Red Lion Primary School In 1949 - a Memory of Tolworth.

My name is Alan Naber and in 1949 I was five years old and started my school life at Red Lion Road school. This is an account of how I saw life at that time with a few additions from other students I am still in touch with.

It’s such a big world out there! Having been born under the doodlebugs and bombing of London mum and I had been evacuated to the country at Bury St Edmunds. Here we stayed with an uncle, the butler at Coldam Hall a large country house. We then returned to live with my grandparents in Bromley after the war and in the late 40s we moved to Tolworth. I was just getting used to our new house and garden in Princes Ave, having Mummy and Daddy at home (Daddy not long back from the war), the chickens at the bottom of the garden and the occasional visitor. This was as much change as I wanted. Understandably leaving all that security for my first day at school was a traumatic experience. I vaguely knew some of the kids who lived further down my road (Princes Avenue) would be there but that was little consolation. The two kids who lived near me and I regularly played with, Christopher and Michael would, not be there as they were ‘different’ or so Mummy said. I was wary of them after that (after all what frightening things do ‘different’ people get up to?) The reason being they were Catholics and were sent to the Catholic school on Tolworth Broadway. We supported the other (normal?) lot and went to Anglican, St Georges Church in Hamilton Avenue (I was in the church choir!). I remember Mum did not talk to all those Catholics across the road, however they could be observed to see what strange things they were up to from behind the front room curtains.

We walked to school, of course, Mummy never had a car or a driving licence. It seemed like miles and miles, down the neat pavement of Hamilton Avenue, past well kept gardens of the two storey 1930s identical semidetached houses each pronouncing their individuality with different coloured front doors and varying layouts of roses. Did I really have to do this? I dare not say much, Mummy had that determined look; I was going to school that was that! A right turn into busy Red Lion Road, totally unfamiliar to me and no longer neat but a mixture of businesses, shops, and smaller much older houses. A left turn to School Lane, a rather magical, almost rural street, a row of tiny cottages on the right side adding some colour. The neat low hawthorn hedges beside the pavement hiding the cottages from the prying eyes of the school kids. The other side was open ground or wartime allotments (land split into small blocks and used for growing food by locals). Then we were there, a vast open expanse of grey tarmac and ‘waste ground’ (unkept land with weeds and mud) on the left surrounding an enormous brick building, its size seemed beyond comprehension after my small world so far! But for the large windows, I would have been convinced it was the castle of one of those nasty wizards of my fairy tales. The building (which is till there) was a long brick construction with sloping red tiled roof and a bell tower, (or is that where the bats and wizards cats live?). We went to the left as the school is split in two, the mixed gender infants on the left and the boys’ junior on the right. It was August, warm and not raining for a change as we queued outside. Many other other mums and kids in the line, the kids like me all very quiet. I thought “What is going to happen to us inside that door? Is Mummy going to leave me here? Will I ever go home again? Will I have any friends? Or worst of all will the wizard get me?”

After an eternity we entered the school hall. This was a strange place dimly lit as there were no outside windows, only tall narrow windows to the classrooms that surrounded it. No doubt it was a wizard’s cavern with a maze of polished parquet flooring, adding to the strangeness of this vast unfamiliar place. As we waited and Mummy filled in forms I saw the classroom at the end, it looked warm and inviting as it had a familiar sight, a large open fire, much bigger than the one at home, with a broad fire guard supporting a polished brass rail around the top. This room looked warm and appealing, so I longed to get put in there. The teacher in there looked rather nice too, Miss Kelly, a slim redhead (did redheads turn me on ever then!) A well built and not so friendly lady Miss Jenkins questioned me “Are you left handed?” I admitted I was, this was obviously not the right answer as there was much secret discussion with Mummy as to if I should be forced to change to the right and it seemed to me I was not put in the warm room because of being some sort of misfit. I was in the middle room with Miss Jenkins, who another student, Phil Webster reminded me threw blackboard rubbers and any other objects to hand at the kids.
Memories are much hazier after the first day this so I assume I settled in pretty quickly. I remember lots of wooden rulers did we each get one? Did the teacher rap our knuckles with them? Alternatively, did we have to keep them on display on our desks, who knows. The room was big enough for the 40 odd students, again it had a parquet wood floor, and the desks were all wood, with a fold up bench for two and Two lift up desk tops, a groove for pens and pencils, and a round hole for an ink well in each right corner. What we did in those early classes is a bit of a mystery now, small hand blackboards, messy chalk, come to mind, learning by rote, repeating letters and words from the blackboard, keeping quiet, standing up, sitting down, feeling overwhelmed by the size and stature of the teacher!

