Food for thought – memories of a boarder in the 1950s
When I became a Red Maid in 1953 the Second World War was a recent memory and food rationing not long over. I feel that in the circumstances, despite our grumbles, we were very well fed.
Breakfast was always cereal or porridge followed by something ‘cooked’ including kippers and occasionally kedgeree, an exotic dish which most of us had never had before. We always had bread and margarine to follow, never butter. Tea came in huge metal pots. Coffee, being a luxury in those days, was never available.
High tea included a savoury course, a favourite being ‘boiled baby’, a cheese and potato dish (origins of the name were never known). Once again we had bread, plus jam and tea.
Lunch included the day girls with staff joining us at the head of each table, and our headmistress, Miss Hedley, presiding over the whole, at the centre table. We sang Latin graces and were expected to make intelligent conversation.
Miss Hedley usually had different dishes from us and always had peeled grapes for pudding. What a chore for the kitchen staff!
At the beginning of each term we were assigned various cleaning jobs, most of which were done before breakfast. The most dreaded was ‘Dining Room’, which entailed getting up early, donning overalls and cleaning and polishing our house tables. Not until a perfect shine was achieved and passed by matron, could we lay the cutlery. We also served the food and washed up afterwards. I remember heaving crockery and piles of cutlery into huge sinks (no dishwashers then) and throwing them out again with little regard for cleanliness.
In the fourth form we might be chosen to serve breakfast to the resident staff who used the present office for their meals. This room was then known as ‘the Parlour’ and was furnished with an elegant dining suite. They had a buffet breakfast which we left under silver covers on the sideboard.
It was a privilege for sixth formers to get the top job of attending to Miss Hedley’s breakfast. We took her tray with superior bacon, toast and marmalade, plus a silver pot of ground coffee, to her apartment off the blue landing. We waited eagerly to fetch the tray back again in the hope of being able to finish anything she had left.
Up until the sixth form, all Red Maids wore pinafores for meals. Sixth formers supplied their own napkins and rings. The idea for the pinafores must have been to keep our uniforms clean. We had been given instructions before we joined the school, about the style these should take: white cotton gathered front and back into a yoke, with several tucks near the hem. These could be let out as we grew and the pinafore was expected to last the full five years. A little individuality was allowed, with the addition of lace trimming and I think most of us enjoyed wearing this attractive garment as we often kept them on, long after meals.
The boarders had both fruit and sweet tuck boxes which were supplied from home. These were kept in locked cupboards on the dormitory landings. We were allowed fruit each day after lunch, but sweets only at weekends. The quantities of the latter were strictly controlled by Miss Venning, our matron, who inspected what we had chosen to take away. Some enterprising RMs were known to smuggle extras in the elasticated legs of their knickers. (Knickers being strangely known as ‘black bags’).
On Sundays, the sixth formers, who had their own common room, opposite the parlour, were able to do their own thing for tea. We would have cakes from home and were able to use the left over boiled eggs from breakfast to make sandwiches. Meat and fish paste on cream crackers was a regular item and Diana Hodey, our head girl, frequently produced tins of pink guava. Not only was tinned fruit rather special in those days but guava particularly so. And we really did have the occasional midnight feast, probably as a celebration of some kind. I can’t imagine how we enjoyed wagon wheels and gobstoppers, squatting in the bathroom passage, between the dormitories in the middle of the night!
Traditions and oddities – further recollections of a 1950s boarder
Founder’s Day has probably always been the highlight of the school year with its longstanding ceremonies and celebrations including, in the fifties, the presentation of newly minted shillings to the boarders by the Lady Mayoress.
However, how long did the custom continue when the youngest girl in each dormitory received on the eve of the big day, a letter from John Whitson’s ghost? This was a document secretly created by the older girls, on yellowed ‘parchment’ which had been singed and distressed on the hot plate of a cooker in the domestic science room. Someone, with a talent for manuscript writing, penned a message of advice from John Whitson himself in red ink. The finished article was rolled and sealed with red wax and tied with red ribbon. I imagine most the eleven year old recipients were not deceived by this ruse, but hopefully treasured it as a true work of art.
Another memorable time of year was the period before Christmas when the school sang a selection of traditional and obscure carols, some in Latin or French, during our assemblies. A favourite was the haunting ‘From far away we come to you’ which was the highlight of the procession by the staff and sixth formers through the dormitories one night, by torchlight. I think both those who took part and the juniors watching from their beds in the dark, felt this was the true magic of Christmas.
