125 years of school technology

Tech moves on at such a great pace in the 21st century that it can be easy to forget what it meant in the pre-digital world and to the earliest teachers and children at North School.  The log books have again been a rich source, telling us when new equipment arrived at school and the difference it has made.

The first mention of technology used in a learning context is in 1898 when

magic lantern slides were shown to children around the school.  The projector was supplied by the Colchester Education Board and was obviously very popular as there were several repeated shows, including slides from the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

Twelve hand-coloured slides for a magic lantern 1913 – 1920. Science Museum Group Collection. Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The lantern was replaced in 1927 and in March 1930 headteacher Captain Twyman reports:

“During this week we have had six lessons with the projector.  It works well and the teachers have prepared many pictures for their lessons, Geography, History, Scripture and Nature Study.” 

In November 1930, one of the senior boys gave a lesson to his class using the projector and this teaching approach was so well received that the log book tell us “we have arranged that the projector can now be used in every room, also the wireless.” 


Audio equipment was used from at least 1925 when a “Wireless Fund” was set up and two fundraising events held, raising £12.11s.  We don’t know when the radio was bought but it was in school in 1930 for the King’s speech at the Five Power Naval Conference.   In 1927 gramophone records were borrowed by North School from the Columbia Gramophone Company to illustrate a lecture given for the centenary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death. This technology again proved useful in school and in 1928 the log book tells us that a gramophone was purchased, mainly to be used for country dancing.  Later, records were replaced by cassette tapes and a tape recorder was purchased in 1966 for £25.4s.

Television was the next development in audio-visual technology in school although it’s not clear when the school bought its first TV.  BBC Schools, a dedicated schools’ programming service had launched in 1957, so perhaps it was around that time.  In 1967 the upper school watched the launch of the ship QE2 on TV, and significant events have continued to be watched or listened to in school, including the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002.  The 1960s TV was black and white, and it was not until January 1982 that Roger Kettle writes “much to everyone’s delight the first of our two colour televisions arrived”.  

Television from 1954. Science Museum Collection. Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Computers started to arrive from 1983 when the headteacher went to County Supplies to collect the computer and learn how to use it. Eight years later the school office was computerised, and in 1998 the ICT suite was opened with 8 computers for students to use.

A new phone line in 1996, paid for by Colchester Sixth Form, meant that North was one of the first primary schools to connect to the internet.  From 2005 digital technology rapidly made its way to individual classrooms, with interactive boards installed and increasing use of tablets.  This facilitated a web call in 2007 to a school in South America.  Alan Garnett describes the

“most exciting… a live web link with Ecaudor.  We used a Spanish translator to enable the children to speak to children in their own classroom in Ecuador.  Absolutely amazing.”

One of the first cyclostyle copying machines. Bellamar2010 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Of course technology isn’t just used in the classrooms or by children and teachers.  It’s hard to imagine a workplace today without some very practical office equipment, not only computers, but telephones and photocopiers too.   In 1895, John Harper records sending a letter to all parents using a “cyclostyled circular calling attention to the fact that our course of lessons in practical cookery will commence.”  This was a stencil form of copying that had been patented in the late 19th century so was fairly new technology when used in school.  It was certainly new and unusual enough for it to be recorded in the log book. 

“At last” records Mr Chisnell as telephones were finally installed in school in 1942.  There had been a phone in 1936, but only one and on loan from the General Post Office, which was also being used by students

Telephone c1936

for speech training.  The 1940s system was overhauled in 1965 when a centrally controlled bell system, to notify timings in the school day, was also installed.

Many years before, in 1897, bells had also been a vital part of school security.  John Harper records that an electric bell was fitted to the school gates out of necessity because:

“there is a widespread impression abroad that a Board School, being rate-aided, any payer has a right of entrance at any time!!  Consequently it has been no unusual thing for a person to stroll into the hall with his hat on, and occasionally with a pipe in mouth!!”

