Abbots Bromley – my old school, revived by the Chinese …

Revival of my old school, Abbots Bromley, by the Chinese – 2020

I was aged ten when I went to the boarding school of St Mary and St Anne, Abbots Bromley, in 1957. Seven years later, in 1963, I left to explore the world.

In July 2019, there was an article in ‘The Times’ about Abbots Bromley closing down. It had changed over the years from a school where pupils did ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels with a bent towards vocational careers, to a less academic establishment, which included dancing and horse riding. Way back then, we were five hundred girls in nine ‘houses’ – later, there were only 300 pupils and it was mixed. Then in July 2019 it was closed altogether at the end of the Summer Term.

I don’t know how much Abbots Bromley influenced me in later life but I’m amazed by how much I remember about it. I suppose it was a seven year stint – of what now seems a strange existence. Five hundred girls in a small village, otherwise known for its Morris Dancing – and especially The Horn Dance. This was performed in front of The Buttercross, an ancient monument close to ‘The Goat’s Head’ pub.

We wore these ‘wimples’ on our heads only on Speech Day in the summer. Otherwise, we had straw ‘boards’ (boaters). In Winter, a navy uniform with a white shirt and a tie whose colour showed what ‘house’ we belonged to. Mine was pale pink.

I envied the dark green one. Those belonged to ‘Crofts’ – a small ‘house’ which was in a very pretty building, covered in vines, in the village. I had a friend called ‘Jinx’ there and was sometimes invited for lunch, which was very cosy and ‘unschoollike’. Otherwise, ties were red, blue, purple, turquoise, orange, light green and yellow. A rainbow.

Coming and going – Speech day in the Summer Term
Abbots Bromley – the choir leading the procession on Speech Day

Abbots Bromley was one of the Woodard schools, set up by a clergyman. There was a lot of church going, which was High Anglican. One of the sixth formers swung the thurible, filling the church with the scent and smoke of frankincense and myrrh as she made her way to the altar, followed by the ‘boat boy’, who carried the aromatics in an oblong silver vessel. I would have liked to have been a ‘boat boy’ but this dream was never realised. But I did get to light and snuff out the three red sanctuary lamps in the chapel at Evensong.

My main memory of the chapel was fainting at First Communion and knocking over the whole row, who were praying on their knees. After I had been dragged out, following a terrible ruckus, I had to go and apologise to the headmistress, Miss Roch.

Luckily, I didn’t miss First Communion breakfast. We were given a beautiful bouquet of Easter flowers and a card showing Jesus, ‘The Light of the World’, painted by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). I kept this in my hymnal, which we used every morning at School Prayers.

We sang both a psalm in plainsong and a hymn before the headmistress read out various events that were going on. I think it was in the Spring term that the whole school sang the ‘Benedicite’ in prayers. It had a strong rhythm and melody and we all sang our hearts out. It included God blessing all the animals and sea creatures and insects, which I liked.

Evensong, in the chapel, was on Wednesdays and Fridays, Compline was on Saturday evening. On Sunday morning we went in a crocodile line down to the church in the village, where the Chaplain was waiting to conduct the Morning Service. Then it was back to chapel in the evening for another Evensong.

The entry into the chapel had a lot of white marble, including the floors and a beautiful table, always decorated with a vase of fresh flowers. The cloisters gave onto the private gardens, belonging to the staff houses. We all had our favourite hymns and wrote notes of undying love to our friends on those pages. Forbidden, of course.

Lining up in the houseroom to go to chapel on a Sunday evening clashed with ‘The Top Twenty’ popular songs on radio. This was a precursor of ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV. But The Beatles were just about in evidence and becoming the talk of the dormitory.

Meanwhile, we also had to learn the Catechism, followed by a ‘collect’ every Sunday. In the afternoon we wrote our letter home, which was checked before sending. Our housemistress would pounce on somebody to stand up and recite the ‘collect’ by memory.

Our choir was in the hands of the glamorous Louella Harris and I still remember the beautiful swoops of the ‘Ave Verum’ and the ‘Kyrie Eleison’. Those of us who didn’t get into the choir (like me), were left with Miss Roadknight, whose determination to get us to sing as well as possible elicited a lot of spitting as she enunciated … nobody wanted to sit in the front row.

I was quite anxious when my parents dropped me off at the dark, oak panelled entrance to the school for the first time, leaving me to confront an unknown world as the old Austin disappeared down the driveway and turned out left into the road on its return home.

But a smiling face appeared. An older girl, Jennifer Fisher, greeted me and took two of us new girls for a cup of tea and a bun before accompanying us up to our dormitory. Matron had made up our iron bedsteads – she took our tuck boxes and locked them in a cupboard. Life at school began.

