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War Time Schoolboy

Memories Of Skene Street School (now Gilcomstoun School)
Aberdeen (1939-1945)
James G. Pittendrigh (late of No. 19 Chapel Street, Aberdeen)

It was in January 1939, having just reached the age of 5, that I entered the gates of Skene Street School for the first time. Here I spent the seven most formative years of my life before leaving in December 1945 to go to Rosemount School and later to the Central School in Belmont Street. I was the 4th of our family to go to Skene Street. My 3 sisters, who were all older than me, had attended in the 1920s and 1930s and my sister Nannie had probably just left to go to Rosemount School in 1939.

My early memories of the school are rather vague.  I recall that the entrance gate for infants was on the left hand side of the school and that we occupied the 1st classroom on the right up some stone steps.  There were lots of green tiles in the corridors giving the place a forbidding hospital-like look. After a year in the main building we moved to a classroom in a wooden annex which had been built in the playground to take overflow classes.  The War had started by this time (in September 1939) and brick air raid shelters had been constructed on the far side of the playground against a wall that gave on to the Denburn. We small boys had a great time playing amongst the sand that was used to help build these structures and it must have been a nightmare for the workmen keeping us from touching everything and getting into a mess.  Further shelters were also erected in the space to the right of the school known as the ‘Auld Hooses’. At some stage early in the war we were issued with gas masks which we had to carry with us at all times in cardboard boxes provided. These had to be brought to school and we had fun sitting in the class wearing them as an exercise having competitions to see who could keep them on longest.  The novelty of this soon palled, however, as they had a rather nasty rubbery smell and left a bad taste in the mouth.  Moreover, the cardboard boxes which were issued were very cheaply made and soon fell to pieces. After a few months of carrying gas masks about everywhere (with not a few getting lost) some authority decided that the Germans would probably not drop gas bombs and we were relieved of the obligation of carrying them.  Most of the masks were consigned to under the bed where a number of them probably still lie forgotten, gathering dust and memories.

The ‘blackout’ had also been introduced at the beginning of the war.  On mornings and evenings in winter when it was dark and the lights had to be switched on, big black panels (Tar Paper on Wooden Frames) or curtains were put up over the windows.  These prevented the light from showing so that German Bombers could not detect us from the air. The whole town and indeed country, was of course blacked out and there were no street lights or lights of any sort anywhere in the whole of Britain.  Every window had to be blacked out when it was dark.  Air Raid Wardens went around to check whether a light was showing and came knocking on your door if even a tiny chink glimmered in the darkness. It was a bit frightening at first going about in the dark with little flashlights but we soon got used to it.  This lasted up to the end of the war in May 1945.  Cars could use only very dim lights and there were quite a number of accidents with pedestrians being knocked down. But there were much fewer cars in those days and people soon learned to take care where they were going.  An interesting theme on the blackout was introduced in 1941 called ‘Double Summer Time’. This involved advancing clocks by 2 hours over GMT the idea being to get more advantage of the daylight hours and thereby save energy. However, this did not work so well in Scotland, which is much further North than most of England. When we got to school at 9 a.m., which was when we usually started, it was really only 7 a.m. and still pitch dark in winter. Before we could switch on the lights in the classroom we had to put up the black out panels. As the windows of our classroom were rather large this took up a bit of time. Of course when it became daylight at about 10 a.m. this process was reversed using up more time. In summer time if we went to bed at 9 or 10p.m. it was really only 7 or 8 o’clock at night and it was difficult to get to sleep. In fact in midsummer it was daylight until midnight!   What this did to our biorhythms can only be imagined but we managed to live with it somehow.