Modernising the school’s services with necessary and safe fittings started in 1926, replacing gas with modern electric lighting, seemingly just in time as the log book records “the gas was in a very bad state, pipes being choked and leaking.”

Crucially, technology has also helped to keep parents informed.  The early days of  a cyclostyled circular have now been replaced by a website from  2002 and electronic parentmail from 2010.  

Swimming in the river

A few years ago we were lucky enough to meet a relative of Charles Humphreys who told us about Charles’s job at the open-air swimming place in the bend of the river Colne approaching North Station.  Charles encouraged school use of the bathing place and as swimming at North School has been so memorable we wanted to find out more about these lessons in the river.

North School swimmers. Could this be the Castle Park bathing place?

Today swimming is taught at Leisure World with classes making use of the heated indoor teaching and fitness pools.  On the way there classes pass the location of a former public bathing place in the river between the modern cricket club and lower Castle Park. In the 1880s this river bathing place moved upstream to the site still visible from the Colne Bank Avenue bridge today.

Charles Humphreys was one of the first bathing place attendants on this new site in 1887, seven years before North School opened. Initially he was appointed just for the summer months and had a winter job as sanitary inspector. Charles encouraged schools to make use of the bathing place and in 1895, the summer after North School opened, John Harper records that he has arranged for the boys to take lessons:

“I have this week organised two swimming classes and have arranged with the authorities of the public bathing place that Standards V, VI and VII shall bathe on Thursday mornings 11.30 to 12.00, and Standard IV on Monday mornings 11.30 to 12. The fee of 3d will admit each class to any part of the bathing place once a week.”

It does seem to have only been boys who took lessons at this time. Despite being allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Fridays from 1893, and Charles’s wife making 30 curtains for the female changing rooms, it was not until 1921 that lessons for girls took place. John Harper then records a “growing demand from parents that girls should have an opportunity of learning to swim” and schoolteachers Miss Rowland and Miss Smith, both good swimmers according to Mr Harper, started to teach the girls.

Ronald Rose, who attended North School from 1923 remembers swimming in the river in Castle Park. He remembers the reeds were cleared but that the bottom was still very muddy. The owner of Middle Mill was paid to open the gates, lowering the river level to make it easier to clear reeds at the bathing place. 

The open air facilities were improved in 1932, with a new pool opening on June 16.  The new pool was oval shaped with a spectator area.  Dorothy Culley remembers in the 1930s “one hot summer afternoon sitting on the concrete steps at the bathing pool watching the ‘Water Sports’ and cheering on members of Lawrence house. Their colour was yellow, for the sands of Arabia! Blue was for Scott of the Antarctic.”

Michael Cooper remembers “swimming in the open -air pool under the bypass bridge. If the water temperature was 60F [15C], we were lucky! I can remember the excruciating business of getting in on one occasion when it was 54F [12C] (it was our choice to do it!)”

The water temperature has certainly stuck in many minds.  One former pupil remembers hating her lessons during the 1950s:

“Swimming lessons began after Easter, whatever the weather. We were taken to the outdoor pool which was not far to walk from school, but which was actually a part of the river. I think the water was filtered before it entered the pool. The water was always freezing cold as far as I remember. I was a skinny little girl and hated the whole experience. I have never learnt to swim. I think I was put off swimming for life.”

Despite this North was very successful in competitive swimming.  In 1914 as a reward for winning the swimming challenge cup children were given a half day holiday. In the 1930s the school had further successes winning the Coates-Hutton Shield, Championship shield and various relay shields and cups.

The heated garrison pool was available for use from the later 1950s and it seems that from the 1960’s lessons moved indoors to this facility. 


From the 100 yard dash to the egg and spoon race

It’s the summer term so it must be time for the annual sports day.  All children at North School from nursery to year six have the chance to take part in a range of sporting activities that take place on the school field.  Parents are invited to come along for support and to see which of the teams – red, yellow, green or blue – will lift the winners’ cup.  Balls are chased across the playground, 100m sprints are raced and luckily for us, lots of photos are taken. 

