St Mary's Wantage
St Mary's in the 1940's
The bell goes and we fetch hot water in our cans. I am in a dormitory on the top floor, later used as an Art Room.
Along the passage are the music practice rooms, and Miss Maling’s study. The following year I am in a small single room in ‘Cherry’. Further along are rooms called Saints, and the bathrooms. This area is rather dark and scary, as a ghost of a long departed schoolgirl is said be seen there. Prefects come to check on the stripping of beds. I am a fag, so responsible for the taking and fetching of Sylvia’s laundry, cleaning her shoes, and helping with the Prefects Sunday tea, when they will entertain a member of staff. We will benefit from ‘left-overs’.
After breakfast we line up in the lobby for the Matron, accompanied by four prefects. The leaders inspect us for clean hands, necks and general turnout. After making our beds, we might need to visit the dispensary for doses of Radium Malt, Milk of Magnesia or Parishes food (iron). We then join a member of staff for a quarter of an hour’s housework.
At Assembly in the hall we march in, in height order, to a rousing march played by Miss Davis. Sister Janet sweeps in, closely followed by her Jack Russell, Jeremy.
At break we have cocoa and fresh buns, or in summer outside it will be milk, sometimes turning sour. We are ravenous by lunchtime. With hands washed and hair brushed, we hurry along to the Prefect’s calls of ‘don’t run, don’t talk’. Grace is said by a member of staff or a prefect. One table is with ‘Mamo’ for French conversation. The lunch is very good, but the juniors have to gobble, as they must fetch the second helpings. After lunch we get half an hour on our beds with a book. Games lists are up in the lobby. I dislike ‘lax’ and wish I could play netball instead like those in ‘St Gabes’. There are no showers, and baths are only twice a week at night, so I suppose it’s back to basin and ewer. For games, we will have worn our brown flared skirts, with the thick blue stockings rolled down. Then we change back into straight skirts. In the summer term it will be pink, blue, green or fawn floral cotton frocks, which come back stiff from the laundry.
Tea will be bread and dripping, a tiny pat of butter, and the jam, Fry’s chocolate spread, fish paste or something of the sort brought from home with your supply of after-lunch sweets. On Sundays we get chocolate cake.
Prep will be supervised by a leader, or by your own form captain. In winter the school will have that distinctive fuggy smell, caused by the blackout. Supper is not a favourite meal, unless it is the cherries we get in the summer. No it is baked beans on fried bread, under-cooked baked potato, terrible fishcakes rolled in something bright orange, or watery scramble made with powdered egg. I do remember a breakfast when at my table our fried bacon included a cockroach!
‘Rec’, after supper, was noisy, but peace could be found in the weaving room, (opposite St. Augustin’s refectory) or, for the seniors, in the Library. In summer we might take a walk over to St. Gabriel’s, and have a turn on the swings.
In the Lobby, one wall had a large board specially prepared with tapes to hold letters. Opposite was a very big glass fronted bookcase, which was opened on Wednesday afternoons. Outdoors there was the excitement of roller-skating on the hard courts. In the evening we had dancing to records. We learnt ballroom dancing in the hall, with Miss Lane, and she also taught ballet. Miss Franklin took gym and remedials. She also awarded badges for deportment.
On Saturdays we had Mark Reading (our place in the form), announcements, and the giving out of starred work. Then we collected our laundry and were given any mending, which we took to the hall to do. In some ways, it seemed an aimless day, unless we were allowed to go home. (But not, if I remember, on the first three or the last two weekends of a term). More likely was a visit from the parents, and tea out in the town. If you had a term-time birthday, you would invite a senior to take tea in a refectory on your own, with your friends. If you were lucky, you would have special food and a cake sent from home.
On Sundays in winter we wore a rather unattractive dark blue dress with a detachable white rounded collar. In summer the thin silky dresses were much nicer.
I remember feeling faint during early Mass, but knew to put my head down between my knees. Breakfast would include some unpalatable milky coffee. Afterwards would be the ordeal of House meetings, dreaded by a Prefect, who would have to tell those with reports to stand up be subjected to a telling-off. Then she would give a pep talk about trying to be top house. (We always sat for meals with other girls in the same house, and there would be inter-house matches).
Time for High Mass and the Sacristan and Boat-boy would change into their white attire. The choir met in the Weaving room; the main choir wore beautiful long blue veils, and the assistant choir short white ones. The rest of the school wore chapel caps.
On Miss Malings’ retirement, blind Mr Avery from the town took over to play the organs. I remember some beautiful Bach. At choir practise the whole of the grand piano would shake with his powerful playing. I eventually became on the top four in the choir, and we would give out the beginning of the Magnificat or the first verse of a psalm in plainsong. I particularly remember the last hymn of the summer term –‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. The choir would often add a descant. In wintertime we would go for a walk in ‘crocodile’ formation, wearing our long blue cloaks with lighter blue hoods. We had a more peaceful after supper recreation on Sundays. The two top forms were read to by Sister Janet. The lowers forms had some sort of quiet game organised by their Rec sister.
For me, the ones that were most memorable were those connected with the Chapel. And those occasions when were we were, so to speak, released from the confines. The last occasion the White Dress Dance was held, was on the All Saint’s, All Soul’s weekend in 1942; very special and very exciting for a twelve year old. We dressed in our party frocks and came down to a place transformed by lights, candles, flowers and music. We each carried a tiny programme with pencil attached on which we noted down our chosen partners. I’m sure a wonderful supper was provided.
Early in the spring term came Candlemass with our procession carrying candles. I only remember one early Easter, kept at School. The silence and the solemnity of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The Pascal Candle and Veneration of the Cross. And then Easter Morning, early, outside the Chapel, with Sister Janet and three Marys to roll away the stone.
Another occasion etched in my memory was of course my Confirmation and First Communion. The Bishop told us to make use of the talents God had given us. We also attended an impressive veiling at the Convent.
In the summer term we had lovely outings with picnics for Ascension Day and Corpus Christie. Another picnic I remember was a Girl Guide outing with a lovely bonfire and sausages. On our return to school in September we would go blackberrying.
The outing that I really enjoyed was the opportunity to sing with the Bach Choir in Oxford. Miss Kempthorne had taught us our part of the Bach B minor Mass very thoroughly and although as an alto I was in a row directly in front of the basses, it did not make any difference. Other schools sang their part. Other forays would be a French play with Mamo, and a series of lectures on English Literature with Miss Osborne, as well as expeditions on our bicycles to study Church Architecture with Miss Viner.
The other memorable event was the bi- or tri-yearly performance of Pilgrims Progress, very ably produced by Sister Janet.
As for the War, I only remember watching King George VI inspecting soldiers, and then the School Sports for VE Day. We were given opportunities for listening to the news and reading the newspaper. I imagine we were far more in touch with events during our holiday.
Teresa Kennedy (Chance, 1947)