The 1st air raid alarm was a bit frightening. I was playing on the swings at the Albury playground when I heard a siren for the first time probably early in 1940. The streets were completely deserted and with my heart pounding I started to run back home to Chapel Street some distance away, expecting a German plane to dive on me at any moment.  Luckily an air raid warden found me somewhere around Bon-Accord Crescent and took me to an underground shelter where he gave me a sweet.  This cheered me up a bit but it was some time before I overcame my fright and strayed far from home again.  The siren used to go off quite often and we started to get used to it, as there were many false alarms although not all of them were false.  There came a lovely sunny day in July 1940 (which I suppose was in the early stages of the Battle of Britain) when a lone German bomber arrived over Aberdeen about midday.  The first I remember of it was hearing bangs in the distance. I don’t recall any air raid warning so I rushed outside to find out what was happening.  There was a lovely clear blue sky and there were strange muted ‘toc toc toc’ sounds away high up.  These turned out to be British fighters from Dyce firing machine guns at a Heinkel which (I later learned) had just dropped bombs in the Harbour area killing several people.  None of us thought of heading for an air raid shelter, as we wanted to share the excitement.  Some workmen were working on a roof in Chapel Street and gave us a commentary from their high vantage point.  One of them pointed excitedly and we saw the German bomber trailing smoke gliding at a fast pace above the Capitol Cinema towards the ground. The workman thought it was heading for the Duthie Park and we learned later that it had crashed near South Anderson Drive where there was an Ice Rink now a supermarket.  All the crew were killed and are buried at Dyce Kirkyard.  I remember being jealous of school friends who had gone around the streets down town and found machine gun clips lying on the ground.  These little pieces of light metal, used to hold the bullets together in a belt, had probably been ejected from the guns of the fighters and were highly treasured.  I later acquired one in exchange for some foreign stamps.  I always wonder what happened to it.  Air raid alarms became a fact of life and we were very lucky that no bombs were ever dropped in our area.  Most of the raids (usually 1 or 2 planes doing a ‘hit and run’) were directed at the Harbour area and it was Torry that seemed to suffer more than other parts of the town. In fact we almost looked forward to the sirens because this gave us a break from our classes when we all had to troop into the brick air raid shelters in the playground. We sat there dutifully in silence (or probably pinching each other in the darkness) until the ‘All Clear’ went usually inside an hour. As the war went on these raids became much less frequent, particularly after Hitler turned his attentions to Russia in 1941. However, it was dangerous to take anything for granted. One dark night, probably in 1941, a low-flying plane roared over the roof of our house in Chapel Street which shook with the reverberations.  I remember saying to my father “They’re off to bomb Germany tonight” when there was a tremendous bang which gave me a great fright. We had no idea what had happened and thought a plane might have crashed.  We found out later that a lone ‘hit and run’ raider had sneaked in (there was no air raid warning) and dropped a bomb which, by pure chance, happened to land on a Public Bar - McBrides in Loch Street killing a number of people. Death could be arbitrary.

The war was something that we learned to accept.  Fruit vanished almost completely from the shops and it was many years before bananas, oranges, peaches and many fruits which we take for granted today were again on sale. Sweets and chocolate didn’t quite vanish but were in short supply and became rationed to small quantities like just about everything else.  We were issued with identity cards and ration books.  However, I don’t remember ever going hungry and there was always the chip shop in Chapel Street for a baggie of chips and a fish cake for a treat.  We like to believe that there was no junk food in those days but I sometimes wonder just what was in those fish cakes!

Next to the school was an old sweet shop known as ‘Teeny Beattie’s’ which sold drinks that were made from probably tap water.  This was flavoured with some sort of fizzy pastille into which was injected a carbonated gas from a long sausage-shaped cylinder (Soda Syphon) involving an alarming hissing, gurgling sound.  To us this strange drink tasted just like nectar and it cost only 1/2d (about .20p of today’s money). I always loved going into this shop which was full of interesting smells and old pre-war advertisements for biscuits and chocolates which were no longer available.  There was a poster with a handsome highlander with the title ‘Cock o’ the North’ advertising MacFarlane Lang’s biscuits. Another with the young Dionne quintuplets who were recommending Fry’s Five Boys chocolate.  All part of a long gone era so far as we were concerned. A high impenetrable net surrounded the counter so that little fingers could not help themselves to whatever few delicacies were on display – and not a few of us tried!  Another institution, down the lane at the side of the school leading to the Denburn, was Mashie’s Bicycle Hire. Here for a 1d per hour you could rent a bicycle. Some people said that you were lucky if the bicycle didn’t fall apart within the hour but nonetheless many children first learned to ride a bike thanks to Mashies’s.

