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North Delta history: Back-to-school, 100 years ago

What school was like for kids in North Delta during the closing months of the First World War?
Photo of the original Annieville School taken in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Delta Archives)

By Nancy Demwell, Delta Museum and Archives Society

Back to school in September 1918 in North Delta had some similarities to school today: Children with diverse backgrounds were excited to be back with friends in the schoolyard and return to the routine of the classroom. It also had sharp differences, as they returned to one- or two-room schoolhouses in a community and country that had endured four years of a world war.

In 1918, North Delta had two elementary schools, Annieville and Sunbury, and some children attended Scott Road School on the Surrey side of Scott Road at 64th Avenue. High school students had to make their way to King George V High School in Ladner or to Cloverdale Public School in Surrey. For many, it was a long walk, wagon ride or trip on the interurban railway.

The school day for elementary students began in the schoolyard, where the British Union Jack was raised and students sang “God Save the Queen.” The teacher or a senior pupil would arrive early to bring in wood to heat the classroom and haul water from a nearby farm for use during the day.

From youngest to oldest, the pupils filed into the classroom in silence, removed their coats and stood in a line for inspection. The teacher checked them for clean nails, combed hair, clean and tidy clothing, and possession of a handkerchief. Students were given demerit points if they failed to meet the standard expected.

Morning curriculum was reading, writing and arithmetic. The teacher began daily instruction with the younger children seated at the front of the class, where they recited their numbers or letters, read aloud or computed sums on their hand-held slates. The older children did seat work at the back of the room or assisted the teacher with the younger children. Their reading materials and arithmetic problems were often based on patriotic or war-related themes; for example, arithmetic problems comparing the numbers of Allied and German prisoners of war.

In the afternoon, the children heard patriotic stories, often from the series The Children’s Story of the War, compiled scrapbooks following the events of the war, and worked on compositions or artwork based once more on the role of British subjects and their allies.

While these young children began their first week of school in September, the Second Battle of the Somme raged, where there were more than 3,500 Canadian casualties. The reality for these children at home was friends, neighbours and possibly family returning from the front with missing limbs, damaged lungs from gas attacks, or shell shock (now called PTSD).

With fathers and brothers absent, farms and fishing were now left to their mothers and grandparents, and children had much of the responsibility for chores at home. Also, in October, the Spanish Influenza arrived in the Lower Mainland, killing 900 people in three months. Schools in North Delta were closed by November.

In comparison, September 2018 school days are carefree and comfortable. We have schools in our neighbourhoods, resources to investigate the world in a variety of ways and the freedom to have opinions that are our own. Much of what we have is because of those soldiers, leaders and young people 100 years ago.

Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.

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