Sport has always been a significant part of school life with teams competing in local tournaments and regional championships over the years.  We have collected photos recording the particular successes of girls and boys in the 1920s and 1930s in football, dancing, swimming and athletics including winning the Herring Bowl in 1934-35.

We’ve realised that the history of sports day at North Primary School is closely linked to the history of the playground and that sports days have been held both on and off site at various times.  When the school was built in 1894 the playground was described as mainly covered in asphalt and divided by a wall separating the boys and girls areas.  There can’t have been much room in these separate playgrounds to run races and former pupil Ronald Rose remembers going to a playing field on the Riverside estate in the 1920s for the annual inter-school sports day instead:

“All the Council schools at this time had a combined annual Sports Day, held on a sports field in Land Lane. Everyone tried hard to do well for their school. At one such meeting I was successful in winning the 100 yards race.”

A few years earlier headteacher John Harper recorded that “all the six prizes open to competitors from Elementary Schools were won by our lads”.   Its not clear what all six events were but we do know that children competed in high jump, long jump and the 100 yard race at this time.  

The wall separating the boys and girls was removed toward the end of the 1920s but the playground seems to have remained a mix of gravel and grass until a new turfed area was laid in 1967.  Daily exercise classes could take place at school but even in the 1960s children were taken offsite by teacher Mr Jones to play sports that needed plenty of space.  Mr Jones was a sports specialist and took buses of children to the rugby club in Myland for their weekly PE lessons. 

We’re not sure when the school started to have whole school sports days as we think of them today and when they started to be held only on school premises, but we do know that headteacher Mr Bezzant created 4 houses in 1954 “for the purpose of stimulating effort in both work and games”. The houses were named Abbeygate, Priory, Castle and Charter, and teams made their way to Castle Park each year for sports day.

It must be soon after this that the annual event started to take place at school. Christine Austin remembers sports days during the 1960s as a “good part of school life” and recalls “we received a prize for coming first, second or third. The dinner ladies used to push out the dinner trolleys with all the prizes on- balls, buckets and spades, games sets and numerous other things. I always remember being beaten every year into second place by the same girl.”

Robert Brown shared his photos of the egg and spoon and hula hoop races from about 1967, clearly on the school field with the air raid shelters in the background.

However, later in 1987, it seems that some sports days were still held in Lower Castle Park, such as this day when Christine Brown took part in the wheelbarrow race.

The school field was re-laid as Astroturf as part of the remodelling of the school facilities in 2012.  Now the field can be enjoyed all year round, and particularly for the summer races.



Going back to Nursery is “like coming back home”.

First days at school are often the most memorable and for some of the people who shared their memories with us these first days were spent in the Nursery with Mrs Alvey (Keeble).

Last week two of our year five researchers, Jayden and Selvina, interviewed Jenny who taught at North School Nursery for an amazing 39 years from 1967 to 2006. During this time she worked with four of North School’s eight headteachers and set the school careers of 100s of children off with kindness & creativity.

Jenny joined the staff initially to work in the reception class when the school had only recently become North County Primary School.  Before this the Infant and Junior Schools were separate with different headteachers.  In 1966,  headteacher Mrs Flood retired after 18 years in the Infants and the two schools merged with Mr Bezzant as head.  Over that summer holiday the Infant School was freshly decorated, and new school bells and telephones were installed.  A new staff room was created off the Junior Hall and the Heads’ study was moved from the end of the hall to the tower.  Between the Infants and Juniors were three steps where the ramp is now, so you really did ‘go up’ to the Juniors.

