Author: Robert Hamilton
Publication Date: 2002
I woke up early on my first day of school in 1938. My family had just moved to Guelph from Preston the year before and we lived on London Road, two blocks east of Exhibition Park. My mother placed my clothes on the bed for me and prepared a bowl of hot porridge for breakfast. I was so excited that I could hardly finish it. We walked down Exhibition Street towards Victory School. As we approached, I saw the big, square, red brick building that was to be my school until 1947 (that is, if passed each grade the first time). There were large windows all around and a large playground at the back. As we came closer to the school my mother noticed that there were two entrances: the one closest to us on Powell Street for girls and, of course, the one furthest away on Clarke Street for boys. We entered the school and saw that there were two flights of stairs just inside the doors, one leading up and one down. we went up to Miss Wright's kindergarten class, on the right at the top of the stairs. My mother was hesitant to leave but I assured her that I was quite able to handle things on my own. We sat on small chairs against the walls and spent the morning making garlands and listening to stories. I was not yet able to tie my own shoes (or anybody else's for that matter), so I made friends with a girl named Gladys and she helped me overcome my problem. There was a boy in my class named Richard who kept putting his hands in his pockets. Finally, Miss Wright sewed them up - I wonder how he explained that to his parents.
As time went by, I became familiar with other parts of the school. In the basement were the washrooms, just past the boiler room where Mr. Berry kept the coal-burning furnace going in the winter. He used to spread the cinders around the playground sometimes. I fell on them and cut my knee. The classrooms were built along the outside walls which left an open square space in the centre of the school. This allowed room for the teachers to run exercise classes as there was no gymnasium. At recess we would go out to the playground for about 15 minutes. There were no swings or monkey bars like today so we just hung around or climbed the pine trees at the end of the property. Of course we could not talk to the girls as they stayed on their side of the school. Everything was separate, even the cloak rooms.
Well, I made it out of kindergarten and on to grade one in Miss Lampard's room which was on the bottom floor in the south-west corner of the school. Quite a few of the students from that class became my friends. They lived in different parts of the city, from Westmount Road in the west to King Street in the east, and from Norwich Street in the south to Speedvale Avenue in the north. At that time, we were learning to spell and print. Sometimes the teacher would read to us and then we got our own book. How many of you remember Dick and Jane or See Spot Run?. I can still see that book in my mind. The big event of 1939 was the visit of the King and Queen on June the sixth. We made Union Jacks and marched down Exhibition Street to Dublin Street and then to the railway crossing at Kent Street. We stood there waiting for the train to go by and finally it did. The King and Queen were standing at the back of the coach waving to us, and the train was travelling so fast that if you sneezed you missed them.
My next move was to Miss Fowke's grade two class. Her room was opposite the kindergarten class on the same side. That year we had our photographs taken at our desks (Figure 1). We all looked so innocent. We were learning to draw, and the first assignment was to draw our house. Mine was made of stucco with shining pieces of glass inserted which reflected different hues, so I was using many colours to show this. Miss Fowke had a fit when she saw it and asked if any of the students had seen this rare house! It was also that year that we were taught multiplication. Cards were mounted on the walls and when we could add them correctly, we would point to each one and tell the answer to the class. I remember counting by 4's and not speaking too loud hoping that if I made a mistake the teacher could not hear it, but it didn't work.
I was really getting to feel comfortable at Victory School by the time I had reached grade three, but the School Board had other ideas. I was sent, with some of my friends, to St. John's School at the comer of Woolwich and Tiffany Streets. I really missed Victory School, though we did have some fun helping Mrs. McGrobbie, who was the caretaker. We'd clean up the schoolyard and rake the leaves and she paid us with BB-Bats (which are caramel suckers). By the end of grade four, they asked me to stay for grade five, but I told them that Victory School was where I wanted to go.
So there I was back at Victory School in Miss Marr's grade five class with my old friends. It might not have been a good move because it was in this class that I was introduced to the strap. If you misbehaved and your teacher wrote your name on the chalk board three times during the month, that meant 'the strap.' I was a regular candidate for most of the year! World War II was also going on in Europe during this period and the army and air-force were training in Guelph. The soldiers would march from the Guelph Armoury past our house on London Road to Exhibition Park. On the way home from school, we would stop and watch them take their Bren guns apart and re-assemble them, and charge dummies with their bayonets. My parents bought me an air-force uniform which I wore almost every day (Figure 2). It was a great advantage because the soldiers gave me a baseball and bat. And sometimes when they were forming up to march back to the Armoury, they would ask me to march with them. The only problem was that they marched through all the puddles and mud and, of course, so did I. My mother would wonder how I got so dirty on such a sunny day.
During the War, the Guelph Horticultural Society donated seeds for students to grow a Victory Garden to compensate for the food shortages. My garden was not much of a success as the weeds grew faster than the vegetables. As well, food was rationed. Each family had its own ration booklet and when you bought an item you had to give the store a stamp out of the booklet (Figure 3). Sugar, meat, butter, and rubber were some of the items rationed.
