Paul Bland remembers Far Cotton Primary School

Penny chews, Lion ink, Bishop Hatto and a trip to London Zoo... Paul Bland remembers life at Far Cotton Junior School in the 1960s.

The school on Main Road was beckoning in 1959 and the end of August soon arrived.  Further from home on Briar Hill Walk, Far Cotton County Primary School was, nonetheless, an integral part of the community, albeit approached by a different route.  I still had to descend the two Briar Hills, but Towcester Road itself no longer featured. Instead a left turn took me along a parallel route, a wide rear-access road known as ‘The Short Cut’ to the bottom of Rothersthorpe Road.  This came out by an enormous garden, in turn fronted by a large house containing Mr Smith’s shop.  What I most remember were the ice-lollies he sold for a penny.  Fridge-made, it was easy to suck away the flavour only to be left with a miniature ice-floe on a stick.  The entire site was cleared for Civils Supermarket, although a Co-op convenience store now occupies the building.

From here it was a short distance to Delapre Street which, in turn, meandered down to Main Road where the school was located.  En-route this was intersected by a number of similar streets, this entire terraced block growing up and spreading from the London, North Western Railway sheds on the other side of Main Road.

Before reaching school it was necessary to resist the temptations of two more sweet shops, the most interesting of which, Scott’s, was located just along Letts Road.  Painted green and cream, its entrance was formed by two narrow doors inside which were sweets of all shapes and sizes.  Here I first encountered penny chews, pink shrimps, four for a penny milk bottles, black-jacks, liquorice wood and all manner of flavours now only tasted in the memory.  Whatever was bought here never lasted the short walk to school and we usually arrived with sticky fingers and multi-coloured tongues.

A right turn into Main Road brought the ‘Crown Foundry’ into sight, behind which lurked the engine sheds, coaling stage and Northampton to Blisworth railway line.  This was one part of town that could always be heard, smelled and seen as the railway lived and breathed twenty-four hours a day. Next to the school was Far Cotton Working Mens’ Club, a building which is still there but in which I have never set foot; then came the school gate.  A right turn revealed a tarmac path that led alongside “A” Block into a playground.

I don’t know how many actual homes constituted that block of roads but the catchment area of the school was mainly red-brick terrace with front doors opening directly onto the pavement.  Odd shops, or former shops, were dotted about.  Clinton Road boasted a butcher, a cabinet maker, where my father had once worked and a decidedly dubious pub, the ‘Clinton Arms’. An off-licence occupied the corner of Abbey Road, which also had a fairly impressive Baptist Church half way along whilst, in the other direction, stood St Mary’s Church, the spiritual focus of the district, itself just across the road from Towcester Road Methodist Church; religion in a straight line!

Those were the sights that accompanied my journey to school.  So much was crammed into a fairly tight space that endless variations were possible around a basic route from Briar Hill to Main Road.

So, what was primary school really like?  A uniform was involved; there was a blazer as I still have the badge.  I also have some small school report slips to indicate where I sat in the scheme of things.

In 1959 the headmaster was Fred Adams, a figure of respect in the community and certainly in my family, who had all trodden that same path before me. He was succeeded by a Mr Pritchard, whose stay was rather short, I believe as the result of some indiscretion.

Streaming was rigid. There were sixteen classes, four per year with the highest number containing the brightest children: so classes 4, 8, 12 and 16 were at the top within their respective years. The classrooms were high-ceilinged within “A” Block. “B” Block was next door while “C” Block contained the school hall, complete with stage and curtains.  Mr Adams’ office was also located here as were, I think, the classrooms occupied by older pupils.  Toilets were housed in outside blocks within the playgrounds and were fairly basic. Throughout the buildings, the lower sections of the walls were wood-panelled; the upper parts, above a dado rail, were painted brick. I doubt if there was any plaster in the place.  Main Road was, essentially a Victorian fortress with all the appropriate architectural features, including real fireplaces and the remains of bell-ropes which passed through holes into rather gothic-looking belfries, visible from the outside.  They were, unfortunately, never sounded during my time and, in all probability, have remained silent to this day.

The dawning of the 1960s saw me in the first year.  My teacher was a Miss Joyce. The classroom boasted an interesting sliding, hinged partition that could be folded back to link it with the one next door, providing a space for Country Dancing. Class 4 became Class 8 and moved to a location in “B” Block to be presided over by the terrifying Mrs Hoare.  She stands in my memory as the only teacher who ever administered corporal punishment to me.  I’m not sure what I had done but my punishment consisted of a rap over the knuckles with a twelve-inch wooden ruler.  Deserved I’m sure, but I still nurse a faint resentment at this minor blemish on an otherwise clean record.

To Mrs Hoare fell the task of introducing us to ink.  Until then, work had been completed in pencil, with ‘Spelling and Penmanship” lessons provided to prepare us for the change.  On the day, pens and nibs were issued, an ink-monitor appointed and ceramic inkpots filled with ‘Lion’ ink from a bright yellow gallon can.  Pink blotting paper was also distributed to mop up the carnage.  Like most years before us, and quite a few after, the Class of 1960 caused more than its fair share of ink blots, and a squeal or yelp thanks to a well-aimed pen nib.

