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The Happiest Days of our Lives ?

Updated: Aug 4, 2020


As schools prepare to open fully in September 2020, following their closure or partial closure during the Covid-19 pandemic, this month’s theme is education in Denham. We are grateful to those who remember their schooldays here in Denham Village and to those who work or have worked at Denham First School for kindly sharing information and memories with us.

Educational provision for children of working families in the village began in 1721 when Sir William Bowyer founded a charity school for about 30 pupils in Bowyer House. There will be more about this in a couple of weeks when we go even further back.


The Elementary Education Act of 1870 established local education authorities and provided the framework for public elementary education for all pupils aged between 5 and 12. For Denham this triggered the building of the school in Cheapside Lane and its opening in 1878.


Following the Fisher Education Act in 1918 the school leaving age was increased to 14. For Denham, in order to accommodate this wide age range, the children were educated in a guide hut on Old Mill Road, in the Village Hall and in the main building on Cheapside Lane. In 1956, the Alderbourne County Secondary School was built by the Buckinghamshire Education Authority to ensure provision for primary and secondary education was separated with provision for greater specialisms and facilities. 178 children were admitted to this new secondary school. The school logbook records: “1956 October – the new buildings of Alderbourne County Secondary School were occupied for the first time by the senior classes of Denham County First School – The Headmaster, Deputy Head and teachers transferred with their classes. The tenancy of the Girl Guide hut was terminated. As the new canteen could not be opened at the time, senior pupils continued to take the midday meal at Cheapside Lane. November 7th . . .the infant school furniture and equipment in Denham Village Hall was removed to the Cheapside Lane premises and the tenancy of the Village Hall was given up.”

Iris attended the village school together with all her brothers and sisters and became a member of staff in later years. She remembers: “I went to work in the school kitchen from 1967 until 1982 at Cheapside where we cooked all the food for the children, by then an infants’ school, as well as those at the Alderbourne School (where Lindsey Road is now). The food was transported daily until school meals ceased.”


The school escaped the threat of closure in 1980, following a successful campaign by villagers and the building itself was listed in 1992. Further legislation in 1998 meant junior school age children transferred to junior schools part way through their primary education. Taking children up to the age of 7 meant the school became Denham Village Infant School. However, today in 2020, those who walk around the village and across the recreation ground will see that this long-established village school is now being expanded to accommodate Key Stage 2 children, once again educating children throughout their primary age years.

The school logbooks, recorded by the Headteachers throughout the years, describe significant events affecting the school such as the two world wars and outbreaks of diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria, mumps and measles. There were many occasions when the school was closed with a fair amount of absenteeism through illness, bad weather, family demands for children to work, as well as royal visits, celebratory days such as VE Day and the coronation. On a couple of occasions, children were sent home for the afternoon simply to go blackberrying.

We have been fortunate in being able to talk with residents of the village who attended the school and recalled some of their memories. As in other accounts of village life we are delighted that Stanley Hoffman also included his recollections of his school days in Denham in his book, ‘Morning Shows the Day’.

“My first taste of school was in September 1922, and I did not like the taste at all. The infant department of the village school in Cheapside Lane was a single storey building, long and narrow, heated by an aged Victorian coke stove. Close to the stove in winter, our eyebrows were nearly singed. A few feet away from it we were frozen. The windows were placed high up in the walls so that little children would not be tempted to look out upon the world.

“It seems to me, looking back to 1922, that there were few books in the village school, even fewer pictures and very little in the way of equipment. When facts were learned by rote, when the basis of teaching was “chalk and talk”, there would have been no need, in the eyes of the teachers at any rate.

“In 1922 we learned our tables by chanting - two twos are four, three twos are six, four two are eight and so on right up to twelve twelves. We had no graphite pencils in the infant school, only slates and slate pencils which had to be sharpened on the outside brick walls.

“We learned to add, subtract and divide, we learned to draw, we learned to sing, we learned to recite, often being made to stand out in front of the class to say our piece.

There were at least 50 “infants” in this room presided over by a war widow, Mrs. Husbands. She had children of her own and I think she must have been a very good teacher.

“I think I must have been fairly happy in the infants school because apart from the first day there when my mother left me at the gate - mothers were not allowed inside the school boundaries - when I cried piteously, I don’t remember the tears falling, as they did later copiously, when I went “up” into the “big” school. When I moved from “the infants” into the “big school” I was with other children of wide age ranges, perhaps seven to fourteen. Most of us were in the large room, probably a hundred of us, and though there was a dividing partition which could be drawn across, I guess it had some mechanical defect for it was drawn across only rarely. Two staff taught two groups of people, vying one with the other for the attention of their group.”


