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A teacher remembers - 50 years on!

I joined the staff of St Elphin's School in September 1963. It was my first teaching post after university. I had been at a Direct Grant Day school in Liverpool, so I did not know what to expect from a Boarding school – a cross between Mallory Towers and the Chalet School, I suppose! I might not have accepted the post had I had to live in, but the school rented two semi-detached houses on the A6 just outside the school grounds. I had an upstairs bedroom as my bedsit, but later (after the resident school secretary left) moved to the front ground floor room in Rosedene. This was the prized room as it had a bay window and was therefore larger than the others. The house had a small kitchen and one bathroom for four of us. We had to bathe on a rota. Getting up in the morning demanded a tight schedule! Our board and lodging was taken out of our salary, which was paid termly, so I had to sub off my parents for the first term. We ate up in school, except for breakfast, which I chose to eat in my room. We had an allowance of coffee, tea, bread, sugar, etc.. We had a rota to bring down the milk every evening after supper. We fetched it in a can which we dipped into the huge churn in the school kitchen. There were hard words said when the one whose turn it was to bring it down in the evening after prep forgot!

It was a very social atmosphere in the house; we made coffee for one another and played records. Margaret Lord1 had a record player that played 10 discs. This was quite an innovation in the days when one had to keep jumping up after one single had played to change the record. Later I had a tape recorder and we enjoyed the popular music of the day, Dusty Springfield was one of our favourites. One summer evening, a bat flew in through the open window of Margaret's room and got itself caught in her beehive hairstyle, much to our cruel amusement! We went to concerts and shopped in Sheffield and occasionally went to a Chinese restaurant in Matlock, one of the first of its kind in those days. After Di Clarke2 was married to her Merchant Navy officer and moved to Winster, we used to go and visit. This continued after she had the twins.

We ate main meals in the staff dining room, when we weren't on duty in the main dining hall. We had to mind our manners and not talk too loudly when Miss Smith3 and Miss Robinson4 were present. I remember eating lunch most often with the girls when we took an end of the table. One of the skills I still possess is the ability to divide a pie into seven! When on duty in the evening we patrolled the hall. I enjoyed chatting to the girls on these occasions and tried to impress by saying the Latin grace before the meal!

I was Assistant House Mistress to Powys House, one of the houses in the main school and close to the entrance hall. Miss Harrison5 was House Mistress when I arrived; she seemed to me to have been there a very long time. Once or twice a term the House Mistress had a weekend off. If she went away, the Assistant had to sleep over on the Saturday night. I did not relish this. Miss Harrison's room was on the main landing next to that of Miss Robinson. There were no separate facilities in those days, so one had to creep out to the loo in one's dressing gown, hoping the floorboards did not creak too much. The girls of course were not allowed to use the main stairs but had to use the back stairs installed for the servants. The girls were very good to me on these weekends and looked after me well. The rest of the time our main duty was to dispense the pocket money on Friday. I don't think there was much for the girls to spend it on – the tuck shop and stamps, I suppose. On Sunday afternoon the girls wrote home to their parents, but much of Sunday was taken up with chapel attendance. We also supported the house activities, games, drama,etc..

I taught Chemistry and General Science with some Biology. My lab was tiny6. It had a fume cupboard on one side and a raised dais at the front with three benches across the room. The girls sat on lab stools. The prep room was one of the old baths at the back. I remember the carboys of acids were stored on the floor. I had to do all the ordering of chemicals myself, from Griffin and George. I also had to dilute the acids to strength – quite a dangerous procedure. Most of my teaching was by demonstration in those days. Only in the sixth form did the girls do practical. We left the sets of chemicals used for analysis out on the benches and my older self is horrified that one of these was potassium cyanide! The benches were very old and mercury had run into the cracks in the wood, another health hazard. The staff taught in their gowns, which were handy for keeping us warm when we went between buildings in the winter and also kept the chalk off our clothes. However, after years in the lab, my gown was full of little holes from the acid.

