Sunday, January 23, 2005


A Winter's Tale

A fine bit of odd history from Brian Cathcart in today's Independent: in 1930s Britain, if you were lucky enough, you could shiver uncontrollably over your Latin primer and writing exercises in the dead of winter:

At Aspen House in the 1930s, Collier and his fellow pupils studied in classrooms that had floors, roofs, desks, blackboards and teachers like most others. They just didn't have walls. Apart from a low balustrade whose purpose was to stop the children falling out, they were completely open to the elements. At the height of summer the sunlight poured in; on a rainy autumn day the child on the end of a row could reach out and get his or her hand wet.

And then there was winter. "Sometimes, when we got there in the morning," Collier recalls, "the snow would have blown in on to the tables and chairs and we would have to clear it off before we could start."

There's more: to apply to be in an open-air school, you also had to be sick enough. That's right. They were part of a buck-up-old-chap movement to cure children susceptible to tuberculosis, a notion promulgated in multiple editions beginning in 1912 with the Hugh Broughton book The Open-Air School. Cathcart goes on to quote some, ahem, chilling passages from Broughton's book:

"Children who live in the open become acclimatized to cold," Broughton states firmly, "and so should not be fussed over." He continues cheerily: "On an occasion some of us will not easily forget, the ink became solid in the ink-wells, snow blown into the classroom in the morning was swept out in the afternoon, dinner was served with snow sauce... The experience, though uncomfortable, was not followed by any ill-effects on staff or scholars - no one caught cold."

Ironically, though this seems the stuff of "I walked ten miles to school, uphill both ways" grandpa stories, the octagenarian alum of these schools remember them fondly. It sounds like open-air schools attracted a distinctly progressive faculty that followed in the footsteps of the Malting House and Dewey schools in the UK and US.

Cathcart mentions but one history of this truly curious movement, Frances Wilmot's A Breath of Fresh Air (1998), which from my searches looks to be a fairly rare book already: only two used copies are on bookfinder, and both are nearly $100. Broughton's 1912 guide is missing altogether. Miraculously, amidst all this obscurity I see there is a pdf version of Broughton online at the library of the University of Surrey. May I suggest that, for the full effect, you read it while sitting in a snowdrift?

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