Bolton School Former Pupils

Denise Robinson (nee Mills, Class of 1954)

Denise recently sent us the following excerpts from her autobiography, recollecting her happy years in the Girls' Division:

"I was a good girl at my primary school, Markland Hill, Bolton. When it came to the year of the 11 Plus, it had been assumed that I would also sit the entrance exam to Bolton School, where my Mum’s brother and sister had been educated. There was no money for us to pay school fees, but it was hoped that I would get a council scholarship, and Bolton School liked you to have done their exams ... I had to go to Bolton School on a Saturday morning. There were lots of girls there and we did papers in English, Arithmetic and Intelligence Tests. I got a place and fortunately a scholarship too, and my friend Carolyn Stafford (Class of 1953) got a fee paying place. Her father was a Bank Manager so they could afford it.

The School was a Direct Grant Grammar School with a three form entry. There was also a Kindergarten and a Junior School. The oldest Juniors, in Form Remove, also took the exams, and when we went in September 1946 they were divided into three groups so each of the Third Forms had eight confident very sure of themselves girls and sixteen unsure newcomers. I was put into lll(i) and Carolyn was in llla. The third form was called lll Alpha. All through our time in School we managed very well with this situation, always meeting at breaks and dinner times and walking to school.

Our first Form Captain was Moraig Leslie (from Remove) (Class of 1953) and the second one was Jacqueline Coombes, a new girl. Our form mistress taught Geography and there were photos on the classroom wall of her on Geography trips in her student days. One day a group of us young girls with a few older ones interspersed were taken by train to the Peak District. As soon as we alighted at Edale we were on our way climbing up the steep slope straight before us. Arriving at Hollins Cross we turned right along the ridge to the summit of Mam Tor. It was the first time I had stood on a mountain. Gradually all the girls in our form became friendly and at our first Christmas we went carolling, raising money for waifs and strays. We got our photograph in the Bolton Evening News.

I was very proud of my school uniform. I wore a navy blue gym slip (not very short) with a white blouse and school tie. We wore short white ankle socks and had to have two pairs of shoes, one outdoor and the other an indoor pair which were kept in your locker at school. This distinguished Bolton School from other secondary schools. I was glad we did not have to wear long black stockings held up with suspenders as the prize winners had to do at Speech Day. I had a peggy purse on which there was a little school badge, and a cross-body strap. The blazers were of an unusual special shade of maroon with the school badge on the pocket. The school population was divided into eight “houses” named after hills and mountains which meant that at the weekly House Meetings you got to know some girls in other years. I was allocated to Malvern and I wore a dark green metal badge on my gymslip. Carolyn was in Snowdon, pale green. (Mendip was yellow, Wrekin orange, Skiddaw dark blue, Cotswold pale blue – there were another two).

Various competitions and sports matches were held between the houses from time to time. We were all issued with an exercise book which was called a General Classwork Book, commonly known as a “Genny”. Paper was in short supply and every bit had to be accounted for. You could only start a new page for a new piece of work if there were less than three empty lines on the previous page. The last piece of work in that exercise book was started at the beginning and used up all the odd lines on every page to the end! Only then would a member of staff sign your book so you could go to Stationery at break time to get a new one.

Laura Lancaster (Class of 1954) was another scholarship girl and was a great friend. She invited me to her birthday party. I found my own way to Church Avenue in Daubhill which was a long row of terraced houses. This was in complete contrast to the big houses of some of our new friends but everyone fitted in. We went to Sheila Hardy’s (Class of 1954) birthday party, and the next term Granny let me have a 12th birthday party. I had been to several parties before but this was the only party I ever enjoyed, and that was because I was in charge. I worked out all the games, providing all the bits and pieces that were needed. I remember Sheila Hardy seizing on a book I had been given and settling down in a corner to devour it, totalling ignoring the games that everyone else was playing! Laura and I did Music together right through school and both became music teachers eventually.

