When I took in my letter to say that I had won a Governors' Scholarship to Bolton School, my teacher at St Paul’s School, Walkden, shed a tear. The results of the Scholarship examination for places at Local Education Authority Grammar Schools were sent to school and the Head came in to read the list to the class. The Arithmetic problem paper had worried me, the sums being more complicated than any we had tackled in school, so I was relieved to hear my name. The Bolton School exam, which lasted for two days, had been more to my liking, though the venue, a huge hall in Mawdsley Street, added to my nervousness. All the entrants from St Paul's travelled to Bolton on the rickety old tram: none of our parents owned a car.
As we chatted about the exam on the way home, poor Ethel, the postmaster's daughter, realised that she had written a few lines on each of three composition titles, instead of choosing one. (She did not get a place, but her parents paid for her to go to Manchester High School.) Those of us who 'passed' the first part of the Bolton exam were called for interview with the Headmistress and to do an Intelligence Test, which we attempted sitting at desks in the gym. My one memory of the interview is that I was asked if I would be having school dinners, to which I replied 'Yes.' Of the other two girls from St Paul's, one said that she would be going to relatives in Bolton for lunch and the other informed Miss Meade that her mother would prefer her to bring sandwiches. (Not allowed.) When I passed to the next stage – a thorough medical with a parent present – and they did not, they felt that the benchmark was the school dinner question.
In the few days between the holiday and my starting at Bolton School, Mother finished assembling the uniform and stitched name tapes on every item. She had made the gymslip in the regulation style of three box pleats front and back and the length such that it touched the top of the calves when I knelt down. The blouses, home-made again, were of shantung (a sort of creamy silk) with shirt collars; each year, before Speech Day, Miss Meade, the Headmistress, inspected each girl's collar. We held our breath as she did the rounds. A maroon V-necked sweater or blazer gave extra warmth. Ties were striped in maroon and black, girdles navy blue, woollen stockings black and house shoes' soles had to be non-slippery. Mine, and dozens of others, had a strap across the instep, almost flat heels and crepe soles, wonderfully comfortable for all-day wear.
Outdoor shoes could be of any style that was plain and sturdy, which allowed some latitude for the fashion-conscious. The obligatory 'strap purse' kept our money safe. Extra items included a green tunic and silk waist-cord for Eurythmics, a brown overall for Science, a lacrosse stick and tennis racquet, gym pumps and shoe bag. We wore navy gaberdine raincoats or cloth coats, with a navy velour hat and maroon hatband with the School badge (panamas in summer). Gloves were worn at all times out of doors – a School rule – white cotton with summer frocks and blazers. There must have been families whose finances were stretched to the limits, but if that was the case with us, Mother gave no indication.
It was arranged that I should call for Peggie Veevers, who had been at Bolton School for two years, at twenty minutes to eight on my first morning and I continued to do that until she left. This had one drawback: she was never ready. I stood in their small dining-room waiting for her while her mother, a large, placid woman with a London accent, ate bacon and egg and poured tea from a silver teapot. However frantic Peggie's last-minute preparations, Mrs Veevers carried on with breakfast. She always left too little time to get to the station which made me anxious, as I never liked to be late and the trains ran only every half hour. We missed the train only two or three times, but once it stopped for us after starting off and we scrambled into the last carriage.
Nesta Fildes, in my form, arrived at the station earlier than we did and Mary Morrison, who had joined the train at Worsley, opened the carriage door for us to jump in. Mary, of Peggie's age, wore fine, lisle black stockings and pressed a fold into the back of her velour hat so that it perched provocatively on top of her head – style, sophistication, sex appeal – she had the lot, but yet was quiet and refined. Her nephew, Blake Morrison, worked at The Independent until he won fame as the author of When Did You Last See Your Father?
I was so excited to be at Bolton School that the awesome morning assembly (known as Prayers) in the Hall, the long corridors, changing rooms and staff for each lesson, the no-running in corridors and no-talking on the stairs rules, checking of name-tapes on every garment, allocations to Houses, homework timetable, Honours and Excellent Book system were all grist to the mill. I had never before had a school dinner and for a few days I felt slightly homesick and miserable so that I could not enjoy the food, which was wholesome enough. We ate in a huge house, 'The Grove', in the School grounds, seated at tables of varying shapes in dark rooms. We bought pink dinner tickets at the start of the week, wrote our names on them, then handed in one each day to a Prefect sitting at a table at the top of the main staircase. I did not think to ask who decided where we sat, but I remember feeling intimidated at some meals by older girls talking and laughing together. Three days after term started we had a day's holiday to commemorate the late Lord Leverhulme's birthday. Mother and Father found this astonishing.