Winter in the fifties saw several years of significant snowfall. At weekends we would have to don old coats (saved for the occasion), pixie hoods (made from old cardigans) and other suitable attire and turn out into the grounds with toboggans. It was obligatory to be outside for certain periods even though many of us went with reluctance.
The school had a strong sporting tradition and many outdoor activities were encouraged. There was a period before assembly when the boarders took part in ‘Morning Games’ which I remember included running up and down the long drive. We also engaged in the strange performance known as ‘Section Drill’. Sixth formers had to devise a series of movements for the junior members of her house which were practised over the term, culminating in a competition for the best performance and synchronisation. The only exercise I recall was ‘the lunge’. I think the whole experience was detested by everyone.
‘Nursery Night’ occurred one evening each week when first and second formers would assemble in the matron’s room, so named because this was originally the nursery of the old house. Here we sat, in a circle around a popping gas fire, knitting or sewing while a volunteer would read aloud. Our form was chosen to dress a doll in both traditional and modern Red Maid uniform. I believe this was for some commemoration but remember only the fiddly stitches required for the tiny garments. I wonder if this doll still exists?
Similar reading groups took place on Sunday evening when the mistress on duty would read to junior boarders in ‘the parlour’ which was the staff dining room. Again we were not expected to have idle hands; knitting and embroidery were the order of the day.
Meanwhile older girls joined Miss Hedley in her private sitting room to discuss articles form the ‘Listener’ or ‘Spectator’. This was never a relaxing session but it must have done us some good. I remember sitting on her black velvet sofa with a fascinating blue carpet, bordered with exotic animals, under our feet.
Sunday mornings gave us a little longer in bed, but for the juniors there was the chore of learning the collect of the week before church. Church was St Albans, Westbury Park and dressed in our best uniform we walked in ‘crocodile’ to the service. Not only did we have a religious assembly each morning of the week with the day girls but also a nightly gathering for hymns and prayers.
Leisure activities were very limited as it was only the sixth form that were allowed ‘out’, to the local library or in the evening, to the Bristol Old Vic – the highlight of our social life. On a Saturday evening we would push back the chairs in the hall and attempt ballroom dancing to the strains of Mantovani or Victor Sylvester. We were allowed our own portable radios and would sit in the dark listening to ‘Journey into Space’ and ‘Dick Barton’. Radio Luxembourg gave us the exciting new rock star, Elvis Presley, shocking the nation with his ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘All Shook Up’!
We did resent the fact that we rarely joined other schools for social events and though QEH was our ‘brother school’ we never got together as we would have liked.
Looking back, that period now appears particularly regulated and old fashioned. However, I think we gained more than we were denied. High standards prevailed not only academically but in most other others. We were taught the correct way to behave. We learned social graces and so acquired knowledge, independence, friendship and confidence.
Although boarding life could never exist in this format today, our time needs to be seen in the context of fifties Britain. There was, then, greater formality in everyday life; where the church played a more significant role, where following the Second World War, there was a climate of austerity and the necessity for make-do and mend.
Perhaps our situation was therefore not quite as harsh or bizarre as it seems today.
La Crème de la Crème – remembering the school in the 50s
In order to win a place at Bristol’s most prestigious girls’ school entrants to Red Maids’ had to fulfil the following conditions: to have been born in Bristol or have lived in the city for a certain length of time; to be Anglican (with a few exceptions) and, for a boarding place, to have been an orphan or semi-orphan, was an advantage. I qualified on all counts (my father had been tragically killed in the Second World War).
We had, of course, to pass the school’s own entrance exam and interview, although some day places were awarded through the eleven plus. In 1953, because of the school’s reputation, hundreds of girls applied for just eleven boarding and nineteen day places.
Having been accepted, the successful boarders puzzled over a long and detailed clothing list (our top uniforms were supplied) including a pattern with instructions for the making of three Victorian style white pinafores and a packet of small gold safety pins. The former, which the day girls also wore, was an attractive garment designed to keep our uniforms clean at mealtimes. The latter for boarders to attach the lace-edged white collars to our red wool, after-school dresses.
