School History

Do you have memories of KNGS? If so, why not share them? Email us at enquiry@kngs.co.uk

On Wednesday, 12th October 1927, Kings Norton Secondary School for Girls was officially opened by Lord Eustace Percy, President of the Board of Education. The site consisted of 21 acres fronting onto Selly Oak Road, which the Urban District Council purchased from two small parishes near Tamworth, Wilnecote and Wigginton for £4,360. During the Great War, 1914-1918, the land was used for allotments and continued in that use until building work began on the new school.

The site stretches from Selly Oak Road on the west, across the line of what is now Linden Road, and on the south from the line of the present fence of the “top drive” to, apparently, considerably further north than the line of the “bottom drive”, probably to the Beaumont Road Gardens, including the area on which the new St.Joseph’s school now stands. Part of the land, about half the present front lawned area, had been, until enclosure, open common and part of Rowheath.

The school was built for 516 girls at a cost £42,000. The original plan was very common in the 1920’s. A central hall was built with quadrangles on either side, with classrooms opening off corridors, which until the late 1950’s were unglazed. Miss Sant took a great interest in the plans and various modifications were suggested. The final plan was for 540 girls with 19 classrooms, two laboratories, the assembly hall, gymnasium, art room, dining room and a library (now the staff room).

Entry to the school was by scholarship or by fee per annum. When fees were abolished in 1944 payment stood at £12 per annum.

The number of students in school has steadily risen over the years from two forms to five forms of entry. However, in 1954, 181 students entered the school and for the next few years the intake was 150. This was largely due to the ‘baby boom’ after the war!

To accommodate the rise in the number of students it has been necessary to extend the school building:

  • 1948 – Dining room and kitchens
  • 1959 – Cloisters in the quadrangles were closed in.
    – Library block with 2 new laboratories above (now English rooms)
  • 1965 – Library block was extended to include a sixth form common room
  • 1977 – Bicycle shed was converted to drama room (now the common room)
  • 1996 – Phase 1 of new science block
  • 1998 – Completion of science block
  • 1999 – Humanities block
  • 2000 – New language rooms in quadrangle.
Archive Footage

Click on the links to below to view our archive film footage:

Outdoor Swimming Gala – Rowheath Lido, 1959

School Trips – 1959

School Gala – 1959

KNGS Jubilee Celebrations – 1961

 

Memories 1911-1930

Life at Northfield Road

Miss Benson took us for Physical exercise. This consisted of marching up and down to music played on a piano! We tried to arrange hockey matches outside but Miss Sant would have none of it. She said: “You cannot play games outside. You might get your feet wet”!!

Mary Kaighan (Nee Fife) 1911-15

The boys had to go along a path by the side of our playground; we called it “the monkey run”. We were advised to keep well away from that side of the playground!

The caretaker had a little tuck shop but the only thing he ever seemed to sell were wine gums.

We gave an open-air performance of A Midsummer Night’s dream on the playing fields at the back of school. It was a wonderful occasion.

Dorethy Remmett 1914-18

The New School in Selly Oak Road

I was one of the pupils starting in 1927 when the school first opened – I remember the playing fields were not ready for use. I enjoyed my school days and was very keen on sports, I played hockey and hand ball rounders and was Captain of the Pinks House! Subsequently I played hockey for Worcestershire.

Marjorie Derbyshire (Nee Wharton) 1927 – 31

School Rules

When first you come in at the door
Remember the important law
That you take off your shoes
And your pumps you must use
Except when the rains wet the floor
Your coat and your hat and your shoes
And anything else that you use
Must all bear your name
So that without blame
You always may claim what you lose
When you go from your room to the gym
Or wherever to go `tis your whim
On the left single file
With no whisper or smile
You must walk so sedately and prim
Now whenever from school your away
Be it only for half a day
Remember to send
A note by a friend
To explain without any delay
And this rule you really should know
Long hair in your face must not blow
For unless you are bobbed
Or of long tresses robbed
Your locks must be tied back so!

Poem from the School Magazine 1928 (anonymous 6th former)

Miss Sant – a formidable woman!