We read Julius Caesar that first term and we were taken in coaches to see the play at the Opera House in Manchester – my first visit to a 'real' theatre. Another set text, Tales of Troy, did not appeal, so Nesta and I read as much as we could in the cheerless waiting room on Great Moor Street station if we were too early for the 4.30pm train. Pasties (one and a half pence) and Mars Bars (a new confection) bought at Rigg's Pie Shop, two doors from the station, helped us get through the required chapter: a School rule stated 'No eating in public places,' but we had the dingy place to ourselves.
Having learnt how to write with loops at St Paul's, we now had to eradicate all loops and do joined script. Our weekly lesson with Miss Eliot, who taught Commercial Sixth, was a tough struggle with fs, ks, ws, joins, hooks and the vagaries of s until we had perfected the School handwriting. Although each of us introduced alterations to the basic script once we left Miss Eliot's classes, Bolton School writing is always recognisable.
We had formal grammar lessons which have stood us in good stead for the rest of our lives. What is more, we enjoyed them. Each part of speech was given a colour, eg green for nouns, and we did exercises underlining the different parts of speech in its appropriate colour. Then we progressed to analysing sentences into subject, predicate, object and more tricky divisions with clauses.
My House was Crompton, named after Samuel, and we met in the music room last period on Thursdays. While we were not encouraged to be competitive in class – no positions in examinations, just marks and grades such as Honours, Class I and down to Not Classed – House rivalry was fierce in games, charity events and for work and drama cups. We played inter-House matches after School on Thursdays and those of us not good enough for School teams (later I was chosen sometimes for School lacrosse and always for tennis) got a taste of the cut and thrust of a real match. At the end of my first year, we picnicked at Hall i' th' Wood, home of our namesake, and as we walked down the road afterwards, crocodile-style and wearing red and white checked dresses with white collars, a passer-by remarked, 'I think it must be Bolton Orphanage.' We giggled because we hated those dresses; a nylon version was summer uniform when Judith and Hilary were at school, though then some girls chose to wear winter uniform throughout the year. We had no choice in the thirties.
I had only been at School a short time when there was an evening event – I cannot remember what. Nesta and I, now very close friends, decided that we would go and when I asked Nesta whether she would be wearing uniform, she dismissed the idea with scorn. As I had a School gaberdine and no alternative for outdoor wear, I went home in some distress: I lacked the confidence to make myself conspicuous as the odd one out. Mother understood the problem, produced a roll of smooth fawn cloth from her store under the stairs (the sewing den where she kept the machine when not in use) and in 48 hours she had made a coat, Princess-style and fitting perfectly, just as fine in my eyes as Nesta's powder blue wool. But at the same time, I became aware of keeping up with the Joneses and how being at a school like Bolton could accentuate differences in background in small ways. That comparison is not fair because my parents were determined – as the coat story shows – that I should have as good as the next girl. We were quick learners too, and I never experienced any snobbery. The majority of the form were scholarship girls, but I could count half a dozen fee-payers who joined us the following year, in my circle of friends.
Mother and Father supported the few School events to which they were invited, or for which they could buy tickets. Perhaps they missed the odd Speech Day if I were not on the prize list, but they enjoyed plays. In my first term, the nativity play, The Road to Bethlehem, impressed Mother enough for her to produce it at church later.
One day, we were asked to write in class My Favourite Radio Programme, which had me panic-stricken for a moment because we did not own a wireless. I shrank from putting up my hand to say so when everyone else had started to scribble at speed. Occasionally I had heard programmes at Auntie Dora's and at friends' houses so I put together some kind of review of Children's Hour, hoping that Miss Allen did not listen to it: a very sketchy effort it must have been. I did not report this at home as I knew my parents would have been upset but, to my relief and delight, they decided to buy a radio a short time later. Homework had to be finished before listening began, so I settled to it with a will, with an eye on the clock as the time for a favourite programme drew near. I remember one evening when I had tried to draw two small bowls of cress for Biology. Precise drawing was never my strong point and after rubbing out several attempts, I said, 'Damn!' loudly. Father got up from his chair and I thought he was reaching for the strap that he kept hanging on a hook near the dining room window. Instead, he exploded in words. I did not swear again in his hearing. 'The strap' was never used; it must have been a left-over from his own boyhood.
