I believe that school dinners were first introduced into the UK in 1906, but not all local councils provided them. When I attended primary school in the late 1950s, Harehills County Primary School certainly did. Free school milk was introduced in 1946 and gave every school child under the age of 18 years a third of a pint of milk a day. Laws were passed in 1944 which required all councils to provide free school meals, but this was obviously means tested when I was at school as we had to bring our money in to pay for lunches and the teachers collected it at the start of the week. I seem to remember it being five shillings, but I could be mistaken. Some children were provided with free meals and, at the time, there was little consideration of the feelings of such children and when their names were read out the teacher just said free and filled in the forms. I seem to remember that we were given tickets for the week and the free tickets were a different colour. Mr Kelly, my class teacher in Years 3 and 4, would count up the money and do a reckoning and then it was taken by a trusted pupil down to the office. You had to look after your tickets as they had to be presented when you arrived for your meal and you would be in trouble if you had lost it. Not everyone had dinners. Some children went home each lunchtime and returned before the afternoon lessons started.
Each class would have milk monitors and their role was, just before morning break, to go down to the storage area where the milk crates were kept, collect the right amount for your class and then struggle with the full crates up the stairs to the classroom where we would each get a bottle, a paper straw, remove or pierce the foil tops and then drink the milk before going out to play. In winter the milk often froze and it was a treat as it seemed more like ice-cream. It was certainly full-fat milk and I loved the cream on the top. In summer the milk would begin to turn on a hot day, but we still had to drink it. If children were away then extra milk would be available for the lucky ones chosen. We never took long to drink it as we wanted to get outside to play. The milk monitors then had the role to take the empty crates back down to the storage area under the school.
As an aside, the television programme, Blue Peter, ran annual collections of the foil bottle tops. I believe it was for Save the Children charity and schools were involved. Large amounts of money were raised as the aluminium foil was recycled. This ran for several years.
I have spoken about lunches at Harehills where we had to line up and walk down to St Aidan’s church and there was a hall underneath where the meals were served, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. We had to line up, hand our tickets over, collect a plate and walk before the serving ladies. There was no choice apart from not having something and this probably explained why some children didn’t have dinners. Children with religious requirements were not catered for and no one that I knew had allergies or were vegetarians, so maybe they had their own sandwiches back at school. Depending on the dinner lady, you might avoid things that you didn’t like, but often the swede, carrots, cabbage or brussel sprouts were just slapped down on your plate in a large watery dollop. With the things that you did like your plate would linger, hoping pity might be taken on you and extra added. This was particularly important on the puddings. Jam roly-poly, spotted dick, chocolate sponge, Manchester tart, treacle sponge were my favourites all with custard, occasionally pink or chocolate, but sago, semolina, rice puddings were my least favourite. I must admit school dinners were fab and I loved them!
At Christmas we had a special dinner. The dinner ladies would have paper hats. There would be a few streamers adorning the room and turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing and brussel sprouts were the fare, covered in lashings of gravy. The pudding was Christmas pudding, with white custard or sauce and there were rumoured to be some hidden sixpences in some of the puddings. I think some children found them wrapped in silver foil, but certainly not many. It didn’t take many years before the safety squad banned such frivolity as it was a choking hazard. I, for one, went through the pudding with forensic level scrutiny to check if I had a lucky find but, as in many things in life, I was to be disappointed.
The ladies were quite crafty and I fell for the parsnips disguised as chips trick. A large plateful was deposited with my encouragement, only to be horrified. The rules were simple, if you had it on your plate, then you had to eat it. Not my finest moment. Before anyone could eat though, we had to wait for the say so. We would all be sitting and the teacher in charge would say, “Now we’ll say grace!” We would all then chant, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen!” There was then a flurry of cutlery being lifted and the scoffing began. Teachers would sometimes patrol and enforce manners and etiquette. “Elbows off the table! Don’t speak with your mouth full! Fork in your left hand! Cut your food and don’t stuff it all in!”
When we had finished and returned the cleared plates and crockery we would all sit up straight ready to be dismissed. Dismissed meant being allowed to line up for the return frogmarching back to school and the remainder of our lunch time in the playground.