TEACHERS I REMEMBER

Miss Crawley-Boevey. She was deputy headmistress and taught Geography. She had some sort of contact with royalty and her brief included teaching us about sexual intercourse later on. She was a handsome figure.

The Honourable Xenia Pleydell-Bouverie. She was the games mistress who taught us lacrosse. I was left wing and did a lot of speeding up and down along the edge of the playing field. Miss Pleydell-Bouverie joined in the action, shouting ‘cradle’, ‘cradle’, as we tried to get the ball into a tiny triangular goal. She also came from an aristocratic family and it was said she’d run away from home to become a games mistress? I preferred netball (shooter) and rounders and tennis in the summer. We also played cricket and I enjoyed being ‘long leg’ in the long grass. So not very sporty really.

Mrs Atkinson. She taught ‘A’ level German (she was German) which I studied along with French. We read German literature (‘Wallenstein’ by Schiller and poetry) in the old fashioned script. Mrs. A was dramatically beautiful with a creamy complexion, dark curly hair that flowed over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick. She was very different from the norm. One day she was late for our class – there were only six of us. She breezed in saying ‘Mein B-H ist kaput’. Her bra had snapped! We liked her a lot. Where did she come from, where did she go?

Mr Heald. A token man. He was a great Maths teacher, although it did take me five times to pass ‘O’ level Maths. Everyone clapped when I got the long longed-for result. Mr. Heald was full of enthusiasm, a favourite among us all.

Miss Hann. Our English teacher. She was under five feet tall and a purposeful character, discussing our essays with great pzazz. She taught me to love the Romantic poets and we pushed back the desks to act out Shakespeare. I was lucky to have her, as this was my best subject. In the sixth form, we were allowed to write our essays in the library, which was light and warm with French windows opening onto the garden. I wish I had made better use of it. The prefects’ Common Room was more tempting as we could make toast and tea and have a chat with the other heads of houses.

Miss Jesse. She had been a pupil at the school. Her voice was unintelligible and she gave out many detentions. She sat at the front of the class on a high desk and we all got a detention for laughing when one of her stockings fell down. She also taught Girl Guides. One time we almost died of food poisoning after trying to cook sausages over a bonfire. Carbonised on the outside, raw within. I’ve never liked sausages since.

Mr Hensher was something else. The Chaplain became ill and he arrived to be the religious stand-in. He was tall and good looking but with strange, wide apart, eyes like marbles, which seemed to see through you. He taught us Divinity besides being our Chaplain and we were mesmerised as he talked about the dark clouds of the nether world.

He asked us to think of a flower without saying what it was, then he would go round the class, getting all our flowers right. We were agog. He finally organised us to go on a CND march to London one weekend and at that point he disappeared. I expect he was sacked.

Later on at university I opened a ‘News of the World’ Sunday paper. There was Mr. Hensher – a vicar in a country village with his black labrador, advertising for a wife who looked like Ingrid Bergman. The congregation were up in arms! He brought melodrama and excitement into our lives for a short time.

I liked biology but somehow didn’t crack Physics and Chemistry. We had an exciting lesson in Chemistry when Miss Underwood dropped a piece of sodium into water by mistake and it exploded everywhere. To add to the general pandemonium a girl who was rather glamorous and came from Zanzibar, fainted. We made pink soap and blue crystals but valences escaped me.

We also had a weekly lesson called ‘Human Biology and Hygiene’. This taught us how to look after our bodily selves and then progressed on how to run a house, have a hygienic kitchen, mend clothes, make beds (with so-called ‘hospital corners’), mop floors and perform basic first aid in case of accidents.

Unfortunately, cooking didn’t come into it for me. The choice was Latin or cookery. The two top forms did Latin and the third level got to cook and eat their own lunch every Wednesday in a modern cookery lab. We were all very envious!

I learned to cook later on – something I now do nearly every day – I have no use for Latin but I suppose it helped with French and German. I did enjoy Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’ but Caesar’s Gallic Wars with their wretched earthworks drove me to distraction, as did the subjunctive. But I do love both Greek and Roman mythology. I later discovered that I love going out to restaurants instead of cooking all the time …

There was a wonderfully old-fashioned art studio upstairs in an old barn but I just couldn’t paint, even though I loved colour. Miss Foster, who wore eclectic smocks, did have her favourites. She lived with the Head of Music, Miss Wadeley, who was in charge of a big, old fashioned music wing with separate rooms for practising piano.

The ‘cells’ all had names of famous musicians on the doors. Palestrina, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart etc. Miss W used to come and listen at the door to make sure we were practising. My sister turned out to be a very good pianist.

