Earlier this year we stumbled across this in Swaledale Museum’s newsletter archive: ‘The Museum was privileged to launch John Place's handsomely illustrated biography of Reginald Place, Schoolmaster of Reeth. John's talk clearly conveyed his love of his grandfather’.
Helen Clifford, Curator of the Museum, put us in touch and it wasn’t long before we met John Place during one of his visits back to his childhood home in Richmond.
The book The Sun Rises and Sets – pictured below – is a beautiful account of the life of Mr Reginald Place who was Headmaster of Reeth Friends’ School for an astounding 32 years from 1926 to 1958. The main picture shows Reginald Place with a digging class circa 1928. Like our West Burton interviewee Sally Stone, he was a pupil at the local school to which he would later return - after a period away to train – to be Headteacher.
During his time, village roads moved from being a play space to a dangerous space. Recalling in 1975 his own childhood, Reginald Place wrote:
‘To see a car then was quite an event, but never a danger. Those were the days of horse-drawn vehicles, when life was lived at a much slower pace. The roads were clear and we children used them for our games without fear of interruption by traffic or the danger of being knocked down. People were more considerate in those days: they would drive their horses around us rather than upset our games. The roads were ideal for games of ‘tip-cat’ and marbles in variety, or ‘taws’ as we called them' (The Sun Rises and Sets, p. 66).
Cars would change, forever, the phenomenon of playing out. John Place points out that in 1905, when Reginald Place would have been around nine years old, the Stamford Mercury reported that ‘The Reeth Swaledale Rural District Council has decided to petition for the speed of motors to be reduced to 12 miles an hour in the country and six miles an hour through the villages’ (p. 35).
Much later in 1946 Reginald Place would suffer the tragedy of losing his youngest son Noel, aged 13, when he was hit by a motorcar at the top of Silver Street while he was playing out on his bike. Seeing photos of young Noel throughout this book makes your heart swell.
Reginald Place lived through two world wars. His teacher training was interrupted by being called into the army for three and a half years during World War I. Later as Head at Reeth during World War II, the small village school saw its numbers leap up by half as evacuees and their teachers arrived from the north-east, and the school was suddenly responsible for twice as many pupils from starkly different backgrounds: town and country mice. One log entry during this time reads: ‘The whole of the senior group is at present without seating accommodation’ (p. 108).
The log books show that Mr Place was vexed by the issue of attendance just as headteachers are today. Attendance Officers would arrive frequently and without warning to check on numbers, and weren’t always sympathetic to the challenges of educating children in a deeply rural farming community where ‘harvest or work on the farm was often deemed to be more important than a day of learning at school’ (p.76). Attendance was instantly slashed by bad weather - not just snow but heavy rain, storms and floods.
The other main challenge? Epidemics! As we write this, UK schools have been closed for 11 weeks due to the Corona pandemic. The log entries of Reeth School throughout the 1920s and 30s show us it was frequently closed by local medical officers due to sudden outbreaks of influenza, measles, scarlet fever or chicken pox. There is a grim irony in reading of epidemic-related school closures almost a century apart. Now we have lived through such a closure ourselves, we can appreciate the challenges it forces on both pupils and teachers.
Perhaps Reginald Place’s calling to teach, and to improve the lives of others, was shaped by his own sometimes brutal experience of childhood. The family ran the grocer’s shop next to the King’s Arms Hotel in Reeth, and his further recollections offer a sobering insight into the expectations of children and work that were common at the turn of the twentieth century:
‘The business activities were quite extensive – grocer’s shop; corn, meal and cattle cake purveyors; farming on quite an extensive scale and cattle dealing. All this was the ideal foundation for what I have since decided was nothing but slavery so far as we lads were concerned, for we had to work as slaves. The moment we were deemed big enough we had to learn to milk, and then it was a case of rising at 7am, taking a milking can and going off to some cow byre probably half a mile away to fodder and milk not less than four cows and then carry the milk home. This before school. To save time I used to take the can to school in the afternoon, so that immediately school closed, it was off to the byre again, but this time there was much more to do. The cattle were let out to go to the water trough: the byre was to clean out, hay put in the racks, the cattle brought in again and milked, and then the journey home again (…) Haytime was heartache and back-break, before the days of modern machinery (…) Most of the work was done with the hand rake and fork. I often wonder how often I rose at four o’clock in the morning to go with the horseman to mow a meadow. We went so early to save the horses from doing that heavy work before the heat became too great. The boy’s job was to pull the falling grass from that uncut. Often it would happen on a windy day that the grass, instead of falling in neat swathes, would be blown back, and it was up the boy to pull it off otherwise the knife of the cutter would clog. The day would often end between 9pm and 10pm – a seventeen hour day for a boy!’ (The Sun Rises and Sets, pp. 38-46).
About the headteacher at Reeth, he wrote: ‘he was a master rather than a teacher. Maybe he saw potential which was not being realised, and decided that the way to ensure it blossomed was to drive it to fruition with the copious use of the cane, and I have known my hands numb for some considerable length of time after punishment, a punishment which nurtured resentment and added nothing that would improve matters’ (The Sun Rises and Sets, p. 52).
But despite or more likely because of his own tough experience, Reginald Place became a dedicated and ceaselessly hardworking headteacher. He had a love of nature, gardening and bee and poultry-keeping that he shared with his pupils. One log entry from 1935 tells us that seven senior class boys ‘engaged in the preparation of hiving a swarm of bees until 10:45am’ (p. 95). A description that jumped out from an inspector’s report in 1939 tells us ‘the class-rooms are bright with flowers and pictures. Living materials abound in each room…. (The children) are keenly interested in woodwork, needlework and rural science; bee-keeping and poultry-keeping make a strong appeal to the boys and all the children have a sound knowledge of gardening processes. They keep useful records of the many biological experiments which are attempted.’ (p. 104). In another entry we read of the school children rising at 4.15am to accompany their headteacher to a fell-top to view the total eclipse of 1927.
Under his stewardship, the pupils achieved music and sporting successes and the school gained a strong reputation.
Being Headmaster was clearly a twenty-four hour role and one from which you were never off-duty. On top of his headship he was at various times a conductor at the Methodist Church, a cub master for the local Scouts group, on fair and agricultural show committees and a billeting officer for evacuees.
After reading John Place’s book, it’s hard to feel like you don’t know his grandfather. In the forward John Place writes: ‘it was my grandfather who largely shaped my own life, interests and pursuits. His vocation as a teacher led me into the same profession in Oxford… he was one of the kindest and gentlest men I ever knew as a child’. The book is full of fascinating detail and is a moving tribute. It can be purchased from eBay or from John Place directly, get in touch with us if you’d like contact details.
John Place has been kind enough to share his material and photo archive with this project, and we will be sharing some of his pictures as part of The People’s Picture commission further down the track.
The Sun Rises and Sets by John Place (self-published)