Towards the end of my time at the school I was exams officer, which meant that I did all the entries for the public examinations, checked all the exam papers when they were delivered, administered the exams and took the scripts to the post office each day for delivery to the markers. At that time there was a practical examination in O level Biology. This was sometimes a problem as I had to source the items. One year I had to collect some flower stems and stand them in red dye so a section could be drawn by the candidates to show the uptake of dye in the cells. I had to store the stems in my locked prep room overnight. It was hot in there as it was near the laundry and I was horrified to discover when I went to collect the stems for the exam that they had wilted! We managed somehow. I had very small classes for O and A level Chemistry so I was not overwhelmed by marking. During prep we had a duty rota for the two hours between tea and supper where we patrolled the classrooms to make sure the girls were quiet and engaged in their prep. They were well behaved when we called by but who knows what they got up to when we had passed! During the summer when we weren't on duty we played tennis on the school courts. In return for taking prep duty in the evening, we all had a free afternoon in the week. This was much prized as we could go into Sheffield or Matlock to shop. In my last year I played golf with the school secretary who was a member at a club in Holymoorside in Chesterfield. It was a small course up on the moors and I might have got a handicap had I stayed on.

In my first term in November 1963, I was in a cinema queue in Sheffield with the Art teacher, Miss Roe7, when the word spread that President J F Kennedy had been assassinated. Everyone of my age is supposed to remember where they were when this happened. However, I have no idea what film we were queuing to see! The event had a profound effect on the girls as it did everyone in Britain at the time. He was the nearest we had to a 'celeb' and he was much admired by the British for standing up to the Russians over the Bay of Pigs affair in Cuba. Princess Margaret came to the school to open the new Stopford Hall8 and I remember her all in black , but had not realised until lately that the Royal Family had gone into mourning. This seems an unlikely happening nowadays. However, he was related through his sister to the Cavendish family at Chatsworth. Of course, as a very junior member of staff, I was not introduced to the Princess!

The staff room9 was quite cramped as it was full of our desks on which we put the sets of exercise books we were marking or the reports, which took time to circulate among all the staff who needed to write in them. I sat opposite Muriel Onac10, who helped me to settle in. The younger staff were often rebuked by Miss Smith for making too much noise, and I am sure she had a point. We enjoyed our mid morning break when we would enjoy a cigarette with our tea. On some red letter days we would get dripping sandwiches as a treat! They were delicious! Mrs Kitchen11 as a senior member of staff had a large desk near the window. I think there was a big fireplace near the tea trolley as the room must have been one of the large reception rooms of the former hydro.

During my time at the school we took the girls on various outings. I remember going down a coal mine in Nottinghamshire. The visit was arranged by one of the parents. It must have been early in my time at the school as I remember Roberta March Penney12 and Mary Guest13, my only A level Chemistry student in my first year, were in the party . We got extremely dirty, and I think that is what the girls enjoyed as they were dressed in trousers and overalls! We also visited Topley Pike quarry near Taddington, Josiah Wedgewood factory near Stoke (photo below) and the Rowntrees chocolate factory at York. I think I drove the small group of girls, who included Hannah Robinson14, in my mini. These visits were arranged in the summer term for the senior girls after they had finished their public exams. At the end of the summer term the girls were allowed to choose the venue for an outing by coach. They liked Alton Towers, near Stoke, and Belle Vue, in Manchester, as they both had funfairs. Of course they liked to encourage the staff to go on the rides to see if we screamed on terror on the Big Dipper or equivalent. I was terrified but felt I had to take part! I enjoyed the dodgems at Alton. At that time Belle Vue still had a zoo. Some of the poor girls felt sick on the coach but these outings were generally enjoyed by all and proved a welcome diversion, and a chance for them to indulge their high spirits, not otherwise encouraged!