Mother did not make my first dress for the School party. We bought it at C&A, ankle length, of soft green silk with a cape collar. Velvet cloaks were in; my deep brown one had a primrose lining. The party disappointed me – the School hall too cavernous a setting – but we took the opportunity to slide on the slippery wooden floor as the rubber-sole rule did not apply on party day.
In the summer term, we played tennis, well coached by the games staff, and I soon realised that this was my game. When my 'cricket week' came I felt disappointed. The groundsman kept the shale courts in excellent condition: this, combined with their tree-fringed setting, removed games afternoons from what we thought of as the curriculum. In the Upper IVs, I got to the final of the Senior School Tennis Tournament and my form were given a half-holiday to watch. My opponent, Margaret Smith, of the Upper VIth, excelled at all games, and she beat me 6-2, 6-3, which was respectable enough to make me very popular on that hot June day – or maybe it was the free afternoon that counted.
In the autumn term the New Wing was opened: we took part in a service in the hall before lining the corridors as Dr Cullis advanced to cut the ribbon. Its main benefits for those of us in the Lower School were the airy dining-room with long polished tables and new crockery with the School crest, and the playroom in the basement where we could play or dance when it rained. At break, we bought our penny buns there, bread-like with shiny tops spattered with sugar crystals. The crates of milk stood in the underground playground – free, I think – though in our first year we paid a halfpenny a day for a mug, served in a room halfway down the stone staircase and next to the lavatories – a room that housed the boilers too. At the foot of the staircase, the underground playground stretched the full length of that part of the School, with arches giving access to the grounds.
Along the wall opposite these openings, a white line the height of a tennis net was painted so those of us keen on tennis 'bagged' an archway and practised hitting the ball against the wall in summer dinner-hours. Shower baths were added to the gym dressing-room: a mixed blessing, we decided. We walked through, naked, in single file, arms raised high, with Miss Bishop counting us as we emerged. In those early days, she organised a competition to whip up enthusiasm for the showers: which form had the most girls through in a certain number of weeks. Her comparison of our low tally with that of the Third Forms provoked Josephine Hall, a Methodist parson's daughter, to call across the dressing-room, 'Well, they're not cursed like we are.' We wondered at her audacity, but it silenced Miss Bishop.
As the early teenage years must be some of the most significant of one's life, it is a pity I cannot remember much of mine. The details are blurred. I know that I had few worries about School work, though it soon became obvious that I had not the same aptitude for maths and science as for the arts subjects. Because I was good at Eurythmics I was chosen as a member of the small chorus in Iphigenia in Tauris. Rehearsals and performance of that play gave me my first glimpse of excellence at Bolton School. I was just thirteen.
We shared our homeward train journeys often with boys from Bolton School, who sometimes indulged in horseplay, but more frequently talked.
A new feature of the curriculum was the Hobbies period on Friday afternoon. We were supposed to collect credits towards certificates in our chosen hobbies, but very few of us applied ourselves to the task well enough to achieve these. I assembled a decent collection of pressed wild flowers, but found the result disappointing because of the faded colours which did not compare with fresh specimens. For years afterwards, tissue-paper-like flowers dropped from pages of books that I had used as 'presses' when my press was full, then had forgotten.
Later, two or three of us took up gardening in grave-sized patches of ground near Beech House. Apart from turning over the ground and sprinkling seeds for a few annuals and vegetables, we did little, but our hobby gave us freedom to wander beyond the usual bounds in the dinner-hour. Nobody gave us advice or supervised our efforts, though I remember a member of staff inspecting them once and going away unimpressed. We continued our feeble efforts until, when we were fourteen or fifteen, Miss Meade summoned us to her room to ask why we had been talking to boys near our plots and were we there by arrangement. Luckily, Margaret Bowie, the brightest girl in the form, convinced the Headmistress that we had met by chance, which was partly true.
