won first place with The Dream-seller by Markham Lee, singing from memory in the nearby Woodford Memorial Hall. Miss Phillips was an experienced choral singer and I remain grateful that some of her tips to us young singers I continue to find useful in my own work with choirs.


A few final memories… Class sizes were enormous, with the ‘post war bulge’ taking the blame. I managed to stay in the A stream (as did my sister and two of my three brothers, all older), but I did not shine, being placed one year, for example, 49th out of 62 in the class. The toilets were across the playground and would occasionally freeze in the winter. School meals had to be taken in the Infants’ hall until a decent-sized canteen was at last opened in about 1955, down a path to near where the current school building stands. It was in the canteen that I recall us gathering to hear a special guest, namely Enid Blyton, who encouraged us all to become ‘Busy Bees’.


Terence Atkins