Miss Sant thought all girls except those in the ‘D’ stream should concentrate on Greek and Latin and would not let any of them do Domestic Science because she thought it was a great waste for girls to get married.

Every Wednesday at 1.00pm my brother would call for me in a big open top Sunbeam car. Many of my friends came as well. One Thursday morning I was summoned into Miss Sant’s office. “Who is that objectionable person who comes to fetch you?”, she asked. “Please Miss, it’s my brother.” I replied. “Well, you must bring a note from your parents to tell me that he IS your brother, and you must NEVER take any other girl with you in future.”

H. Dorothy Clewer (Hilda Street) 1928 – 33

Teachers

We new girls couldn’t get over the P.E. teacher wearing a gym dress! We had Maggie Wet Legs for French and Perky Parky for Physics (she said 79 “NOWs” in one lesson!!!) – the poor lady was killed when a tree fell on her in the 1930s.

When we had holes in our horrible thick black stockings we used ink to cover them over. The teacher accused us of stealing . . . the ink! She said: “You are stealing the school’s property and you mustn’t do it anymore!”

H. Dorethy Clewer 1928-32

Miss Sant’s Pet Goat – Belinda

Presented to her by some person unknown. It resembled her in many ways and was left to graze in the school grounds. Although we were very fond of it, we were all wary of its temper.

Anononymous 1930

Our Christmas Party

We were in form 3A. We occupied the main hall for our party and had a most enjoyable time. Dainty cakes and lemonade, fruit and sweets were served by the mistresses who did all in their power to make the party a success. We played several games such as “jumbled words” and “proverbs” and small prizes were awarded. Then we danced to the music of the piano.

E.W. December 1929

Memories 1931-1940

My Fondest Memories

I have very happy memories of my time at school. In 1935 we put on a Greek play, which was thought to be a very unusual and highbrow thing to do.

Miss Sant wanted me to go to University but I wanted to start working and my mother approached Miss Sant to ask permission for me to attend secretarial classes in my last term. She refused saying that “any fool can learn short hand and typing in 5 minutes.”I have always been round shouldered and I still hear Miss Sharpe, the gym mistress, shouting “Mary Wood, head up, shoulders back!”

Miss Smallwood, the art mistress, cycled to school on a bike with mudguards painted purple with white spots!

Harris Mary (Nee Wood) 1931 – 35

Career Guidance

Just before I left school in 1939, Mom and I had the usual interview with Miss Sant. After some discussion she said to Mom, “Don’t spend any more money on Audrey’s education – save it for your son.” (He was years younger than me) “Audrey will get married and not need it.” How times have changed, these days she’d get lynched wouldn’t she?

A.M.Ford (Nee Woolley) 1934 – 39

The Quadrangles

Open to the elements. In winter the snow piled up in the corridors and since we had to wear pumps, our feet got wet and cold. I suffered with Chilblains every winter.

Mary Lane (Nee Redfern) 1938 – 42

School Meals

At break time we could buy biscuits or chocolate bars in the hall from a table set out and manned by the prefects, and milk could be bought, hot or cold, from the dining room. For dinner – I remember the split pea and lentil soup (great big jugs of it!). We had some form of casserole and salads (skimpy) with corned beef or Spam. The diet was adequate and sufficiently varied within wartime availability. I remember milk puddings and steam puddings with custard.

Vera Curtis 1938 – 43

Navy Knickers!

I remember Miss Sharpe of the P. E. Department who never climbed over a gate but always vaulted it, or so she told us. She waged a fierce war on any girl with a gap between her black stockings and her navy blue knickers which she called “smiles”.

Mary Brown (Nee Monnington) 1936 – 38

Memories – 1941-1950

During the War

Most girls arrived at school by bicycle or by utility buses, which had uncomfortable wooden seats. After an air raid, girls used to collect shrapnel on the way to school.

It was often difficult to know what time to arrive if there had been an air raid.

The arrangement was if the “all clear” went after midnight, school did not open until 10 am. This might be a problem if you were sleeping in a shelter and did not hear when the “all clear” went. When girls arrived at school they were sometimes sent home because the coke had not been delivered to heat the school.

