The joys of Christmas at the Ewing School, West Didsbury, as recalled by yours truly 28 years later

Back in 2010, a post entitled The Ghost of Christmas Discos Past took an affectionate look at junior school discos and other Christmas activities. Most of which was inspired by my brief spell at Yew Tree Junior School during the fag end of 1986. There was also the odd reference to my time at the Ewing School in there, though some part of the nostalgia fest could have applied to any primary school in England during the 1980s.

Eight years on, we have decided to take this further and look at how Ewing School celebrated Christmas in the late 1980s. Which (ahem!) coincided with my stint at the famed West Didsbury school. There are countless articles on East of the M60 about the school’s history with a wealth of comments from ex-pupils. Till now, nothing about the joys of Christmas Ewing School style.

This year, let’s take a trip back to December 1987. The Little GeM minibus is waiting to take us to Central Road, dropping us off at the gates for 9am.

Theatre trips

For Ewing School, the usual theatre of choice was either the Wythenshawe Forum (no prizes for guessing where) or the Library Theatre off St. Peter’s Square. Both were under the jurisdiction of Manchester City Council which made for more favourable terms for Manchester Education Committee schools from Our Lady’s RC to Poundswick High and Spurley Hey.

As a Ewing School pupil my first panto was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Wythenshawe Forum in 1987. Strictly speaking, the first pantomime I visited ‘with’ Ewing School was the year before – as part of a trip with Yew Tree Junior School. What impressed me about The Forum was how everything was under one roof: the library and the swimming pool as well as the theatre. Which seemed a culture shock to a seven-year-old used to Tameside Theatre’s Art Deco styling.

In 1988, again as part of the First Group, we returned to the Forum and saw Sleeping Beauty. Which was a coincidence given the First Group’s choice of Christmas production.

As a member of the Middle Group in 1989, I went to see The Sword in the Stone, where the Arthurian legend was a change to the panto fare that year. This time at the Library Theatre instead of Wythenshawe Forum (where the pantomime was Dick the Cat and All That – a “getting down with da kidz innit” version of Dick Whittington.

The usual plan for our Christmas shows didn’t entail the services of Ewing School’s trusty red Sherpa minibus. We used the 44 to Manchester Airport (for Wythenshawe bus station) or any Piccadilly bound bus for Manchester city centre. Always GM Buses ones, never any of the privateers’ operations.

Christmas treats

In the First Group, Christmas meant two chances of getting a bog-standard orange, white and brown service bus. Apart from the pantomime, the First Group en masse went to Kendal Milne and Co’s department store on Deansgate.

After seeing Marjorie, Ada, Angela or Brenda clutching eighteen light yellow square bus tickets, we walked to the store’s toy department. This was on the 2nd floor, where the aperitif was Kendals’ toy fair. All animate and inanimate playthings were there to ensure maximum pester power, or to encourage its core demographic to handle some of their toys. The first thing that hit you was the sight of radio controlled toy cars and slightly noisy toys.

The next course was a trip to Santa’s grotto where each child got a toy off Father Christmas. 1987’s outing led the parent and child (or four teachers and fourteen schoolchildren) to Santa’s grotto via an imagined (painted) woodland scene. To my eight-year-old eyes it seemed splendid, though I was just as amazed by the Art Deco architecture of Kendals’ department store.

My present in 1987 was a Waddington’s Top Trumps game and the I’ve Seen Santa At Kendals button badge given to all children. Afterwards we had dinner at St. Ann’s Square which in 1987 was pretty quiet. Today you cannot move for Christmas Market stalls in the weeks leading up to the 25 December. This also broke up the return journey a little which saw us looking around the Arndale Centre, then passing Lewis’s en route to Piccadilly Gardens.

In the classroom, another member of the Ewing School family assumed the guise of Father Christmas: headteacher Douglas Williams. With Middle Group pupils too old for Kendals’ cacophony of playthings, each pupil was gifted covered clipboards. Far removed from the usual toy, they were useful for the Middle Group’s weekly outings.

Whereas the First Group’s weekly outings gave us sensory buzzes and an appreciation of our local surroundings, Middle Group pupils were encouraged to look at geographical factors. Either incidental to the destination or the outward and return journeys. One part of being on the minibus with Mrs Butterworth and Co. was calculating the mileage of our journey. Besides teaching us about the state of Ashton’s shopping centre, a useful skill for submitting mileage claims in later life.

