In the years 1938 to 1939, St Davids School, Dinham Road, Exeter, and the Episcopal Girls and Boys Schools were rebuilt and refurnished. All the old type desks were replaced and the large slate blackboard were change to a roll around green canvas which was set into the wall. The old desks had a cast iron frame with two box's with lids bolted on to the frame, at the top of the lid in front of the henge there was a groove for pencils and a hole for the inkwell. There was a fold up bench seat for two, and a wooden back plate.
When all the furniture was replaced it was piled up in the playground for any one to take. We ended up with lots of desks in our back garden in which we played schools at home. Eventually they were broken up for fire wood and the iron went for scrap.
The Head Master of St. Davids School was Mr. L. F. Bellman – a real gentleman. The following is the best lesson I learnt from him for which he will always be remembered.
I went to the School dentist in Southernhay West, he looked into my mouth and said "oh dear. Some of these will have to come out, but not to worry we are not going to take them out now, I will give you a form to fill in... You will need one of your parents, and your teacher to sign it as it will be in school time."
They gave gas in those days, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, they called it, but it was no laughing matter. Father signed the form, and the next morning I knocked on the headmaster's door.
"Come in, oh its you young Bell, What can I do for you?"
"Please Sir, you have got to sign this form."
He glanced at it and handed it back to me, and said he had not got to do anything, "now off you go, off, off."
That evening my father said "did you get the form signed?"
"No – the headmaster refused to sign it."
"What ever did you say to him?"
"Please Sir you have got to sign this form."
"James, that's not the way to ask. You go back to him and say. Please Sir would you be so good as to sign this form?"
The next day I knocked on the Headmaster's door, "Come in. Oh it is you again young Bell, What is it this time?"
"Please Sir would you be so good as to signed this form."
He took it from me, and smiling over the top of his glasses said, "I would be delighted", and signed it with a flourish. It was then that I realised that there was a quality in asking. Asking was important. Asking was very important.
During the war many of the teachers were called up, some volunteered or were subject to direction of labour. This meant that there was a shortage of good teachers and the schools were run by unqualified or retired teachers – added to that, there was the increase in numbers as a result of the evacuees from London, and the fighting which took place between the local boys and the Londoners.
We had a retired teacher called Mr. Wimpy. He suffered from shell shock as a result of his experience in the First World War. He had a very short fuse and often got in a terrible rage and shout and scream. He would start by shouting at the ceiling, "GOOD LORD DELIVER US" and rush around the class thrashing all the desks in turn with his stick and end up hiding under his desk howling. He never hit us but if he did not pull himself together quickly, we would fetch Mr Bellman.
He would come and put his arms around him and say "come along old chap its all right its all right," then he would take him out to his office and some one else would sit with us for the rest of the day. The last time it happened, Mr Bellman sent for an ambulance and we never saw him again.
The St. Davids School Playground used to be part of the graveyard of St. Michael's Church. The bodies are still there! They placed many of the headstones around the walls – they may still be there. When I started at St. Davids, the left hand side (as you look at the school) of what is now the playground was fenced off as there were still prominent graves. The authorities removed the fence and the head stones and tarred all over the graves, no graves were opened! I watched the workman doing it. Countless children have played and danced over the bodies of the dead.
This memoir was written by James Bell in 2011 as a follow up to his memories of the blitz years.
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