The entrance hall, the back corridor, and the cloakrooms were reinforced and there were air raid shelters in the quadrangles. One day there was either an air raid or a practice during lunchtime and the girls went scurrying to the shelters with their plates of dinner.

Great fun was had during gas mask practice to see who could make the most noise when air was exhaled. Cookery was a great problem as most ingredients were rationed. Dried eggs and milk replaced fresh.

Clothing was difficult because of rationing and shortages; often blazers and tunics were on order for months.

Who remembers:
School milk?
Gas mask drill?
Mice eating the rice paper in the bible?

A Family affair!

My association with KNGS is quite a long one, my sister Jill was a pupil from 1938-42, both my mother (then Winifred Washbourne) and my father (Richard Price) were pupils from the first day at Northfield Road in 1911 and an Aunt and Uncle followed them two years later. A cousin was at school when they moved to Selly Oak Road. My father was chairman of the ‘Old Nortonians’ for most of the war years and my mother was on the ‘old girls’ committee in the early 40s.
Our gym mistress was on the staff right through from my mother’s time and addressed me as “Winnie – er- -Lexie – er – what’s your name” having taught my mother, my aunt and my sister!

Mavis Taylor (Nee Price) 1942 – 49

Needlework – knickers!

In 1938 in the first year, the Domestic Science project was to make oneself a pair of knickers. My sister was measured by Miss Reid “down to the bend of her knee and 2 inches more for bending” – Passion Killers! Even in those days, this was well below the hem of the average gymslip for an 11-year-old.

By 1942 Miss Reid had retired and a younger teacher helped us to make quite a snazzy pair of French knickers.

Mavis Taylor (Nee Price) 1942 – 49

Wartime – Evacuation

We had classes in the afternoon at Denmark Road High School. Mornings we used either the school gym or had classes in the church hall. Any pocket money as we had (very little) was paid into KNGS each term and on holidays we queued up in Denmark Road School hall to receive it from members of staff according to the allowance made by our parents.

Vera Curtis 1938 – 43

School Harvest Camp

In 1944 and 1945 I, with a number of other girls aged 15 plus, went to School Harvest Camp. It lasted for 2 weeks. We rode our bicycles to our destination – Admington Nr. Stratford Upon Avon in 1944 and Clavedon in 1945. They were our transport to the various farms we were sent to (a coach took our luggage to and from school).

It was hard work:

  • – loading up the horse and trailer
  • – helping stack the wheat etc. in the barn with bits sticking in your clothes and down your neck
  • – threshing – a very dirty job, we looked like sweeps afterwards!

We all thoroughly enjoyed our work and the camaraderie back at the headquarters after supper, although we were soon to bed, tired from the day’s excursions and preparing for the next day’s work.

There were 2 or 3 camps during the summer and members of our staff looked after us at the headquarters.

V.J.Day

August 15th 1945 saw me and two other girls ‘helping’ on a farm, clearing out part of the cow byre – the smell was terrible. It was a rainy, drizzly day and we couldn’t get into the fields to bring in more crops, so we asked if there was anything else we could help with – hence we were given this task. Although the others stayed till late afternoon, I succumbed and had to go back to the camp for lunchtime!

Eileen Statham (Nee Emms) 1940 – 45

In 1945 I was one of the first intake of pupils benefiting from the Butler Education Act, which made Grammar school education free for the first time.

We had to buy the uniform of navy-gym slip and light blue blouse, plus coat and obligatory navy hat or beret, but all school materials were free. In those early post-war years we had a ‘rough book’ for making notes and as paper was still in short supply, we only used pencil and then rubbed everything out to reuse the notebook a second time.

For some reason we started in Year 2, then 3, 4, lower and upper 5th and so to the sixth form, lower and upper. In around 1950 the old School Certificate exam was changed to Ordinary level with an age limit of 16. I was too young to do the exam with my friends and had to do the first ‘O’ levels in 1951, after starting my A Levels, which I completed in 1952. Once again I was too young to start a degree course and had to repeat another year. In those days a year off travelling the world or earning money, now considered so valuable, was unheard of.