I was now making friends with some of the boys in my class. My best friend was Al who lived on Central Street, and I would play at his house until his father came home for lunch. His family was just like the Cleavers from the TV series Leave it to Beaver. His dad had a new car, wore a suit to the office, and carried a briefcase. At had all the latest toys and even had an electric train on the dining room table. Lunch time was 12:00 to 1:30, so I had lots of time to get home myself.
In the winter, we would go skating in Exhibition Park after school. The Parks Department would provide a rink with boards around it for playing hockey, and an area around the outside for those who just wanted to skate. There was also a shack with two wood stoves in it for putting your skates on and to warm up before you went home. The shack, as you probably guessed, had one side for girls and the other for boys (Figure 4). Since snow fencing was put up just inside the park along Exhibition Street, many times on the way to school we would walk through the high snowbanks the fence created. When we got to class, we could not get our rubber boots off so the teacher had to help us, and would fill the waste basket with the snow.
The next class I was in was Miss Swanson's. She taught grade six and helped take off our boots, too. The book she read to us was The Bobbsey Twins and I can still remember the stories. As we were now in grade six, the school thought we were heading toward puberty, so they had ministers from the local Protestant churches drop in and speak to us about the facts of life. A point I clearly remember, made by one of the ministers, was never to choose a girl for her looks but rather one who was nice and also smart.
At that time there were no music programs in the elementary system. Mr. Peachell taught music appreciation at the Collegiate and also created a choir from all the public schools for the annual Christmas concert at G.C.V.I. Miss Swanson encouraged us to put on our own entertainment. Connie's sister played the guitar, and I was a member of the Guelph Boys and Girls Band so I brought my E-flat alto horn and played some of the marches we used with the band (Figure 5). Later Ken's father sold me a Besson cornet for 20 dollars, so I now could bring my cornet and perform a duet with Ken.
There was a Children's Shelter on Clarke Street, east of the school and some of the kids attended Victory (Figure 6). I got to know a boy named Robert who had had polio and wore a steel brace on his leg. He reminded me of Tiny Tim in Dicken's Christmas Carol. I would share my treats with him, as he never seemed to have enough to eat. Later on, the Salvation Army turned it into an Eventide Home for men. I worked after school at a corner store on Woolwich and Division Streets delivering fruits and vegetables to the men on the second floor. They slept in a large room similar to an army barracks with beds along the outside walls. I felt sorry for the men who lived there. The building has since been torn down.
Victory School did not have a library so when we wanted a book to read, we went to the Guelph Public Library on the corner of Norfolk and Paisley Streets (Figure 7). To go to the children's section, we entered the back door and went downstairs. They had special craft and story programs on Saturdays. One day I rode my bike along the side of the building, and not realizing that there was a two-foot drop at the end, I bent the front fender out of shape. There was a row of blocks on either side of the entrance columns, and we would see who could climb up to the top the quickest. One time I found an overdue book in my room and left it inside the back door so I wouldn't have to pay the fine.
I was now in grade seven in Miss lbbotson's room. In the fall we stayed after school and waxed maple leaves and put them into books. I remember making finger paint and creating quite a mess. One day after school I went with Hugh to his house, and we made our own finger paint. By the time we had made it I had to go home for supper, and when I went back the next day it was as hard as cement, as our teacher had not told us that it would harden if it was not used immediately.
On Friday mornings, all the boys were sent to the Y.M.C.A. for swimming lessons (Figure 8). We went to Victory School first and then left in the middle of the morning. There was no supervision and we all walked together at a slow pace. In the winter, some of the boys would grab onto the back bumper of a passing car and wait for the rest of us at the next corner. Sometimes we would stop and watch the coal truck deliver a load of coal into someone's cellar. On the way we would pass the Royal Dairy Bar on Paisley Street and stop in for a chocolate milk. The Y.M.C.A. was located on the corner of Quebec and Yarmouth Streets. We did not need bathing suits as we swam naked. We would finish about lunch time and all head for home (not naked of course). There were no art courses available, so when an art competition was offered the teachers would choose those who had talent to enter. I was fortunate to be one of those students, Jim and Lorne being the other two. Jim won first prize for his watercolour about conservation. As there was no art room, we were given the nurse's room to use on the top floor above the main entrance hall.
Our teachers usually lived nearby and walked to work as there was no parking lot for their cars. Miss Ibbotson lived just a few blocks north of the school on Woolwich Street and some of us went to her house to help her move some furniture. Most teachers were single and female because the local Board of Education adopted a resolution on October 17, 1926, stating that no more married teachers were to be appointed in city schools. The teachers, therefore, usually lived alone and had their students help them with heavy chores.
In class, I remember the ink we used, which was kept in inkwells on the top right comer of the desks. To fill them, the teacher used a metal container that looked like a watering can. I was tempting to stick the pigtails of the girl sitting in front of me into the ink, but she was smart enough to undo them. We had straight pens with scratchy nibs which dug into the paper, spattering dots all over our work. I am left-handed and the teacher wanted me to change my style to the right-hand slant. That would smear my writing. Finally, I got my way, but I developed two distinctive styles of writing. Ball point pens did not appear until much later and even then, they were not allowed in school; only fountain pens were.
