West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

MEMORIES OF
PONTEFRACT GIRLS HIGH SCHOOL
1950-57


by CHRISTINE RHODES

I started school in Pontefract in September 1950. Before that I had been at a Whitley Bridge Primary School, a small village school where everyone knew everyone else. I had passed the Scholarship and received a new watch as a reward for my success.

The idea of going to a big school where I would know only one girl, Maureen Biggin, from Whitley Bridge, was very daunting but, it had been drummed into me that going to the grammar school was very important for my future, so I donned my brand new uniform and set off.

That first day passed in a whirl. There were what seemed to me to be hundreds of new girls but in no time at all we were divided up into classes, which were named according to the class teacher's initial. I was in 3B, if I remember rightly, with Miss Bannerman as our teacher.

We were each given a timetable, a locker and new exercise books, which had to be covered and labelled at home. We were shown around the school and had to try to remember where each class would be held and then it was straight into lessons.

In those days there were three buildings. The main building contained most of the classrooms, two science labs, a cookery room, art room up the narrow stairs, the hall, which also doubled as a gym, the staff room and the cloakrooms. This main block had a front door, which was not used by the students as we entered round the back of the building and we were not allowed round the front of the school apart from when we arrived and left.

Miss McDermott was the headmistress and her office was just inside the front door. She took us for English and we certainly had a good grounding in all aspects of English grammar and literature.

Round the back of the school was a big bike shed where girls who came to school by bike could leave them. Behind the bike shed was a netball court and some rough grass where we could sit.

The second building was close to the main building on the top side. That housed the sewing rooms and was the domain of Miss Wickens and later, Mrs Marper.

Further up the hill was a long building, which was built parallel with Park Lane and it contained some classrooms, the kitchens and the dining rooms. There was more rough grass around that block but we stayed on the Park Lane side during recess and lunch times. The whole campus was enclosed by a high brick wall except for the Park Lane side, which had a hedge.

In my early years there, we travelled to school on the Goole bus, which for me meant a mile walk [or run] to be at the Horse and Jockey roundabout by 8.05. By the time we arrived at school in winter, our fingers were frozen and we put them on the radiators to warm them up enduring what we called 'hot aches'.

Living so far away did have its advantages because we travelled home on the train from Tanshelf Station, changing onto the Goole train at Knottingley. At the end of the day we train girls were obliged to go to the train room, supervised by a teacher until it was time to walk down to the station. If we had a note from home we could go into town until train time. On foggy days we were sent home on an earlier train which I think went about 1pm. I can recall the train crawling along as the driver listened for the fog signals on the line to warn him that he was approaching a signal. Sometimes the train was running late because of snow on the line and by the time we arrived home we were cold and hungry. The last day I was at school I threw my hated school beret into the tender of a goods train passing under the road at Tanshelf. Eventually a school bus was provided for us and it came half way down the village to pick us up and drop us off so our train journeys ceased and there were no more early exits. Later on we moved to Chapel Haddlesey so my brother and I rode our bikes in all weathers to get the bus at Kellington.

Our school winter uniform, which came from suppliers in Wakefield, consisted of a brown gymslip, which had three box pleats front and back. The hem had to touch the floor when we were kneeling. The gymslip was a devil to keep clean and before it was washed I had to sew the pleats in so that ironing was easier. To start with we had brown sashes but, when I joined the hockey team, I was given a green sash. We wore the gymslip with a square-necked cream blouse, which buttoned down the back and was most unglamorous. Our blazers were also brown and the whole outfit was topped off with a horrible brown beret, which had to be worn from home to school.

A couple of years after I started at PDHS our winter uniform was changed to a tunic and blouse with a collar and tie. The tie was brown with green and white stripes. The summer uniform was a gingham check dress, which was just as unglamorous as the winter uniform. Sixth-formers were allowed to wear skirts.

We had very little choice as to which subjects we took. The top students had to study Latin and we had a charming little verse, which amused us no end.

'Latin is a language as dead as dead can be,
It killed the ancient Romans and now it's killing me.'

If we did Latin we had to do Physics when I would much rather have taken Biology and there is very little that I can remember of what I learned. 'A pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter', which is not a lot of use now that I live in Australia, a metric country!!

I do recall one day dropping a jar of mercury and having to crawl on hands and knees to retrieve every drop, much of which had gone into the cracks between the floorboards. Nowadays schools do not even allow students to come in contact with mercury.

