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A pupil remembers - 50 years on!

I joined the school in January 1963. My father worked for the food industry and made frequent moves to manage different factories around the country. My parents had decided to choose a boarding school somewhere in the centre of the country ‘so that we can move round you’! On a visit to look round St Elphin’s, Miss Robinson firmly shepherded them to the uniform shop where I was duly kitted out. My parents felt unable to refuse and, having paid for the uniform, thought I ought to go there. Problem solved.

So I was taken to Kings Cross and placed on the train in my grey greatcoat, boater and small plastic overnight case. It was a terrifying experience and I think I froze for most of the journey! Soon I was to freeze in another sense as I had arrived into the coldest winter the Dale had experienced for years. The winter of 1963 had deep snow, members of staff unable to get through and many snow sculpting and sledging contests.

We slept in ‘Willis’ – a former ward of twenty or so beds with curtains round them which we were not supposed to draw closed. We were allowed three ornaments on our lockers, one cuddly toy, no comics, and only letters which were initialed by the sender and which were on an approved list from our parents. The beds were very cold but blessedly hollowed so that we could hide under the bedclothes in a nest. All tuck was locked in a cupboard and we were allowed to choose one item at tuck time when the cupboard was unlocked. We were allowed two jars of jam or marmite to take into breakfast and tea. Some of us had fruit bags ordered and delivered weekly.

My neighbours, Elizabeth Campbell-Bates and Anne Barbour, were very kind and welcoming. There was also a certain amount of ‘having one’s corners rubbed’ (as my mother would say) as one got used to mixing and getting on with others. With this came a great deal of fun and companionship. It is the only school I keep in touch with all these years later – as we commented, ‘we grew up together’.

After the first term, the social experiment of putting all the Upper Threes together in one House was deemed a failure and we were split into the other Houses. I joined Powys and we shared a floor with Miss Robinson (Head Mistress) and Miss Harrison (House Mistress). There were fund raising events to spend our pocket money on (I remember bringing my piano accordion in) and the best was the summer fete where we ran the kitchen stall (as future good housewives, of course!)

On an early exeat, my parents had taken me to Chatsworth and we saw a helicopter with JFK in, visiting his sister’s grave. Later, I remember sitting in Matron’s (Miss Foy’s) room drinking cocoa when we heard of his assassination.

Studies progressed with our favourite teachers being Miss James (Chemistry) and Miss Lord (Latin). We heard the story of the bat getting trapped in Margaret Lord’s beehive hairstyle and it brought us great mirth at the time! In Upper Five, Pat Richardson and I joined the sixth form visit to Florence and Rome with Margaret, Miss Robinson and Miss Lamb.

Singing in the Chapel Choir brought great pleasure and choral singing is something I kept up all of my life. On one occasion, we were asked to lead the Warrington Walks procession in our blue choir veils and grey suits. I heard someone in the crowd comment, ‘there goes them dead vicars’ daughters’!

There were only four of us doing ‘O’ Level Science – Fiona Macmillan, Pat Richardson, Pat Davenport and I. We had excellent teaching from Mrs Scott in Biology and Miss James in Chemistry but I never did get to grips with Dr Scott’s Physics! I do remember his showing us how to clean dusty mercury through a pocket handkerchief!! I was very fond of the Scotts and continued to correspond with them for years after I left, exchanging quirky scientific poetry with him…I recall his tiny, meticulous script.

My parents had taken me along to see an educational psychologist for advice on what subjects to drop at option time. I spent a delightful couple of hours with a wonderful lady who suggested that I could do either Arts or Sciences and that Psychology was an excellent bridge between the two. I thought that I’d really like to do what she did. So I decided at Age 13 to become an educational psychologist. This caused some consternation with Miss Robinson who was most suspicious of this new fangled subject. She caught me challenging a friend who was having a temper tantrum to ‘hit me with your pillow – it will make you feel better’ and warned me, ‘If I ever catch you practising psychology in this school again you will leave’. I have been practising psychology in schools ever since and did, indeed, go on to become an educational psychologist!

A move to Millfield meant the end of my time at St Elphin’s and I left after ‘O’ levels. Though I went on to specialise in sciences, I have been eternally grateful for Miss Smith’s grounding in English grammar. As soon as my parents gave my notice in, I fear that I fell out of favour with Miss Robinson who demoted me from being a school prefect (having been caught in my dormitory enjoying a midnight feast, foolishly in the dorm above her bedroom!). I left Summer 1967.

It was so good to meet up with former friends (and also Mrs Onac and Mrs Wass) at St Elphin’s last year (October 2012) and see the development at Audley. Perhaps they were hoping for customers!

Hannah Robinson-Mortimer March 2013

Notes from Liz Donlan:
Miss Lord, Pat Richardson, Miss Robinson, Miss Watts and Mrs Onac have all passed away.


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