Memories of Harding Memorial
This letter was written by Mrs Evelyn Combe, a past pupil of Harding Memorial, before our Centenary celebrations.
In the year 1912 there were two momentus occurrences - the tragic sinking of the Titanic and I first went to school. As parishioners of Willowfield Parish Church my parents had the choice of two schools to which I could be sent, Willowfield No. 1, the "old" school, and Willowfield No. 2, the "new" school which was later to become Harding Memorial. I had a much shorter distance to walk to the old school, so it was deemed advisable to enrol me there. It was situated just a few hundred yards from the church.
One entered the old school by a very small Gothic type porch which was ranged round with hooks for outdoor clothing of the more senior pupils. Then one proceeded into the big classroom. Here three or four classes were taught at the same time but well-distanced from each other. There was a platform at one end upon which stood a piano, and at the other end there was a further classroom, partitioned off, and used for desk work such as drawing and writing. It was also used for needlework. The windows were also of Gothic design, long, narrow and arched, and not very effective at letting in the daylight. This huge classroom was heated by a coal fire of immense proportions and well-guarded by an equally immense fireguard. Off this big classroom and to the right there was another classroom which housed the junior and senior infants. It had a gallery to one side and smaller desks at the other. There were a few inadequate pegs for outdoor clothing, and on a wet day coats were hung from every projection available, but when the weather was dry the coats were put into a big wicker skip, just like a huge laundry basket. The skip served a dual purpose because when some children misbehaved they were threatened with being put into this skip and the lid closed down. Only once did I see this actually carried out and so terrified was I that I might suffer the same fate that it concentrated my mind completely. There were two monitresses helping at times with the infants.
Reading was taught by the old method of the "throw-over" chart hung on the blackboard - "The cat sat on the mat". To me this was a waste of time because I was able to read after a fashion before I went to school.
A door from this classroom opened out into what was known as 'the yard', and in addition to a small area for playing there were the lavatories. "Crude" is the word to describe the girls' lavatory! It didn't have a door. It had, however, along wooden bench into which four or five holes had ben carved out. The little girls sat beside each other, myself included, got on the the job and blethered away to each other at the same time. This school had all the hallmarks of having been in existence around the time of the Potato Famine in the earlier part of the nineteenth century.
As far as I remember it was about 1912 that Harding was open for business, but it was then known as Willowfield No. 2. A prime site had previously been chosen on Cregagh Road, but the new school had been in existence for about two years before my parents decided to enrol me there. The new school presented a very different picture of school life, all was so new, the windows were big and actually opened and the classrooms were airy and well lit. I can still see the two staircases with their yellowy stone treads, the four big classrooms downstairs and the same upstairs, the long red-tiled corridor with cloakrooms at each end, the science room which opened off the other side of the corridor and which was used not only for the teaching of elementary science but also for cookery. The teachers were Miss Ard, Miss Kane, Miss Nevin, Miss Brown, Miss Croft, Mr Davidson and Mr Barr. Mr and Mrs Allen were the caretakers and they lived in a purpose-built house which was situated at the far end of the boys' playground. There was no electricity; artificial lighting was provided by gas when the occasion demanded it. I think at that time there was a partition between two of the downstairs classrooms which could be removed thus forming a small assembly room.
The Principal was Mr DF Moore of revered memory. He was very proud of his school and never ceased to inculcate in the pupils an appreciation of the immense privilege they were enjoying by being educated in such a magnificent school and by such a devoted staff. On my first day I was put into Second Standard the teacher of which was then Miss Brown. But I wasn't there very long when Mr Moore came into the classroom. After a few words with Miss Brown he took me by the hand and led me right down the long corridor to First Standard which was taught by Miss Ard. This was my first and only experience of being demoted, however, dressed in my best, and with a clean linen handkerchief pinned to my frock, I soon settled down. In due course I passed into the hands of Miss Brown who, incidentally, took taht particular lot of boys and girls through Second, Third and Fourth Standards.
My parents always laid great store by good hand-writing. Up until I reached Fourth Standard Willowfield No. 2 had always been exponents of Vere Forster handwriting (he was an Irishman and a native of Ardee in County Louth). His was a copper-plate style. His well-known copy books were used with their familiar sayings across the top of each page - "Example is better than precept", "Practise makes perfect" and a longer one which was spread across two pages "Oh: What a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive". I did my very best to make a true copy of these exercises using immense concentration and with the tip of my tongue sticking out. But a change to "Cromer" handwriting was decided upon. Nobody had previously heard of this style of handwriting with its absolutely vertical downstrokes and upward strokes at an angle of 45 degrees. A finished page of this hand writing had a geometrical appearance which didn't please my mother at all. However, I soon mastered it only having to change to what Gilbert and Sullivan refer to as "a big round hand" when I was preparing for a Civil Service examination.
Looking back in the main my school days were very happy and if for any reason I was kept at home I was miserable. But I hated arithmetic: we had Brown and Nolan's arithmetic nbooks which had illustrations at intervals as to how to solve various problems. There were answers at the backs of these books but it was how to get the correct answer by the correct method which puzzled me.
"Multiplication is vexation,
Division's twice as bad,
The rule of three it puzzles me
And fractions set me mad"
I was completely bewildered by tanks which took a certain time to fill and a certain time to empty - when would they be full? Or a boy's father was three wimes his age and his brother half his age, find the first-mentioned boy's age, and as far as two trains passing each other, well, I felt like jumping out of the train window rather than find out their respective speeds, or whatever I was supposed to find out. The simple truth was I was not arithmetically minded. One of the male teachers was rather cruel as far as I was concerned because he used sarcasm. One particular incident stands out in my mind. During an arithmetic class he brought out a boy named Fred to the blackboard and gave him a problem to work out. This lad stood helpless, paralised with embarrassment and made no attempt to even try. This teacher tapped the gas globe with his cane and said "Globe, you do it", then the teacher went over to the window, tapped it and said "Window, you do it", the implication being that poor Fred had as much brain power as the gas globe or a window pane. Fred became a Presbyterian minister.
