Story of Thaxted teacher told in scrap book

PUBLISHED: 11:32 07 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:32 07 October 2019

Kate Butters playing for Thaxted Morris

Kate Butters playing for Thaxted Morris

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Kate Butters never forgot the hot summer day that the first evacuees arrived in Thaxted during the Second World War.

Miss Butters taught her pupils to weave, here she is carding and spinning in her gardenMiss Butters taught her pupils to weave, here she is carding and spinning in her garden

Miss Butters was a teacher, called back to school after war broke out.

When the first evacuees' coach arrived, she says the children were "hot, thirsty, grubby and bewildered and I shall always remember one small child of about five sitting on the floor of my classroom, her sad little face with tears trickling through grime and chocolate smears."

The little girl was actually only three. Years on, when the little girl's brother was one of many, now grown up children who came to find Miss Butters to thank her, he heard the story and laughed saying: "I must tell old Shirley, she'll love that."

Miss Butters taught in Thaxted for 40 years. She lived there for 81 years, arriving aged 22. She was born in 1899 and died in 2003. She saw the world change from horse-drawn buses to the computer age. She kept a scrapbook, which has now been published. The book was launched at Thaxted Library on Tuesday, October 1.

Miss Butters at the loomMiss Butters at the loom

Her pupils never forgot her.

"Years afterwards, I have been visited by many of these children, who always greet me with: 'Don't you remember me? I used to be in your class'.

Miss Butters played the piano and stepped in to play the accordion for Thaxted Morris dancers when they were short of a musician. She and her companion for over 60 years, Arthur Caton, who taught her to spin, dye and weave were friends with Gustav Holst, his daughter Imogen and musicians Julian Bream, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

When Miss Butters died, she left her home and everything in it, including the scrapbook, to a former pupil, Peter King and his wife Sybil. They showed it to their friend Michael Collins, publisher of Thaxted's parish magazine, who has now preserved it for posterity.

The young Kate was a railway child.

She wrote: "I was born in the station house at Isleham Fen, on a branch line from Cambridge to Mildenhall. When I was six months old, my father was promoted to be station master at Elsenham on the main line to London. It was still country so we could still have Bess, our donkey, a goat which used to pull my red painted mail-cart, chickens, and of course pigs."

Her father was a childhood playmate of Prince George, later George V - the Queen's grandfather.

"My father was sent to live with the station master at Wolferton, the royal station for Sandringham. He had as a playmate, Prince George who loved the station works and the grease. It was my father's job to clean him up before he went home."

She remembered when the last horse-driven bus to Thaxted was replaced by a railway. "Now I often went to Thaxted on the train with my father when he went on business affairs with the shopkeepers and tradesmen there. I was enchanted with the place. I never thought I would one day be living there and teaching in the council school for nearly 40 years."

She describes growing up at Station House. "Our house became a refuge for people waiting for a train to Thaxted and my mother was always on hand with a cup of tea or maybe first aid with Friars Balsam and a bandage for any of the men on the station. I became a shareholder of LNER (London North Eastern Railway) by joining their savings bank. They gave jolly good compound interest and it was surprising how my savings grew from the sixpences put in during my childhood."

She writes about her own school days at the village school, which seem to be relaxed in a way unrecognisable now. "I remember an interesting game the boys used to play in winter. Just before noon one boy, the fox - went out from class and disappeared. Later, the rest of the boys - the hounds - went off in search. They must have run several miles, they didn't come back until we were back in class after dinner. At last they returned, often muddy and breathless, but rosy-cheeked and bringing into the classroom lovely fresh air."

In the "hot and dry" summer of 1921, she first taught at Thaxted Council School (then a school for all ages, it became a primary later).

"Around 60 boys and girls in one very large room...some children walked long distances to school. No hot dinners for them, just some bread and cheese or a hot potato baked on the stove with water from the yard pump. When it grew dark on cold winter afternoons, we had to light the oil lamps swinging above our heads. For those who lived a long way out came the wonderful privilege of going out early to be home before dark."

The Dunmow Fellowship was founded that year to bring teachers together. The Countess of Warwick offered the Barn Theatre at her home, Easton Lodge, for a week's summer school.

Miss Butters remembered: "If you wandered into the garden of H G Wells, who lived near, he would come out and shout: 'Who's for hockey?' and we would grab sticks and rush up and down his lawn hitting the ball, if you got a chance, getting redder and hotter every minute. I had a grand strawberry tea one afternoon in his garden. I have never seen such an enormous bowl of strawberries."

Milk was first given to the children in 1934, a third of a pint for half an old penny. In 1946, the Labour Government made the milk free, and the last offered halfpenny was wrapped up and put in the school museum. (As Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher stopped free school milk in 1971.)

October 1937 was "a highlight" Miss Butters wrote. "Electricity was installed in school, so goodbye to those awful, smelly, swinging oil lamps and welcome to our electric kettle for hot water for midday cocoa for children and tea for the teachers, and an electric iron to use in the needlework class."

She was enjoying a holiday by the sea when war broke out in 1939 and she was recalled to school to help with the evacuees.

"So began a hectic time. Air raid shelters had been built in the yards but most were considered unsafe, so if the siren went, it was under the desks for the children.

"'Get under the table, Miss Butters, get under the table," implored one of my boys, whether out of concern for my safety or for the fun of seeing me on his level, I shall never know."

Her humanity shines out this little book: "What extraordinary lessons we had in those days improvising and inventing all kinds of activities, teaching boys how to sew on buttons and how to darn their socks. One very cold winter's morning, when everywhere was covered with snow, this class was so cold, that I borrowed a sledge and we had a lovely time across the Mill fields. That warmed us up and did us more good than long division."

Kate Butters' Scrapbook, £7.90, from Gifted at Thaxted or Thaxted Library and Information Centre or email: kb.book@mail.com.

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