Our teachers were exclusively spinster or widowed ladies whom we addressed as ‘Miss’. To us they seemed to be a 100 years old with their hair done up in tight ‘buns’ and wearing thick stockings but they were probably only in their 40s or early 50s. (Some 30 years later I bumped into one in Aberdeen – she looked younger than I remembered her being in 1945!)  Such was the slaughter of Scottish soldiers in the First War that there were few men left for them to marry and so they had had to take up careers in teaching, one of the few professions open to them at that time.  They were always treated with great respect particularly as they all carried a long, specially-manufactured leather belt known as a ‘tawse’ or the ‘scud’. This they could use to punish you by striking you on the palm of your hand for any misdemeanour or even for poor schoolwork.  Generally it was used sparingly but effectively.  On the few occasions I ‘got the scud’ I remember it well as a painful experience. The ultimate humiliation was to cry in front of your fellow pupils which I managed to avoid but it was awful on occasion to see others ‘bubbling and greeting’.  I would never have dreamed of telling my father that I had ‘got the scud’ as he would have punished me again for having done something to merit punishment.  Nowadays I suppose any Teacher using this form of punishment would be arrested and sent to prison.  It didn’t do us any lasting harm and we certainly developed a respect for authority.  The only man in the building (apart from the bad-tempered janitor – and who could blame him!) was the Headmaster, Mr. Brown, a tall lugubrious man.  For a reason that I can no longer remember he once called me into his room.  This was as close to God as I ever got on this Earth and I never forgot the solemn experience.  I was told that round about 1945 he had had a heart attack in his room at school, was carried out to a hastily-summoned ambulance and died shortly afterwards.

In 1941 we moved back into the main building to Room 7 on the ground floor at the back where we had a Miss Nicol as our teacher.  One of the odder subjects that we had to learn was knitting (including the boys!).  As a contribution to the war effort we were to knit scarves or even socks for the troops and so we learned how to purl as well as to master the other intricacies of the art.  This was one of occasions that I ‘got the scud’ for having dropped too many stitches in a hopeless attempt at producing a scarf for some unsuspecting soldier.  Happily, this experiment to enlist the skills of Skene Street’s pupils in this particular war effort was soon dropped and Hitler doubtless breathed a sigh of relief, as did we.  We were also taught various songs including ‘ There Will Always be an England’ a rather bombastic piece with a rousing air.  Someone in London had presumably issued an edict that this should be sung throughout the land for morale-boosting purposes.  We were puzzled as to just where Scotland fitted into this but sang lustily all the same.  At this stage we also started using paper and learning to write copper-plate script in normal pencil. Previously we had been using slates and slate-pencils. There was always great competition to see who could sharpen their slate-pencils to the finest point. This was done by spitting on the ground and then moving the end of the pencil round and round until a very sharp point was obtained. One boy who was especially skilled managed to produce a very long stiletto like point which was much admired. Naturally, being small boys, these slate-pencils were also used for poking each other with painful results.

At some stage maybe around 1942 there occurred an event that had a profound effect on our lives. Several Schools in Aberdeen were taken over by the military to billet troops who were being trained for what was probably D-Day.  One of these schools was Skene Square and the pupils from there were now to share our school with us.  As we were already 30 children (about half boys and half girls) in the class we could hardly double up.  The solution, which was therefore found, was to reduce our school-going to half days. We were naturally overjoyed at this and took turns at going in the mornings and every few months rotated with the Skene Square pupils to go in the afternoons. I preferred going in the mornings leaving the afternoon free for my own devices.  Several subjects had to be dropped and I missed the art classes sorely but was quite happy that we no longer did gymnastics.  Music also vanished from the curriculum and we had absolutely no sports activities. I suppose the teachers were quite content to work only half time but they certainly must have had a problem somehow trying to educate us in all the essentials so that we could move on to secondary school.  They probably compensated by giving us more homework.  To this day I still don’t know what difference it would have made to my life if we had had full time classes. Maybe I’d be a world famous artist – who knows? But at this young stage of life it was lovely to have this extra freedom to play and explore the delights of the Duthie Park, Hazlehead, Rubislaw Quarries, The Beach in summer time and other exciting places.

