Broadland House Church of England Girls Grammar School 1958-62
Sleeping on an open veranda with six other girls, with a canvas blind to keep the elements out was my introduction to boarding school. On frosty mornings, the icicles would drip from the tin roof onto our beds. The fog penetrated not only the room, but under the blankets. Heating, who had heard of that? Discovering my flannel pyjamas covered in blood that first year didn’t help. The other girls soon taught me how to deal with ‘the curse’, as we called it.
A test in the first week made a division in the E class, (first year High School). I was put in the dummies’ class E2, a smaller group. E1 had the brighter students, my friends were to go on and leave me behind, as I had to repeat the year. One consolation was that my cousin, Helen, was with me in E2. From then on, I hated school. My progress was: E2, E1, D2, C1, B2. (The 2s representing failure). C1 was a large class where I sat in the back row drawing, not even taking notes, so naturally I ended up in B2, a smaller group that suited me better. Talk about labelling children! Self- confidence and belief in oneself totally destroyed.
I couldn’t compete with Clive’s success. I hated being confined by so many unnecessary rules; and my life, regulated by a bell, made me feel like Pavlov’s dog. One was not encouraged to think but rather regurgitate others’ thoughts, learning by rote, that I mostly refused to do. Now I understand that rote learning does have a place in expanding the pathways of the brain. I also chose not to be confirmed, (in the church), as most did. No one thought of making our education interesting. Only once did a young relief teacher come into an English class and inspire us. She had us spellbound, talking about ‘Twelfth Night’. The plot with Sebastian and his twin Viola dressing as a man, and the complexities of love; the subject we were all besotted with. She spoke of one person always loving more than another; perhaps from her own young experience, but we were totally enraptured with her discourse.
The highlight of my first year was attending the Grammar School Ball with Christopher Pyett. Exciting, even though I had to wear the pink bridesmaid’s dress that I’d worn for Auntie Mary and Uncle Bob’s wedding the year before. The dress had been Auntie Mary’s choice; it had a three quarter length skirt, (knee length was popular), with flower embroidered, gossamer fabric with a pink taffeta petticoat and puffed sleeves. I tried not to dwell on that, so it didn’t hold me back. Chris and I tried to out-lap the others on the dance floor. We had such fun together. The balls were very formal; one had a program on which the boys could add their names to reserve a dance. Demure, I was not.
Sleeping on the veranda, I prayed that one day I’d marry Christopher. Be careful what you wish for; though, I was lucky in this instance. It was just a matter of being patient!
To break the boredom we’d escape, ‘break bounds’, and as a consequence I was often ‘gated’, which meant I couldn’t leave the premises for three months at a stretch. Clive would often visit me at Broadland, though I knew it wasn’t only me he wanted to see. He’d come with Robert Marshall so that he could see Robert’s sister, Jill. I liked Robby too. Clive was always generous, and he even gave me his unspent pocket money on a couple of occasions. Being confined at an all girls’ school made the majority of us boy mad. Most of us wrote letters to boys, and then when we met them we were totally shy and overcome. These letters passed via the day- girls who lived near the boys’ schools. Such acronyms such as: SWALK (sealed with a loving kiss), were the things that kept us going. I also wrote to two pen friends,
Ceri in the UK, and Shakaf Hassan who lived in Malaysia. Shakaf wrote in an even script in ink.
I’m sorry I didn’t keep his letters now, as they were on the lightest of papers and so beautiful. He stopped writing in his late teens when he joined the army; whereas Ceri continued to write and we met up in Cornwall some years later. Being young I didn’t ask Shakaf about his religion, nor did he ask me.
At 14, we went to a ballroom dancing class for one year. This was held on Saturday nights. Our school linked up with Scotch College. Saturday night tea was one large red Frankfurt; that had a habit of eructing at the most embarrassing moment. I ended up refusing to eat such a fatty, gristly, disgusting, unpalatable excuse for a meal and ate stale bread and butter instead. The excitement of the night soon overshadowed the meal, or lack of it. The food was generally dreadful. Mary Sadler removed Alice and Jane because of the poor food, and sent them to PLC in Melbourne.
Saturday nights were otherwise a good night, as after tea, when not going to dancing class, we’d have a movie in the school hall. This was always something to look forward to.
As I wasn’t good enough to be included in any team sports, I chose sports where there was no competition: badminton, swimming and ballet, all of which I loved. These activities enabled me to leave the premises. I put my name down for ballet without getting permission from my parents, who didn’t cause a fuss. As I was the only boarder to do ballet, this meant that I could unofficially wander about the city on Saturday mornings. One morning, I met the headmistress and the deputy in the draper’s store, McKinlay’s. I just greeted them normally, and luckily nothing was said. In those days, one was not permitted to just wander about on one’s own. Ballet was my main love and probably saved me from my vague suicidal thoughts. At night I’d consider the consequences of stepping off the third floor roof. Would it be fatal? Finally, I decided it wouldn’t be fair to my mother; I would just have to put up with being in this hellhole and make the most of it. We did have many good time too, so it wasn’t all bad.
Sitting up writing lines because someone else had spoken after lights out seemed a ridiculous consequence. I was at Miss Street’s table for meals the year she caught my mother and me crying in the locker room because I didn’t want to stay at school. Miss Street wrote to my mother that night telling her that I had recovered. She observed me putting salt into my neighbour’s glass of water but didn’t let on to me that she’d seen this. My mother appreciated her note and her thoughtfulness.