I also accompanied a classics holiday to Greece, arranged by Margaret Lord. Miss Lamb15 was sent along to make sure the young staff did not lead the girls astray. We travelled by train to the toe of Italy. I don't remember the reason now but at one stop near Brindisi we had to get the party off the train in a rush. We were frantically stuffing the cases out through the window. We visited all the classical sites, The Acropolis, Delphi, Epidaurus, and Mycenae, but I wonder whether the abiding memory for the girls was not of hordes of sailors following the group, who were dressed in boaters and their uniform suits, wherever we walked. This caused Miss Lamb great distress. Margaret and I secretly enjoyed the attention, especially as we were promised the attentions of the officers if we agreed to a rendezvous!

I enjoyed being involved with the school play each year. I helped with the make-up behind the scenes. The last one I remember, and which was particularly successful, was HMS Pinafore. It was a joint production in which both girls and staff took part. I remember that Denise Conway Davies16, Kennedy House Mistress, was the Chief Aunt and Dr Scott17 played Dick Deadeye. This production was directed by Miss Watts18, music and elocution, who travelled to school on the bus from Buxton.

Although I am not a church goer, I enjoyed going to chapel with the girls. The Chaplain, David Prytherch19 was a lovely man, a good listener and non judgmental. The religious festivals gave a reassuring shape to our year. It was supposed to be a Lenten sacrifice but I enjoyed the minimal lunches of soup, rolls and apple, which we had during that period. The Carol service was attended by local parents and we all enjoyed the singing. The end of the school year was marked by the annual commemoration service, held in early July at Bakewell Parish church up on the hill. We all had to dress up for that.

After five enjoyable years at St Elphins, I reluctantly decided that I must move on. It had been my first teaching post. I was the sole Chemistry teacher. I had very small classes. I had had to teach myself to teach! I had no professional back-up in my subject so was not learning how to improve my teaching by contact with other colleagues. I hoped to progress in my career. I eventually settled on a girls grammar school in Cheadle Hulme, near Manchester. It had nearly 1000 pupils, and there were three of us teaching Chemistry. I was near the University of Manchester so could attend meetings about new syllabuses and reviews of past papers. At first I missed the social life we had had at St Elphins and close contact with the girls. I have happy memories of my time there.

Heather James February 2013

Notes: (Some dates still require clarification):
1. Margaret Lord (Miss Lord) taught Latin from 1964-1968
2. Di Clarke was a teacher and left in approximately 1964
3. Miss Smith taught English from 1954-1973 and was also Deputy Head Mistress
4. Miss Robinson was Head Mistress from 1958 to 1975
5. Miss Harrison, Powys House Mistress from approx. 1958 to 1965
6. The Chemistry Lab, then, was at the far end of Long Corridor – it became a House Room when the new Isobel Burgis block opened in 1969
7. Miss Roe taught Art – she left in 1964
8. The Stopford Hall was the dining hall – see Dining Room for further details
9. The staff room is now a Bar and Bistro in the renovated St Elphin’s House!
10. Muriel Onac (Mrs Onac) taught English from 1962 to 1982 and was at the 2012       Reunion held at St Elphin’s Park
11. Mrs Kitchen taught Maths from 1958 to 1977 and was also Deputy Head Mistress from       1973 to 1977. She passed away on 17 February, 2011 – see In Memoriam for further       details
12. Roberta March-Penny was Head Girl in 1964
13. Mary Guest was a pupil
14. Hannah Robinson was a pupil from 1963 to 1967 and was in Powys House. She has       also written her memories of her time at St Elphin’s.
15. Miss Lamb taught History and left in 1967
16. Miss Conway-Davies was Kennedy House Mistress from 1967 to 1969
17. Dr. Scott taught Physics from 1966 to 1972
18. Miss Watts taught Elocution and Music from 1958 to 1983. She passed away in
19. Rev David Prytherch was the School Chaplain from 1964 to 1986. He also taught       History


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