The tops of the desks, once flat and polished wood, sported grooves, engravings, arrows, faces, autographs of long departed students and snippets of information cribbed at exam time. Around the ink wells were encrusted blobs of solid ink, which would turn a sucked finger blue and make stains on my chequered shirt and grey shorts. This would cause Mummy to despair over all the washing, (being in the days before automatic washing machines - in our house anyway!). Ball point pens were banned, considered unsuitable tools for learning to write with, so we used a wooden handled pen with a plug in nib. The nib was rather delicate and was easily bent and prone to smudge or drop large blobs of ink. The idea was one dipped the nib in the ink well and then applied it to the paper and wrote. If one put too much ink on the nib a large blob appeared on the paper, which one had to soak up quickly with blotting paper, alternatively not enough ink resulted in broken letters and scratched paper. The fountain pen was much easier to use as it had a reservoir of ink in a little rubber sac behind the nib. Dipping the nib of the fountain pen in the ink well and pulling on a lever on the side a few times filled it with ink. It then lasted for days before refilling. I do not remember doing it but the fountain pen was a formidable weapon if one held it sideways and pulled the lever one could shoot ink quite a distance. Probably this never caught on as very few of us had fountain pens! Incidentally, broken nibs were ideal for engraving on the desk! In the afternoons we had a sleep by putting our heads on the desk or little cushions, maybe it was some sort of early meditation.

An overwhelming aroma was present in all those classrooms; this was of sour milk tempered with floor polish and rotting wood floor tiles. The reason was the daily dose of free milk supplied to all school-kids in those days. Each morning Jobs Diary’s electric milk float entered the school yard. the milk floats solid wheels ensured that every slight bump in the ground was passed to the hundreds of milk bottles ensuring a musical interlude each morning! Its load of clanking metal crates then distributed around the school. The crates of milk bottles were placed next to the cast iron radiators, in the hope of warming them up slightly. At the break we each took a bottle, pierced the cardboard cap on the glass bottle (1/3 pint), the milk was drunk through a straw and the bottle replaced in the crate. The waxed paper straws made a beautiful kids symphony with 40 ‘suckers’ trying to retrieve the last drop in unison. This procedure ensured a daily minimum of 40 drops of milk spread around the room and particularly by the radiator. I am not sure if the students enthusiastically drank the milk but it was our patriotic duty to consume so we did not ask questions about such things! Incidentally free school milk was a hangover from WW2 when it was found it greatly improved the health of underprivileged kids. The milk bottle top deserves a special mention, as it was a waxed cardboard disc about one and one half inches in diameter with a perforated circle in the centre. Pressing this circle provided a hole big enough to get a straw in and allowed one to remove the cap undamaged with the finger. Such a piece of luck for the school kids as this disc could not have been better designed for its aerodynamic metamorphosis. By gripping the disc between two fingers and flicking, the disc could glide a great distance, and quite rapidly too. One soon developed the skill to get it playing on the wind, going up down and travelling great distances across the playground. This was before the days of the Frisbee but one could do almost as much with this purely English invention!

