FROM Hopper Street to Hollywood – there’s no denying that one city school was a class act.
“In a rather fortunate coincidence, two old Bishopwearmouth pupils visited Sunderland Antiquarian Society recently,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“One chap, Stevie Potts, came to make a donation of a rare centenary booklet – and the other was desperate to see a copy of the same little treasure.
“Stevie was a pupil from 1937-1946 and his donation, together with his memories, have brought back to life many happy and tough times.”
Bishopwearmouth National School – built just behind the Empire Theatre – first opened its doors to boys in 1854.
Lessons cost 6d a week per scholar.
A department for girls opened just a few years later, on January 11, 1869, but children were strictly segregated.
“The school only had six teachers at first, who were responsible for keeping 629 pupils quiet – all packed into just four large rooms,” said Norman.
“In the early years, pupils sat six abreast on long backless benches, scratching away on slates and working under the flickering light of oil lamps and candles.”
Life was tough for the pupils, as the school log books reveal. Not only were they expected to work hard, but even the youngest had to sit tough exams.
“The books record the heartbreak caused when a pupil did not match their parents’ expectations,” said Norman.
“During the 1888 school examinations, it seems that queues of mams and dads were waiting in the headmaster’s office to share their tales of sorrow!”
Isabella Robson’s mother for example, complained that her husband had treated their little girl “with great severity” because she had not passed her exams.
Another father was reported as being “positively suicidal” after his daughter, Florence Adams, failed to shine. Her mother was left in “deep sorrow,” while her father “has been affected mentally and is in lifelong disgrace because she has failed last week’s exams”.
Not all the children, however, were as concerned about their studies – many skipped lessons whenever possible.
“The headteacher records in the logs that the main reason for empty classrooms was when a menagerie turned up at the Empire Theatre,” said Norman.
“Another cause of missing kids was because they were too busy watching animals being slaughtered at the nearby butcher’s shops to attend their lessons!”
It was all change for the children of Bishopwearmouth National School between 1903 and 1908, when it was re-named Bishopwearmouth Church of England School.
And 1909 proved a memorable one – each pupil was given a free pair of clogs.
“What a racket these must have made when the lasses did their cookery lessons in the upstairs classroom!” said Norman.
“The strain eventually proved too great for the wooden floorboards and the kitchens had to be closed on safety grounds.”
The school’s oil lamps and candles were finally snuffed out in 1910, when gas mantles were provided in the classrooms.
After the First World War broke out four years later, the pupils adopted two Durham Light Infantry soldiers who were being held prisoner in Germany.
“Collections of money and food were sent to the soldiers, even though many of the bairns were half starved,” said Norman.
Despite tough times, two pupils to graduate were destined to break hearts – in very different ways.
“Gibb McLaughlin, a student in the 1890s, became a film star,” said Norman.
“He appeared in Hobson’s Choice, Oliver Twist and The Lavender Hill Mob.
“Johnson Street lad Charlie Walker became a top footballer. He played for Aston Villa and scored the goal that knocked out Sunderland of the 1913 FA Cup.”
The outbreak of the Second World War also had an impact on Bishopwearmouth School. When a bomb fell close to the Empire, lessons were disrupted for a few hours.
“A few sticking plasters here and there ensured that it would soon be back in service though,” said Norman.
“Even a direct hit in the girls’ school yard in 1941 didn’t interrupt education for very long – although the bairns were awarded a half-day break while the crater was filled with rubble.”
The post-war years saw the girls and boys departments amalgamated in December 1952, due to falling numbers, and the school was also renamed Rectory Park.
“One of the highlights of later years was the introduction of a small garden, which was enjoyed by pupils,” said Norman.
“Previously to this, the young gardeners had to cross Galley’s Gill to reach the old plot. The centenary magazine has a photo of infants hard at work in the garden.”
Bishopwearmouth closed 110 years after it welcomed its first pupils, on July 24, 1964. The remaining students were sent to Bishop Harland Primary at Red House.
“The pioneers of this school knew what education was about,” said the Rev Graham Foley during a remembrance service for the school in 1964. “They were men of courage, from whom the children drew strength.”
l Stevie Potts is appealing for former pupils to contact him. Letters should be sent c/o Norman Kirtlan at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street West, Sunderland SR1 3ET.