Miss Hedley, disapproved of shirts and ties as being too masculine, so we wore square-necked white blouses under our red gymslips, white socks and black shoes with Oxford lace-ups for outdoor wear. It was a rule that head gear must be worn for any venture outside school. Black berets were the everyday wear for all of us, the boarders donning black velours on Sundays in winter, for church; cream straw in the summer. The traditional bonnets, which were very frail, only made an appearance on Founder’s Day for the boarders, together with red cloaks. Prefects wore fichues and aprons for that occasion too. High standards in appearance and behaviour were always expected. We regularly polished our shoes for inspection, knelt before matron who checked the length of our dresses (some girls would let them up or down according to fashion) and we brushed our hair daily. We stood at the ends of our beds with prefects making sure we did the required one hundred stokes.
Though tradition played a significant part, our education, for the time, was liberal-minded and of a high calibre, where discussion and opinion were encouraged. The all-female staff were very well qualified, though some were more favoured depending on our own likes and abilities. I remember with fondness, or two English mistresses, Miss Scruse and Miss Monro who imbued me with a lasting love of poetry. Mrs Morris was a warm and inspiring Geography teacher, whose extensive travels gave the subject reality and relevance.
Red Maids’ was strong on Classics. Miss Hedley took Greek and Latin A’level classes. Science however was limited, though an exchange with Badminton School enabled sixth formers to benefit from their science facilities and their girls our Classics.
We all studied Latin to O’ level, though I think many of us found the subject tedious. Miss King had the good sense to relieve the boredom of Caesar’s wars with a diversion into Nancy Mitford’s recently published book on ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’. This was an amusing reflection of current social do’s and don’ts. I remember, still, that only dogs could eat dinner at lunch time and fish knives and forks were definitely unacceptable. This last example was also mentioned by John Betjeman’s line: ‘Pass the fish knives, Norman’, a reflection of fifties snobbery.
Sport was an important part of the curriculum. The last period of the afternoon was reserved for games, hockey and netball in winter; cricket, netball, rounders and swimming (weekly at Kingsdown baths) in summer. One exception for those, who, like me, were hopeless at these activities, was the choice of a gardening session for one afternoon. This only seemed to consist of sweeping up leaves or tidying-up in the walled garden. We were not trusted to be creative!
One feature of the timetable was a regular Wednesday afternoon tutorial – a chance to consult staff on subjects we had difficulty with.
We also belonged to a society of our choice, which in my case, was the Bristol Club. This allowed us, once a term, to visit places of interest in and around the city. I remember Fry’s chocolate factory at Somerdale, being a favourite, considering the amount of sampling we could do. There was, too, a tour of the Wills tobacco factory in Bedminster where we received a presentation box of all the company’s cigarettes and cigars. Though quite acceptable at a time when the whole population smoked, today this would be frowned upon.
At the end of the spring term we sat a general knowledge test. This consisted of a couple of hundred questions, a second copy of which we took home and were expected to complete again during the holidays. The two scores were then combined and prizes awarded for the best results. We cursed the imposition in out-of-school time but I think the research certainly increased our general knowledge.
The only formal punishment that I recall was the imposing of ‘quarters of an hour’ handed out by the staff for talking at inappropriate times. This included chatting after ‘lights out’ in the dormitories (though we took little notice of this one) and during other specified occasions. If caught, our punishment was to sit in the gym, in silence, at the end of term, presumably reflecting on our misdemeanours. Some girls could be there for hours!
Most of us, particularly the boarders, constantly felt frustrated by restrictions and lack of freedom. We rarely socialised with other schools and never with boys. Such conditions would not be contemplated today. Society in the fifties was far more formal and regulated. It was still austere, a time of make do and mend. There was little waste. This was reflected at Red Maids’. Old items of boarders’ uniforms were recycled, lights were never left on unnecessarily, food never wasted.
At the end of each term we had a break from lessons to mend text books and scrub desks.
Those of us who stayed until 18, to complete A Levels, were now ready to spread our wings and taste some freedom. We had worked hard and had had enough of a restrictive regime. However, with its high percentage of good exam results, university places and careers in the professions, Red Maids’ still deserved its place at the top of the tree.
I can now reflect dispassionately, on what those seven years had given me- an excellent academic education, together with independence and confidence for the future. At our leaving talk, Miss Hedley gave us a piece of advice which I have often remembered over the years: however difficult it might be, we should always try to maintain the high standards which Red Maids’ had given us.
To me, it had been the best of schools, the crème de la crème. Sally Spokes (née Watson) 2017