She has been there for hundreds of years and she will be there for hundreds of years yet.
I was worried about starting school in February, 1952. Most young children quake at the thought of leaving their mother for hours, especially for the first time, but I was comforted by one thing. Beginning in the Reception Class at Murton School brought one under the care of Miss Edwina Chatt, a lady who had become something of a legend during her teaching career, and for all the correct reasons.
Sitting on the living room floor in my home in New York village, I confided my fears to my cousin, who was a couple of years older than me. “You will like Miss Chatt”, he assured me. “She is very kind”.
“But Miss Chatt will have gone by the time I start school”, I responded tearfully.
“No, she won’t”, he insisted. “She has been there for hundreds of years and she will be there for hundreds of years yet”.
Certainly, no teacher would wish to remain in the classroom for anything like that amount of time, even if the human life span could be stretched to enable it happen. Mother laughingly repeated what she had overheard to Miss Chatt when, as often happened, they met at the village bus stop. Readers might like to reflect on how she might have responded!
Miss Edwina Chatt was a descendant, as she told me in later years, of the Armstrong family of Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland. Almost her entire career was spent teaching at Murton Primary School in the colliery village of New York, eight miles distant from Newcastle upon Tyne. She had taught briefly at Priory, but Murton was her forte.
She was skilled at helping her “new starters” feel at home and provided them with teddy bears, dolls and toys of all descriptions, all of which were neatly labelled to encourage letter recognition and reading. On occasions, she would draw a large circle on the floor of her classroom with blue chalk, and tell her pupils to be careful not to fall in the pond! Many years later, she laughed as she told me “and the silly little things tiptoed around the chalk line on their way out to play”.
Another strategy she used to get some peace and quiet, was to say to the children “if you listen carefully, you might hear a fairy sing”. We never did, but she got her silence.
An accomplished pianist and artist, Edwina Chatt was a gifted lady, whose reputation was better known as an animal lover. Many a stray cat found its way into the basket she kept ever ready in her large classroom, and Fred, one of her refugees, was regularly fed on meat acquired from the surplus school dinners. He became a sleek, happy animal and was adopted by a family in the village. Roy, a mongrel dog with a curly tail was another of her animal friends. She worried about Roy, and when one of my aunts decided to buy a collie, she famously said: “Anyone will have a collie, but who will give a home to my poor little mongrel”. My aunt cancelled her order, and Roy went to live with her at Wallsend!
When I commenced my own teaching career at Murton School in 1972, her legend lived on among the staff, and many were the times when the story of Fred was repeated, and another concerning how Miss Chatt spent most of her playtimes during the 1950s guarding Rover, the border collie who kept guard of his mistress Jean Cox’s bicycle in the schoolyard. Miss Chatt dreaded he might bite a child and get himself into deep trouble thereby.
She retired from teaching in 1957 and continued to live at Whitley Bay. I was a regular visitor to her house, and she once came for tea at mine. By this time she was very elderly, but retained her sense of humour, once telling me about a five-year-old with whom she could do nothing. She, therefore, sent him to see Mr Plum Horne, the Head Master of the 1950s. He later told her the little boy gazed at him earnestly as he pointed out the error of his ways, and exhorted him to be nicer in Miss Chatt’s class. The little lad said at the end of the sermon “Your tie is not straight!”
This gallant lady lived into her mid-90s, and was a familiar figure shopping in Park View, with the aid of a walking stick. Arthritis affected her quite badly in her later years, and she explained to me (at the age of 92) that was because she had played County Tennis in her youth until forbidden to do so by Tynemouth Education Authority! She died in hospital of a heart attack following a fall. The community found itself very much the poorer because of her passing.