Exhibition Preview: 120 Years of Thames school

Built in 1903 by Blackpool School Board, Thames school originally accommodated over 1,000 children in classes of 70. Current staff member Adele Royston writes about how delving into the archives to mark the 120th anniversary turned into an obsession that found her climbing into attics and delving into cellars and eventually bringing her findings together in an exhibition.

I have always been fascinated by history and Thames Primary Academy has plenty of it. Little did I know, before I began researching it for its 120th anniversary, just how much.

I have worked at Thames Primary Academy since September 2002. I started in the admin department before going on to become a teaching assistant and eventually an academic tutoring mentor for children that are in care within our school.

In 2019 we held a school reunion for ex pupils so I decided to have a look in the original school logbook from 1903 to share and display any interesting facts. My life was pretty hectic at that point so it was just a quick glance through, mainly at the WWI and WWII years. We had no idea how many people would attend the reunion. Would it be two or three? Would it be 20? We needn’t have worried! Over 300 people came, aged from 20 to 90, to reminisce about their time at Thames – sharing what were obviously very happy childhood memories.

This got me thinking that one day I would read through the logbooks, that we are so lucky to have in our possession, to find out more. But then the dreaded Covid struck and school life was very different. My research would sadly have to wait.

In 2021 I decided to start my research so that, with the permission of our head teacher, we could celebrate our 120 year anniversary in 2023.
She loved the idea and so my quest began.

I knew it would be a mammoth task and I was at a loss as to how I wanted to present my findings, so I called on my friend and local historian Anne Charlesworth who has been a huge help and guide all the way through this process.

Working alongside Anne, I discovered that in 1900, Blackpool School Board agreed to the building of three new schools, South Shore Board School (Thames), Devonshire Road and Revoe.

At the time of building, Thames was surrounded by fields on three of its sides and sand dunes on the fourth. It was built to accommodate over 1,000 children – infants, juniors and seniors. Some classrooms were designed to hold 70 children, which to us staff now is incomprehensible – we find it a squeeze with 30!

I have never taken on anything like this before so it was daunting to start with but I really wanted to do it. I began reading through the first logbook. It was an almost daily account, handwritten by each headmaster of the time, of what was happening in the school. It began on the day the first headmaster, Mr Lomax, got the key and Thames opened its doors to pupils on April 27th 1903.

Wow, what a fascinating read! I’ve laughed, I’ve cried and I have gasped at the goings on and what was acceptable in those long forgotten days – but I was also amazed by how many similarities there were. The lessons taught, the exams taken, how the school closed for weeks or months due to epidemics such as measles or influenza.

Whilst reading through the pages (that sometimes were almost illegible) I learnt so much – not only about the school, but about Blackpool too. But it also threw up so many questions – I could have quite easily gone off on so many tangents throughout but had to keep reigning myself in so that the task would be completed.

Here are some highlights from the logbook recorded by Mr Lomax – and one by his assistant when he was absent for almost slapstick reasons:

May 25th 1903
Had occasion to punch Slater, SV1 misbehaviour during prayers.
(a rare occurrence)

December 6th 1903
Severe gale – only 30% present. Register marked.
I am pleased to say that the ventilation fan is now in order for the first time.
The fan is doing very well today. Visited outlet in roof and verified same.

February 22nd 1904
Mr. Lomax unfortunately received the full weight of the piano on his foot today. He has notified me that he is ordered to rest it until at least Thursday or Friday to see how it develops. Have taken charge as per regulations.
J.B.Tomlinson, Senior Asst.

October 26th 1904
Received information from the Med. Officer of Health Mr F.G.Plant Sec that the school must be at once closed owing to the Epidemic of measles.

November 21st 1904
Reopened – severe snowstorm. Wretched  attendance. Many still  forbidden to attend.
There were 360 children away today; comment is needless.

May 9th 1906
Sewing Mistress (Miss Scholfield) preferred a change of garment for form V1 girls. In future said garment to be a “Cooking Overall” instead of a pair of drawers in previous scheme.

May 6th 1910
King Edward V11 died at 11.45pm

Thames pupils c1910 courtesy of David Salsbury

I have spent up to five hours a night whilst I sit with my lovely 89-year-old mum, reading and taking notes of all of the interesting facts that I have come across and sharing them with her to see if she found it as interesting as me (which she did). I set myself a goal of completing at least two years per evening. I always did more than I intended as I found it hard to put down.

