Imagine, for a minute, that you’re a schoolgirl in an English boarding school in the 1950’s. You’re out walking in the woods and you run into an escapee from the Broadmoor Psychiatric hospital ten miles away. What do you do?
“If he initiates a conversation, you should simply join in and agree with him. So, if he says, ‘I am the Queen of Sheba’, you should reply, ‘Yes, you are the Queen of Sheba’. But if he doesn’t initiate a conversation you should say something perfectly natural to him, such as, ‘Are you a caddy from the goff course?”
This was the advice of the Reverend Mother at St Mary’s Ascot. Here girls also learned that “NO girl ever goes to the toilet in this school” (the t- word was forbidden). And it was here that the girls were asked in their first lesson, “How many of you have houses that are open to the public?” Quite a lot did.
Mostly girls were sent to these schools to meet the right people and develop the right manners. But there were more useful skills to be learned: how to throw small handfuls of the revolting school food onto the floor, to right and to left so it couldn’t be traced back to you, and how to smuggle pilchards or semolina out of the dining room in your pocket –
A cruel after-effect of pocket-stashing was that your pocket smelled for days of the very foodstuff you most loathed.
They’re a hardy breed, these boarding-school girls, used to sleeping in freezing dormitories with the windows wide open, washing with face flannels stiff with ice, having their hair washed once a fortnight, and eating “Stalin’s brain”, Pterodactyls’ hooves” and “Grandma’s leg”. Their letters home never complained, though – everything was “super”, even if the dormitories resounded night after night with new girls crying for home like lambs crying for their mother.
The schools weren’t all hell-holes – there were some that were wonderfully happy and nurturing places. There were some that taught you nothing, some that inspired your learning, and some that drilled you mercilessly. But it was the luck of the draw which one you ended up at – most parents didn’t do a lot of research or take much interest in what was going on once you got there.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s conversations with women who went to boarding-schools from the 1930’s to the 1970’s are windows into the weirdness of the English upper classes. It will make you laugh, but it will also confirm a lot of hardy stereotypes about the British. Maxtone Graham is a product of one of these schools herself, and for all the fun she has with preoccupations, rules and taboos so arcane and downright bonkers she still has a kind of fondness for that world:
As much by accident as by design these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham: Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979