02. Infants' schools

New infants are beginning school now, so I’ve been looking at what their lives would have been like a hundred years ago.

In those days, many children started school when they were three or even two. The youngest ones were known as ‘the babies’. An inspector in 1899 wrote that ”the babies badly want a room for themselves, they have, I am afraid, a dull life in the gallery”. This was probably at the old National Infants School in Church Street (now number 22).

Ted Mott could recall the activities that all took place in one room at the Maldon Road school, in about 1920.“[Class one] and the Infants, they may be singing. The middle class would probably be handicrafts, such as sewing and paper making and what not, plasticine. Then we’d be on something else. History or Geography.”

A group at Witham National Infants school in Guithavon Street in about 1920. On the second row back, the two girls at the left hand end are Marion de Monti and Ethel de Monti, whose father Henry Francis Aloysius de Monti was bandmaster at the Bridge Hospital before and after the First World War. Their mother was Ada Bunce de Monti.


Chipping Hill infants’ school, built in 1902 in Church Street, had two whole rooms just for infants, a great improvement. The vicar described it as “bright and warm”.

Infants and their brothers and sisters would usually walk home to lunch, if there was any to be had. Jim White said that his teacher Miss Gentry “used to bring, give me, a big piece of apple pie or something like that because she knew my father was out of work. And we had no food. We more or less starved. She often gave us food you know.” His father had worked in catering at Harrods before the First World War, but this was in the 1920s, when work was harder to come by.

Infants had long summer holidays for pea picking and fruit picking, like their elders, and in 1895 at the National School, there were “several absent stone picking”. In many families this field work paid for the children’s shoes or boots.

But there were pleasures as well. It was also in 1895 that “36 children were absent in the afternoon to see a circus in town” (bad timing, because an inspector arrived while they were away). A half day off was given in 1900 for the Relief of Mafeking. Empire Day in May was always celebrated with singing, marching and saluting, followed by a town procession. In 1909 the Chipping Hill children were into Morris dancing, and local dignitaries came to watch them. Just before Christmas the visitors “gave each child a packet of sweets, some fruit and an orange, which pleased them very much”.

Chipping Hill School in 1977 at playtime, during a game of Caterpillars. The new ‘diner’ was just about to be delivered: hence the red crane at the back. By the door, with a headscarf, is Mrs Angela Dersley (dinner lady). 


A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in September 2010.


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