That year I joined the city-sponsored Guelph Schools Safety Patrol. It consisted of grade seven and eight students who stood at nearby street corners and allowed the students to cross the road when there were no cars coming (Figure 9). This was easily accomplished, as during that period there were not very many cars. The breadmen and milkmen had horses pulling their wagons, so they did not present much of a safety hazard. In the winter they used sleighs and the Weston's Bread sleigh would tip over when the horse cut the corner too sharply. We would be on our post before and after school to see that all the pupils got across the road safely. At the end of the school year, all those who were on patrol were treated to a banquet at the Trails End Hotel in Conestoga. The entertainment was a musician who played a variety of musical instruments hidden in his clothes. For his final number he played a tune on a glass jar filled half full of water. By tilting the bottle, he could change the pitch of the notes.
In grade eight we went in the morning to Alexandra School for manual training (Industrial Arts or 'shop class,' as it is now called) taught by Mr. Burnham, my first male teacher (Figure 10). (This school was right next to the original Central School on Dublin Street which was torn down in the 1960s.) When Mr. Burnham asked a question, he would offer a quarter to the student who gave the correct answer. One of the questions that he posed was what word that started with a 'q' that did not have a 'u' next to it. That was one quarter he never had to pay.
Figure 10: Central School was located on Dublin Street. Alexandra School is shown on the left corner.
Jim, Lorne, and I, again this year, spent some time in the nurse's room producing a watercolour painting for a competition. We were also writing more essays now, to develop organizational skills. We trained, as well, for a city-wide field day to be held in the enclosure at Exhibition Park. There were a couple of bullies at Victory School who used to chase me. I have to thank them for their efforts as I became the fastest runner in the whole school and represented Victory School at the field day. I came third in the city-wide one hundred-yard- dash and first in the relay race with our team. Despite these high moments, it was also a sad year. Our teacher became ill and had to leave, and a classmate, Malcom, passed away from a blood disease. Miss Broughton took the class for a while but was replaced near the end of the year by another male teacher. Mr. Allen taught grade seven in the next room and would come in to help the supply teachers. The boys were starting to notice the girls in the class, and we were passing notes to them during class. I liked Ruth and passed a few notes to her, but I was rejected, although we were still friends. Just at the end of World War II, we were in the playground for morning recess when a 'Hurricane' fighter plane flew over the school. The pilot was Ray Reid who had a landing strip at the end of Woolwich Street. It was quite exciting to see a war plane doing loops and wing-overs in the sky over the school. Some of us went to his air-field and had the chance to sit in the plane.
After walking to and from Victory School for the past number of years, you knew the habits and customs of the neighbourhood. Monday was always washday, both summer and winter. While walking home for lunch you could see all the clothes hung on the lines. In winter, of course, they were all frozen stiff and when I got home for lunch, my Long Johns were standing up in the corner. There was a long cedar hedge by Mont Street along the side of Loma's house. It was a good place to hide in, especially when it was snowing or raining. In the hot summer, one of Halliburton's ice trucks would be in the neighbourhood and we would get small chips of ice from Freddie, who used large tongs to carry bricks of ice to the customers' ice boxes. One lunch time, the Silverwood's Dairy wagon was on Exhibition Street when the horse tripped and broke his leg. The police took the horse into the park and shot him. The milkman, whose name was Mr. Crosby, was quite distraught because the horse had been with him for the past ten years.
In the winter, we would carry a piece of cardboard with us to school to slide down the hill in Exhibition Park on the way home. I listened to the Happy Gang on the radio at 1 P.M. just before leaving for school. Bobby Gimby played the trumpet on the program, and I would wait until he played his solo before departing. You are probably wondering what our clothes looked like. My winter outfit consisted of a brown tweed coat, short pants, and long brown stockings. No wonder the bullies were chasing me. My summer wear (Figure 11) was a long- sleeved dress shirt and tie with the same short pants with braces. In our last year at Victory School, even though we had three different teachers, I still received my entrance certificate. After graduating, the only teacher I saw again was Miss Marr. At the printing shop where I was an apprentice, I printed a card for her from a design that she had cut out of linoleum.
During the 1960s, many of Guelph's historic buildings were destroyed to make way for more modern looking ones including the Bank of Montreal, the Customs Building, the Royal Bank, the Carnegie Library, Central School, and others. Even the clock tower on City Hall was removed. I have spent many hours producing drawings of these buildings, including Victory School, so that they will not be lost forever. We are truly fortunate that Victory School and its surrounding community has changed very little over the years.
Hamilton, Robert. Family Photographs.
Hamilton, Robert. Guelph's Historical Buildings.
Stewart, Robert Alan McLean. A Picture History of Guelph, Vol. 2 Guelph: Ampersand Press, 1978. Bio.