Navy Blue Knickers, Gym Slips and School Dinners - A Review Of My Grammar School
By: Anne Harvey
It’s been a while since I posted a memoir-based blog (apart from last month’s ‘Stranded in New York City’), the last one being ‘Four Schools in One Term’ so I thought it was about time I continued the story with my time at Farnworth Grammar School.
The school itself was situated on the main road between Bolton and Farnworth town centres. A large imposing red brick building, probably mid to late Victorian, it was set back slightly from the main road and bordered by rather grand iron railings. The space between was occupied by netball courts. I soon discovered that these particular courts were the bane of the girls’ lives, being the only ones immediately adjacent to the school. The reason we hated the front netball courts was because we had to play in skimpy pale blue tunics with splits up both sides, revealing navy blue knickers. To our chagrin, men and boys used to stand and watch us from the roadside, peering through the railings, obviously enthralled by the sight of unfettered pubescent bouncing breasts (not mine.) not to mention the occasional glimpse of navy blue as we jumped up to basket a ball.
In January 1951, it was time to return to school, this time wearing the navy blue uniform of Farnworth Grammar School. Those were the days of the box-pleat gym slip, in this case worn with a green braided sash, white blouse and navy and green striped tie. The blazers were navy edged with green, while the hats were navy blue velour with a green band and the school badge. The hats were anathema to everyone as they came down over our eyes. The only way we could make them wearable was to place a tuck in the back.
I used to behave decorously within a mile or two of the school in case of being seen by prefects. Like everyone else, once away from its confines, I threw caution and the hated hat to the wind, plucking it off my head and squeezing it into my satchel. One day this backfired on me because I was seen by a prefect who didn’t normally go by that route. I had to stay in a couple of nights to write out a few hundred lines, ‘I must wear my hat at all times, I must wear my hat …, I must …’ It didn’t stop me, or anyone else, I still continued to take my hat off whenever I could.
The rules also stipulated that girls had to wear short white ankle socks, summer or winter, or thick black stockings, attached to a liberty bodice with rubber suspenders. Since we neither liked liberty bodices nor black stockings, very few of us would do that and consequently suffered badly from chapped legs and chilblains. The boys had to wear short trousers until they were about 14 or 15. Some of them looked absolutely ridiculous. I remember one dark-haired, dark-browed boy called Bill, who must have been shaving by the time he was 13, still being forced to wear short trousers.
Discipline was strict at the school. There were the usual, ‘arms folded’ or ‘hands on heads’ routines and although we didn’t have to stand up and recite our times tables, we were expected to learn them by rote. For the girls, discipline was enforced by the Senior Mistress, Miss Westwood. She had iron grey hair, steel-rimmed spectacles and wore severe blouses and skirts beneath her academic robe. Every now and then, she would descend on a classroom when the bell rang at the end of a lesson, keep the girls behind and do a spot check of nails, teeth, hair, etc. If we ever gave a hint that we were in a hurry, she would give us a lecture about being ladylike. She did not approve of us showing our legs above those neat white socks and, I believe, would have enforced the rule about black stockings if she could.
That's me, second row third girl from the right
Being a Victorian building, the school was based on a large assembly hall, with classrooms around the outside on two levels, and some portable classrooms. I was a thin sickly child, always catching cold. One of the worst things was the constant changing of classrooms, particularly from the main building to the annexes especially during the winter. Invariably when we got to the next classroom, one of the masters or mistresses would have opened the windows ‘to get air into our lungs and stimulate our brains’ and the room would be icy cold. One of my most lingering memories throughout my school days was of being cold. That, and milk so cold in winter, it had shards of ice in it, so warm in summer that it had gone off.
The school worked on the system of having a form master or mistress but with other teachers for different subjects. They all wore academic robes too. Some of them were real characters. One, Mr Taylor, who took us for English one year, was tall, beetle-browed, heavy set, deeply spoken, in all a bit of a mystery figure, whom we called Brutus. Miss Heather taught us history. Everyone liked her including, on one occasion, the window cleaner. Once, as we were all piling into the classroom for a lesson with her, she was already there, half-sitting, half-leaning on the desk. As the window cleaner set his ladder against the window and saw her, he let out a piercing wolf whistle which we all heard. She went a startling shade of red.
Friendships were still a problem. Boys simply ignored me but the girls had formed themselves into groups. It wasn’t that they were deliberately cruel or set out to tease me, it was just that I was, as they say in Lancashire, ‘a bit slow on the uptake.’ Their quick wit and smart replies confounded me.
Farnworth Grammar School broadened my education in more ways than one. Being very unworldly, never having had any close friends, I knew almost nothing about life. Mum had, almost hesitatingly, told me about menstruation, because she hadn’t wanted me to find out the hard way as she’d done. She was nearly 17 before she’d had her first period and thought she had injured herself in some way. The girls at school talked about all sorts of things besides periods. Rather than risk their ridicule of my ignorance, I kept my mouth shut and gradually, by listening, I was able to piece together nuggets of information, the rest I filled in by guesswork. It’s a wonder I haven’t ended up with all sorts of hang-ups because, listening to their stories, I was horrified. I remember thinking, with some embarrassment, that my parents couldn’t possibly do things like that, not any more, for surely they were too old.
Academically, I was with children much brighter than myself who were not given so much to day-dreaming. My school report shows that I started off willingly enough, averaging about mid-way through a class of 30 (except maths where I was always in the bottom three). After 1952, it takes a definite downward slide from which I only occasionally arose. Part of the reason for this was because during my second year, I became very ill with pneumonia brought on by the very damp conditions of the house in Farnworth and I was off school for weeks.
I can’t recall much about actually being ill, apart from the fact that my bed was brought downstairs, in order for me to be kept warm.
I remember staring at the fire for hours, comforted by the dull glow from it being banked up at night. I suppose I must have read books by the score and listened to the radio but it is the fire and the persistent cough that seemed to dominate that time. A major piece of history occurred while I was ill. I was lying in bed in the kitchen-cum-sitting room, listening to the radio, when the broadcast was interrupted by the news that King George VI had died that morning. With little better to do, I followed the royal events as they unfolded, feeling very much a part of it.
Along with the young queen, my own life was about to change dramatically. Mum and Dad had had their name down for a council place in Horwich, where I’d been born, for some time. Now, because I had been so ill, they stepped up the pressure, with visits to the Housing Office and pleading letters. Sometime after my illness, word came through that we’d been allocated a two-bedroomed flat in Horwich. Our very own home! It meant that Dad could still carry on with his bus driving, while Mum would try and get a job in Horwich, perhaps back in the mill where she’d once worked as a towel weaver. I was to continue at Farnworth Grammar School, even though it meant a two-bus ride from Farnworth to Bolton then on to Horwich. And that’s what I did for the next two years, in all kinds of weather, all the time wearing those silly ankle socks. I don’t remember schools ever closing because of snow in those days.
The worst thing about travelling to and from Horwich every day was that I had to go back to school dinners. How I hated them. Thick lumpy gravy which congealed on your plate, mashed potatoes that still had hard lumps in, vegetables boiled so much all the goodness had gone out of them, nameless blobs, more fat and gristle than meat that you didn’t know about till you got them in your mouth, then you didn’t know what to do with them, followed by thick, lumpy and invariably burnt custard or, worse still, milk puddings. The mere thought of them makes me feel sick and they’re all the things I can’t eat even now.
As soon as I could persuade Mum, I started taking a packed lunch. This meant that I had to sit apart from the others taking school dinners, isolating me even further. I didn’t care. Anything was better than the nameless horrors being presented under the guise of school dinners!
EDITOR: Lead image is of Farnworth Grammar School.