The late 1940’s were a confusing time for me: throughout my primary education during the war we had been taught to hate our enemy. Our role in defeating him was clear, carrying vital messages on our bicycles under his very nose. By the Autumn of 1945, the tables had turned – the atom bomb dropped. Europe was in chaos – and we were being encouraged to have compassion for the enemy and learn to forgive. As a result of this initiative I became fascinated with Germany and must have been one of the first students to have a German exchange. Maria came to us from Berlin in 1950 and I visited her in 1951. The parcels we had collected in 1945 had landed in a girls’ school in Munster, so there were also visits and exchanges with them.

Beyond that my memories were mostly happy. I was a real pain in the classroom and was awarded an ‘order mark’ more than once – the shame of it! On one occasion my friend Mary and I were practising a fireman’s lift, a skill we had learned at the school’s Youth Service Corps.

The YSC ran on Wednesday afternoons alongside some sports and other voluntary activities – though as I recall the only thing you couldn’t volunteer for was an afternoon off!

I think even by today’s standards KNGS was a forward-looking and certainly a caring school, which equipped us well for whatever was to come.

Eileen Holly (Nee Darby) 1945 – 53

The Y.S.C.

The classics teacher, Miss Folland (known as ‘Caesar’) began this excellent organisation. We met every Wednesday afternoon (which was half-day off for the rest of the school). We had badges and cards in which we had to write down, and get signed, any voluntary work we had done for the community during the week.

We also went to camp at Ladram Bay in Devon every summer. My happiest times at school were at ‘Camp’, which was extremely well organised. We all had tasks, chores, duties etc. and I’m sure these experiences were excellent in character forming and giving us a sense of responsibility and awareness of others.

Stella Sturgeon (Nee Matthews) 1943 – 50

Ann Hayden-Jones – Wimbledon Champion

I remember a quiet, straw-headed, pleasant girl who watched us ‘Big Girls’ of the Upper 5th playing tennis. I took pity on her and asked her to join us on court. She was a table tennis star at the time, but her tennis serves were staggering!

Stella Sturgeon (Nee Matthews) 1943 – 50

Memories – 1951-1960

It recently occurred to me that next year, it will be exactly 50 years since I left KNGS. When my Canadian husband’s class reached 50 years since their graduation from school, they had a reunion, which he attended and enjoyed. So if there are any 1960 graduates out there, please get in touch! My email is p.caplan@gold.ac.uk Names I remember are Hester Gretton, Joanna Barnes (head girl in our last year), Pamela Walker, Joy Baggaley, Wendy Price, and three whose surnames I have forgotten: Celia, Valerie (nicknamed ‘Venus’) and Paula.

I remember being totally happy when I arrived in the first year. I joined Miss Hanbury’s class in one of the ‘huts’. It had ivy growing over the walls, which turned beautiful shades of red in the autumn. I felt for the first time I was being stretched intellectually. Miss Hanbury taught music appreciation, and we sat in the hall on benches and listened to pieces like Smetana’s Moldau, Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingals’ Cave’ and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Although I had been learning the piano for many years, her enthusiasm for the pleasures of listening to classical music have stayed with me since that time.

In the second year, our class teacher was Mrs Potts, who was also to become my French teacher and mentor in the Sixth Form. There were several talented language teachers at the school and besides French I learned Latin, Greek (Miss Saunders) and German – the last in the lunch hour as there was no space left in my timetable. The headteacher, Miss Carey, who had arrived the same year as I did, taught General Studies, a kind of current affairs, which I took to A Level.

Our uniform was navy blue skirts and blazers, blue blouses, and ties with a badge. For Science lessons we wore blue overalls, and for PE pale blue aertex shirts and shorts, or just our baggy navy knickers! We played hockey, which I hated, and netball, which was only marginally better, and we did gym (after a fashion). The one sport I enjoyed was swimming, but we did not have regular lessons – only occasionally being allowed to use the nearby Cadbury’s open-air pool in Bournville, including for our annual gala. Our school was fortunate in having its own grounds, with plenty of space for all of these sports, not to mention tennis.