I would love to be able to have a glimpse back at the Blackpool of those days, when they talk about walking through the country lanes to get to a Marton Moss farm for their nature lesson, or watch the annual swimming gala that was held in the Tower Circus. We had many Royal visitors to Blackpool and schools would close for the day so that the children could line the streets to greet them.

I think the most poignant moments to me were reading the books through both world wars. During WWI several male teachers left to fight on the front. Other teachers formed a war savings scheme and schools closed early for children to distribute war service literature. Boys were sent to plant in local allotments.

The headmaster was now a Mr Fox and on the morning of 24th July 1917 he recorded in his own hand that he had received notice of the death of George R Fox in France – his own son, who a few years earlier had been the captain of the school football team.

In 1920 the school war memorial was unveiled to honour the “old boys” of Thames Road. Parents, relatives of the fallen were invited to watch the youngest boy of the school unveil the plaque.

I have walked past that war memorial in our hall every day for over 20 years and always said a thank you silently as I passed to those remarkable young men and boys. But it had never occurred to me that there would have been an unveiling with all those poor parents, relatives and friends present. This gave me a determination to find out as much as possible about them, so they were not just an initial and surname on a list. Again I called on my friend Anne who found many newspaper articles and photos. My colleague, Dave Staples, also tracked almost every one of their war graves, and an appeal on Facebook resulted in many family facts through the census. I feel privileged that, as a team, we now have all this information and, as a school, we can now honour these young men beyond a list on a board.

During WWII there are so many things that have made me wonder how I would have coped in the circumstances. For example, with the fitting of gas masks to all the children. How can one teacher fit every reception child with a gas mask in a matter of minutes? The responsibility must have been huge and they were not to know where, when or if an attack would happen.

Thames pupils with gas masks. Image courtesy of Blackpool Gazette

Staff worked nights either fire watching or on air raid precaution duties and would still come in to teach the next day, although they were allowed to be late if they had been on duty.

There were 17 air raid shelters buried in the playground with accommodation for 50 in each. This is one of the things I would love to know more about but have not found anything just yet.

One entry from the Infants Log Book just states: “All gas masks tested by children passing through gas chambers.” I cannot tell you the amount of questions running through my head with that one!

Thames took in over 300 evacuees from as far away as London and, as in WWI, staff left to either join the forces or work in munitions factories. The older children were taken by bus to help Fylde farmers with their harvest and were paid a rate of 8d a day.

This is only a minuscule look at what I have had the honour of discovering by digging into Thames’s valuable archive. Logbook 1 is dated from 1903 to 1947. Logbook 2, that we have on loan from Lancashire Archives, covers 1948 to 1961, when Thames ceased to be a senior school and became just infants and juniors. I found this sad – the end of an era and I felt that I was saying goodbye to the staff I had met through reading these wonderful books. Logbook 1A is from 1907, when the infants became a department in their own right and had its own headmistress – it runs parallel to logbook 1 and ends in 1926.

These books have taken me on the most wonderful learning journey. I have learnt so much about the school and indeed Blackpool itself. I have been that engrossed in what I have read that I have been climbing in attics to try and discover where the mysterious gallery may have been and dragging Anne into the dark depths of the cellar to find the coal chute which only raised more questions – who lit all those fires every morning, and who lit the gas lamps?

I am hoping that when we have our 120 year exhibition and reunion that not only ex pupils come to share our history, but former staff and local historians too.

As a school we know we are privileged to have all this history to hand and we are hoping to see as many people there to add to our findings by sharing their knowledge and memories with us.

If you were to ask me what is uniquely special about Thames, I would say the atmosphere and the ethos of the school. Every visitor that comes through our doors comments on what a lovely feel there is to the school and how they always feel welcome.

After a social media appeal last September, I now know that this feeling has always been part of the school. I had over 800 responses from ex pupils telling me of their wonderful childhood memories at Thames.

I cannot tell you how much of a pleasure it has been to work on this project, and I hope that in another 20 or 30 years people will share their memories of the staff that we have now with the same fondness that pupils had back then.

The research, and working with Anne who has helped me pull all the pieces together, has been a joy to do, as has the teamwork among my colleagues who have helped me so much – it is much appreciated.

I hope that the people that do come to see our exhibition will enjoy what they see as much as I have enjoyed putting it together.

120 Years of Thames is celebrated on 18th May at the school, 6-9pm. Over 70s are invited to an afternoon event but places must be booked. Please email their details to [email protected] with the subject line 120 years. Join the Facebook page for more info.

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