On the first Hobbies and Open Evening that the School arranged, three of us volunteered to demonstrate experiments in the Chemistry Laboratory. The master, Mr Harris, was something of a joke, lacking in authority, extremely short-sighted and with limited powers of communication in a subject that he loved. I understood very little from the day I entered the lab and the rest of the form likewise, so I can only think we volunteered for the Open Evening job as a lark, then saw the possibilities once the evening got underway. Our miniature firework display – bangs, sparks and an alarming amount of smoke – could have been the feature of the evening if more parents had got as far as the top corridor. As it was, Mr Harris rebuked us mildly.
It was not in my nature to flout authority at this stage – I kept School rules to the letter. Only once was my name removed from the weekly Honours List – for talking on the stairs – and it was not the 'shame' that prevented me re-offending because the names read out by the Head on Monday mornings were those on the list, so an omission was hardly noticed by most people.
But in a situation like School camp I could be as crazy as anyone: indeed, our bungalow 7 – a flimsy wooden structure with four beds – roused the whole camp in the early hours by tap-dancing on the shaky floor which, it was reported in the School magazine, 'sounded like the firing of many machine guns'. As we had fixed a notice to the door reading,
'Hush, hush, whisper who dares,
Bungalow 7 is saying its prayers'
we were the butt of some indignant comments next morning.
I loved those camps – a few huts in a field with a bigger one for eating and evening gatherings – at Claughton, near Scarborough, but I could not persuade Nesta to go as she was planning to leave at the end of the Upper Fourth year when she would be nearly sixteen. (I was nearly fourteen.) Without deliberately setting out to do so, I was making new friends, of whom Joyce Booth remained a friend for life. A bungalow 7 inmate, she shared most of my leisure interests: roller skating, going to the cinema and theatre and walking on Bolton Moors. Independence came early because neither our parents nor we worried about whether we would be 'safe.'
I wonder if all schools gave pupils an understanding of the work of the League of Nations in the 1930s? I think that Miss Meade must have supported its aims and efforts passionately: we had outside lecturers (one of them Sir Norman Angell), discussions, papers read on such topics as Mandates, Sanctions and Patriotism and joint debates with other schools. It amounted almost to indoctrination, while outside School most of us heard and read what an ineffectual body it was. This latter view proved to be correct, but it would have been a poor school, I suppose, that did not open our minds to the possibilities of international understanding.
At the end of our third year at Bolton we chose subjects for School Certificate. Some of us who enjoyed French wished to learn another language, German, but we were told that the form's French was not up to standard, and despite letters to the Head from parents, including mine, we had to abandon the idea. This disappointment was balanced in my case by relief when I heard that we were to drop geography: my map-drawing was atrocious and Miss Walsh's teaching did not tap an interest in the subject that I always felt was there. Consequently, our 'chosen' subjects were Maths, English Language, English Literature, French, Latin, History, General Science, Art or Music, while the parallel form took Domestic Science instead of Latin. The Latin form (us) had just finished one year of DS in the Upper Fourths, when we had produced semolina mould, rock buns and toad-in-the-hole. Ironing a handkerchief in Laundry stretched over two periods; to our amusement, some girls calculated how long it would take to iron a sheet or tablecloth. This was not domestic life as our mothers knew it.
At this point, the teacher concerned us as much as the subject. Miss Ruddock, a Scot, stylish in dress and with a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, became our maths mistress. A bird of bright plumage, indeed, but we soon discovered that her dismissive manner and sarcastic tongue were far more abrasive than anything we had encountered. The mathematicians liked her but she never got the best from the rest of us.
Miss Ford (Florrie), the English mistress, of sallow complexion, straight dark hair and drab brown dresses, had a more balanced approach. Macbeth, the poems of Keats and David Copperfield – the set texts – she analysed thoroughly and sympathetically, but she did not stir in us a great love of literature. However, we rewarded her teaching by obtaining a high number of distinctions in School Certificate. Her help with précis gave me a head start when minute-taking, making notes in court when I became a magistrate, condensing information for talks etc. Each week, too, she gave us a list of difficult spellings to learn, along with phrases such as 'Achilles heel', of which we had to find the origin and meaning then use the phrase in a sentence. Perhaps this smacks of junior school methods, but nobody failed English Language, a notorious School Certificate hurdle in those days.
