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News > Memories > Life at Oswestry School in post-war austerity Britain

Life at Oswestry School in post-war austerity Britain

The Second World War finally came to an end in 1945 leaving much of Europe and other parts of the globe devastated after six long years of traumatic turmoil.
17 Jan 2023
Written by David Pickup
Memories

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1950's OOs

Although the war in Europe was over by May, fighting continued in the Pacific until the surrender of Japan took place on 2 September 1945. Meanwhile, back in Britain, Oswestry School, like the rest of the country, was suffering privations that resulted from the bankrupting of Britain in its pursuit of the preservation of democracy and freedom from Nazi tyranny, and boys at school during the forties and fifties found life rather spartan.

When my brother and I arrived as boarders, aged 9 and 10 respectively, in the Michaelmas term of 1952, the living conditions came as something of a surprise as we had enjoyed a fairly comfortable lifestyle at home, largely free from the food rationing and shortages suffered by many other families living and working amongst the drab cotton mills of our home town of Haslingden, Lancashire. The photograph below is typical of the time and it captures local shoppers looking for bargains amongst the stalls of Haslingden's cobbled high street market on a wet and gloomy day circa 1940.


Haslingden high street market

Back home in Lancashire we had been used to a good and plentiful supply of food from our family bakery (mother was a master baker and confectioner), so we regarded school food as something of a joke. There was little of it, and whilst far from starving, we were always hungry and supplemented our meagre diet with food parcels from home and visits to the small wooden tuck shop where each morning we could buy freshly baked buns supplied by Geography Master JF Tilley's parents' bakery.


The tuck shop is on the far right

Our first half-term at Oswestry was spent at School House and my brother and I would often be found in the cavernous kitchens which were situated below the dining room. Always on the hunt for food, we became quite friendly with Mrs Tudor, the school cook, who went out of her way to spoil us with special treats. We told her that our mum was a great cook and she explained that whilst she would like to do more she was constrained by a meagre budget, rationing, and all-around shortages. Meat, bacon, sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats, and eggs were all still on ration, and meat was the last item to be derationed when rationing as a whole came to an end in 1954.

Consequently, school food was pretty basic but it was a very healthy diet, being low in fat and sugar, and obesity was far less of a problem than it is today. A daily supplement to our diet, which I detested and gave away to boys who liked it, was a large tablespoonful of gooey malted milk which Matron doled out religiously to each junior boy at bedtime. I recall that in the early fifties, sweets were still on ration and each of the youngest juniors would find just three sweets at his place on the table at tea-time. It seems strange looking back now that we all regarded the occasional Sunday tea-time bowl of jelly and cream as something of a special treat.

The wily, cost-conscious Headmaster Williamson economised on food by asking each boy to provide his own tea once or twice per week. In the morning we would raid our tuck boxes and put our name on a tin of something that could be heated up in the underground kitchens and brought up to the dining room at tea-time where it would be collected from a hatch in the corner of the room.


1952 dining room (the hatch is situated behind and to the right of the photo-taker)

Winter months in the forties and fifties could be quite severe with snow and ice often lying on the ground for several weeks, and at break times and after lessons we would congregate around the large cast-iron classroom radiators for warmth until, inevitably, Lewis and Tilley would come and round us up like cattle and drive us along the classroom corridor and out onto the feezing playground.

Once resigned to being out in the snow it was time for fun and games on the top paddock, and Stoker would often come and keep an eye on our activities. He was present, and took part in, a frenetic rescue when one boy almost suffocated having fallen underneath a huge, five-foot snowball that broke apart as we were rolling it downhill towards the gravel path that separated the top and bottom paddocks. Following another very serious incident in which a boy received a nasty cut on his face from a stone placed inside a snowball, Stoker read us the riot act, and eventually, fearing the worst, he banned us from sledding on makeshift corrugated iron sleds following several painful accidents that required attention from Matron and a visit to the nearby hospital.

Conditions were often great for snowballing and careering full pelt down the top paddock, but the cold weather proved challenging for our antiquated coal-fired heating system which clanged and banged away during morning lessons as it struggled to get up to speed. Tom Little, known to us all as 'Piddle', was the school's general factotum and, particularly in winter, he had his work cut out looking after the creaking boiler in addition to his many other duties such as caring for Daisy, the school cow, and the provision of vegetables from the kitchen gardens.


Rarely seen, 'Stoker', posing for the camera

 

We were always close to running out of hot water towards the end of evening bathtimes and, as a Senior Prefect, I was often at loggerheads with Mr Lewis over the fact that, once again, the seniors had been left without hot water. Apparently in the forties, to make the most efficient use of hot water, boys had washed, two to a bath, in the same three ancient freestanding bath tubs that were still in use when I left school in 1960. By the time my brother and I arrived in 1952, this practice had been discontinued and we had the luxury of a bath to ourselves.

There was no access to a telephone at school and, in any case, during this period following the war not all households were linked by a landline. Communication with our parents was by the obligatory weekly letter, written en masse each Sunday morning after Chapel, and we kept abreast of the outside world by reading the Sunday newspaper and the odd magazine which could be found in the small library. Officially we were only allowed one radio and, until the advent of pirate radio in 1964, the evening-only broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg represented the only pop music radio station regularly available to British fans. 


AE Williams (3rd from  left) being presented to HRH The Duchess of Kent in 1957 (no doubt for radio services rendered to the Senior dorm)

Unbeknownst to our housemasters, the top twenty hits of the day were clandestinely available to all of us in the Senior dormitory after lights out, courtesy of boffin 'Baldy' Williams, who had rigged up a secret radio circuit that could be tapped into each night using headphones via a series of screws along the skirting board behind each bed. Like our midnight escape route from School House via the barred window overlooking the bike shed, Radio Luxembourg was never uncovered by any of the Masters, nor members of the cleaning staff, and for several years until 'Baldy' left we enjoyed unfettered access to late-night pop music. Daily expectations were that discovery was inevitable and as time crept by we were all quietly pleased with ourselves for continuing to pull the wool over the eyes of 'Stoker' Lewis and John Tilley in living conditions that seemed to resemble closely those of a prison camp minus the barbed wire perimeter and watch towers. 


Popular DJ, Jack Jackson, in the engine room of Radio Luxembourg

Shortages during the forties and fifties affected the lives of everyone in the country and they were not just limited to the lack of household products. In many areas of business activity there were manpower shortages and in the education sector there was a lack of qualified teachers. Oswestry School was slowly beginning to expand, and in 1946 Headmaster Williamson took the bold step of employing ex-navy man, David Lewis, and former pupil, John Tilley, as Masters at the school. This turned out to be an inspired choice as they, along with Duncan Felton and the Head himself, formed a dedicated backbone of the school for many years to come.

In my next article, I will continue my journey through post-war Britain, recalling some more of my memories from life at school in the 1950s.

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