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Knitting on the wartime curriculum for pupils in Great Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 15:04 03 December 2017

When their fingers were not gutting herring, Scots fisher lassies kept them busy with knitting, a favourite pastime of these autumn visitors. This was the Fishwharf area in the 1950s, with Ocean House in the background, the headquarters of Unilever's Bloomfields fishing business. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

When their fingers were not gutting herring, Scots fisher lassies kept them busy with knitting, a favourite pastime of these autumn visitors. This was the Fishwharf area in the 1950s, with Ocean House in the background, the headquarters of Unilever's Bloomfields fishing business. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

Archant

The correspondence columns of a national newspaper recently included letters extolling the benefits of restoring needlework and knitting to school curriculums for both boys and girls.

Modern and needed: the new Alderman Swindell School is formally opened in Great Yarmouth in 1929. Picture: ALDERMAN SWINDELL SCHOOL Modern and needed: the new Alderman Swindell School is formally opened in Great Yarmouth in 1929. Picture: ALDERMAN SWINDELL SCHOOL

One man recalled that as a nine-year-old wartime evacuee, he was taught to knit socks for sailors, and also to darn.

Thankfully, darning my holed socks did not enter my life until National Service but was abandoned immediately after demobilisation. But long before call-up, I had learned to knit, as had many wartime youngsters introduced to it to keep us occupied in the air-raid shelters when lessons in classrooms were interrupted by sirens wailing the alert.

My knitting experience was gained at the Alderman Swindell School on Beresford Road in Newtown where I was a pupil when my mother and I temporarily moved in with my grandma in Harley Road during my father’s absence at sea on wartime minesweeping duties.

Down in the shelters, we infants painstakingly knitted four-inch squares in whatever remnants of wool were available regardless of colour or ply. Then someone – our teachers, presumably – stitched them together to make “patchwork” blankets for refugees or bombed-out residents.

The programme card for the opening ceremony. Picture: ALDERMAN SWINDELL SCHOOL The programme card for the opening ceremony. Picture: ALDERMAN SWINDELL SCHOOL

Now that primary school – built in 1929 for £7356 - keeps making Mercury headlines as it robustly resists a closure threat resulting from a proposal to merge it with a new school on the North Denes Primary site. One pupil has even written to the Prime Minister in a bid to avert the closure!

If memory serves me a-right, during my time at the Alderman Swindell the problem was not with any closure plan but because of insufficient space caused by some classrooms being occupied by either ARP (Air Raid Precautions) or Civil Defence personnel.

So an arrangement was devised, using spare capacity at another Newtown school - Great Yarmouth Grammar, its under-occupation caused by the evacuation of many staff and boys to Retford in Nottinghamshire, a location deemed safer than Yarmouth with its strategic port and naval base, likely enemy targets.

At the time I was only an infant and cannot recall details, but it necessitated a system whereby we attended on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays one week, then Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the next.

What? School on Saturdays? I doubt if that would happen nowadays, regardless of circumstances.

When I visited the Swindell recently while preparing today’s column, business manager Sharon Watling kindly delved into the archives and produced wartime class registers, all written neatly in ink with nibbed pen, locating my name and confirming that I was enrolled there in October 1939 and departed for the Stradbroke Road School in Gorleston in March 1940.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, knitting. Another style of knitting to which youngsters were introduced in those long wartime years was French tatting, as we called it.

This involved nothing hi-tech, the requirements being an old cotton reel, four tacks or small nails, and a stylus or something similar - plus, of course, some wool, not necessarily new because any “pulled out” from a discarded garment was fine.

The tacks were knocked into one end of the cotton reel and the stylus was used to lift the wool over each tack in turn, forming stitches. The product, something like a dressing-gown cord, was pulled through the reel’s central hole and could grow as long as desired. Changing to different coloured wool every few inches made it more appealing.

Then it was rolled into a fancy circular mat, for example, and stitched secure, ready for a vase to stand on, perhaps. French tatting is probably Mission Impossible nowadays because wooden cotton reels have been replaced by plastic ones into which tacks cannot be hammered!

In wartime new toys and games were in very short supply, manufacturers having to concentrate on producing items required for the war effort or essential on the home front. Hence, we did French tatting, played with hand-me-down toys or did jigsaws with pieces missing.

Apology: Reader Mike Whurr, 
of Sussex Road, Gorleston, says the caption to a photograph of ABC staff and performers in its 1967 summer show published recently wrongly identified ventriloquist Saveen as the theatre manager.

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