The Red Maids Society

Back to home page

How Bristol influenced my education

BRISTOL SCHOOLS by Elizabeth Woods (née Fenner) RMS 1957 – 1964

Elizabeth moved to Melbourne Australia in 1972 and worked as Education Producer for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation making radio programmes for schools until 1990. She then ran a business as a Presentation & Speaking Coach.

Spurred on by a recent thought-provoking article on ‘History’, I began to think about my own history and the education I received as a result of the history of Bristol (or ‘Brigstowe’ – the place of the bridge – as it was called in Saxon times.)

Bristol has been in the news recently when the statue of Edward Colston was hurled into the Avon River. As it happened, I was lucky enough to go to Colston’s Primary School which was just down the road from our house, in Cotham.

In Grade six in 1957, I played the part of Amy Johnson in an outdoor play, using a microphone, something quite new to me. Amy was the first woman to fly to Australia, in 1930. I hadn’t even thought about Australia in those days and certainly never considered the thought that I might come here one day, much less settle here.

Amy Johnson had a degree in Economics from the University of Sheffield and became a legal secretary in London where she became interested in flying. On May 5th 1930 she flew a de Havilland DH 60 Gipsy Moth to Australia, arriving on May 24th. After this extraordinary feat, she set off on an unadventurous flight from Prestwick in Scotland to Oxford in 1941 and crashed into the Thames estuary in bad weather. Her body was never found.

One of my tasks at school from time to time was to put on a record while everyone walked into assembly. I then had to announce the name of the piece and the performers. It was at this time that I learnt to pronounce the word ‘Concertgebouw’! Little did I think that I would have a career in broadcasting and spend a lot of my time checking the pronunciation of impossible words.

‘1066 and All That’ tells us that there were ‘good kings and bad kings’. PAV’s reflection that it all depends on your standpoint, makes me sorry for the bad bits but grateful for the good bits.

Edward Colston was a merchant in the city of Bristol. He lived from 1636 – 1721. And yes, we now know that he was a slave trader, something that was never divulged when we were at school. The history of Britain’s schools is part of our heritage and as Hilary Moriarty (former Deputy Head of Red Maids’) says in her excellent article: ‘of course we now bring modern sensibilities to bear upon that history.’

Edward Colston and John Whitson 1558 – 1629 (another Bristol merchant – but not a slave trader) shaped my life in so many ways that I can’t help but be exceedingly grateful to them for their philanthropy to the education sector and to the culture of the city of Bristol.

I had the good fortune to go from Colston’s Primary School to The Red Maids’ School which was founded in 1634 following instructions in John Whitson’s will. It’s the oldest girls’ school in the country. Whitson made his money from wine, wool and politics.

On Founder’s Day in November each year, the Clerk to the Governors stumbled his way through a chunk of Whitson’s will causing some mirth amongst us wretched teenagers. I seem to remember that each section began with the words: ‘I give, devise and bequeath……..’ a great tongue twister!

The will decreed that a sum of money be used for the benefit of ’40 poor women children of this parish, their parents being deceased or decayed.’ (In my case this was apt.) ‘They are to be apparelled in red cloth.’

There were 80 boarders and 120 day girls. When I arrived at the school in 1957, Red Maids’ was a Direct Grant school which meant that it was fee paying but the government gave a grant which covered the fees of twenty five per cent of the students. My only fee was three pounds ten shillings per term for my uniform. (Interestingly a Labour government abolished the Direct Grant schools in 1976, forcing them to become either fully independent, or comprehensive state schools.)

On the first day of the year all the boarders lined up in the hall in height order and the dresses were handed round in size order. You had what you were given, and adjustments were only made if your dress/tunic came down to your ankles. The system worked brilliantly. The woollen dresses and tunics were cleaned once a term – and of course they were all red, cherry red. This was a terrific colour for everyone,
except if you had red hair!

There were 4 houses with 20 girls in each. Each dormitory had 20 beds with a tiny cubicle behind each one for washing/dressing. Each morning we took our tin bowl down the corridor to ‘The Housemaids’ where we filled it with hot water and our tooth mug with cold water. We then returned to our cubicle to wash. The trick was to clean your teeth last so that you could spit out the tooth water into the bowl of (dirty) washing water. There were 4 baths between two dormitories (40 girls) and we had a bath twice a week. This seemed perfectly normal.