The physical description of Miss Ford could apply equally well to Miss Stewart, who taught history. Her sagging lower lip spattered us with saliva when she got angry. We Bolton Schoolgirls compared unfavourably with the pupils at her former school in Madagascar. A sentence beginning 'When I was in Madagascar...' meant that we were in trouble. Oddly, we decided that her volatile nature sprang from long years in foreign parts. She probably had good reason to be disappointed with us because Middle School history lessons had been dull and most of the form had lost interest long before they embarked on the School Certificate syllabus, so they relied on cramming in a few facts before examinations. The results in School Certificate were very poor; we felt that the paper bore little relation to what we had learnt and the School made an official complaint to the Examining Board. A few weeks before the exam, my notebooks disappeared, so I borrowed Margaret Brown's from the previous year and revised from those. Their unfamiliarity undermined my confidence, which meant I got a 'Good' when I had half hoped for a Distinction. We learnt later that Miss Stewart's brother, Michael, was the Cabinet Minister. I shall never forget entering the Art Room, where a bicycle stood on a raised platform at the front of the form, the first part of the examination being to copy it in pencil on to the white paper. Mine would never have moved, so I was lucky to scrape a pass.
I got a 'Good' in French, which I reckoned a fair mark. While we practised regular exercises in grammar, dictation and translation, we rarely spoke the language, yet had to do an aural test. This filled us with foreboding; as I have mentioned, I disliked 'performing' and on this occasion, faced with Dr Agnew's questions, my throat dried and my ears sang, making it difficult to concentrate on what she was saying. When I left the room, I knew that I had not done myself justice, largely through nervousness.
School Certificate loomed. I managed a reasonable amount of work without forsaking the tennis club on match nights and Saturdays, with at least one practice session each week. Throughout that summer, I played regularly on the School team too. On Sundays, we girls walked to the park after Sunday School and sat in groups on the grass while we listened to the brass band. Rows of seats for two hundred people faced the bandstand, every seat taken when the band was well known. Occasionally, if I had got down to my homework earlier in the weekend, I would join the group for the evening performance.
Our interest lay in the opposite sex as much as in the music. At School, with Dorothy Hands and Margaret Bowie, I had become friendly with boys in our year. We met sometimes in the dinner hour, then Margaret discovered a tunnel that led from our boiler house to the boys' baths and two or three times we large, mid-teen, school-uniformed girls ventured that way to a rendezvous with the boys. It was all pretty harmless, with no emotional involvement as far as I was concerned. These sorties must have been when the rest of the School was on holiday, when those of us taking School Certificate had to attend for revision during the Bolton Wakes weeks: the exit from the tunnel, a man-hole alongside the baths, could be seen from various parts of the main School buildings. During this same period, two of us played a tennis match with two of the boys on their School court in full view of the windows. Their French mistress saw us, but only later did she tell Frank Hoyle and Billy Rigby that they must not repeat the exercise. We thought this way of dealing with the matter more enlightened than anything we could have expected from the Girls' Division.
Tennis at School had taken a more serious turn: a Mr Nash from the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in Didsbury coached those of us on the first team, at a cost of two shillings for twenty minutes. His sharp tongue had no regard for our feelings.
During this summer term, King George V and Queen Mary visited Bolton. The whole School walked in one long crocodile down Chorley New Road and across Queen's Park to our reserved places in Moor Lane, where our massed red-and-white checks must have looked impressive. The wait seemed long and they were gone in a flash, seen very clearly momentarily in the back of an open car. This first sight of royalty brought out a few goose pimples, which surprised me. The Queen looked like a waxwork figure, erect and still, dressed in a pale blue coat with toque hat to match. Then she raised her gloved hand slowly to wave.
Peggie Veevers played Hiawatha in a magnificent School production that brought tears to my eyes. Anna Tinto, from our year, was Minnehaha and, some time later, she was expelled for taking part in Little Theatre plays during term-time. I wonder what happened to her precocious talent?
Miss Porritt, a music mistress who lived in Cheshire, gave us a lift fairly regularly after Late Prep. We stayed after School two nights a week to do homework, a system introduced after Peggie Veevers' year failed to settle down to any serious work for School Certificate, consequently getting poor results. With a short break for a snack between School and prep, we then worked on until 5.30pm and we were not supposed to take work home on those days. I did not find the scheme satisfactory. When Mr Wells (maths) or Mr Harris supervised, they had no control and the buzz of chatter was not conducive to work. (I remember Anna Tinto crawling between the desks, dangling a watch on the end of a ruler under Mr Wells' nose to indicate that it was time we went home: a doctor's daughter, aged sixteen!) Often I felt that I would like to look something up but had no means of doing so. Also, I liked to work on a full stomach. At least we Worsley girls got away early if we were going home by train: we had to be outside by 5.10pm if we were to catch the 5.45.