Having been the cleverest in the class at Markland Hill, it was a steep learning curve to be with many girls who not only were cleverer but also who came from families with rich and learned parents who could help them with homework. I had no-one, though Granny did her best, and always saw that I tried what was set, along with daily piano practice which was never missed. We had three subjects every single night and you couldn’t miss handing work in. Teachers were very strict about this, more so than in other secondary schools I heard about. On arrival at school you handed in your book to be marked to the subject monitor, who counted them all and chased up any which were missing. The pile was then tied up with string and delivered to the shelves outside the staff room. Books did not go missing. If it was learning homework Granny always tested me, even though she didn’t always understand the subjects. If you were absent from school, which I hardly ever was, you had to make up all the work you missed and it was always marked belatedly. I think I usually came about two thirds down the list in exam results. This rigorous attitude to schoolwork was a particular attribute of Bolton School and marked it out as a special educational establishment. I never realised that it was unusual till I went to College at eighteen. We worked hard but I enjoyed it.

Every winter we used to have a cold snap, snow and ice, and in 1947 we arrived at school to find that the boiler had burst. This meant no heating so we were given three days off school. We had not taken off our coats but we stayed in our form room and the teachers visited us in turn, giving us homework to do in various subjects. There were no buses running and I had to walk, staggering home under the weight of several textbooks. Once there it was ”head down”, working through our assignments which had been given out hurriedly and I never stopped doing the homework for the whole of the three days.

While in the Lower Fourth our Biology teacher, Mrs Hart, organised a wild flower competition. Outside school hours we were to collect two examples of every wildflower we found, noting where we found it, and take the specimens to school each morning where, before Prayers, we presented them, bedraggled as they were, to our Form Officer, a Sixth Form girl, who signed our notebook in which we had listed them. By the end of the summer term we had identified over 200 species, and we were close to winning the competition for the most that had been found. Carolyn was in Lower IVa while I was in Lower IV(I), but our lists were almost identical. I remember thinking that the winner’s family had a car. We only had bikes, so we thought the winner had been able to go further afield than us! We did win in the end by learning all the wonderful names of these wild flowers and I am grateful to Mrs Hart for starting me off on a tremendous hobby. We had found Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon (Goat’s Beard), Codlins-and-Cream (Great Hairy Willowherb), Old Man’s Beard, Enchanter’s Nightshade and others. I took great pleasure in pressing flowers as well.

At the end of our Fifth Year in the Senior School in 1951, Carolyn left Bolton School to go to Bolton College of Art and I didn’t see much of her after that. I had to repeat that year because, along with nine other girls, I was not old enough to meet the new age regulations for O Levels. Two of us stayed down in Upper V (1) and the others proceeded into the Sixth Form. I was not very thrilled about this situation, but it turned out to be the makings of me. Without Carolyn, whom I always followed whatever the adventure we embarked upon, I learnt to stand on my own feet. I had to make new friends in the new form I was in and in doing all the work again, in some subjects with different teachers, I found a new confidence. In particular my handling of French blossomed because in repeating written exercises I was able to take advantage of the corrections my teacher had put in my book in the previous year! This amazed both my first French teacher and my new one and I gained in self esteem as well as in exam results. I really became a changed personality, which stood me in good stead for ever.

I loved Thursday afternoon’s timetable: Music, Music, Music. One really useful feature of the syllabus was learning to sight-sing using solfa which our music teachers were keen on. One part of the requirements for O Level was the ability to write out, in any key, one of about six named National songs, such as David of the White Rock, and My Love’s an Arbutus. I became very proficient in solfa. I found this a very easy skill which became in my later professional musical life very very useful.

When it came to the exams I got into the habit of getting up very early and finding a quiet spot in the country on my way to school to do some revision. One such favourite was the church tennis club which I had joined. The two courts were in an old quarry and up on the lip of this among the couch grass and the trees was a special place for me. Another was Lomax’s Wife’s Plantation, a triangular piece of land on the end of Smithills Moor. Coming down Moorside Avenue where Carolyn lived it was in a direct line straight ahead, almost on the skyline. The gamekeepers did not like us trespassing up there but at six or seven in the morning what they didn’t see they did not know. I worked hard at learning all subjects and passed, in varying degrees, eight of the nine O Levels I took. Only English Literature caused me trouble and revealed a weakness in my ability to recall stories which I never overcame in life.