Arrival at Roundhay School in September 1966 saw a different approach to school dinners. Free milk was still provided and now there was less supervision. The routine of collecting the crates and full bottles and returning the empties was the same, but the teachers didn’t care whether you drank it or not. The dining rooms at Roundhay boys’ school were hidden behind a high wall that originally would have housed the vegetable and fruit gardens for the mansion. There were two tall pear trees and, in late summer, they were covered in pears and surrounded by wasps when they began to rot. They were never harvested by anyone other than school boys and we occasionally got some fabulously ripe fruit, but more often hard woody pears that were inedible. I seem to remember two buildings and they were not big enough to accommodate the eight-hundred pupils and so there were three sittings. Tickets were bought on the Monday morning as they had been at Harehills and had to be provided when we entered the dining rooms. There were tables of eight and, unless there was a teacher at the head of the table, the best position was head, as you became the server. After lining up there would be a period of chaos as you scrambled to get on a table with your mates. If you were lucky, spare places weren’t filled and then everyone got an extra bit more. When the tables were full we similarly had to endure the saying of the same grace, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful!” Looking back I don’t think any provision was made for the large Jewish population of the school, and I don’t remember any different meals being provided. I am sure someone will let me know if I am wrong here.
When grace was out of the way and I never really worked out who she was, a bit like why a Green Hill Far Away would ever have had a city wall, or why Good King Wensless Last looked out, the server would divide the meal for the table. More often than not it was a cheese pie, not a flan in those days, salad and chips. If you were serving it was amazing how so often the last piece, your own, was so much larger than the others. I guess that is one of life’s mysteries. There was often no compulsion to eat and unless you had an eagle-eyed supervising teacher you could get away with eating very little. The noise in the rooms could be deafening and finally too much for some supervising teacher. He would raise his voice above the din and probably make an example of some poor lad, before the room returned to its previous bedlam. It is a strange combination, but I got to really love chips and grated cheese and I can feel the arteries constricting as I am thinking about it. Cheese flan, grated cheese, tomato and chips, heaven! Even worse though was the little delight that both Harehills and Roundhay School provided and that was spam fritters. Spam was about 99 percent saturated fat to start with, but then to coat it in batter and deep fry it was the finishing touch. This gastronomic delicacy has only ever been surpassed by the deep fried, battered Mars Bars of Scottish fame. The Spam fritter oozed fat as it sat on the serving tray, dripped it as it was passed onto a plate and welled it out as it was cut into. It was a shocking thing, usually burnt, foul tasting and best avoided. Having said this, teenage boys will eat anything and I don’t think any were ever left.
Desserts were even nicer at Roundhay than at Harehills and sponge tarts with a thin layer of jam and coconut on top were fantastic. Manchester tarts, similar, but with custard rather than the sponge were my favourites, but I don’t think there was ever a bad dessert, apart from sago (frog spawn). We were growing, not fussy and had insatiable appetites, but we were desperate to get out after the lunches. We would sit there like statues waiting for the table to be chosen ready to be dismissed. We would chastise any boy who was fidgeting or slow as we wanted to get out for wall-ball, soccer or whatever activity we had lined up for lunch time.
Lunch was an hour and fifteen minutes, I seem to recall, which was a long time and allowed some great games to be played and mischief to be instigated and carried out, but I suppose it was necessary to allow the lunch sittings to be fitted in.
In fairness, school dinners were a fabulous provision. No child would go hungry and the meals were sometimes well balance and nutritious, or as much as could be expected at the time. Pizza never appeared on the menu, nor hot dogs, nor choice and I think we reaped the benefit. Who could not say that they didn’t smirk at the Duralex glasses for water as a teenager? With access to free university and college education and grants we were part of the lucky times when higher education wasn’t just a matter of getting a job, but was built on the philosophy that an education had value in its own right. An educated man or woman contributed to society in so many more ways than just the economy. I guess that is just one of the things we took for granted and, as a result, has been lost upon the way. I can still taste and smell the custard as I think about it!