As School Certificate approached, discussion at School and at home centred on plans for the coming year. Half of the form – now reduced to nineteen – were leaving after the examination; three of the rest put down their names for the Commercial Sixth (one our best mathematician); one was to apply for teacher training after a year in the Lower Sixth; two set their sights on Nursery Nursing College, again after another year and three hoped to get university places. Joyce Booth and I had no clear idea what we wanted to do eventually, but we were to stay on. The Booths talked of teaching, with some reservations because Joyce's elder sister, Ethel, had suffered mixed fortunes in the profession during recent cutbacks.
My parents had little to say about a future career, having no knowledge of higher education – Father had acquired his qualifications in shorthand, book-keeping and maths at night school. No-one among our relatives had progressed beyond School Certificate except my cousin John in America, who had gone to Yale. I felt that my mother and father were ambivalent about my continuing at School and that had I given a hint of wanting to leave they would have been pleased. Their attitude surprised and disappointed me in view of Mother having told us often how she had resented having to leave School when she would have preferred to stay on, knowing that she was capable of more advanced study. I was determined that history should not repeat itself. As there were no Parents' Evenings, I had no-one to support my arguments. With hindsight, I should have looked beyond School and stated firmly that I had something definite in mind, but I was so relieved when they agreed to my staying on that I let the matter rest.
We returned to School in September 1938, now in the Sixth Form, and with a new Headmistress, Miss Dorothy Varley, a shadowy figure with little sense of humour, diminished in our eyes by the memory of her impressive predecessor. We called her 'wishy-washy' when she was probably more understanding and approachable than Miss Meade had ever been. But the more colourful personality appealed to me and to my friends.
The history group included Betty Vause, who outshone the rest of us by the logical arrangement of thoughts and who probed more deeply into the whys and wherefores of events. As this was to be her last year at School before Froebel college, and as her maturity made us look like children in comparison, she was made a Prefect. In the previous five years I cannot remember a member of staff having to rebuke her (except for her spelling!) – she had never fooled around.
My misdemeanours were rare, but I had been sent to stand in the corridor in an Upper Fifth physics lesson with Mr Barnett, when I had made a funny remark sotto voce during an experiment in the dark and the girls beside me laughed out loud. 'And I jolly well hope Miss Meade comes along and asks what you are doing there,' was his comment as I disappeared. Those poor men on the staff never got the measure of us.
More recently I have admired again Betty's clarity of thought when she became Chairman of the Bolton Bench, where I was an ordinary member. I never heard her put a word wrong. I imagine that she was equally awe-inspiring as Chairman of Governors at the Girls' Division of Bolton School. Last week, when we lunched together in Bolton, we were talking so fast that we did not notice when a man sitting behind me stole my handbag. He would have felt an extra twinge of satisfaction if he had known that we were two ex-magistrates.
Back to School. To me, the Lower Sixth is the best year of all: no tough outside examinations, subjects chosen because we liked them, a closer relationship with staff, light duties to introduce us to the exercise of authority and our own cloakroom off the Lower Hall. No Sixth Form Common Room then.
My subjects were English, History and French. Miss Hazel, grey suit, white shirt, red tie, large feet, brown hair drawn back loosely in a bun and expressive eyes to match her name, had me spell-bound from the first English lesson. Other girls felt less sure about her. None of Miss Ford's detailed analysis of text and character for her: a reading of a fragment of Housman or Browning would be followed by a brief silence then, 'Well, isn't that marvellous? What can I add?' Some of the short descriptive passages I wrote for her flowed from the pen. When she read one description of a room, based loosely on my grandmother's living-room with horse-hair sofa, mahogany sideboard holding a full complement of ornaments, square deal table covered by a chenille cloth and gas-lighting, she said quietly as she handed the work back, 'You should read English'. A member of staff had never spoken to me like that before.
A fortnight after our return to School that autumn term, Chamberlain came back from Munich announcing 'peace in our time'. Miss Varley called the whole School into the Hall to tell us what had happened, but a feeling of unease remained.
