I joined the staff of a girl’s teacher training college in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1959. For my first two years I was the only male among 250 students and about 15 staff. There was a male caretaker/gardener but I hardly ever saw him and spoke to him very rarely. I will tell more about the college on another page, when I can get round to doing it.
Teacher training colleges in England at this time ran two-year courses for students just out of school. Before entry the girls had to complete one or more subjects at the so-called Advanced Level of the General Certificate of Education (A level GCE).
The college course had three compulsory components:
(1) Teaching methods and supervised practice in Infant, Primary and Secondary Modern schools. Secondary Modern schools were for children over the age of eleven who had not been selected for (academic) Grammar School.
(2) Education Theory, which involved some elementary child psychology and history of schooling.
(3) An academic main subject chosen by the student, such as history, maths, science, geography, art and so on. An ‘A level’ certificate in the subject was required. That meant that virtually all students entering the college had attended and succeeded at grammar school. A very few mature students had completed their ‘A Level’ subject by private study.
I was the lecturer dealing with geography.
The intention of the main subject course was not to equip the students directly for teaching but to improve their own education. It was argued that a primary or secondary modern school teacher ought to have some sound academic background even though they would not need it for their day-to-day classroom work.
Like all the other staff, I was also required to supervise teaching practice, which involved visiting and advising students working in various schools in the region. My own teaching experience was all in primary and secondary modern schools, so I was well equipped for this part of my work
The geography department was not in the main college building but on the ground floor of a large old house, called The Poplars, standing in its own grounds across the road. On the first floor upstairs was the realm of the college psychologists.
I was in charge of three rooms; an office for myself, a room described as the Geography Library, and a lecture room capable of accommodating about twenty students with chairs and desks.
I was horrified when I first entered the library. There was shelf space for several thousand books but there were only a couple of dozen there. I recognised some of these as famous classics of travel and exploration, none dating more recently than 1925. There were only two genuine geography texts, brilliant and outstanding in their time but hopelessly dated now: The Influences of Geographical Environment by Ellen Semple (1904), and Halford Mackinder’s Britain and the British Seas (1907).
The rest of the shelf space was crammed from floor to high ceiling with an utterly extraordinary and dreadfully dusty collection of travel posters, picture postcards and one large and expensively bound photograph album.
I began with the album, which stood out prominently because of its size. To open it was to enter a nightmare. Someone either immediately after World War 1 or possibly before it ended, had toured the entire Western Front from end to end with a good camera. Every picture showed, in perfect focus, devastation; a few shattered stumps of trees, shell craters, mud holes, rarely a standing wall or the shell of a building with no roof. There were no captions, no indication of ownership or mention of the photographer. Print after print, page after page, I suppose a thousand separate photographs of total destruction, all carefully saved, mounted and preserved in this album which, somehow, had found its way into a geography library in an obscure college for girls in Northern England.
One tall stack of shelving contained travel posters, hundreds of them, nearly all in pristine condition except that they were folded and dusty. They dated almost exclusively to the ‘tween wars’ period. One I recall perfectly because of my own interests in aviation, advertised the inaugural service by Imperial Airways from Croydon to Paris which began in 1924. I never got through the entire stack. The task became too much for me and the other shelves awaited my attention.
At some time the geography lecturer must have suggested to the other staff and to the students, that when teaching geography to children it was always a good idea to have pictures to show. This is very true. What later were called visual aids, that is, slide and film strip projectors, were not generally available in schools before 1939. A picture postcard, however, could be passed round a class. The person running the geography course at that time must have asked everyone to bring, or mail to the college, their holiday postcards. The shelves were packed full.
Cards had apparently poured in for something like thirty years. No one had ever attempted to sort, file and catalogue them. It was quite impossible to find, for instance, a photo of Brighton beach, the Taj Mahal, or central London if one should ever want one. No one, it seemed, had ever told people to stop sending cards. They had all been shelved to gather dust here and some were still coming occasionally from former students.
Apart from a vast map of the world hanging on the wall of the lecture room, there were no maps, not a single atlas of any kind. There was a blackboard and some white chalk, desks and chairs for the students. That was all.
With my first intake of students already arriving, I felt I must clear space and get some up-to-date books onto the shelves as soon as possible. I was nobly supported by the history lecturer, Miss Richardson, a fine and scholarly woman approaching retirement. She was responsible for ordering books and supplies for the college, including my department. A substantial budget was allocated and together we began to place orders. I would have liked to have some weather recording instruments and some geological samples, but these did not seem essential in the first weeks. Books and maps were the first priority.
I retained Semple and Mackinder and a few of the better travel books. The rest was dumped into rubbish bins. Even this task took me several days of hard and dusty work. If I had known better, the college could have offered everything for sale to collectors. The travel posters, now, would be worth a great deal. They included many examples of art work that now are considered marvellous examples of design. With the income from the sale we might have been able to re-stock the entire department with modern texts, projectors, slides, maps and instruments.
I took the trouble to find out who had been in charge of the department when this material had been collected. Mary K Heslop, born in 1885, graduated in geology, one of the few women in her generation to do so. There had been no employment for her. At that time Oxford did not offer geography degrees, but in 1916 she completed a Diploma as a student of Halford Mackinder there. She did some teaching before taking the post at Kenton Lodge when the college was new in the early ‘twenties. I guess she was the person who placed those two famous books and the travellers’ tales on the library shelves.
She had published an article: A plea for the more scientific approach to the teaching of geography, in the Journal of Education in 1940. She remained at the college until she retired in 1950 and died in 1955. For ten years after her departure till my appointment, geography had been taught by part-time lecturers who had done nothing whatever to sort out the mess. I could find no evidence that they existed at all.
What, I wondered, had the students taking geography as a main subject, done in their two years of study? To judge from the small group of ‘second year’ girls who had completed Year 1 before I arrived, they sat listening to some vague and woolly travel talks from whoever had nominally been the geography lecturer for the moment. Maybe they had their old school textbooks to revise, perhaps they looked at postcards and travel posters. Most likely they had done nothing.
They had done no fieldwork or looked at a map since leaving school. It was two years waste of time as far as their main subject was concerned. There was an exam for them at the end of their two years. I found some old question papers. They could have passed on the basis of their previous ‘A level’ schooling.
After I had cleaned up the library, I changed all that.