Matrons presided over the dormitories and generally oversaw hairwashing, bathing, mending and shoe cleaning. Head matron, Miss Jones, who treated our ailments, was known as Kipper Feet, due to the way she walked. Her lair was in Doctor’s Room. Sore throats had to make a line. She had a long paintbrush which was dipped in a jar of sticky, black liquid and painted our throats one by one. What was it? I didn’t ask. We got better.

Miss Metcalfe handed out clean sheets each week from the ‘hot cupboard’ and kept a watchful eye on the tuck boxes, which were in another locked cupboard, opened by her once a week.

For some reason she refused to let us have our sweets one week, so two of us locked her in the hot cupboard, which was actually a small room. She did manage to call for help in the end and we were all called together in the houseroom and asked who had done this. Nobody told. There was a unbreakable sense of solidarity.

Each table in the dining room had a teacher or prefect in the middle. We had to make conversation with her so as not to get a bad table grade. At the same time we were not allowed to ask for, say jam for our bread – somebody had to ask you if you wanted some and then pass it to you. If you failed to make sure your neighbour had all she wanted, that meant another black mark.

Meanwhile, bacon on fried bread, which I loathed, was being clandestinely pushed behind the radiator. Semolina pudding was for seconds – one day I found a bluebottle in mine, so I couldn’t bear ‘seconds’ any more. We were meant to eat everything – so nobody had allergies then?!

My sister was in the choir and they were sometimes asked to sing at weddings. If they got back late at night, they had to come in through the dining room, crunching cockroaches underfoot. This haunts her still. I suppose all that food that fell on the floor ‘by mistake’ made up a banquet for ‘creatures of the night’.

We had two baths a week, which I looked forward to, especially in the Winter. There were no doors on the bathrooms and Matron would come and check that all was well and that we hadn’t used too much hot water. I filled it up after she had left.

In the sixth form, we were allowed to go in threes for a bicycle ride. One day we came upon a dead fox and extracted its teeth. I kept this long canine tooth in my pocket and would polish it from time to time. Sometimes on our rides we would get as far as Uttoxeter and find a café which served fish and chips and mushy peas – much preferable to school dinners. We became bolder.

The playing fields were enormous. Each morning we ran around them before breakfast and got back in time to turn our mattresses before the gong went. There was five minutes before the second gong. If you were late, you got another bad mark. You were not meant to run down the corridors … a no-win situation!

We did go to Stratford-upon-Avon a number of times in a coach to see Shakespeare’s plays, which was a great treat. We also went to Wimbledon one year as the father of one of the girls was a vicar whose parish was near the tennis courts. He supplied us with delicious bowls of strawberries and cream in his garden afterwards.

There is a fantastic photograph by Jane Bown of schoolgirls at Wimbledon in the 1950s. It was shown in ‘The Observer’ on 23.06.19 as ‘The big picture’. It’s a perfect photo to show how we were about to experience a great cultural shift. How ‘the teenager’ was about to appear and change the lives of young people like us. Do look it up. Life outside of Abbots Bromley beckoned … but we didn’t yet know quite what was in store …

Meanwhile, there were films (set up in the gym) some weekends. We swooned over Gregory Peck, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Humphrey Bogart … I think it was then I fell in love with David Niven in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ but I rather fell for Gregory Peck too.

‘Lassie’ (the dog) was a hit. Alec Guinness was in ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘North by North West’. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ with Margaret Lockwood – another Hitchcock. ‘Brief Encounter’ with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard made us aware of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love …

We wept for Richard Todd and his black labrador in ‘The Dam Busters’. Romantic films with sex scenes, though, were few and far between. I think we got to see ‘South Pacific’ with smoothie Rossano Brazzi. I definitely remember ‘Casablanca’ – wet handkerchiefs all round. I identified strongly with Ingrid Bergman and she just blew me away. Life after school – it was all to play for …

One time I had ‘flu so badly, I was sent to the ‘San’, which was hidden behind trees at the bottom of the tennis courts. It seemed as if I was in solitary confinement as the only person I saw was ‘Sister’ in her white coat, who brought me subsistence meals.

I found a shelf of books as I began to get better. They were all Agatha Christies and I read every single one. Perhaps that’s why I like Agatha Christie. She had an interesting life herself and I recommend her account of accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological trips to the Middle East. She had a very self deprecating and dry sense of humour.

Each year we made things for the bazaar. We knitted hats and gloves and teapot cosies and sewed furiously, but the main stall was lampshades, made with raffia woven on a steel frame into intricate patterns. For some reason, they were very popular.