Recorders are a wind instrument seemingly designed to put kids off taking an interest in music! Recorder practice I do recall was an excruciating disharmony and clash of wills! Gee! I got to hate those things, imagine 40 plastic ‘whistles’ all blowing together, all out of tune, all out of time!! One incident, which I do recall, was in the hall, probably after doing recorder practice., we were told to lie on the floor, face up, and close our eyes. Maybe it was another guided meditation or the teacher just wanted a break from the row! Our lady teacher with a long broad skirt walked around the floor and stopped right on top of my head, a female chauvinist perhaps? I peeped of course and she was wearing the most enormous pink bloomers, which came down to her ankles and had frilly bits round the bottom. I must have found it interesting to remember; perhaps it was another traumatic experience! Phil Webster remembered that no one got to play the drum in music unless you were a teachers pet! That was definitely not us! To add to the excitement of our early school days there was a girl who sold kisses, which was of little use to us kids with no money!

I cannot remember if we had a morning assembly, which I definitely did in the senior schools.

The toilets were an uncomfortable affair being a rather draughty outhouse just outside with sinks and taps on the outside wall. One had to suffer the punishment of the weather to get to it.

Spring and summer bought a wealth of wonders to our classroom. Some kids collected daisies and made daisy chains to wear as crowns or necklaces others placed a buttercup under ones chin and if the chin reflected the yellow one got labelled as liking butter. Jars of caterpillars lined the window ledge and frog spawn collected from garden ponds and the few streams not too polluted gradually turned to tadpoles in front of our eyes and to our amazement.

Walking home was another adventure. The hawthorn hedge (‘bread and butter’ to us kids) provided lots of shoots to chew on and in spring, we were surprised to see Stag beetles as big as our hands under them! In Red Lion Road was a coal merchants shop, W. Crocker and Son and in their window was a large model of a 1920s steam powered delivery truck. This fascinated me, did it work I wondered, it even had mini bags of coal on the back! Further, along was ‘Red Lion Road Library’, which sold second hand books and was also a sweet shop and one could spend that scarce pocket money. First on the list were Giant Gobstoppers, (a penny each) a ball some inch or so in diameter and us small kids had trouble getting them in the mouth. The idea was to keep dropping them out of ones mouth on to ones hand to see what colour they had changed to as they were layered red, white and other colours. Now with all the good stuff one reads today I am sure it was an ideal way to build up immunity to all those nasty bugs but it made Mummy mad as everything one touched became sticky and attractive to summer wasps! Aniseed balls at a farthing (1/4 penny) were much smaller but had a real tang and when one got to the centre as there was a seed, probably the actual aniseed which added a bit more spice to the event. Pear drops were cheaper but had no spice like the aniseed. When one had lots of money there were Wagon Wheels, a chocolate biscuit some 4 inch diameter (or is the diameter my childhood imagination as they are much smaller today!).

I do not remember any of the girls probably because they were a bit of a mystery to me – even then!

Some of toy fellow students I remember and some I still know or know of today, Tony Pines, (still in Surbiton) Phillip Webster, Keith Hobbs, Trevor Williams, (who cried the whole first day) Ken Barber, (moved to New Zealand) Stewart Bouillon (killed in a motor cycle accident in the 80s) and Keith Wood, a tall lad from Hamilton Avenue who was not allowed to play with the ‘riff raff’ (like me presumably!). Miss Kelly married one of the other teachers.

By today’s standards, it was all very spartan, no throw away plastic pens or bottles, not much paper used as we used blackboards, and when we did use paper it took so long to write anything with those scratchy pens, no photocopies, reused, washable milk bottles, and we had never heard of the words recycling, environmentally friendly or organic. The milk was probably laced with DDT, our water pipes were lead, the walls were covered in lead paint and asbestos was everywhere! so I suppose it’s a bit of a surprise that most of the class, that I know of anyway, are still around!

If you have more to add or want to contact me my email is

A memory shared by oldcyclist on Jul 12th, 2017. Send oldcyclist a message

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