The Royal School for the Deaf Derby has invited past pupils to return to the school and share their experiences with students today.

Great British Life: Michael Bacon, Jane Hatton, Eric Hatton, and Robert Daunt enjoy a walk down memory lane by visiting the schoolMichael Bacon, Jane Hatton, Eric Hatton, and Robert Daunt enjoy a walk down memory lane by visiting the school (Image: as supplied)

A lot has changed since Christine Monery was a deaf schoolgirl growing up in Derby – gone are the days when parents didn’t learn sign language and children were sent to live at the school without knowing when they would next go home.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the joy that Christine gets from playing board games with other deaf people – even when her opponent is just seven-years-old and beating her hands down.

Christine was one of a number of deaf adults to take part in a game’s session with current year two pupils at Royal School for the Deaf Derby, on Ashbourne Road recently. The adults were all pupils at the school’s original Friar Gate building in the 40s, 50s and 60s, when children lived on the premises during term time.

The deaf adults were particularly impressed with the youngsters’ ability to use British Sign Language at a much higher standard than they could at a similar age and they were equally bowled over by the facilities at the school, telling today’s pupils how there were no toys or board games in their day.

Great British Life: Robert Daunt is shown the Lego by a young pupilRobert Daunt is shown the Lego by a young pupil (Image: as supplied)

Christine, from Chesterfield, was first brought to the school aged five-years-old. She said: ‘We didn’t have any of these lovely facilities, we just had to use our imagination so we played things like Cowboys and Indians.

‘Any toys we did have were wooden and educational – like the abacus – not brightly coloured and fun like these. I would like to congratulate the children here for their sign language skills. It’s had a huge impact on me seeing just how excellent they are at signing.

‘My parents were hearing and never learned British Sign Language. It was a very different time and it is lovely to see these children playing just like any children. That’s how it should be.’

The board games event was staged in the school’s current Ashbourne Road site, which has begun arranging regular gatherings for alumni as part of its 125th birthday celebrations.

Great British Life: Christine Monery and Margaret ClampittChristine Monery and Margaret Clampitt (Image: as supplied)

Although the group members are always delighted to see each other, describing themselves as ‘brothers and sisters’, they all spoke about the strict rules at the school and the harsh conditions which left them cold and homesick.

‘I started school at four, or even three, and all through school I lived there, even though my parents only lived in Mickleover. My mum and dad didn’t sign and never learned, it was a different time then,’ Derek Berresford said.

‘There was no central heating and the dormitories were really cold because the windows didn’t open and close, so they were left open all the time, even in the middle of winter.

‘We would be woken up by a teacher walking down the room pulling the covers off and during the day we would sit on our hands to try to keep them warm. If you needed the toilet in the night it was two floors up in complete darkness so, occasionally, we’d be naughty and go in the fire bucket.’

Michael Bacon started at the school in 1957 and left in 1968. He said: ‘It’s amazing to see how things have changed, the boys had to have their heads shaved in my day and the bedrooms had wooden floors which gave us splinters. These children are far more advanced than we were at the same age and it is wonderful to see just how much progress education for deaf people has made.’

Glenda Hultberg travelled from Newport in Wales to attend the first reunion and recalled flea checks every Monday morning and baths which were taken two at a time. ‘We always shared a bath, which would never happen now. And the older girls used to wash the younger pupils, which was quite unusual, but gave us a really close bond. There were 38 beds in the dormitory, which was always freezing cold, and the wooden floor gave you splinters in your feet. Every Thursday we had to clean the school and I remember there was a room called the ‘wet bedroom’ where you got sent if you wet the bed.

‘I came from Wales and stayed here for 13 weeks at a time without seeing my family. I only went home for the six-week summer holiday and Christmas. I was terribly homesick, I just wanted to be with my parents, but my fellow pupils became my second family.

‘Although I missed home, I still have really happy memories and I made friends for life. The pupils became my second family and everyone here feels like my brothers and sisters.’

The school, which has been open since 1894, has changed enormously since these times. The building is long gone, along with the original name – the Midlands Institute for the Deaf and Dumb.

Today the school is attended by 126 children and young people aged between three and 19. The site on Ashbourne Road in Derby is colourful, friendly and welcoming.

Christine added: ‘I was dropped off and left for a month on assessment. No one told me how long I would be left and I thought no one was coming back for me. My parents lived in Chesterfield and I caught the train home at weekends, even though I was only very young.

‘I remember that every Thursday we had to clean the school and we’d get marks for cleaning; boys did the refectory and girls did the bathrooms.

‘When we had enough points they would let us go to the cinema. Of course, films didn’t have subtitles then, so we had no idea what was going on.’

Christine was not alone, many of the students had no idea they were to be left at the school until they arrived at its enormous and imposing entrance. And once inside the ornate doors, which were carved by an unknown deaf sculptor, they found themselves in a stately reception area filled with stuffed birds in glass cases.

Although the children were united in their initial fear of the school, there were plenty of laughs at the reunion.

Deaf historian Wendy Daunt, who is a regular visitor to the school and a former teacher there, recalled a story about a pupil who went missing one evening.

She said: ‘Everyone was ready for bed and a boy called John was missing. All the staff were waiting for him and the children were sent to look for him.

‘They looked under the beds to see if he was hiding and he couldn’t be found. Eventually someone found him – asleep in his own bed.

‘The person who’d had the bed before was a fat boy and he’d made such a dent in the mattress that when John lay down he completely disappeared!’

Royal School for the Deaf Derby head teacher Helen Shepherd said: ‘As part of the school’s 125th birthday celebrations we are drawing attention to our heritage because it helps our pupils to understand their own identity.

‘It has been very special watching the two generations sitting together playing and it’s hard to say which set enjoyed the experience more – they were all smiles.

‘I hope this is something we can repeat because I think our students can learn a great deal from the visitors, particularly about how progressive this school has always been and how much times have changed for the better.’

The next reunions are planned for Friday 24th May and 12th July between 10.30am and 12.30pm, in the school’s Heritage Centre.