The old school demanded a token payment of one old penny per week but my mother paid by the quarter - she thought that it looked better. The fees in the new school were six shillings per quarter. Obviously there were subsidies in existence then as now, but children were never concerned with such things. All books had to be paid for - readers, story readers, geography books, atlas, history books, arithmetic, algebra and geometry books. Algebra was a real trial to me and the only thing I can remember of Euclid is "things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another". I enjoyed drawing, particularly freehand drawing. I think I made a reasonable job of a pillar box, also a pair of spectacles lying on a table, but a duster lying on a bake-board stumped me completely.
We had some lusty singing lessons learning to count the value of notes by chiming taffet taffy ta aah tay" which sounds ridiculous but worked very well. Of course we also had tonic solfa. Our songs ranged from "The Bay of Biscay", "The Meeting of the Waters" byb Thos. Moore, and, of course, "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon" in two parts. Occasionally Miss Brown would take the entire class to the Science Room where she set up what seemed to me to be very complicated equipment. On one occasion she worked out by scientific experiment the percentage of water in milk. She arrived at what I considered to be such an outrageous amount that I was convinced her milkman was a rogue.
Miss Croft taught the girls both cookery and needlework and on one occasion she mystified me completely by pushing me unceremoniously out into the corridor. The procedure was that when a pupil was made to stand outside a classroom door eventually Mr Moore would pass along and administer due punishment. If he had asked me what I had done I wouldn't have been able to have told him for the very good reason that I didn't know. But I needn't have worried. When Mr Moore did come along he looked at me with astonishment and said "Evelyn: are you not married yet". He opened the door and pushed me back into the classroom.
School dinners were unknown and as it wasn't practical for me to go home at lunch time I always had a packed lunch, usually bread and butter and a piece of cheese. When the weather was favourable several of us would go along Cregagh Road, just immediately beyond Haddington Gardens where there was no building going on as yet, all green fields with pine and white clover, tall grasses and hedges with wild roses. Bell's Bridge was out in the country. Sometimes my mother would ask me to bring meat on my way home from Macbeth's butcher shop on Woodstock Road. I had a magnificent new leather schoolbag and on one occasion a playful young shopman took my schoolbag from me; he opened it and removed my geography book. He read in a loud voice "The Lagan rises in the Ormeau Park and flows into the Albert Bridge!. I didn't see the funny side at all. When I finally got the hold of my bag I beat a hasty retreat with my three-quarters of a pound of lean steak, cut thick as per instructions. To this day I always associate the smell of new leather with Willowfield No. 2.
Another incident made an impression on me. Mr Moore on this occasion was taking Sixth Standard for English. He went to endless trouble to point out that "restaurant" was a French word and not an English word... It was to be given teh French pronunciation "restauron". I don't know how many times he tried to drill this into us. Finally he asked a boy to repeat it. In a strong Belfast accent ths boy said "rest-ure-aunt". Mr Moore was speechless for a moment, then he said "Ach! away and rest your grandmother".
In Sixth Standard we were required to make a study of an abridged version of "The Deserted Village" by the renowned Irish poet, Oliver Goldsmith, who also, by the way, wrote that entertaining play "She stoops to conquer", incidentally a play with a beginning, a middle and an end so rarely enacted nowadays. Mr Moore took us for this, to me, most interesting lesson. I committed some of it to memory. Two of the couplets from that part of the poem which deals with "The Village Schoolmaster" could aptly be applied to Mr Moore himself. He could very well have been the reincarnation of the schoolmaster in the poem, whose pupils held him in high esteem:
"And still they gazed and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew."
"Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee
At all his jokes for many a joke had he."
was appreciated to the full. I can recall several snatches especially one dealing with the Village Preacher:
"A man he was to all the country dear
And passing rich with forty pounds a year."
To this day I can read that poem with the utmost enjoyment, exciting as it does a special fascination. It was first published in 1769.
Willowfield No. 2 did not possss a gymnasium but we didn't go without exercise. We did what was known as "drill". When the weather was favourable we were taken out to the girls' playground, usually shivering at first but we soon warmed up following a session of maze marching and various exercises. We were full of health and vigour om our return to the classroom.
In the Senior Standards we had what was termed "Religious Instruction". For this study a little placard was hung on the wall which announced to anyone who would care to read it "R E L I G I O U S I N S T R U C T I O N". I could never understand which this should be so. At the termination of the study the placard had to be turned. It then declared "S E C U L A R I N S T R U C T I O N". We made an intensive study of the Book of Genesis and also of the Gospel according to St Matthew. My results of the little test we had at the termination of the lessons were quite encouraging.
On the death of Canon Harding it was decided to change the name of the school from Willowfield No.2 to Harding Memorial. It was a most appropriate and fititng gesture because he had a vision of the future and believed in good schools for the rising generations. He was tireless in his efforts to get this magnificent school built. I am still in touch with another pupil of my own vintage. She, too, has very pleasant memories of her days at Harding. Her name before marriage was Nora Nelson. She is now Mrs Bertie Ginn. I am indebted to her for reminding me of a few items which had slipped my mind.
I hope Harding goes on from strength to strength for I have a possessive interest in it. Sadly I will not be able to attend the Centenary Celebrations - not in the flesh anyway.
Evelyn Combe (nee Crone)