It is said that schooldays are the happiest days of our lives. The aims of education have been written and rewritten many times. In 1797, William Godwin wrote in his ‘Enquirer’ “The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness.” C.H. Dobinson’s in his book, Schooling, 1963 – 1970 claims that the emphasis of this statement is on the social environment in which learning takes place. Consider this alongside the many classrooms ruled by fear of the physical and mental punishments handed out for poor behaviour and performance. Managing discipline using corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools in England in 1986 after a ruling in 1982 by the European Court of Human Rights. Until then any corporal punishment deployed had to be recorded in a ‘punishment book’ and the school in Denham was no exception. From the book used in 1957 alone there are 56 accounts of misdemeanours requiring strikes with the cane. Mostly just one strike on the hand or posterior but sometimes two or three were administered. The punishments were given for a range of reasons such as spitting, urinating in the fountain, bullying, disobedience, playing in the cloakroom, fighting, lying and vandalism.

The incidents that have stayed in the memories of those who shared their stories of their Denham schooldays with us certainly reflect an environment which was not always happy. Maybe the happy memories are lost as the more dramatic and often painful incidents are recalled. In the 1940s and 1950s, Christine, Ann and John were all pupils at the Denham First School recalling incidents which would not happen today and would certainly not have been conducive to learning.

Christine writes, “As a young child it always seemed sunny and I enjoyed school when we would take our small chairs on to the recreation ground behind the village primary school to have our reading lesson. We had a Headmaster known as 'Gaffa', he was very strict, had a cane and got the young boys to work on his vegetable garden! There was a large clock at the end of the school corridor and any pupil who misbehaved had to stand underneath it in disgrace.”


Ann remembers, “Although I have lots of memories of school friends, I don’t have many fun memories of school. I was asked to play the hymn on the piano for morning assembly which I did for quite a while. The headmaster was a bully. The boys – especially if they were not very bright had to dig his garden in the afternoons instead of lessons and he was very regular with the cane. At 6am in the morning, he would walk across to our farmland with a basket and collect mushrooms (what cheek!) My mother was too kind and frightened to say anything!

I can remember my class being taken up to the main A40 to see Winston Churchill going by in an open top car. He smiled and signalled with his usual V sign”


The photo shows Ann’s father, Tom Seymour, third from right in the front row.

John recalls: ''1952 and I was 12 and getting ready for the 100 yards Inter-House final along with the other 5 boys. The rest of the school were all in the recreation ground behind our school in Cheapside Lane watching, along with some parents, mainly mums, for the annual Sports Day. The teacher called the six finalists to the line. 'On your marks' he called, and we all went down. My left hand found a bee in the grass, I felt it sting me. I jumped up with a yelp, wringing my hand. 'What is it Hawkins?' he shouted across. 'I've been stung sir' I called back. 'Are you in this event or not, we can't wait all day' he shouted without sympathy. 'No sir, it's quite painful' 'Oh very well then, go across to the side and walk down towards the finish line and find a teacher'. That was my moment of possible glory gone for the year. I'm sure I could have got a second or third ribbon to pin on to my singlet to impress the girls! I managed a 4th in the long jump, but no ribbon.

Maths class, around 1954, The teacher had obviously had enough of one of the boys chatting away at the back of the class during the lesson. The blackboard wiper thing had been thrown at him earlier for not listening. Fortunately, it missed and hit the desk. This time he shouted: 'Go outside boy and stand outside the Headmaster's door, I'll deal with you later.' He got up and walked down the corridor, straight out of the main door and headed along Cheapside towards the Oxford Road, Red Hill and destination Tatling End. The teacher glanced out of the window and spotted him on his way home. 'Somebody go and get him back here!' he shouted. Nobody moved. The next morning, he was given 1000 lines. 'If I am sent out of class to wait by the Headmaster's door, I will do as I am told and not walk home.' - It took him a week to do it.' Plus, he got the cane!

''We used to have a weekly swimming session at the pool in Uxbridge - We would take our costumes, girls and boys, plus a towel, to school on the morning and catch the bus from the Oxford Road to Uxbridge Station, then walk up Belmont Road to the pool. In early spring the water was quite cold. The Headmaster at this time was a large, heavy man with a thick moustache and red cheeks. He had a reputation for being a bit of a bully. Anyway, the children got changed and were standing on the edge of the pool reluctant to 'go in' as it was cold. The Headmaster, wearing his ex-army one-piece woollen costume, covering his chest and lower body, stood behind the children, who were about 11/12 and issued the order 'Don't just stand there shivering. Everyone in.' Coming out late from the changing rooms, a girl, I won't name her, ran to the edge, on her way past, she pushed him and jumped in with all the others. He lost his balance and ended up in the cold pool as well. It happened so quickly he never found out who the culprit was! That incident went into Denham School folklore.

PS: I did get the cane twice from our headmaster during my time there, once across the backs of my legs and once on my upturned wrists, I obviously didn't learn from it. I had a very happy time interspersed with many fun days at Denham School back then and made so many lifelong friends along the way. So lucky!”


Some of our contributors who grew up in Denham Village spent their early school days at a small private school in Penn Drive. There was no mention of any punishment regime at Mrs. Thomas’ school. Mrs. Thomas, her husband and four sons travelled by train to Denham as evacuees from Streatham during World War II. She joined a teacher friend of hers at a small school in Higher Denham called Woodnote. From there she started her own school in Penn Drive at a house the family built, called Penn Cottage. The two rooms downstairs plus the garden became the classrooms. Their son Richard, who has kindly shared this information, recalls having to ensure they had all had breakfast before 7am so that their home could become the school. He remembers his mother greeting every child warmly each morning. He describes her as a workaholic who cared passionately about the children and their education, continuing into the evenings teaching piano to adults. Here are some memories from pupils Joanna, Trottie, Kate, James and Mac.