Towards the end of a happy term, I began to lose weight and lacked energy. Dr Lee diagnosed anaemia and ordered me to stay at home from School. When I felt fit enough to return to School, Dr Lee, a most cautious man, advised me to take things easily and put examinations to the back of my mind. My main efforts were concentrated on trying to catch up with what I had missed, which seemed almost impossible as new work was piling up all the time. Mother watched me like a hawk.
I have never been sure how my parents arrived at the decision, nor what discussion, if any, they had with School – but it became clear to me that public examinations were out of the question. This meant that I would have to leave School at the end of that term without any plans for the future, or stay on for another year taking a non-examination course. The only one available, the Commercial Sixth, did not appeal to me at all. Mother and Father thought it wiser to leave – indeed, they argued heatedly in favour of it, suggesting that they had always had in mind the probability of my leaving at the end of the Lower Sixth year, even before my illness. But the Upper Sixth, even the Commercial bit, became my goal. We had some fierce bouts before I won the day.
During the summer term I was a library prefect. Our free periods for study, spent in the library, included much low-voiced discussion too: highspots of the week. At the end of that term we voted for prefects for the coming year and Margaret Bowie and I were elected. Florence Suttle, a sensible, intelligent girl, was not nominated: Miss Varley forbade it because of some row with Florence, whose hair had looked too curly after a perm. Her efforts to brush out the curls, on the Head's instructions, had led to tears and a wild frizz.
Throughout the summer holidays we were aware once more of the imminence of war; Hitler was threatening Poland and while it looked as though Chamberlain might get a compromise on the Danzig question, as a result of hesitation on the part of Britain and France, Stalin and Hitler agreed a Russo-German non-aggression pact, leaving the West's guarantee to Poland, Romania and Greece vulnerable.
By the time we arrived home from our holiday in St Ives, war was inevitable. Hitler had attacked Poland and an ultimatum to withdraw expired at 11am on Sunday 3rd September 1939. The Prime Minister would broadcast to the nation at 11.15, so the church service finished early. The four of us listened silently to Chamberlain declaring that we were at war; no factory sirens were to sound, as any heard in future would be air raid warnings.
School did not have air raid shelters, so we could not reassemble there at the beginning of the autumn term. Resourceful as ever, staff arranged for small Sixth Form groups to be taught in houses – including ours – when we were given work for a week or so. Gas masks were distributed, Father joined the Home Guard at the office, Mother made blackout curtains for every window and the wireless, with its news bulletins, became a focal point in our lives. Children in cities or at city schools like Manchester High, were evacuated and we considered ourselves lucky that we could carry on more or less as usual.
By mid-October, we were back at School, where we prefects wore our maroon gowns and badges with a degree of superiority. The small prefects' room across from the entrance to the Hall became a retreat for discussion, teasing and laughter. These privileges caused a division in the year: perhaps a mistake was made in segregating us, as our duties were never onerous.
I did not like the work in Secretarial Sixth any more than I had expected to. In shorthand, the exceptions to rules appeared to outnumber the standard strokes, my hands came down a shade too heavily on the typewriter keys and book-keeping involved boring mechanical arithmetic. English and Current Affairs were highspots in an undemanding timetable, and Miss Elliot taught them with enthusiasm – or so I thought. (Soon afterwards she became a nun.) I made reasonable progress and although I missed the mind-broadening rigours of the Lower Sixth, as House lacrosse and tennis captain, library prefect, society official and School prefect – with regular prefects' meetings – my time was occupied pleasantly enough.
But towards the end of that term, my parents announced suddenly – I was not involved in any preliminary discussion – that Father knew of a job with the Railway Company that he thought suitable for me. I would have to take a simple examination including shorthand, English and arithmetic. I could not see the sense of this: I was only halfway through the School course, not fully qualified in any part of it. I tried every form of persuasion, from reasonably calm argument to uninhibited shouting, but they would not listen. Their minds were made up and I found myself in the Public Complaints Department at Oldham Road Goods Station, Manchester.
Later, Joan trained as a teacher at St Katharine’s College, Liverpool. The college was evacuated to Keswick during the war and Joan developed a love of the Lake District which never left her. She taught in the Worsley area in the 1940s until she had Judith and Hilary (Berry), who in turn attended Bolton School.