North County Primary School staff in the late 1960s
Top Row L-R: Mr Brian Jones, Len Fookes, Miss Barbara Underwood, Mrs Becky Tricker, Mary Dicks, Mr David Martland, Mr John Bezzant
Bottom row L-R: Mrs Jean Reynolds, Mrs Frances Fisher, Rosemary Buttle, Miss Hilda Oerhring, Jenny Keeble, Miss Stewart, Mrs Marion Houchin

When Jenny moved into the Nursery in 1969 children came for the whole school day, 9am to 3.45pm.  They had lunch at school which was prepared and eaten in the Nursery, and then a sleep or at least a rest for those who couldn’t nod off.  Many people remember the fold out camp beds that were bought out in the afternoon for an hour and which were taken outside on hot days. Children also had to bring a flannel and toothbrush with them to school and if they got really messy there was even a bath!

A major change came in 1971 when the nursery day was split into two sessions, from 9.15 – 11.45 and 1.15 – 3.45.  Splitting the day up meant that more children could attend with 25 in each session, but it made the beds and bath unnecessary.  Both found uses as popular playground equipment.  One of Jenny’s favourite memories is of the old school bath that inspired so much imaginary play.  Still there in the 1980s and 1990s the bath was a firm favourite with one group of boys nicknaming it ‘the doddy’ and using it as their spaceship. 

Listen to the children describing their magical adventures in the doddy.

Clowns Day in the Nursery, Summer 1986

Jenny also told our researchers about some of the exciting projects and themed days they had in the Nursery.  There was a summer display at Poplar Garden Centre in Marks Tey and one day in 1986 when everyone in the Nursery and Infants dressed up as clowns  and went to Castle Park in their outfits for a picnic.

In the 1990s, the nursery garden was redesigned with new equipment and play areas. A soft play surface was created and the sandpit brightened up. The mayor and mayoress unveiled a new sign, which can still be seen above the Nursery entrance today.

Mrs Sciachettano, Mayor and Mayoress unveiling the new sign.

Our researchers were keen to understand what a typical day in Nursery might be.  Jenny explained that at the start of the session all the children would come in and sit down on the rug for registration and would find out about all the things there were to do that day.  Then they would be busy painting, playing, reading, being outside and dressing up.  There would be a snack which they sometimes had all together and then towards the end of the session they made their way back to the rug.  Sometimes this was a magic carpet that took them off on adventures, other times it was a place to sit and watch Jenny’s puppet, Frederick the mouse who entertained the children while they waited to be picked up.

Thank you to Jenny for sharing her memories and donating the photographs to the school archive.

If you have any memories or photographs to share please be in touch with us, we’d love to hear them! You can add your memories to the CXXV website: https://www.northschoolcxxv.com/?page_id=34

Success with the Herring Bowl

Recently, we’ve been working through the photos kept at North Primary School collected as part of the centenary project in 1994.   Many of these photos are of the various sports teams – football, netball, athletics – swimmers and country dancers, and show the many successes of North Street School in the 1920s and 1930s. 

The photo on the left really caught our eye, so much so that we decided to use it to promote our open day on Saturday 11 May.  

When we’ve been working with our year five researchers we’ve been using the National Archive‘s LACE technique to help analyse our sources: Look, Ask, Conclude, ExpandResearching this photo was a chance for us to practise this technique with a real mystery.

On our first investigation of the photo we were able to identify a girls sports team, wearing numbered bibs suggesting a sport such as athletics rather than netball.  The girls are holding a trophy with a number of winners shields, but we couldn’t see the inscription on the cup clearly enough to work out when it was or what it was for.  The hair cuts and clothes looked 1920s/1930s, but who the adult couple were in the car was totally unknown. 

We did recognise the car as an Austin 7 which set us off researching models and car registrations as a way of dating the photo.  The two letter UY registration gave us a date range of March 1927 to May 1931, but of course this is only the earliest possible date the photo could have been taken, not the date of the photo itself.

