Teaching at Murton School

There were some lovely children in that first class of mine.

When I left Murton School after six years as a pupil, I never expected to return. However, truth is frequently stranger than fiction!

When looking for a first teaching appointment, I applied to North Yorkshire, Northumberland and Newcastle authorities, without success. In desperation, and in need of income, I applied to Tynemouth and was favoured with a general, pool, interview. How startled I was to find myself appointed as a class teacher at Murton Primary School!

My first classroom was in one of the “huts”, built at the end of Forsyth Street in New York village, across a lane and over the schoolyard from the main building. There were some lovely children in that first class of mine. In those days, free of the national curriculum, teachers were able to focus on their own interests when developing lesson material, and many of those I developed had a historical theme. We explored, in particular, the local history of the area, especially life as a medieval peasant on the edges of Shiremoor, the former common grazing land of the villages built on the demesne of the Prior of Tynemouth.

However, topic work was established in primary schools at this time, and class teaching was frowned upon. In order to do the work I had planned, it was necessary to trawl around other classes in order to secure enough history books for a class lesson! I kept these precious volumes in the back of the stock cupboard, away from the sharp eye of the Headmaster, Mr Robert Worley, and ensured I taught history when he wasn’t free to make a surprise visit to my class!

Life in “one of the huts” was memorable. In one respect it was an advantage to be away from the main building, but a decided disadvantage was to be distanced from a running water supply. For example, when the fish tank was cleaned, monitors carried the plastic receptacle to the caretaker’s room, where a large sink was available. Mr Worley’s fury knew no bounds when the children mistakenly washed the tank in the washrooms! On another occasion one of the monitors returned to the hut tearfully. She had found several water snails stranded in the caretaker’s sink, following a “washing session” by another class, and reckoned these people were very cruel!

It is well known that newly qualified teachers are usually given teaching responsibilities which are avoided by older, wiser members of staff. Mr Worley informed me I would be responsible for the netball team. I was rather bemused by this charming announcement, especially as I’d never enjoyed the distinction of being a member of this enviable seven when a pupil fifteen years earlier. No matter how hard I had practised, I’d never worn those yellow shorts and maroon shirt. Yet, here I was, in charge!

I swotted up the rules and arranged practices with the Year Four girls. Fortunately, the former Netball Teacher had left me a list of keen, promising players, else I’d have been sunk indeed! The girls were very keen, we practised regularly, and within a few weeks of the start of term, the fixture list arrived – two matches each week until half term, when British Summer Time ended. This procedure was repeated “the other way around” in the weeks leading up to Easter. I was greatly relieved when the season was complete, and the team managed to secure a mid-way position in the league!

However, I discovered the season was far from over. Not only had the team to compete against all the schools in Tynemouth at the annual Netball Rally, but in addition they took part in the Murphy Cup competition, organised as part of the Shiremoor and District Children’s Treat, which was held in a field near Backworth Railway Station on a Saturday near the beginning of July. Netball, therefore, lasted throughout the school year!

Here, the girls had to compete not only with the rival team but also with numerous cow pats which were cunningly concealed in the grass. How they leapt and ran to the roars of encouragement from their supporters! Disputes concerning whether or not someone was offside usually originated from the sawdust lines of the court – in windy conditions they continually blew away! It was all rather discouraging.

However, if they reached the final, the netball team of Murton School usually excelled itself, and triumphantly carried home the silver cup which was filled with money by the drinkers at Murton Social Club on the evening following victory. The proceeds were paid into the famous School Fund and used to pay for netball and football strips, Christmas Parties and other extra-curricular activities.

The final few years of my career at Murton found me teaching in one of the classrooms off the main hall, where I had myself been taught. Built in 1906, this impressive communal area was place of worship in the mornings, gymnasium morning and afternoon, and dining hall each lunchtime. The latter occasions were especially memorable, for I was soon to discover that teaching was just about impossible between 11.30 and 12.00 noon, because the dinner ladies erected tables along the length and breadth of the hall, before unloading hundreds of knives and forks with a distinctive crash. The noise, although unavoidable, was certainly not conducive to scholarly work in the adjoining classrooms!

I remember one child exclaiming “oh no, there they are on again”, as he struggled to read to me just when the crash of cutlery echoed into our classroom. He couldn’t have put it more clearly! The same child once brought to me a rather dog-eared reading book, and pointing to a name printed on a slip at the front, asked: “What does that say?” There I saw written my own name, in my printing of years before, in pen and ink!

In the 1950s the school hall held a particular fascination for pupils, because housed in glass-topped display cases around its walls were various objects which never ceased to cause us to marvel. These items were still there on my return. There was a shark fin, on which someone had painted a coral island scene, an ostrich egg which we used to imagine standing in an egg cup for breakfast, various fossils and the tooth of a whale. Sadly, during my second phase at Murton I witnessed a member of staff removing all of these treasures and replacing them with models made by pupils during craft lessons. The magic spell was broken, not only for past pupils like myself, but also for those of the 1970s who enjoyed the sense of awe and wonder stimulated by a glance into the dust-covered cases to see these obscure items.

However, by the 1980s a wind of change was beginning to blow with a vengeance. The destruction of the treasures in the cases in the hall was bad enough but worse was to follow. I heard mentioned there was a plan to demolish the old Victorian school and sell the site – including the playing fields – for housing development. Simultaneously much of the traditional fabric of New York was changing dramatically and I was aware that the old village was about to lose its character dramatically. The closely-knit community served by people like Miss Chatt was shortly to disappear forever.

Memories of life in this community ran deep. I read in the school log books of Mr Barker, a teacher at Murton who volunteered to fight in Flanders during the Great War, and who never returned; of Mrs. Wardhaugh (an aunt of my mother) who was caretaker at Murton for much of the early to mid-twentieth century and whose dogs accompanied her to school each day, to say nothing of my friend Miss Chatt. Could I bear to witness the end of an era, and one with which I had such close associations?

I found another job. One of the dinner ladies expressed surprise at my coming departure. She said, “We thought you would have been here until your retirement”. But that, unknown to her, was the central problem. Life does not stand still, and none of us are here forever, not even a solid, stone-built building like the school itself. As pupil and teacher, I had given eighteen years of my life to Murton School, and it was time to move on.

I left Murton School in July 1984, by which time I had also moved out of my childhood home in the village. The school was closed in 1991 – it had served the community for one hundred and thirteen years. It was demolished within months of being abandoned. The traveller passing through New York today would be hard-pressed to locate even the site of the former school. There is a roundabout opposite to where the original Victorian classrooms used to stand, and a modern housing estate occupies the rest of the former building and playing fields. However, perhaps some might wonder why stone walling, rather than the more common brick, has been used here and there in modern developments. They might also notice large stone pillars have been incorporated into a wall which separates the housing from the main road. These once supported the main gates into the schoolyard. These stones are all that remains of Murton Primary School, and not even the name of the housing development suggests a school once occupied the site. Perhaps those who live there might hear on the wind the calls and laughter of children who once worked and played there. And perhaps they might even hear the ghostly crash of cutlery as dinner ladies prepare for the coming dinner hour!

One thing, however, is certain. The life of Murton School will live on in memory for as long as it provided a solid elementary education service for its children. Many regret its passing and give thanks for its legacy of learning.

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