Christmas dinners

Where Ewing School had the edge on other schools that I attended was the presentation and quality of our school dinners. The use of small tables with a teacher at the end encouraged social skills at the dinner table.

At Christmas time, the bar was raised a little further. With the usual two course dinner (turkey dinner followed by Christmas Pudding and custard), there was two differences. The most obvious one being Christmas crackers. Less obvious but appreciated was the use of orange squash instead of tap water with our meals. A Granadaland Bucks Fizz if served in The Rovers’ Return.

To add to the atmosphere, Christmas music was played over the speakers. A neat change though the kind of tunes you wouldn’t have heard on Piccadilly Radio outside of its Nightbeat slot.

Christmas plays

At Ewing School I appeared in three plays in my three years at the school. In 1987 I narrated the First Group’s nativity play, standing on a box with a few printed sheets of A4 paper. Dressed in Middle Eastern garb of course. In Sleeping Beauty (1988), a less prestigious part as the woodcutter. With the Middle Group in 1989, one of the three kings in Babushka (Balthazar).

1987’s Christmas show left a most lasting impression on me. On a personal note, one of my mother’s sporadic visits to the Ewing School (and my sister’s second visit – also as a Reception Group pupil for ten minutes). What seemed thrilling for me was the sight of a video camera – yes, a school production on video, which seemed amazing at the time for me.

With the video camera in full view and the microphone on the stage side, this only meant one thing for me. Sing into the microphone Top of the Pops fashion. The joy was short lived as Brenda moved me away from the mike (well, I didn’t know it was for the whole First Group cast from Victoria Allday to Matthew Wood). If anyone has a copy of that show, please digitise it from VHS onto digital for putting on Facebook or YouTube. If you do, please tell us; there may be a pint of lager or a large latte waiting for you.

The 1987 Christmas show saw the Reception Group’s production of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. That year, the Middle Group did Hansel and Gretel.

At the end of 1987’s Christmas show (and the next two years) was the all-important Christmas singalong. Everyone from pupils to parents were encouraged to sing along. As well as the nativity, this fellow stole the show with his rendition of Little Donkey. That moment was committed to audio tape (which, alas, I cannot find at this very moment 31 years later).

Christmas handicrafts

Instead of the Kendals toy fair, handicrafts were the order of the day in 1988 and 1989. The reasons were twofold: one being a more mature activity; and two, that old maxim “it is better to give than receive”. In 1988 and 1989, with the First Group and Middle Group, Santa’s grotto was dispensed with in favour of candles. In other words, a trip to the Cheshire Workshops in Higher Burwardsley.

1988 saw the First Group making candles. In the following year with the Middle Group, “better to give than receive” also meant buying presents from the same place. During each Middle Group outing we stopped at a café and saved whatever change we got from our drinks. Our change was saved in little cashboxes from the 50p a week off our parents. Up to Christmas this was saved for presents; for the spring/summer holiday, as part of our spends.

The candle would form part of a table decoration, which was made in the open plan part of the Middle Group’s classroom. This was opposite the library and audio visual, and all three teachers’ speech therapy rooms/form rooms.

Breaking up… so hard to do

The last day of school had some sort of a party atmosphere, but Christmas at Ewing School was like spending Christmas with a large family. Before we left for Newall Green, Withington, Keighley, Dukinfield, Chester or Ladybridge, we watched a film in the hall. Then we collected our Christmassy stuff for our parents and braced ourselves for two weeks away.

As I started in January 1987, I saw the last Christmassy day at Ewing School as the end of an old year. That arrangement felt more comfortable for me than the school year starting afresh in September. Christmas 1989 at Ewing School had the same feeling for me with 1990 around the corner. It was spoiled a little with the run-up to Christmas starting with a terrible cold.

On leaving Ewing School for All Saints, I to some extent longed for the Ewing Christmas. One upside of Christmas at All Saints were its Christmas discos, disc jockeyed by Roberto del Giudice (a sibling of a fellow classmate in my form who appeared on Stars In Their Eyes as George Michael). As for Christmas at All Saints, there may be another story out of that. You never know.

Before I return to 2018…

Feel free to share your memories of Christmastime at the Ewing School. Whether you had the good fortune to remember me from The Douglas Williams Golden Age or went before or after my stint, share and share alike.

S.V., 18 December 2018.

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