St Mary's Wantage

Wantage Memories 1926 - 1933

I came to SMS in the summer term of 1926, the youngest girl they had had so far, a few weeks short of my tenth birthday.
They had just started the first form and there were six of us ten year olds.  I came because my mother had been there from 1898 to 1902.  She was, I think, the first professional woman that the school turned out.  Her form mistress, Sister Annie Louisa, later to be the mother of the community in my day, suggested to her that she should become a doctor, and she studied under the first generation of women doctors.  I treasure a signed copy of her autobiography by Elizabeth Blackwell that she gave to my mother.  I think that Sister Annie Louisa was instrumental in bringing the school into the twentieth century by starting the teaching of science; she also made the girls there the very first girl scouts before the day of guides.  She knew of the scout movement and feeling that girls should have something similar got them working on the same lines, which is why when the guides started the school troop was called the First White Horse.  It is pity that it seems to have stopped, for in my day it was very flourishing.  We used to camp on the playing field in the summer term at weekends in the thirties.

I think that when my mother was there shampoos were not quite as they are now for I can remember her saying that they used to brush fine oatmeal through their long hair to de-grease it.  When I was there we had our hair washed once a fortnight and dried by the fire in Fidelity (does the room still exist?)  We also had our hair brushed every now and then, and it was years before I realised that that was to make sure we did not have nits.  Baths were on four nights a week with one morning bath and one after games.  There were no Sunday baths in order to give the man who stoked the boilers a day off.  It may amuse you to know that my mother's eldest sister went to a school run by the Wantage sisters in London and they were given cotton shifts to wear in the bath so they did not have to see their own bodies!  The girls were more sensible than the nuns and used to bath without the shift, and wring it out in the water afterwards.  That was about a hundred and twenty years ago of course, and it did not happen at Wantage.

When my mother came she and her friend Maud Segar, were the only ones who did not wear corsets.  When gym was introduced, the girls wore rather long tunics and had to remove their corsets.  One girl was so ashamed of having to show her ankles that she hid in her cloakroom cupboard, and one had been so tightly corseted for so long that her weakened muscles could hardly hold her up.  Extraordinary.

We didn't have corsets, though most girls had stays which were much the same thing, but we did have more clothes than nowadays, probably because the central heating was less efficient - and they were a bit different too.  Starting with woolly vests, we then had liberty bodices then cotton knicker linings (two pairs a week) and warm navy knickers over them, black lisle stockings were later replaced by light coloured ones and were held up either by suspenders on the liberty bodices or suspender belts.  For games we wore bright blue woollen ones - don't ask how often they were washed - and after games we changed into blue serge dresses with tussore collars in the winter, and blue long sleeved cotton ones in summer.  In 1930 we had summer tunics which we loved.  They were beige cotton with a pale blue trim worn with the same ties and blue woollen braid girdles that we had in winter.  You can see the winter tunics in the old photographs - we were rather proud of them as they were a lot nicer than the ones most girls had to wear.  The girdle was pale blue woollen braid, and blouses were viyella in winter and cotton in summer.  Juniors wore pinafores that did up at the back to keep the tunics clean and when we older we had blue linen sleeves over our white blouses when we were in class.

As to lessons they were five full days a week and on Saturdays up to break, after which assembly to hear the week's progress, and after that mending, which meant sewing on buttons and darning.  In the afternoon there were matches, which of course we watched if they were at home.  Before matches we always sang the "Hockey Song" with great enthusiasm even though we no longer played hockey but lacrosse.  It was a great song, written I believe by Sister Annie Louisa.  As juniors we had gym each day, at least twice a week when we were older and the academic side took more time, and games each afternoon.  Then we changed into dresses and had lessons followed by prep after tea.  That is until the new timetable was devised which was much better.  There was no longer time for prep but the lessons were lengthened so any prep was done as part of class time, with of course the mistress there to help if necessary.  If you had a period, gym and games were forbidden, for who knows what dreadful things might have happened if we had exercised!  Some girls even felt that a bath was dangerous.

Though we led a rather sheltered existence in other ways we were possibly freer.  We could climb trees without being told we might fall and hurt ourselves.  There was tall conifer at the end of the shrubbery at St. Gabriel’s up which most of us went a little, as we each knew how far we could go.  A few actually reached the top and picked a twig to show for it.  Ruth Railton, afterwards probably one of our most distinguished old girls, was one who did.  She was a very all round girl too.  We soon learned how to do it though I do remember jumping on the down swing - it hurt but I never thought of going to the Matron.  After all I was only hurt because I was silly which is a good way of learning.  We also had a giant stride which was great fun.  It is probably unknown these days.  There was a tree in the middle of the lawn at St Gabriel's that had a branch that stuck out at about five feet up.  We used to jump up, throw our legs over it and hang upside down without being told we might fall on our heads.  No one did and the branch got quite shiny as a result.  I wonder if it is still there.  Some girls had pogo sticks and stilts.  The daring ones jumped off the ha-ha wall into the ditch on stilts, which was quite a feat of balance.  Later when we were at St Mary's we roller-skated on the concrete tennis courts so we managed to get a lot of exercise one way or another.

My first term was enlivened by Ronnie the rook.  He had fallen from his nest in the elm trees, four beautiful trees in the St. Gabriel's field, now I suppose victims of Dutch elm disease.  Elizabeth Odgers found and nurtured him and he became extremely tame, distinguishing himself by landing on Sister Rachel's head once, when she was visiting the convent.  He was always allowed freedom and vanished during the summer holidays which were extra long that year as the New Wing was being built.  I can just remember the jumble of huts which had stood there earlier, but after seven years ‘New’ seemed unsuitable and it was renamed Willow.

 

SMS was always a musical school and I am everlasting grateful that even girls who like myself did not play an instrument had "ear training", which was musical theory, and drama was also very much part of our lives and is still useful to me.  One great difference was the amount of sleep we had.  As 'babies' we went to bed at 6.30 and I can remember the sounds of the seniors playing cricket as I lay there in St. Monica.  Time was gradually lengthened until as seniors we went at 9.00, only the prefects being allowed to stay up till 9.30.  The rising bell went at 7.00 or 7.15, when we collected the can of hot water that the maids had left at our doors.  We assembled in the hall where the patrol leaders checked that we were properly dressed and that our knickers did not show, then breakfast followed by bed making and in winter twenty minutes of stick practice.  This was in St Mary's -1 don't know if St Gabriel’s did it too.  Lacrosse took over from hockey around 1929.  For games we played netball and lacrosse in winter, walks if it was unsuitable, and if it was raining hard I don’t remember what we did but it would have been some sort of exercise.  In summer it was rounders and tennis.

 

We were a placid and well behaved lot - no bullying or unkindness.  Drugs were medicines given by a doctor, and no one particularly bothered about weight or anything.  Anorexia had not been invented, and we were happy to accept life as it came, knowing it might be more complicated when we left school and content to wait till that happened.  We were sheltered indeed, but given a very sound grounding in how to work and play and live with other people.

 

I also saw television in 1933 somewhere in the town.  The VIth were allowed to go.  It was a very early telecast, done in the rim of a wheel and viewed in the dark.  The picture was about the size of the writing on a page viewed from the side.  An historic occasion.

Mary Wilson