Paul Bland's blazer badge from Primary School.
In the Library at Far Cotton Primary School. 1961
In the library

Paul Bland in the library at Far Cotton Primary in 1961. "I'm probably reading a Biggles book, there was a huge number there. The badge on my lapel denotes membership of 'Biggles Special Air Police' which I got by sending away coupons from packets of Quaker Oats! My haircut is courtesy of Morgans of Gold Street (above Dunns, Gentleman's Outfitter), where I was sent every four weeks regardless; then spent two of the next four trying to hide from sight!"

So, just how well did Paul do at school? Click the documents to read his reports!

During one lesson shrieks of laughter erupted from one side of the room.  This was most unusual in Mrs Hoare’s class; but the reason soon became clear.  Nigel Riches, who lived in Winchester Road, had decided to blow into his ink-well.  Something akin to blue measles was the outcome and Nigel, accompanied by howls of merriment, was sent to the cloakroom to try to remove it.  He returned, still with something of a blue facial, and it would have been interesting to hear his explanation when he got home that night. Nigel later became head of a local primary school.

One other memory enters Stage Left from those years: a school production of “Bishop Hatto”, which told the tale of the greedy Bishop of Mainz who refused food to starving villagers, saying he would rather feed it to the mice. In a bizarre turn of events he was himself eaten by the starving rodents. Gilbert Williamson was cast in the lead role with me as understudy and something like Peasant Number 15. I was delighted with the pair of bootees fashioned from some kind of leather substitute; not quite so enamoured with the assorted collection of rags which constituted the remainder of my costume. At one rehearsal, I was horrified when Gilbert suggested, not unreasonably, that I should take the Bishop Hatto role. Hideously unprepared, I mumbled through the lines I should by then have committed to memory and, suitably chastised for my inadequacy, hoped that the stalwart Gilbert would not falter when the time for public performance came. Fortunately for me, he was made of pretty stern stuff so my dramatic debut saw Peasant 15 bowing and scraping across the stage, chanting the odd shared response and feeling pretty pleased with what I saw as my striking faux footwear.

Form 12 introduced me to Mr Gamble, my favourite teacher of those years. He made school worthwhile and enjoyable.  We were his charges for two years, as he moved with us to Form 16.  Grounding us securely in what we needed to pass the 11-plus, I owe him a huge debt. He combined fairness with authority and decency, preparing us well for our later lives. He was also responsible for organising two School Outings, by coach, in which we visited the Model Village at Beaconsfield, London Airport and London Zoo.

Far Cotton Rec played a part in the scheme of things as the school lacked playing fields of its own so, once a week, crocodile lines of children were marched there to hone their crude skills at football, cricket or whatever else was appropriate for the prevailing season. Mr D P Scott seemed to mastermind that aspect of the curriculum, while the younger Mr D Y Scott was frequently in charge of the film projector, which made a welcome appearance in the Hall at terms’ ends when we were treated to a film. I can only recall two: ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’ one December, and ‘Elizabethan Express’, a British Transport film, which recorded the passage of a steam-hauled express train from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh. I have a copy to this day which, when I look at it, instantly returns me to being seated on that polished floor, peering at the distant screen accompanied by the mechanical clacking of the projector.

Cyril Mortimer had taught there for many years; he remembered my brother and sister passing through and he took our class for a number of ‘Craft’ lessons. I recollect constructing a model Roman Litter from card and thin cane but, despite my father’s practical abilities, I never really shone in that area.

As primary school days came to an end, lessons consisted of ‘Progress Papers’ to provide the final tuning before the 11+ Examination decided our immediate futures. In my case, that place on Billing Road beckoned where I was to spend 7 mostly happy years before higher education lured me to the south coast. However, Far Cotton hadn’t seen the last of me and my story must therefore deviate from schools to those other local staples, notably the Church Choir, Youth Club and Cubs, Scouts and Senior Scouts.

You can also read Paul's memories of Queen Eleanor Infants School. Click here.

Paul's school trip photos

"As a summer term treat, Mr Gamble took us, his Form 12, as 3rd years were then known, out for the day. Leaving from the Alton Street gate, the coach took us first to Aylesbury for a brief stop before heading on to Beaconsfield and Bekonscot, the world’s oldest model village, opened in 1929. After spending time there, we were taken on to London Airport, not then known as Heathrow. The photographs show a much simpler establishment than the one we know today, along with some perhaps familiar liveries on the decidedly dated aircraft. I bought a BOAC badge as a souvenir, and still have it."

BOAC souvenir badge

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I bought this souvenir at London Airport, on this school outing.

"For the 1963 summer term treat, Mr Gamble took us, this time as Form 16, or 4th years, to London Zoo. The first picture is of Mr Gamble, with Stephen Floyd in the foreground. The second is pretty much the whole group. It gives an idea of the day but is hopelessly out of focus. I had a Brownie 127 which I took on the school outings. It took 8 pictures, which then had to be sent for development, to return about two weeks later, often revealing several images of totally unfocused disappointment! The third and fourth show Chi-Chi, the giant panda, newly-arrived from China who was very much in the news and the zoo’s big hope for breeding. The fifth picture is of the new penguin enclosure, recently-opened and designed by Lord Snowdon. Number Six is a fairly random shot of a tiger."

Far Cotton Primary School Outing 1963

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Mr Gamble with my class of 4th years.

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