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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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Our unforgettable school

THE recent demolition of the former Hensingham Infants’ School has marked the end of an era for former staff, pupils and parents.

But for Mamie Adair and her niece Brigid Monaghan – the final two heads at the school before its closure in 2002 – the place will never be forgotten.

“When the bulldozers have gone and the dust has settled,” said Mamie, “our memories will last forever, and we hope they will for the generations of children who went there.”

Mamie spent almost 30 years as head and says she had to be “dragged out kicking and screaming” when it came time for her to retire in 1996.

“I was the youngest head in the county when I got the job at 36, and I was the oldest when I left just before my 65th birthday,” says Mamie, who lives in Moresby.

She grew up in Cleator Moor and, after finishing her own education, taught arts and craft at Kells Infants and Valley – either side of a spell in Middlesex, where she met first husband Wilf Mather – before applying to be head at Hensingham to succeed Miss Spindelow.

“I had applied to be head at Valley, and my mother told me to cut down on make-up and dress conservatively for my interview – and I didn’t get it.

“The job at Hensingham then came up, I went in as myself and I got it! And I loved every minute.

“It was a beautiful old building – it had so much character – and I had some wonderful children, governors and staff, not least my deputy Lilian Graham. The school grew and grew while I was there; we had a superb reputation for teaching the basics and got great results. Children would travel from well outside the catchment area to attend our school.

“In my opinion, fun had to enter into learning. I was lucky to be there at a time when the results mattered, but the approach didn’t, so teachers could bring their own approach.

“I could put a child with a teacher whose approach would suit them best; that freedom of choice has gone now and it’s not for the better. Nowadays, schools and the National Curriculum are monitored too severely which cuts the legs from teachers who have a natural approach.”

One of those with a natural approach, says Mamie, is her niece Brigid. Both Brigid’s parents were teachers; father Jim at St Cuthbert’s (Cleator Moor) and later St Benedict’s, and mother Nancy (Mamie’s sister) was head at Distington and Valley.

Brigid trained with brother Shaun – now head at Jericho – at Ponteland near Newcastle, and worked at Ingwell and Distington Schools, before moving to Hensingham in January 1985.

When Mamie, by now Mrs Adair having remarried, to Tony Adair in 1988, came to retire, she knew Brigid would be “perfect” for the job, although she had no involvement in the selection process. “I would have carried on beyond 65, but the time was right to hand over,” says Mamie.

In Brigid’s first month in the job, the school had an always-stressful visit from Ofsted, followed by the unforgettable snowfall that ground Copeland to a standstill in 1996.

“What a way to start,” says Brigid. “We had nine foot of snow and, because we lived at St Bees, we were stranded at the school. I slept in school, with my sons Sonny and Finty, and mum Nancy who was doing supply there at the time, along with all the others who were stranded. Luckily we had cook Jean Hartley there who made breakfast for everyone!”

Brigid, whose background was in early years teaching, says one of the biggest successes during her tenure was the creation of a new nursery on the site. She was also instrumental in improving the school’s speech therapy services.

However, following meetings and consultations galore, it was decided by Cumbria County Council in 2002 – very controversially at the time – to close the infants and merge it with the juniors, in what’s now Hensingham Primary.

“All the history, happiness and good results we’d had didn’t count for anything in the end,” said Mamie.

“When we saw skips loaded with things in the school that we had fought for and held dear, it was truly heartbreaking.”

Brigid moved across to the newly-amalgamated school for four years, before taking early retirement in 2006. She now spends her time as a volunteer with support group Copeland Aftercare.

But both Mamie and Brigid are constantly reminded of their happy times at Hensingham Infants, being stopped in the street and receiving Christmas cards from former pupils.

“Our overriding memories are of happiness and delight at being part of such a special place, and the success that so many of our former pupils have gone on to enjoy,” said Mamie.

Among the former pupils are Fiona Reynolds (née Crosbie), who attended between 1955 to 1961 and now lives on the Isle of Skye. She recalls teachers Mrs Graham, Miss Simpson and Miss Corkhill, and said: “I have very happy memories of my days at Hensingham.

“I lived in Garden Villas, off Main Street, so handy for school. Lunch was in the canteen across the road in one of the buildings opposite the cemetery.”

Paul O’Pray (1963-65), now living in London, said: “I remember being a milk monitor, issuing bottles and straws, and clearing them away afterwards and storing them in a crate. Happy days that stay clear in my memory to this day.”

And Hazel Spate (née Moore) has “fond memories” of her time there in the early 1950s. “I remember being taken on nature walks around the old quarries (now the Richmond estate) and playing in the air-raid shelter and probably getting into trouble for doing so!”

Your Facebook memories:

Carol Sessford said: “I remember being in detention and writing about why we were naughty on the back of old wrapping up paper! When Mrs Monkhouse’s and Mrs Clifford’s classes were opposite each other! Oh and playing Molly Malone in the play!”

Grant Anderson said: “I remember Mrs Graham very well. She use to ask us as six-year-olds to write down on a piece of paper if we had any news from the weekend. Was she wanting us kids to be budding newspaper reporters, or was she just being nosey? Maybe a bit of both!!”

Steve Bound said: “I remember the concrete train that was in the playground, Mr Clarke the lollipop man and milk time at 10am when we all got a bottle of milk with a straw, also Miss Smith my teacher and Mrs Mather the head.”

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