Some of the more exciting places were the numerous Air Raid Shelters. As the war progressed these were constructed everywhere and were a source of endless fascination in their variety – above ground, underground, old cellars, tunnels, little corrugated shelters with bunks etc. A number of these probably still exist for future archeologists to discover. Unless there was an air raid alarm small boys were forbidden to enter these places which were dark and where you could do yourself an injury. This, however, just added to their interest and many happy hours were spent exploring the darkness and frightening the wits out of each other.  Another pleasant source of diversion was the large rectangular water tanks that were erected in various locations like Thistle Street. About 1.5 m. high these were designed to provide an emergency source of water for fire hoses in case incendiary bombs were dropped and water mains were broken.  However, they could also be used for sailing paper boats, throwing stones into to create large splashes (usually when a small unsuspecting friend was passing by) and similar amusements.  Once when I approached the one in Thistle Street I saw a large trail of water leading away from it.  Some incautious child had obviously fallen in and got a thorough soaking. What his mother said is not recorded. After a while the authorities must have received so many complaints (cats were getting drowned) that wire netting was stretched over the top of the water to protect the unwary and spoil the fun of small boys.

Endless diversions were also provided by the presence of the Military. Soldiers, sailors, airmen – Poles, Norwegians, Canadians, Australians and latterly Americans.  On Sundays the Gordon Highlanders paraded down Union Street on their way to church with full pipe and drum accompaniment – a wonderful sight!  On a few occasions the soldiers also carried out full-scale practice exercises in street fighting on the streets of Aberdeen.  Presumably traffic was blocked off for a certain time but small boys somehow managed to spectate.  We savoured the excitement of soldiers running from door to door in Chapel Street and thunder flashes going off with loud bangs. Occasionally a tank or armoured car would appear. For us it was great entertainment and we didn’t think (or want to think) that some of these same soldiers might soon be dead or wounded in a real battle.  Parades and processions were a regular future of life usually for fund-raising and morale-boosting purposes and even our humble ha’pennies were solicited (and sometimes given up).

Another favourite spot for playing games was the ‘Auld Hooses’ an area to the right of the school where a lot of houses had been demolished before the war and which I think is now a sports field. This was full of rocks and stones which made ideal hiding places especially for playing war games. We spent many happy hours there. It was also quite safe to play around the streets, as there were hardly any motor cars or lorries. Most deliveries of coal, milk etc., were made by slow-moving horses and carts. One of the scariest sights to be seen was a horse-drawn hearse all in black with the horses wearing big, black plumes waving menacingly and the solemn driver clad in black with a shiny Lum Hat to match. The sides of the hearse were made of engraved glass so that you could see the coffin inside. A shiver always ran through me on the rare occasions when one passed by with the hooves of the horses making sinister ‘clack clack’ noises on the cassies.

A much-favoured past-time was collecting waste paper. This involved getting a sack and going round shops and knocking at the doors of private homes asking for old newspapers, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes etc.  This was not as easy as it sounds as waste paper was worth money and a lot of people as well as other children were also making these collections.  When we had filled our sack we would then take it to a place in Little Chapel Street where it was weighed by a man who would grudgingly give us a few coppers.  Sometimes you might get as much as 6d (2.5p) but normally it was less.  Still it was a welcome addition to our meagre pocket money and helped us to buy comics or get into the pictures.  Bottles and tins were also collected and there was absolutely no litter on the streets in those days.  This had nothing to do with helping the environment.  It was an economic necessity as everything was scarce.  Even horse droppings were collected by those who had allotments to help them manure their vegetables. Nothing was wasted.