Miss Street, the deputy principal, died in the bath, in the boarding house one evening during my last year at school. The day after she died, I heard that my name was in her diary for me to see her that afternoon. Unfortunately, I had gone into town. Miss Street was going to help me with some English studies. I felt distressed when she died, and her funeral was overwhelming. The hymns were broken by sobs. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ still evokes that sad day. We trudged in a long crocodile, the whole school walking to and from St John’s Church.
Miss Ethel Street was a strict but fair teacher, and I felt she understood me. She was one of those spinsters whose fiancés had died in the First World War. I guess it was her influence and her confidence in me that led me to become a teacher later in life. She always kept a dictionary next to her bed so that when she was reading she could look up any unknown words. I think of her when I do the same thing.
The last two years at school, I was in a dorm with seven girls: Amanda Radcliffe, a second cousin, Prudence Jackson, Roberta Nichols, Angela Gaby, Libby Henry, a second cousin, Sue Archer and Helen Sadler, a first cousin. We were a happy group; though I was always first to bed and last up, if music practice didn’t intervene. I found out some years later that I was suffering from anaemia, so that was why I was tired all the time.
After the evening meal we’d go to the hall and dance, while Anne Nicholson, a talented student, played the piano before prep. Prep was doing our homework, supervised. On Sundays we’d write a letter home in the same class- room with whichever teacher was on duty. They would ask to see our letters before they were sealed. There was a total lack of privacy with everything we did.
An example of this lack of privacy was when I received a letter in the mail from my brother. The head mistress called me to her office. She handed me the envelope and asked me to open it. I was relieved to see Clive’s handwriting. In the envelope there were two letters. I took the slimmer one and then read it to Miss Rooney. She then took the envelope from me with the other letter; Rosemary didn’t ever receive that letter. I felt guilty and cringed thinking what Clive might have written to Rosemary.
Only once did I leave the premises and meet up with a boy. I arranged to go with Sandra. We tagged along with another girl who was going out legitimately. It was the day of the rowing race; Head of the River, so we felt with so many people going out we wouldn’t be missed.
We met the boys at the Head of the River and then went off to a movie called, ‘Where the Boys Are.’ After the movie, which was all very innocent, Sandra and I decided to go to my mother’s cousin, Janet, for tea, leaving the boys. As this was a surprise visit, Janet heated up some preserved tomatoes, fed us and sent us back to school in a taxi. Then the tricky part started. We’d been missed at tea- time. That night there was a ball for the senior students, and we thought with all the confusion we could sneak in unobserved.
We stupidly hadn’t worked out a story, in case we were caught. I just hoped that Sandra didn’t mention the boys. We were grilled separately. I told the truth, just omitted that we met the boys. We were gated, and treated like criminals.
The head mistress liked my mother; otherwise I probably would have been expelled. At one interview, Mum complained that I’d been put in B2, the lower group, and didn’t have the Level 2 subjects to help me get the necessary points for a career. Miss Rooney told her that she shouldn’t worry, saying, ‘Barbara will marry as soon as she leaves school.’ My mother was furious as she was paying for an education and this was the ignorant attitude perpetuated at the school. Admittedly I was boy mad.
My mother promised that if I passed the exams that year I could leave school. I managed thirteen points, where seven were required to pass the School’s Board. The only problem was I only had one point for English, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to do Kindergarten teaching, my first choice as a career. What a relief to leave school and enjoy a year at home. The consequence of this failure didn’t worry me until later in the year, when I tried to get into teachers college. English 2 was a prerequisite.
It’s good to have bad experiences, it makes the good one seem so much better!!
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It’s so sad that your upper school years were so dreadful – thanks goodness you had friends and family to keep you sane.
Yeah, you’re probably right, Barbara, he might not like it. I am amazed though that you would still keep his photo, and the collection of B&Ws after all these years. Real treasures to keep the memories alive!
Gotta go catch up on the rest of the episodes now, I’ve been out of the loop for nearly a week already! Write, write away, Barbara 🙂
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Thanks Raja! I guess I have my mother to thank for many of the photos. As I destroyed all of my collected letters, it was wonderful to see what my mother had squirrelled away. 🙂
Raja, thank you for this. I don’t think I should follow up, because Shakaf would have a family now, and might be embarrassed by such an enquiry! His joining the army is a rather vague memory. Sometimes I doubt my memory! He was such a delightful pen friend! I’d love you to meet him!! 🙂
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Boarding school sounded pretty awful at first until I got to the ‘bath tub’ picture! Whatever it was you and your friends were up to, must have been crazy fun! 😀
The Malaysian pen pal bit was a pleasant surprise. Have you tried to look for Shakaf Hassan ever again? If he did join the army, his name could still be in the register the military keeps. My late father had served the army in the early 50s. I remember him mentioning something about a sort of register for military personnels back then. If you want, I can try asking a friend at the Defence Ministry.
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Five years seemed a long time at the time! I met some wonderful people and really I was probably a spoilt brat, not making the most of the opportunity! Still, came to it later… 🙂
I too, am really enjoying the narrative of this, but Iim sorry your boarding school years were so confining!
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Hilary, that was only the first year… but it was certainly an initiation. Glad you are enjoying it more.
I’m enjoying these more as they have become more narrative now that you are remembering more continuous aspects of your own life. I thought my boarding schools were spartan enough, but icicles in the dorm…
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