As I had decided to be a teacher from a very young age, when it came to careers no-one bothered to question me much. The teachers had enough girls with problems and I was a blessing to them. It was always assumed that I would go to teacher training college and I was encouraged to apply for one of the top class London ones. That was me sorted. I was never considered university material either at school or at home. No-one in our family had ever been to university. I thoroughly enjoyed my two years in the Sixth Form. Instead of joining the swots on a three A-level course I found myself drafted to the Modern Course, which was a speciality of our school with its own exam and certificate at the end, but because I was so keen on Music, and now had piano lessons at school rather than with Miss Staton, I ploughed a middle course, taking Music A-Level and general Modern Course subjects of English, Maths, French, History, and Arts and Crafts. With the latter I discovered another lifelong passion which nowadays would be labelled Textiles, which comprised knitting, sewing, embroidery and because school had a large loom, weaving. My drawing and painting weren’t too good, but I enjoyed them.

There was plenty of time within the school day to do my homework in the library, leaving me with only piano practise at night, and then to my delight I was bought a cello and went for lessons to a man from Victoria Hall. I loved this, and being able to play two instruments strengthened my college application later. I had piano lessons with Miss Slynn after school, 5.30 to 6.00pm, which gave me time to go home and change out of school uniform, a privilege. While I was in the Sixth Form some girls were excited about a trip they had taken to Altrincham Ice Skating Rink at half-term, so at the next half-term I went with a different group of girls to Altrincham and loved it. We hired skates and after a while I could skate tolerably well – at least, get round the rink. 

I became House Secretary for Malvern House which entitled me to wear a green girdle on my gym slip waste. Special girdles were awarded regularly to recognise service to your house, such as being in a sports team. I wore one for several years because my Granny always knitted toys. Between the houses we had a regular Toy Competition to which I was able to contribute. The toys were given to children’s homes after. Another competition was Folk Dancing. I trained our team along with Alma Latham (Class of 1952) and Joyce Nuttall, practising at breaks and dinner hours in odd places as bizarre as the middle of the top corridor singing the music as we danced. The culmination was a display by all the teams of the eight houses and somebody judged our efforts, declaring us the winners. I was proud of that as I was a member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Carolyn and I had joined and we had cycled to big parties such as one at Dunham Massey. Although only bedraggled school girls we had been welcomed there and royally treated to a spare room in which to freshen up. I have always remembered the good manners and attitudes of some of the rich people I have met in the EFDSS.

Laura Lancaster did the A Level Music course with me and for some lessons we went with Florence Webster (Class of 1950) who was a year ahead of us and Dorothy who was following our school’s own devised Modern Course. Laura and I had to go to a school in Blackburn to do the aural part of the A Level exam. The examiner was Annie Warburton who was prominent in music education at that time. She remarked at the sight singing ability of both of us and asked about our experience of the other pupils of Bolton School, which delighted the music staff when we reported this on our return. We both had piano lessons with Miss Slynn and for our final Summer Concert we played Mozart’s Piano Sonata for two pianos in D. Only Bolton School could raise two grand pianos on one stage. What an experience! When I left school I was awarded the first Frances Ricketts’ prize for music. Frances Ricketts had taught music at Bolton School for many years and had taught Auntie Thelma before me. Miss Ricketts died while I was in the Sixth Form.

I went on to a two year course at Southlands Teacher Training College, Wimbledon. With the introduction of degree courses for all teachers soon after, I worked by private study for a B. Mus. Honours Degree, London University, in which I gained a 2- 1. In retrospect this would have been a better course for me in the first place as my interest in music turned out to be very highbrow and more academic than practical although I have always enjoyed teaching any subject, even driving! I did become a qualified Driving Instructor in later years. In my teaching career of thirty six years I taught Music and every other subject under the sun to all age groups from three to eighty three, and enjoyed most of it."