We turned to what we knew.  The centenary work compiled a book of memories from former teachers and pupils, and a search through from 1927 to 1939 revealed many successes that resulted in presentations of trophies, shields, cups and certificates.  Which one was in the photo?  In 1928 “two children obtained 1st place, one Boys for Sword Dancing , and one Girls under 15” in country dancing and the girls went on to win a 1st class certificate at the finals in Chelmsford.  In 1929 the boys won a cup at the Carnival for morris dancing, in 1932 the boys team won a football league trophy, and in 1937 won the Championship Shield at the Town School Swimming competition.  We found photos of these teams with their various prizes but none were the same size and shape as the trophy the girls are holding in the car.

We had a feeling this was an athletics team and Mrs Peggy Everitt had shared her memories of competing, between 1922 and 1931, in high jump, long jump and relay.  Mr Donald Wilby, at school from 1928 to 1935, had captained the boys team for their win in the inter-schools annual athletics event held at Land Lane.  Donald was presented with the Herring Bowl trophy by Colchester Mayor, Councillor Arthur Cross, giving us a date of 1934/1935.

A quick google search didn’t reveal the Herring Bowl but it did show us a picture of a very similar trophy and we felt we were onto something.  At this point we concluded that the photo was probably taken at some time between 1931 and 1935 and that it was possibly the Herring Bowl for athletics.

Last week, while scanning some more photos we came across the picture on the left and immediately spotted the bowl.  This time we could zoom in and read the inscription: Herring Bowl.  Curiously this photo is dated 1932, a date when we have no mention of an athletics win.  It shows a boys and girls team, headmaster Captain Twyman and other teachers, with a display of objects including the Herring Bowl, a box brownie camera, bucket and spade, book and brief case. 

We know that Captain Twyman retired from North in 1932.  Could this be his leaving photo surrounded by mementoes of the years or maybe his leaving gifts?  As one mystery is solved, another presents itself.



The beginning of North Street School and the start of CXXV

Foundation plaque for North Street Board School, 1894

Who were the people with their names on the foundation plaque and just what did they do?   How separate were boys and girls kept after entering the school through their different doors?  Did anyone ever sit in those shelters at the back of the school field?

As a researcher it helps to be curious, to notice things around you and to ask questions about them.  CXXV – the 125th anniversary of North School project – is perfect for curious minds as there are intriguing clues all around just waiting to be explored.

To make a start we’ve been going right back to the beginning and asking where North School came from and what was happening in Colchester in 1894 that needed a new school. We might need to ask this again in 1938 when the new Infant Department was created, again when the Reception bungalow was added, and most recently when the year 6 block was built.

North Street School’s first headmaster

So far, we’ve discovered that in 1894 North Street School opened with 181 children in the Junior and 103 children in the Infant departments. This new provision went some way to address an estimated shortfall of 1000 school places in Colchester at the time.

North Street was the first school to be completed by the newly established Colchester School Board, which had been set up to ensure children were being taught by trained teachers in appropriate buildings.  We take this as given today, but before North School and the other Board Schools at Old Heath, St John’s Green and Wilson Marriage were open, this wasn’t the case. Children at the nearby St Peter’s National Infant School had one untrained mistress teaching 74 children.  We wonder if John Harper was proving his teaching credentials by wearing his gown in the photo above?

We are just at the beginning of our research journey.  We’re interested in the changes to the school buildings and changes to what happens inside with the curriculum, clubs and special events.  We want to find out about the teachers and pupils of North School and what happens to them when they leave. 

Over the next few months our project research will take us off in many directions and to many sources of information. Former pupils have already come forward with their memories of being at school and with their class photos. One of our researchers has visited the National Archives at Kew to discover inspection reports from the 1950s and 1960s. The Essex Record Office in Chelmsford stores many school records including weekly reports from the original builders and the first furniture orders. ERO also houses the school admission registers and log books. The school itself has a collection that we can use to understand the curriculum and some of the sporting activities students were involved in.

We look forward to sharing our findings over the coming months here and at school open days.