We had a roster for morning duties which lasted for half a term. This meant being on duty at 7.15 am and cleaning a classroom, or worse still, doing dining room duty. This was the one we dreaded most, particularly if it clashed with exams! You had to polish and lay the wooden table for your house, serve the meals (breakfast, lunch and high tea), clear away the dishes and do the washing up for the 80 boarders. I now realise that this meant a great saving on domestic staff costs, though I never reflected on this at the time.

At 8am we were outside taking exercise running up and down The Long Drive (which was very long) or doing Section Drill in the gym. This was based on exercises done by the Royal Canadian Airforce. Once a year we had a House Section Drill competition where we were marked for both composition and execution. After school if we weren’t playing sport, we were often rostered on to gardening in the walled garden (I have to confess to picking the odd raspberry which was grown there for the benefit of the staff), or sweeping up piles of leaves. Of course jumping in those huge piles was the best part.

On beautiful long Summer afternoons we could be found playing tennis, cricket (I was the wicket keeper) or rounders, or hiding under the enormous willow tree in the middle of the lawn. Unlike some girls’ schools in the 1950s and 60s, our sport was extensive and we played other schools at hockey and netball as well as tennis and cricket. On Sunday mornings we walked the 3 miles to church in an impressive crocodile, dressed in our 17th century inspired red cloaks under which we were able to secrete a book which helped relieve the odd sermon.

The most exciting day in the year was Founder’s Day in November, when we boarders dressed up in our red cloaks and straw bonnets and with the day girls (who weren’t deemed to be nearly as important!) marched from the Founder’s tomb at St Nicholas Crypt in the heart of the city, to Bristol Cathedral where we had our Founder’s Day service along with the boys from our brother school Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, founded in 1586. This was about the only time in the year when we saw any boys and we all tried to catch a glimpse of their yellow stockings and breeches underneath their blue coats! Founder’s Day in 1963 was one of the biggest days of my life so far, as being Head Girl, I laid a laurel wreath (which I had made) on John Whitson’s tomb and then led the procession through the city to the Cathedral while the police stopped all the traffic for us.

A big treat was the very occasional Saturday evening screening of a ‘Fact and Faith’ film on the projector in the school hall, where the huge portrait of John Whitson loomed large and his eyes followed our every move. These films from America were popular in the 1950s and this was the first time I remember seeing time-lapse photography in all its glory – a flower opening, a bird’s egg hatching.

My unforgettable English teacher with the flowing black hair and great artistic skill taught me about transitive and intransitive verbs. On the blackboard she drew a dragon being speared by St. George with the caption: ‘St George killed the dragon’. Who did he kill? The dragon. (Transitive). Underneath she drew a dead dragon with the caption: ‘The dragon died’. He didn’t die anybody or anything, he just died. (Intransitive). I have never forgotten the difference and have often repeated the dragon story to myself.

Latin was my favourite subject because our Latin teacher gave us quizzes in every lesson, with Smarties for the winning team. I was very keen to learn my declensions, conjugations and vocab! Meanwhile my love of Shakespeare (and my love of reading) was ignited by reading many of the plays out loud round the class. The Headmistress invited the sixth form boarders to her sitting room every Sunday evening and read us an exciting novel such as ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ by John Buchan. We had to remember the number of the page at which she stopped till the following week. I always remembered it but never thought of writing it down as that would have been cheating!

We had morning and evening assemblies at which we sang hymns and psalms, sang in the choir and acted in plays. My big moment was playing the drunken tramp in ‘The Insect Play’ by the Czech Capek brothers. It was written shortly after the end of World War 1 and was a reflection on the life cycle of insects and poignant visions of war’s futility. At the time I had no idea of the hidden meaning of the play. I had never drunk any alcohol and didn’t know what it was to be drunk – but I think I swayed around a lot! It was certainly lots of fun.

We all kept daily diaries in those days. If you had a Five Year diary you were in luck. In the holidays my uncle had a squiz in my diary to check that I was getting on ok at school and read the following literary gem: ‘Had sausages for breakfast; mucked around’. He decided that I was getting on fine. And indeed I was.

Thank you, John Whitson and Edward Colston.

Posted on 21 April 2023

Home page