In his autobiography, “Life with Googie” published 1979, Joanna’s father, actor and husband of Googie Withers, John McCallum, wrote:


" Fortunately for Joanna (and for us), we found an exceptional little school for her in Denham, run by a Mrs. Thomas. Joanna went there when she was aged about 4, and she went again, when we came back from Australia in 1956, and stayed there until she was nearly eight. Mrs Thomas was wonderful with young children. She gave them understanding and love, and enthusiasm to learn"

Joanna herself writes: “I was overjoyed when we returned to The Mirrie and Denham and I could go back to Mrs Thomas's. I felt safe! Mrs. Thomas, her care and her way of teaching was the anchor I had needed. My memories of the village school are happy ones. In my first year they were of hot, homemade lunches at a long table, which would be cleared aside as we sat on the floor listening to stories or to music on the "wireless". And of playing in the garden. One afternoon when I was on the swing a very serious friend and fellow pupil aged 4 asked me to marry him ..I think I just carried on ....looking 'enigmatic'

“In my later years, my music lessons with Mrs. Thomas spring to mind and Carol Singing at Christmas around the village. Sports days were always sunny, and I remember I was teamed up with a similarly tall girl called Melanie for the three-legged race -which we won! I don't particularly remember lessons”

And from Trottie: “I remember my time at Mrs. Thomas' school with great affection. Mike and I went there for 2 years I think till we were just 7. We used to go up the Pyghtle on our trikes by ourselves and when we got to the main road we had to call at Mrs. Dumbleton's, she would see us across, and we triked the rest of the way by ourselves. I think that would be grounds for social services these days.


“We had lessons in her sitting room and she played the piano for us to do singing and dancing. When you could say all your times tables like an express train you got a certificate with a train on it - I treasure mine to this day.


“Our meals were in her dining room - I remember the stew for lunch with bits of onion you could hide under your fork and she didn't make you eat up. Games were in the garden and we had a sports day every summer with sack race, 3 legged race and egg-and-spoon.


“There were prizes for everyone at the end of the summer term and Mike got one for being kind and helpful - our Dad joked that it was for drinking his orange juice nicely and so it has gone down in family mythology."


The photo shows Mrs. Thomas nicely supplying orange juice on Sports Day, 1957.


Kate recalls: “My sister started at Mrs. T’s in October 1953 aged three. She left in summer 1958 and I started that autumn, also aged three and stayed until 1962. I think there were two classes in two separate rooms in her house. On Mondays we brought a packed lunch from home which I much preferred, and we went on a nature walk. Mrs. Thomas was a talented pianist and I believe she knew Myra Hess. She also wrote plays, mostly about children, in which we acted. The only things I remember learning are: A noun is a person, a place or a thing for example Archibald, Caroline, London, bird, wing (Archibald and Caroline were cats.) and how to spell ‘responsibility’ which came up in a spelling bee.”

James, who lived at Hills House, also went to Mrs. Thomas’ school. He writes:


"I can visualise myself there, the sunny classroom, the staircase that nobody was allowed to go up except on one memorable occasion when a little girl said she was absolutely “bursting” to go to the lavatory, and Mrs. Thomas took her upstairs. It must have been the first time I heard the word “bursting” in that context because I’ve remembered it ever since. Mrs. Thomas went on teaching piano after she gave up the kindergarten. I went for lessons during my gap year 1972-3 and played in a little concert she arranged for her pupils. I recall the intense embarrassment of having a mental block during my Schubert, but as always Mrs. Thomas was completely kind and understanding.”


James still has Mrs. Thomas invoices and he adds: "It seems inflation was quite high in the 1950s - the first invoice I have is for Autumn 1956 at £6. Summer 1957 it was £7 7s. Spring 1958 £8 8s. Autumn 1958 £10 10s."


Mac told us: “Everything I know about the piano Mrs. Thomas taught me. Her school was in the lounge which extended across the depth of the house as well as the garden. In the main room we did all our learning. I remember the nativity play as I loved drama and music. I think I played Hans, the handy man. The audience was in our faces as the room was so tiny. I think there were nine of us and nine sets of parents in that small space. I still have the programme with all our names. Some lived in the village and others as far away as the aerodrome, not all of them very well-off even though the school was private. I remembered the reading scheme we had and was so determined to get to the end of each book I would just read the last word on each page and then announce I’d finished. It was just so dull. I was sent away to my next school and didn’t return to Denham properly until I was about 17 except for short vacations.”

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These stories may have triggered memories of your own schooldays here in Denham and as usual we would love to hear them. You may even recognise yourself or some old school friends in the photographs and have more tales to tell. In a couple of weeks there will be more on the topic of early education as we look even further back in time.

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