PONTEFRACT GIRLS HIGH SCHOOL
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
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
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 & 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
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
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
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
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]