Nostalgia: The day a coal lorry delivered a new classroom
The closing ceremony for Itchingfield Junior School was held earlier this summer.
Many memories and old stories were recalled that day, but none more extraordinary than how the school acquired an extra classroom.
On September 12, the new school in Barns Green will be officially opened. It is a lovely building, beautifully appointed, with large bright spacious classrooms with all the very latest equipment and facilities.
The children who will be lucky enough to attend the school over the coming years will indeed want for nothing.
The new school will replace the Infants School which was on the same site and the Junior School in Itchingfield which closed earlier this summer.
This lovely old school building in Itchingfield had been where thousands of children from the area had been taught since 1854.
The old school had plenty of charm but it perhaps wasn’t the best appointed teaching facility lacking in particular classroom space.
The problem of the lack of classroom space came to a head in 1977. There were only two classrooms in the building and as such other areas which were intended for communal and general activities such as meetings, assemblies and PE had to be used as classrooms for teaching.
The headmaster at the time, Alec Turner, was desperate to find a solution and talked to the PTA about the problem. The PTA in turn approached WSCC who informed them that there wasn’t any money available.
This was a tough time for the country, public spending was being cut as Prime Minister Jim Callaghan battled with the unions and the ‘Winter of Discontent’ was approaching.
WSCC was keen to help and invited the PTA for a meeting to discuss the problem and to see if there was another solution.
At that meeting it emerged that there was an unused temporary classroom building at a council-owned site in Burgess Hill.
WSCC were prepared to give this building to Itchingfield Junior School if the school and the PTA were prepared to dismantle it, transport it and then rebuild it.
Quite an undertaking but the PTA under the chaimanship of Brian Muncer decided that they would do it.
Brian’s role was instrumental in the whole project, but there was some useful talent available to the PTA at the time,
“We were very lucky. We had a brickie, a surveyor, a plasterer, electrician, plumber and several enthusiastic painters!
“Above all though, we had a great desire to do the best for our children and to help give them the best facilities we could for their education.”
Various designs and layouts were drawn up and permissions had to be obtained. However, it was clear that HDC didn’t think that the project would provide anything other than a short term solution to the classroom problem.
In their Notice of Passing of Building Plans issued by Horsham District Council in January 1978, it stated: “The building to be removed within 10 years of the date of this consent due to the temporary nature of the external material.”
On a miserable Saturday in late March 1978, 20 volunteers set off for Burgess Hill. They worked all morning dismantling the building.
Chris Simpson was one of the parents and PTA members who was heavily involved: “It was a more than just a classroom. It included a cloakroom, a washroom and had several partition walls.
“Basically we were converting a very sizeable building into a flatpack.”
Another PTA member, Paul Collins, ensured everything was meticulously logged – every single part, every outside and internal wall, every window, along with all the guttering, coat rails etc as well as the hundreds of bolts, screws and other fittings that would be required to rebuild it.
After a quick pint and a sandwich, the volunteers started loading the structure onto a lorry.
The lorry belonged to Felix Swabey the local coal merchant. He kindly lent the lorry along with his son as the driver, to transport this huge structure back to Barns Green.
His coal lorry was stacked high and weighed down with all the components of the classroom which were precariously secured with a few ropes.
It then set off very slowly to Barns Green followed nervously by a convoy of about 15 cars containing the volunteers who were on hand in case anything should fall from the lorry!
The coal lorry eventually struggled into the village late on the Saturday night.
Brian’s son, Graeme Muncer, was just 10 at the time and he can clearly remember the excitement as the coal lorry arrived: “There were about 20 of us, children and mothers waiting expectantly for this important delivery.
“We were sitting on the school wall cheering and waving as the coal lorry struggled up the hill towards the school. How it made it I’ll never know.”
Unloading was done at speed so that Felix could have his lorry back in time for Monday’s coal deliveries, and the first phase of the operation was complete.
It was over the next few months that the hard work really had to be done. Most evenings during the summer of 1978 and many weekends saw the teams of volunteers work tirelessly to reconstruct the classroom.
Once the foundations and drainage were complete, the structure could be built and restored.
HDC made regular checks on the work to ensure that all the work was being done to the correct standards.
By September the work was complete and the “new” classroom was ready for use.
A garden area was even created around the building to finish it off.
Unbelievably, the total cost of the project was just under £1,400. The PTA provided £513.66 of this from their funds, WSCC provided £478, and the school children organised a sponsored walk which raised the £400 needed for the only part of the project where specialist outside help was required. This was for the felt roofing.
The whole process took just under a year and involved about 60 different volunteers. Over 1,500 man hours went into completing the project and the building ended up being used as a classroom for 35 years until 2012 when old age finally caught up with it.
It’s a great example of dedication and commitment and an achievement of which those PTA members back in 1977 can be very proud.
Brian Muncer believes it was a unique situation that required a unique solution: “I don’t think it could happen these days with all the health and safety concerns. We were a group of committed parents who set ourselves a goal and it still amazes me to this day that we did it.”
Well they did do it, and the building although now derelict is still standing on the old school site today.
It’s a lovely story from a different era, but as the children of Barns Green go through the school gates this September and into their brand new luxury classrooms, it’s worth remembering that their predecessors 37 years ago had to rely on a delivery from a coal lorry for their new classroom.