Rules of deportment were strict: we always had to wear our berets out of school; we were not allowed to eat in the street. In the Sixth Form I became a prefect and helped enforce these rules.

My house was just 3 miles from the school. Had it been more than three, I would have qualified for a free bus pass, but as it was, my parents had to pay. I took two buses to school, until I decided that walking home was more fun and saved money. We girls had numerous confidential conversations, and also there was the chance of meeting some of the boys from the nearby boys’ school. When we became sixth formers, once a year, there was a ‘dance’ with the boys’ school but this was rarely very successful – we teenage girls considered ourselves much more sophisticated, and most of us had boy friends outside of school. One year, the boys challenged the girls to a hockey match – as the boys did not do hockey at their school, the girls’ team thought it had a good chance of beating them, but in fact they did not.

Towards the end of my schooling, I had to decide on choice of university and came across a degree in African Studies at the University of London. I consulted Mrs Potts, who had expected me to continue with at least one of the languages I had learned at school. She expressed some scepticism, but said she would make further enquiries. I later learned that she had travelled to London to an Open Day at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and there met someone who had studied at the same college in Oxford as herself. She returned and reported to me and to my parents that it would be OK to go to SOAS and do that degree, unusual though it seemed. And so off I went the following year to take a degree, which included Swahili and Anthropology. I did my postgraduate research in Tanzania and became an academic anthropologist – thank you Mrs Potts!

Pat Caplan (nee Bailey) 1953-60

Oh! Happy days

I remember getting a detention for holding an apple! Eating was not allowed in the classroom, I was on my way out and I met a prefect.
Other memories include:
Christmas at St. Agnes church
The Biology field trip to Bockleton Farm
Hockey games against the Boys’ School
Pregnant rats in dissection classes

Ann Davis (Nee Nickless) 1952 – 59 [now in Canada]

The Smell of KNGS

My memories are strange ones – many of them are smells!

We had our form room in a science lab for two years running, and I remember all those bottles of sulphuric acid in the centre of the benches – we never touched them!

I can wander round the school mentally and smell the Art room, the gym, the labs and the dining room etc.

Dinners were certainly different from today’s meals. We had 8 pupils per table – two girls served the meal (these were older girls). The worst meal was mince (always greasy), mashed potato (always lumpy and grey) and cabbage (always pale and wet). The puddings were better – always filling and with huge jugs of custard and often with seconds. (Our record was 7ths!)

Gillian Thomas (Nee Garrad) 1948 – 54

“The Huts”

I have never forgotten starting the school in Room 20 in the Huts with coke burning stoves that were used to roast chestnuts and burn bits of rubber during boring lessons. I also remember one quadrangle was still open to the elements and we had to walk round piles of snow in the corridors.

Life seemed much duller after the windows were installed!

Margaret Faber (Nee Traynor) 1956 – 63

Berets and Beehives

We are the generation that balanced our berets on our heavily lacquered bee-hive hair styles, that bopped to Elvis Presley’s latest record in the hall at lunch time, that enjoyed learning the Hokey Cokey in Latin – need I go on.
Yes indeed, some of the happiest days of my life and the most wonderful foundation for future life.

Rita Sutton (Nee Wyer) 1954 – 62

Memories from Down Under!

My home background was not particularly conducive to learning or to personal growth but I found at school a place in which I was matured and stimulated. I often look back with gratitude on the caring and dedicated teachers whose paths crossed mine during my teenage years.

I remember: the field-study week at Bodington Hall camp. I learned what fun it could be to do hands-on-learning with a group of like-minded people.

And now: I love to go off for study weekends with fellow enthusiasts.

I remember: the excerpts of classical music played at morning assembly.

And now: they are still amongst my favourite pieces of music.

I remember: The school trip to Stratford-on-Avon to see “Hamlet”. It was an evening of pure magic. This trip was, for me, without cost. Discreetly and amazingly paid for by some mysterious staff fund.

And now: I get such a special thrill out of every theatre trip.

I remember: the many hours of individual tuition given by teachers, so that I should not merely pass my GCE but excel and thus have my stepping stone to the university of my choice.