A lot of time was spent in reading. Favourites were comics such as the ‘Beano’ or ‘Dandy’ graduating as we got older to the ‘Wizard’, ‘Rover’, ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Adventure’. As paper was in short supply these came out only every 2 weeks and were reduced in size from pre-war. Each comic cost 2d (0.8p) which was more than I could afford but a great institution was ‘Robson’s’ in the middle of Chapel Street where there is now a car park. This wee shoppie sold 2nd-hand comics which were in good condition for 1d and if you brought back a comic after reading it the price was reduced to 1/2d. So by waiting a week or 2 you could keep up with what was happening in the various serialized stories at an affordable cost.  In 1942 I joined the Children’s Public Library and I read at least 2 books per week for years after.  Everybody loved the ‘Biggles’ and ‘William’ books which you had to order weeks in advance and which you easily devoured in 1 day leaving you thirsting for more.  In a way this was more exciting than television as you had to exercise your own imagination in trying to picture the characters and the different scenes.  Another favourite diversion was going to the cinema. However, as this cost 6d (2.5p) or even more to get in it was a luxury indulged in only once a week, usually a Saturday afternoon - but it was good value. For your money you got a full feature film, a 2nd supporting film, a newsreel (usually showing war scenes), a cartoon or short film and a trailer advertising the film coming next week, all totaling about 3 1/2 hours.  Favourites were Tarzan, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, gangsters and war action movies of which there was no shortage. For an afternoon you could inhabit a fantasy world watching the flickering rays of the projector cutting a swathe through the swirling tobacco smoke – which didn’t seem to disturb us.  Living at the top of Chapel Street I was spoiled for choice as the Capitol, Playhouse, Majestic, Odeon, Cinema House and Picture House were only a few minutes walk away. Aberdeen in those days had the highest number of cinemas per head of population in the whole of Britain.

The children in my class, both boys and girls, came mainly from the surrounding streets – Chapel Street, Summer Street, Skene Street, Northfield Place, Leadside Road, Kidd Street, Huntly Street etc., which were all working class areas. The poorest children came from lower Skene Street, the Denburn and Black’s Buildings, slum areas behind the Public Library that have long since been demolished.  We were almost exclusively Aberdonians with 1 or 2 English children probably sent to Aberdeen because it was supposed to be safer from German bombing.  Our families were very poor by today’s standards although we didn’t really feel this as everyone was in the same boat.  The fathers of a number of children had been conscripted into the army and some of those children didn’t see them until the war was over – in some cases for 5 or 6 years.  Fortunately my own father had been in the 1st World War and was too old for the 2nd.  Nobody owned a motor car and there was no television.  Even bicycles were uncommon.  Radio was available but we didn’t have one in our home, as electricity had not been installed in our tenement.  Lighting and cooking were done by gas. Central heating was unknown and in winter the only heating we had was by coal fire which took some time to get going and even longer to take effect. It was common to find ice inside the windows in the mornings when we awoke. At school, classes were heated by big pipes in which hot water or steam circulated.  These pipes were generally situated at the back of the classroom which was a bonus for the brighter pupils who sat at the back.  Less bright pupils sat at the front where the teacher could more closely supervise them.  The ultimate humiliation for those who were not too bright was to be sent to what we called the ‘feel’ (fools’) school (somewhere up King’s Gate) where goodness knows what their fate was. Happily hardly any of us ended up there.

Round about 1943 we graduated to the ‘big een’s’ gate which was on the extreme right hand side of the school.   This was a boost to our prestige and we felt very grown up.  We moved from Room 7 on the ground floor to Room 14 upstairs. I think a Miss Smith presided over us at this time.  Here we learned to write in ink, which could be a messy experience.  Even although the ink-wells were set into the desks it seemed to be incredibly easy to spill them.  My favourite subject was ‘composition’ which consisted of writing little stories using given guidelines and subjects.  Topics such as ‘a walk in the woods’ hardly excited the imagination but occasionally you would get something more exciting like ‘a gang of forgers’. On this you could really go to town.

The Big Event of 1943 was the air raid of April 21 when a squadron of German Bombers based in Norway swept over a virtually undefended Aberdeen at night and dropped their bombs at will, killing and injuring many people as well as causing widespread damage.  There had not been any raids for a long time and presumably the authorities had become complacent, as there was not even an air raid warning.  Most of the anti-aircraft defences had been moved down to England.  Skene Street School and its pupils escaped this raid unscathed, the nearest bomb being dropped on a church in Carden Place just up the road. A school friend of mine, Rob Noble who lived directly opposite the school, remembers seeing an anti-aircraft gun on the back of a lorry going up Skene Street firing at the bombers. However, the Germans all escaped safely back to Norway - a peaceful little outing for them.

