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A Trip Back in Time

Shoshana R. Meiri

I grip the sides of my narrow wooden-slatted seat on the second floor of a glossy cream-and-red tram. A bell jingles — and we’re off, gliding between the tram tracks. I feel like we’ve meandered over a hundred years back in time, as we rumble toward the old Victorian schoolhouse at Beamish, an amazing open-air museum about half an hour’s drive from Gateshead, where different aspects of Victorian and Edwardian England come to life.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The tram stops at the Victorian school, built in 1891. Come and peek: a low, gray-and-black stone building with tall, paned windows and separate entrances with “Boys” and “Girls” engraved in the stone. Although boys and girls learned in the same classrooms, they would keep apart; they’d be seated at different tables in the classroom, and they lined up separately outside the school and entered via different doorways.

In one classroom, about the size of an average classroom today, we see rows of glossy, wooden desks with benches. Over ninety children, ages seven to eleven, studied together in this room every day, with between three and five of them squashed onto each bench. They had one teacher and a teacher’s-assistant, usually a girl no older than fourteen. At fourteen (imagine — only two years past bas mitzvah age!), children finished their education and went to work. That’s if they were lucky — children from poorer families had to start work as young as five, to contribute to the family income. The desks for older children have slates on them, like small blackboards, and a lead stick to write with.

A coal fire crackles in the fireplace and Queen Mary, in an elegant gown and tiara, gazes sternly at me from a picture on the wall.

Lines of handwriting practice snake over the blackboard, with the date: Sunday 13th May 1913. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” “Manners maketh man.” I guess without computers even those with poor handwriting had to make sure their writing could be understood!

Beside the teacher’s desk hangs a long, black leather strap. I turn to a lady dressed as a Victorian teacher, in a long, navy, flared skirt and high-necked blouse, and ask what the strap was for. “That was for smacking naughty children,” she says. “If you didn’t know your reading, or couldn’t do your sums, you could get the strap.” She points to a long, thin bamboo stick inside a glass cabinet. “But the worst punishment was the cane.”

I’m glad I didn’t go to school in Victorian times!


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