And now: I have a full and rewarding career in education and have, in my turn, encouraged hundreds of students along their way.

The efforts put in by KNGS teachers to help this particular student to realise her potential were indeed many. If those teachers could see me now they would have their reward! Thank you KNGS for giving me the skills and the courage to unlock the door to the rest of my life

Lorna Aggarwal (Nee Phillips) 1955 – 62 – Mullaloo, Australia

My School Days 1948 – 53

To coin a well-used phrase, my school days really were some of the happiest of my life. I have a debt of gratitude for all that I heard and learned and saw and absorbed at KNGS during those years. The truth is that I enjoyed them even then – and not just in retrospect.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of my class – the class of ’48, or rather the four classes that comprised the intake for the year. We were the war kids who were going to be given every opportunity that our parents had been denied. Probably the most privileged of all the generations, a new world was at our feet.

There are so many memories – the classrooms, the teachers, the lessons, the exams, ‘don’t run in the corridor’, gym slips and blazers, order marks for not wearing hats or for eating in the street and was the ginger school cat called Marmaduke or is that a memory from a different place? So where do I begin?

I suppose I begin at the beginning. The first morning is shrouded in confusion, crowds of neatly dressed girls purposefully going, but going where? How did I get where I was going? The first instruction had been clear – all pupils were to use the lower entrance gates. The drive through those gates passed the tennis courts on the right, veered left by the cycle sheds to the long wide promenade along the back of the school. Girls, girls and more girls everywhere! The promenade overlooked slopes down to hockey pitches, those fields of rounders and long summer days and then down steep slopes to the netball pitches fringed at the perimeters by tall poplars or firs trees. We spent our breaks on these open spaces and I remember the smell of chocolate that often wafted on the wind from Bournville. The promenade continued right past the never to be forgotten sewing room towards the dining room (did we all have the same first sewing project?). The top drive, which was forbidden to lower school pupils, passed the tennis courts, along shrub borders and classrooms to the front entrance.

The entrance hall, a ‘sacred, never to be entered place without permission and then only on tiptoe and in silence’, was large and spacious with the Head’s study on the left and the school assembly hall opposite.

How did I get to 2B and Miss Bowell’s class and find my way round those central quadrangles? I forget but I do remember the girls I met on the first of many memorable days. I remember too the names on the register as it was recited daily for years. Sometime in those first days in Sept ’48 we were orientated around the school, elected class monitors, dinner monitors and endless other monitors. The prefects, those awe-inspiring senior girls whose look sent us scurrying as fast as possible in the opposite direction. The fact that they were learning to accept responsibility escaped eleven-year-olds. They were just a very effective spy system – their eyes and ears were everywhere!

In those first days we were taught to wear our school uniform with pride, always to wear our hats and never, never be seen eating in the street in uniform. In fact we were unified by gym slips, blue blouses, blazers and the inevitable beret with KNGS badge and by the brown leather satchels which were never big enough for all our homework, PE kit and lunch boxes. With changing weather we wore navy macks but I never did wear the heavy woollen winter coat nor the brimmed velour hat that was part of the long list of required uniform, although my mother dutifully purchased both. Adverts of the time depict navy cardigans for 25s (£1.25) school summer dresses for 20s (£1.00) and dress material for 2s/11d a yard (15p).

Days began with assembly, with neat rows of cross-legged girls in blue blouses singing school hymns. I can never hear Blaze Away and An English Country Garden – without it triggering an echo down the years and a picture of row after row getting up and filing out in orderly fashion. There are memories too of singing the end of the term hymn – ‘Lord dismiss us with your blessing’ and of the last time I sang it, and the tears that flowed from many with the realisation that the years at KNGS were over. It was in that hall that great expectations for the future were inspired; it was also in assembly that the Wednesday morning lists of detentions were read out. That was a strange practice to be sure!

The hall is the scene of a Christmas memory of 1948 when we returned after school for a party. Most of us travelled alone on the bus in the dark in what was then a much safer world. The war was not long over but we all brought food and met in the brightly decorated hall and played party games. We were still young enough to enjoy just food and fun. I vividly recollect the new dress I wore of holly green wool with pleated skirt, red belt, red collar and red cuffs. I felt like part of the Christmas decorations!