I can’t help thinking of ‘Molesworth’ in this context. The book ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans, wonderfully illustrated by Ronald Searle, has a character in it called ‘Grabber’ who is ‘skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. I think the proceeds of all of this industrious toil were sent to deserving charities with a religious bent.

Our parents were allowed to visit us twice a term. We could take a friend out. My mother often brought the lunch from home and we ate it from the back of the car, overlooking the Blithfield Reservoir, near Bagot’s Wood. We finished off with tea in a thermos flask. It wasn’t very relaxing and sometimes the weather was bleak and cold. Somehow I felt school was school, home was home and it was best not to mix the two. But she did make a great lunch in difficult circumstances …

I had gone to ballet classes before I started school but now we learned the waltz, the quickstep and the foxtrot – did we try the tango? I don’t remember.

No boogie-woogie, no twisting by the pool, no jiving (I do wish I’d learned to do this). And certainly no jitterbugging. That was all to come. I was one of the taller girls, so I always had to play ‘the man’, which I found awkward when I had to do it the other way round. One girl’s mother sent her a pair of ‘kitten heels’, which we all drooled over.

In the sixth form at the end of the Autumn term, there was a dance at a nearby boys’ school – Denstone. Our mothers sent us suitable dresses and shoes for the occasion. I expect we looked frumpy. Partners were chosen by putting one of our shoes in a pile in the centre of the room and the boys picked one they liked. Disaster.

Repton was another favoured boys’ school, which I found rather more engaging. Boys were allotted a girl’s name and had to write to us beforehand, introducing themselves. We got quite excited but my boy wrote to me a few days before the dance to say he had been expelled.

My mother had sent me a green, silk dress with capped sleeves, which she had made. I thought it made me look like a water nymph – (sadly mistaken, no doubt). See ‘Hylas and the nymphs’ – painting by Waterhouse (1849-1917). One girl’s mother had sent lipstick, which we all borrowed … it was called Pink T.N.T.

Our coach arrived at Repton and I had no partner. Matron said I could sit with her in the dance hall. Each boy held up a board with their girl’s name on it as we got out of the bus. Then I saw my name. Somebody had made sure I wasn’t to be alone all evening.

And the boy was tall and handsome with a big smile. We were not meant to leave the dance hall and our partner had to have a dance with Matron. After this, he asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the grounds. We had a lot of fun, only curtailed by one of the Masters spotting us and sending us back. I was very popular for a day or two recounting my adventures and it was a great boost to my confidence.

I still have one of those long school photographs of everybody – girls and staff. It was taken on the tennis courts. But I only know one girl from Abbots Bromley now.

For all these seemingly odd and pointless rituals that we went through, I did develop a sense of responsibility towards others and a consciousness about what was right and wrong.

We were taught to always think of others before ourselves. This was good in some ways but somebody was complaining in the paper the other day that ‘coronavirus’ had changed her into a fifties housewife. I completely understand this. Family life is more balanced today in that women do have more opportunities but there’s still some way to go. And if you have been instilled with a certain mindset, it’s difficult to change. But the next generation have more chance.

The strong religious element of Abbots Bromley never quite captured me. I feel more pantheistic than anything and always did. Maybe that’s why I ended up married to an environmentalist.

Churches were often built on the sites of old temples to the sun. The number of different religions is enormous but they seem also to instigate violent wars against one another. Without the sun and water and the right sort of balance and temperature, we simply wouldn’t exist anyway. But living life within an infrastructure is quite helpful and that can be religion for some. Formal religion didn’t work for me, although I am not totally against it. I loved singing ‘And did those feet in ancient time’… on Speech Day. Horses for courses …

Above all, Abbots Bromley had a good heart and probably turned out many girls who made a difference to a sometimes challenging world. It made me independent and able to look after myself in the years to come – and instilled a strong streak of common sense to overcome adversity.

I wouldn’t have written about my school except for the fact that first it was closed down and now is about to be re-opened by the Chinese. I am curious to know what will happen next. Maybe we should be singing, ‘And did those Chinese feet in modern times …’?

I’m happy to have tried to make some sense of those seven years. I thank my parents for trying their best to give us an education that would stand us in good stead for life ahead. They gave it their best shot. They can’t be held responsible for the outcome.

My ‘board’‘Edwardian’ trendy?

Recommended books about the 1950s :-

‘Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes’ – the story of women in the 1950s by VIRGINIA NICHOLSON

‘The Fun of the Fifties’- Ads, Fads and Fashion by ROBERT OPIE

‘The Best of Times’ – Growing up in Britain in the 1950s by ALISON PRESSLEY

‘The Hulton Getty Picture Collection – 1950s’ – NICK YAPP

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