Our last 2 years - 1944/1945 - were spent in Room 18 with Miss Finlay. I remember this classroom being decorated with lots of posters for the war effort and a big wall map of the world with whole chunks of it coloured in red for the British Empire. At some stage full time education was reinstated. We missed our free half days but it was nice to have art classes again even if drawing material and paints were in short supply.  Another welcome institution which was reinstated was ‘The Banner’. This was literally a banner which was awarded to the class that had had no absences for illness during a given week and it carried with it the bonus of getting out 1/2 hour early on Friday afternoon.  It was not often that we won it but it was counted as a great honour.  Normally all the classes were co-educational with boys and girls learning together but now there was some degree of segregation. At certain times the girls went off to do domestic science - instruction in cooking, sewing and other household tasks which sometimes I wish I had received myself. I can’t remember what the boys did at this time – maybe gymnastics or something ‘masculine’ like metalwork.

I think these were the most rewarding of my years at Skene Street.  Looking back I can see that our minds started to open up and we absorbed knowledge more easily if not necessarily more willingly. I enjoyed art, geography and composition although we all detested spelling and grammar, particularly ‘parsing’ and it was many years later, when learning foreign languages, that I appreciated the value of this.  Probably for the last time in most of our lives we had instruction in Scottish subjects.  At my secondary schools I was taught ‘English’ history, ‘English’ literature, ‘English’ songs (we even had to sing the ‘Eton Boat Song’ at Rosemount!) but at Skene Street we learned about Bruce and Wallace and the geography and history of Scotland. We sang ‘By the Light of the Peat Fire Flame’, ‘Westering Home’ and other similar Scottish ballads enthusiastically if not melodiously and I obtained a sense of Scottish identity which has never left me.

From a war point of view the news was a lot better although oddly enough we children never thought (probably naively) at any time that Britain would be defeated by Germany. We were always taught that the history of Britain was a long series of victories over just about anyone in sight and it seemed just a question of time before the same happened to the Germans.  So it came to pass.  There was a holiday on VE-Day and much rejoicing with bunting and flags everywhere and victory parades and bonfires. Everyone was shocked at the newsreels showing scenes from concentration camps. However, we were not unduly surprised, as we had learned from films and wartime propaganda that the Germans were savage beasts capable of anything.  But when it was over life went on very much as before – rationing continued and things were in short supply as ever - except that there was no more blackout.  The gas lamps were lit again. Fathers started to come home. Schoolwork continued. And so 1945 came to an end and with it our youthful innocence. Most of us moved on to the harsher realities of Rosemount School where we were split up over different classes and mixed with strangers from Skene Square and Mile-End.  Bit by bit we drifted apart, lost contact and most of our youthful friendships were dissipated.

Today I have only one close friend left from those distant times – Rob Noble whom I have known over 6 decades and with whom I have had many adventures over the years even though he still lives in Aberdeen and I have lived on the Continent for more than 4 decades.  Almost since the day I left Skene Street I have seen none of our girl classmates again although I can remember many of their names – Priscilla Munro, Patricia Reid, Jean Tyre, Violet Farman, Edith Anderson, Wilhelmina Dalgarno etc.- all vanished into a different existence – and probably now grandmothers. The same applies to most of the boys.  Few of us moved on to higher education.  Colin Nelson and myself went to the Central via Rosemount School. Henry Dey went to the Gordon’s. ‘Scottie’ Denholm later became owner of a gun shop in Belmont Street – big Mitchell I used to see quite often on my trips to Aberdeen as a traffic warden. Dougie Cranna used to go to the dancing in the 1950s, as did Lawrence Hepburn. However, Derek Queen, Alec Paterson, Peter Cooper, Tommy Still, Ernest Mutch and others have all gone their separate ways.  I often wonder what became of them. Rob Noble (for whose contribution to these notes I am indebted) and I discussed more than once trying to organize a get-together but there always seemed to be other preoccupations and now it is probably too late.  Still, it would be nice to share our stories and to trace our paths since that long gone day in 1945 when we left Skene Street for the last time. Maybe some day! - by Jim Pittendrigh.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013