As a child I lived from day to day not realising how rapidly the life was changing in post war Britain. My own life at 11 years comprised of school, homework and Dick Barton (and Snowy and Sock) at quarter to seven on the radio and I was still young enough to be enthralled by the serialisation of Malcolm Saville books – Seven White Gates etc.

I had already forgotten the horrors of the war, which had ended only 3 years previously, although we were still affected by shortages and rationing of food and by points for clothing and furniture. In 1948, the same year that I started at KNGS, my mother, with thousands of others, queued to collect new ration books with increased allowances.

Sugar and sweets were derationed when we were in the lower 5th in 1952. No wonder our teeth were the healthiest of any generation to that point. Butter remained rationed for several more years. In the year that I started my mother was doing the family washing in a tub with a dolly peg and wringing the washing by a mangle. In a 1948 advert that I have, one firm is advertising repairs for ‘ringer rollers’. You could buy a skirt for two pounds and a blouse for a pound. Did you know that Scrivens, the opticians, sold contact lenses in 1947?

From my aerial perspective I can enter the science labs and see the neat wooden benches, the Bunsen burners and the cupboards of flasks and curious shaped glassware, the ‘plumbers’ smell of old gas and rubber – for some reason I always see shafts of sunlight with dust in suspension as I look across the room. It was only in later nursing years, as I heated urine with Fehling’s solution in a test tube over a Bunsen and checked for the presence of impurities that indicated disease, that I saw some of the relevance in practical terms of science experiments of school years .

The sewing rooms were at the far end of the school if my geography is right. Just how many girls have made blue PE knickers for their very first sewing project! And knickers they were, unglamorous with elasticated legs and capacious enough to tuck in gym slips We learned the art of French seams – painfully stitched by hand, unstitched and stitched again and again until so precise that they might as well have been machine stitched. Next we made the pretty blue Gingham aprons, which had to be made before we could start cookery classes. We learned to use the sewing machine for those and after that I forget what else we made.

The dining room was just beyond the sewing rooms and in the vestibule outside and up a flight of steps into the corridor we waited with our 5d dinner tickets and learned the British art of queuing. For some reason, jam tart in squares with custard on triggers memories that echo down the years to those school dinners.

Does anyone remember, “Eating Pork Today’? Or was I the only one to have a bright green Latin primer with the title ‘Latin for Today’ carefully and indelibly altered by a previous student into ‘Eating Pork Today”? Is that student reading this? To this day I can remember some of the Latin declinations we recited in unison. But I wish I had learned German.

Some teachers stand out in my memory – particularly the teacher who was a strict disciplinarian. Who dare open her desk after lesson started to retrieve last week’s forgotten work? She had eagle sharp eyes that could see the slightest movement that opened a lid even a quarter of an inch. I remember too the French teacher who always wore a yellow jumper which earned her an inevitable nickname. Then there is the gym and Pirates at the end of term and the country dancing lessons to gramophone records – I can still do the Paddy one Step! The Art classes are happy memories and laid a foundation for a hobby that for me has been absorbing over many years in different forms.

By the time we were in the lower fifth we no longer ran in the corridors, ate in the street (or could avoid being caught). We conducted ourselves with decorum and propriety! The entrance hall was no longer forbidden territory. I crossed it one day and to my utter astonishment saw a group of 4th years playing off ground touch on the seats outside the head’s office. They stood on the seats and jumped or ran trying to catch each other. Sent there by an exasperated teacher they seemed totally unconcerned about being caught.

What was happening in the forward looking city of Birmingham as we moved into the lower and upper fifth? In the summer of 1953 the last tram ran in Birmingham after 80 years. At one time the city had one of the largest fleets in the world. Who else nostalgically remembers going by tram to the Lickey Hills on a bank holiday and the frantic rush to catch the tram home with thousands of others queuing, tired and hungry, at the end of a hot day? In 1952 Greys were having Mannequin Parades of the new seasons fashions, which were perhaps the precursor of today’s models on the catwalk.

