Teaching in Wensleydale

The school at West Burton (Wensleydale)

Tales from the Dales

It was a real contrast from a class of more than fifty children, all four and a half to five years old, in the slums of Nottingham, when in September 1949 I became the new teacher at the school in West Burton, Wensleydale.

It was a two teacher school, one long classroom divided by a curtain.  Heating was a coal burning stove.  Toilets were dry closets in the playground, over the ash pit, it was emptied by the night soil man.  (The sewage system had not got beyond the bottom end of the village.)

The children were fluent in broad Yorkshire and Dales ways.  I was a stranger and spoke BBC.

When I presided over my first dinner table (with my entire class of 16 children, four and a half to nine years old) there was dead silence until while clearing up the first course a little boy to my left looked up from under his gorgeous brown curls and told me confidentially:

If ye want tae ketch a rabbit ye mun rub yer ‘ands in muck else it’ll smell ye on t’ snare.

(If you want to catch a rabbit rub your hands in cowdung or it will smell you on the snare.) This was most useful advice for an offcomer, even if I didn’t set any traps for rabbits.

The boys all trapped rabbits which were taken to Leyburn market to be sold.  The children all had their own money in the Yorkshire Penny Bank.  They would be given sickly farm animals and motherless lambs to rear, which would be sold at market for them if successful.

Dinner money was seven pence a day. (Before 1971 there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound.)  So the children all brought 3 shillings dinner money on the Monday and the odd penny was deposited in the Yorkshire Penny Bank, together with the six pence a pound which the children got for collecting rose hips for Robinsons of Newcastle. (Two older children had the job of weighing and recording the rose hips each child had collected.)

The Yorkshire Penny Bank was the first bank to set up school banks to encourage children to save, and they still accepted deposits of one penny.

After a year at West Burton I moved to the school in Bainbridge. 

I had come to live in Hawes with my parents (we had moved from Nottingham in the summer of 1949, with my young nephew Richard).  Mother was looking after Richard for her elder daughter Margaret, who was a teacher in Nottingham.

West Burton is about ten miles from Hawes.  I had to catch the bus at eight o’clock, if I was late the bus driver stopped outside my house and blew his horn.  In West Burton the bus stopped at the bottom of the village and I walked the half a mile up to the school.  Some of the children had to walk more than a mile from the farm to their road end where they would be collected by a taxi.

Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot,
We weather the weather, whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not.

It was much easier to get to Bainbridge as it is just 4 miles from Hawes, if the weather was fine I could cycle instead of catching the bus.

Bainbridge was a bigger school, three teachers, water closets, three coal fires.  Two of the fires were back to back and if the wind was in the wrong direction neither of them could be lit.  The girls toilet was outside and the only way to reach it was to go through a smaller classroom.

One hot summer day the school dentist turned up without notice.  He didn‘t do that again.  We hadn’t lit the fire and it took more than an hour to boil the big black kettle on our primus stove.

Both village schools stood on the village green.  That was where the children spent their play times, unless prevented by a natural hazard such as a stray billy goat or an escaped bull.

The children in the big classroom could see the road from their window and sometimes one of them would say

Scuse me Miss, there’s a car stopped.  It’s not t’ doctor or
t’ nurse I think maybe it’s t’ inspector.

This was more likely on a fine spring morning when down in Northallerton there would be an urge to get out up the Dales.  The headmistress (who taught the top class) would say “Thank you, just take this stick of chalk down to the infants”.  That was my class of 30 four and a half to seven year olds in the basement of the Congregational chapel.

The school canteen was the Friends Meeting House (the Quakers)

One little girl from an isolated farm, who had just started school, wept quietly with little sobs and sniffs for the whole of the first week.  As we returned from the canteen she was holding my hand and I was trying to gain her interest.  I remarked that there were sheep on the green (geese, goats and horses could be grazed on the green but not sheep or cattle), and she responded

Them’s not yows, them’s Swaledale tups

That was the end of her tears, confidence was restored.

Today we often see young children riding quad bikes, and it does not look at all safe, but in the 1950’s many of the boys in my infant class were able to drive a tractor. 

Just after the war many of the small farmers in the Dales were able to buy their first tractor (a Fordson or a Fergie), and horses began to disappear from our farms. 

Muck spreading with a horse and cart was a one man job as the farmer could tell the horse to start and stop and turn while he stood on the cart and shovelled out the muck evenly across the field.  To do the same job with a tractor and trailer requires two men one to drive the tractor and one to spread the muck. 

When the farmer’s son was big enough (normally about five years old) the boy would sit on the tractor and do the starting, stopping and steering while his dad spread the muck.  The old tractors were fitted with a hand throttle so he did not need to tall enough to sit on the seat and put his foot on the pedals.

Driving the tractor was normally the job of the eldest boy, and the younger brothers had to wait until they were older to get their turn behind the wheel. 

When the school doctor came for medical examinations the five year old boys would tell him about driving the tractor.  He said to one who was the youngest of three brothers at school “I suppose you can drive a tractor” he replied sadly

Well I sort of can, but they won’t let me.

“Why” asked the doctor

Well, ye see I can start it but I canna stop it

“Oh”, said the doctor, “What would happen”.  The little lad replied happily

It’d be scrap iron.

How times have changed!  When I taught in the Dales James Herriott was a monthly story in the Dalesman. It would be another twenty five years before the books were published and then appeared on television.

Now you are not allowed to drive a tractor until you are 13, and every farmer has a mechanical muck spreader which sprays the manure evenly over the field.

But the children have not changed much.


Jean Marshall’s memories of teaching in Wensleydale, 1949-53.
As told to Bob Marshall in September 2014.

Jean married Jesse Marshall at Easter 1953 and left Wensleydale for the town of Beith, Ayrshire. (At the time Jesse was working for Rolls Royce at Hillington, just west of Glasgow.) Jean’s mother Rose Ewart remained in Wensleydale for a few years, she moved in with Jesse and Jean just before the birth of her 2nd son in 1956.

This picture was taken late summer 1954 (or during the autumn half term). Jean’s nephews would have been staying with their Granny in Leyburn, Wensleydale.