In our first few sewing lessons we made a bag to hold our work, and an apron and cap to wear during cookery lessons. Mine was green check gingham with my initials embroidered on each piece. I loved sewing and had made my first dress at Primary school so I was happy to go on and do sewing throughout my time at PDHS. It was one of the few lessons where we could talk as we worked and the sewing teachers seemed more friendly.

Cookery lessons were few and far between and not a great success. We were taught how to scrub down a wooden top table, a useless exercise given that Formica was invented shortly after that. One day we made broth and mine had weevils floating on top when I got it home. We did learn to make a fancy salad with tomatoes cut like water-lilies and stripy cucumber slices.

Pontefract Girls High School 1950s

Pontefract & District Girls High School 1950s - submitted by Christine Rhodes
unknown, Pauline Garbutt, Christine Smith, Ruth Buck, Valerie Burgoyne, Evelyn Holdcroft

PE was one of my favourite lessons though by the time we had changed into our sports gear and maybe been bussed to a venue, the actual lessons were often quite short. We sometimes went to the public baths, a bus trip there and back, resulting in what seemed like a few minutes in the water. Sometimes we played tennis at the bottom of Park Lane, sometimes netball on the on-campus court or hockey further down Park Lane but my favourite lesson was in the gym. I thought I was very brave to climb the ropes suspended from the ceiling or launch myself over the horse.

For sports competitions we were divided into houses. I was in Tudor, which was red. I think the other houses were Norman, Saxon and Stuart but I do not recall that house points were awarded for anything other than sports. Miss Cook started dancing lessons after school and we also had them during PE classes. Being tall I was always made to dance 'man' and to this day I still find being lead difficult.

In 1953 there was a school trip to Brittany, Paris and Belgium with Miss Holmes in charge. It was a wonderful holiday, a first outside England for us and we enjoyed practising our newly learned French on the locals.

Students who studied French had the opportunity to have a French penfriend from a school in Saint Quentin. My French family had two girls about my age and they both came to stay with us for three week spells and then I went to stay with them three times, staying in St. Quentin, in their beach house at Berck Plage and visiting Paris where we stayed with their aunt. We began our train journey in Leeds joining other students from all over Yorkshire who were also going to France. The train by-passed London and we took the ferry from Dover to Calais. Once in France we took the train to Lille where our hosts met us. Having to speak French was a good way to make us use the language and I am sure that experience helped me pass GCE.

School dinners, costing two and a penny a week, were not too bad, they were cooked on the premises so they were fresh. I recall a lovely winter stew with chunky vegetables, tapioca or semolina pudding and sometimes jelly squares with artificial cream. To pass the time we played 'whispers' where one girl would whisper a phrase to her neighbour who in turn whispered it to her neighbour and so on round the table. The idea was to see if it came back to its origin as it had started out but it seldom did and the results were very funny…. or so we thought.

At the end of each year we had the opportunity to go on excursions with various interest groups. There were geography outings to the Yorkshire Dales, Brimham Rocks and Knaresborough, and one year to Derbyshire where we climbed up the inside of Ladybower Reservoir dam wall. I recall going to Lincoln Cathedral one year, being impressed by the illuminated script in their ancient books.

In the sixth form we had more freedom and free lessons which we spent sitting at desks in the corridors, supposedly working. We were sometimes allowed to stay in our classroom at break times but not to open the cupboards which then housed the school library.

I have a few memories of very funny happenings. One day Penny Hill, I think it was, borrowed Margaret Hobman's bike and went into town to return a faulty pen. She left school without permission but unfortunately there was a fire drill while she was gone and her absence was noticed. The whole school was lined up at the back of the building standing in absolute silence when we heard the clunk clunk of the bike coming round the corner. Penny had fallen off the bike coming down Tanshelf Hill and she had pushed the somewhat mangled bike back to school. I can still see her face as she turned the corner to see the whole school watching her noisy arrival.

One day there were jugs of 'mayonnaise' on the dinner tables when we sat down but I think only one girl put it on her salad. When it came to dessert we had no cream or custard on our table so someone went to the hatch to ask for it." It was on the table when you came in," was the reply. Yes, what we had thought was mayonnaise was, in fact, cold custard.

Another day one of the Art students donned a mask, which she had made in Art class, and stood behind the door when the teacher came in. The poor teacher almost fainted when she saw the mask and the offender was sent to see the headmistress.