Nationally, tea was rationed to 2oz per person per week and the cost of a cup of tea was equivalent of 2p. In 1953 it was Doris Day who was a favourite cult star and the film Singing in the Rain that caught our attention. Women were wearing the famous boxy’ jackets and queuing for days in the mad sales rushes that hit the fifties. Elizabeth was married and then became Queen and many of us watched it on TV – often in neighbours’ houses.

However they were not all fun filled happy days. There are some memories that make me wince. After a good start for the first year and a good report the inevitable puberty set in! No spots for me but I did discover a social life and the next years blurred as my social life took priority over school. It was just too good and too absorbing. Social life for me was simply the youth club at church, swimming and a large peer group who were simply ‘the crowd. Work deteriorated and I dropped in class as my attention changed. Homework was done on the bus on the way to school. I forgot or lost anything and everything that could be forgotten or detached. I lived in a dream world, only broken by a fear of school reports and my parents’ anger at the repeated comments – “could do better . . .”

We were the first year to take the new O Level exams in June 1953. In November 1952 I stood in the entrance hall and waited to see Miss Carey. My life had caught up with me. I had failed most of the mock exams when we took our mock GCEs but was unperturbed – after all I had not studied. I thought I had lots of time but Miss Carey had other ideas. She told me firmly and decisively that I had wasted the last 3 years at school and she did not spare my feelings. But how did she know me?

I grew up that moment but what a pity no one had ever disciplined me before. I suppose my behaviour was never actually bad – I had actually managed to escape with only one detention in 5 years.

Her words had the effect of challenging my stubbornness, I will show her, I decided but I did not tell my mother! I went home and made a chart that filled my bedroom wall. I divided up every subject from year one and worked out how much time I needed to catch up. The full horror hit me! I needed to work 6 hours at least every day on top of school and homework in order to catch up. But I was going to do it even if only to prove myself to Miss Carey. With the usual excesses of youth, the next morning I was up at five a.m. and the next from then on and every evening until after midnight.

I dropped every single social occasion for six months both day and night. Little by little I began to catch up but it was strange because my knowledge was a year or so behind the class – they were studying fourth year work and I was becoming very knowledgeable about the first year with a good few blanks beyond that. It seemed bizarre at times. My next report was grudgingly good – but with what a pity she hasn’t worked like this before.

My memories of school now are of a few months of increasing enthusiasm and of a thirst for knowledge for its own sake rather than for the exams. I began to enjoy class discussions. I was thrilled and energised by having at times knowledge that others did not have. I got a kick from the surprise on a teachers face when she put a good mark on my work! I made new friends and wished I had more time to get to know those whose interests I belatedly shared. I really felt a sense of direction and identity and was making my own decisions. I know I soaked up very bit of information like parched ground. – I wished I had the time left for more.

My last summer was one of joy and I remember studying outside on the grassy banks. I enjoyed the exams when they came and for the first time found I knew more than I had time to write. I gained a love of knowledge that has never changed. The results? No fears this time as I waited in that hall for the results to be pinned on a board. I passed all the exams I took and although were no grades given that year I felt knew instinctively they were better than they had been.

I wanted to return to the Sixth Form and knew now that I wanted to teach but it was too late for my parents to change their minds about all those previous years. Instead I trained as a nurse and midwife and later Health Visitor. I married, travelled, had three children who are also now married and have provided 8 grandchildren between 0 and 6 years. Years after leaving school I met Miss Carey when she moved near to my home in Bristol and I thanked her for what she had said to me. She could not remember in the slightest what was for me a major and life changing experience. How I wished someone had spoken so severely earlier! But I was eternally grateful for those comments that changed the course of my life and interests.

Back at school, my last day came and I remember the pangs of sadness as I shared assembly and speech days for the last time and the last time I saw the Head Girl spring to the platform to shout 3 cheers for Miss Carey and then for the school followed by the ‘Hip Hip’ and the rousing ‘Hooray’ that closed my school years.

Muriel Bolton (nee Johnson) KNGS 1948-1953