We had to go outside at playtime and lunchtime unless it was raining. We had all sorts of games which we played and I well recall lying on the grass outside the music room playing a card game called ' Cheat', the aim of which was to get rid of ones cards as soon as possible. For some reason we found the game hilarious and I have pleasant memories of time spent laughing at our antics as we tried to lie about what cards we had.

One day I saw Miss Dobson come out of the door nearest the staff room and signal to us to gather round her as she told us that the King had died in his sleep. A very sombre mood descended on us for the rest of that day.

Most of the teachers were very fair and treated us kindly though a few were very strict and in hindsight I would say that we were scared of some of them. Miss Pittwood, the Scripture teacher, would accuse us of stealing time if we were talking when she came late to class.

When I started school all the teachers were female and the only men around were the caretakers and gardeners but eventually we got Mr. Dale and Mr. Taylor, who taught us Physics. The latter would give us thirds of detention telling us that 'it hurt him more that it hurt us' as he wrote our names in his diary. I never did understand what he meant by that. Luckily we train girls were not to be kept late so actually detention was no punishment to us.

Madame Tippetts taught us French for a few years and she amused us with her hand-knitted suits and all-season thick stockings and her little flask of 'medicine', but we should have taken advantage of being taught by a native speaker instead of being such naughty girls in her classes.
We knew nothing of the teachers' private lives, in fact we did not even know their Christian names until one day we overheard someone call Miss Prince, Dolly, and we thought we knew a state secret.

Towards the end of my time at PDHS, Janet Beard joined the staff and she was obviously straight out of University. In fact, she was not much older than the sixth form girls and we loved her. One day some of the younger girls wrote to Colin Cowdray to tell him that she was an avid fan of his and he wrote back telling her to tan their hides. She was given the job one day of calling all the older girls into the hall to tell us that we should not listen to the words of Elvis Presley's latest hit " What a night it was.' I must have been very naïve because until she mentioned it I had not realised what the words were suggesting.

Occasionally there would be small diversions like end of year concerts at one of which we performed to the Goons' Ying Tong song. There was a performance by some refugees who had been befriended by the parents of one of the girls. They had two little pig puppets called Pinky and Perky and went on to become famous on TV.

Speech day was usually held at the Crescent Cinema and was a very serious affair. I recall one male guest speaker who, in an effort to show us the importance of speaking well, told us a joke about a new Yorkshire headmaster who asked a teacher 'Where's t'bin?" She was somewhat incensed, thinking that he wanted to know where she had been, when, in fact, he wanted to know where the rubbish bin was.

I left school at Christmas 1957, went to teacher training college in Chichester, lived down south and then migrated to Australia, so I did not return to PDHS until 1984 when I visited England with my daughter. It was a shock then to see a mural painted on the back walls of the school but most of the buildings were the same. Earlier last year I spent three months in England and made a point of going back to PDHS. What a surprise to see the place now. The old classrooms in the main building no longer exist, the hall has been divided horizontally and there are huge new buildings where we once played. The corridors, which seemed so long on my first day at school are now divided up by fire doors and computer labs are where we learned science. The old wooden sewing rooms and dining rooms are demolished though I gather that that happened not so long ago.

Luckily, I have my old photos so when nostalgia creeps into my mind I can sit and wonder what happened to all those girls. In 1991 I was in Mauritius and met a woman who said she came from Pontefract. We talked for a while and she said that her cousin, Evelyn Holdcroft, had been there. Evelyn and I had been good friends so I took her address and wrote to her when I came back to Australia. In 1986 I visited her and her husband and you can imagine the long chats we had about the old times.

In 1974 we met some newly arrived migrants from Sheffield and the wife had been taught by Margaret Burgoyne in Rotherham. Our not very original comment was 'it's a small world'.

The 'friendsreunited' website has put me in touch with more of my old school friends and I had the pleasure of meeting up with them again this year after all those years.
At the time we did not realise what a good education we had although it was somewhat narrow and aimed at passing GCE. I can still work out the cost of things while shop assistants are using calculators to find out and the grammar and spelling lessons have stood me in good stead. We were, however, relatively carefree compared with today's youth even if we did not have computers to inform us. What we learned we learned well and we should be grateful for that.

Christine Rhodes [nee Smith]


 

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