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Sutton High School For Girls Pre-War

A New Life and Meeting a Headmistress

In September 1937 I began a new life at the Sutton Coldfield High School for Girls. It was when taking the entrance examination for the school that I first realized that I had another name. Officially I was Janet Brenda. I had always been known as Brenda. It appears that my grandmother disliked the name ‘Janet’ and so my second name was used! But I preferred Janet and decided that was the name I was going to be known by. Needless to say this caused some confusion and I had one or two friends from early childhood who didn’t ever cope with the change and some people thought I was one of twins.

Apart from choosing to be known as Janet the only other thing that sticks in my mind before going to the school is the interview I had with Miss Bradley, the Headmistress. She was the first Headmistress of the school and quite austere and was there for my first two years. I went to the interview with Mother with strict instructions to sit up straight, be polite, answer whatever she asked me and to call her Miss Bradley. I was not to fidget and I had to pay attention to what was happening, not look around at the surroundings.

I didn’t realise that meeting this lady was crucial to the whole of my future life and I was more curious than nervous. Mother had said I might be going to this big school and I wanted to see what it was like inside. Probably for the first and only time we went into the front entrance and after a few minutes spent sitting in the hall went into The Headmistress’s office which was just around the corner.

Miss Bradley and Mother spoke together for a while and then I was brought into the conversation. To me Miss Bradley seemed very similar to Miss Mills the Headmistress I had at Walmley Village School. Although she was also a headmistress I was never scared of her. The two women were of a similar age and build, had similar educated voices and similar hairstyle in a bun. I was far too young to realise the difference in status between that of a small village school and that of an up and coming high school. A high school was more prestigious than a grammar school in those days. To me they were both headmistresses and had to be treated with respect but were not people to be afraid of. The outcome must have been OK as I was awarded one of the coveted places.

New Clothes from Top to Toe

Buying the school uniform was a great adventure as I had never before had so many new clothes. Deciding that I was to be known as Janet was important as Cash’s nametapes had to be ordered as every item of uniform had to have one sewn inside. Everything that went to school had to be named.

There was a special shop in Sutton, Grainger’s near the Town Hall. They were the only people to stock the uniform. We went there one day and I was kitted out with everything a Sutton High School girl needed. The website tells me that the complete uniform cost £5-3-10d in old money. That was in the days when the average wage for a skilled workman was about £2-10 shillings a week. In the equivalent values of the early 21st century the uniform would have cost around £750-00.

The school had chosen brown and gold as the basic colours, with a narrow blue and gold band around the neck of the pullover and the ribbon around our velour school hats and summer panamas. The gymslip had to be a certain length and I had to kneel on the floor whilst the distance between my knees and the bottom of the gymslip was measured to make sure it was the regulation length of 4 inches above the knee. Rather a nonsense as we were still growing and it soon became too short!

Our blouses were in a thick golden cotton material with square necks. Everything else was brown, gymslips pullovers, blazers, gabardine macs and winter coats, gloves scarves, lisle stockings, and thick knickers with a pocket in which to keep a handkerchief! And of course regulation house shoes and outdoor shoes. We also had to have a leather satchel to carry our homework books and a ‘peggy’ purse on a leather band for our money which we wore over our shoulder. Those with bicycles had cycling caps in brown but could only wear them when with their bikes!

The summer uniform, which was for the summer term and the first half of the winter term whatever the weather, consisted of three ribbed cotton dresses which were in either a green or yellow leaf patterned material and a choice of two styles. Brown sandals, white ankle socks, panama hats and yellow knitted gloves were also part of the summer clothes that told everyone we were High School girls and a cut above everyone else! I didn’t aspire to the gloves and can’t remember anyone else wearing them.

For the first and last time in my life every thing I wore on that first day to school was new apart from a vest and ‘liberty bodice’. ‘Liberty’ bodices were thick cotton garments which girls wore in the winter. They were shorter than a vest and worn over it. They did up in front with rubber buttons and had buttons back and front at the bottom on which to put suspenders to keep up our stockings.

We also had to have hockey sticks, shoes and pads; and for the summer, tennis rackets, white dresses if you were in a tennis six, and white Blancoed plimsolls. Blanco was a white powder that was turned into a paste with water and then spread on the shoes to whiten them. It had to be done every time they were worn, and not at the last minute as the paste had to have time to dry. This was quite an art as if it was put on too thickly it would crack and flake off. For gym we had brown plimsolls and a brown beige edged T-shirt type top with a separate brown bottom part that consisted of knickers and a very short skirt as an all in one garment.

The first day of school arrived. To make sure I was safely on the right bus mother was to walk with me to the Midland Red bus stop about half a mile from home. This was at the junction of Chester Road and Birmingham Road, an area which was known locally as the ‘Tram Terminus as the Birmingham City trams turned round there. In actual fact it was the seats and the driver and conductor who turned round. The backs of the seats were pushed backwards so that the passengers still faced forward and the driver drove from the other end of the tram. It is so many years since I rode on a tram but maybe they are still the same.

It was on the way to the bus stop that we unexpectantly met two other girls similarly kitted out emerging from Poppy Lane. All three of us were self conscious in our brand new uniforms. As it was obvious that we were all going to the High School our mothers spoke and introduced us to each other. That meeting was the beginning of lifelong friendships between us.

New Friends and A New Routine In and Out of School

Margaret, Audrey and I decided we could go together and didn’t need our mums to see us on to the bus. Off we went, leaving them waiting at the top of Poppy Lane, watching us disappear in the distance, no doubt wondering how we should cope with the day ahead. There was a Midland Red bus at about 8-35am which took us towards Sutton and we were told we had to get off at an old pub called the Horse and Jockey on the corner of Jockey Road where the school had been built. There were older girls on the bus and we just followed them.

The school had finally been built after about 20 years of thinking and it was typical of the time, built with cold open corridors around grassed quadrangles, over which we were not allowed to walk. Whilst living in Church Road mother had taken me as a toddler to watch the school being built and vowed that I should go there. My first day at the school fulfilled her ambition just as it changed my life.

The first major change was that at a medical I was found to be short sighted. I didn’t mind wearing glasses as everything around me became clearer. Then there was this new routine of homework in the evenings. At the same time I began piano lessons and so I lost much of my freedom to play with Colin after tea. However I was allowed to stay up a little later so still found time to read. Reading began to dominate my life and I was constantly in trouble as the jobs I was supposed to about the house on Saturdays were often skimped or left undone.

As I think back the early days at the High School are rather hazy. It was somewhat overwhelming to go from being in the top class of a small village school to being amongst the newest and youngest group in a school of three hundred girls and knowing no-one except Margaret and Audrey whom I had met en route on the first day. They were together in a different form to me. In uniform everyone looked alike, except for the staff. Teachers were remote beings walking around in gowns on the first day of term. Normally only the Head wore a gown and gowns, degree hoods and mortarboards were for special occasions only.

Discipline and Decorum

We were all very proud to be “High School Girls” and rather snobby. But we had very strict rules to adhere to. Whilst we were in school uniform we had to behave with decorum and respect other people. This meant we must always stand up for adults in buses and trains and never push or shout or run, except perhaps for a bus! Eating sweets or ice cream was a serious crime as was throwing down litter. Hats had to be worn at all times and coats buttoned up. After all the honour of the school was at stake. Prefects could issue detentions as well as staff and they were about outside as well as inside the school. But not many of them were in Erdington where we lived so we had a little more leeway than those in Sutton.

Although Colin and I had walked back and forth to school on our own, travelling by bus without an adult was another learning experiences. Like time and tide a bus would wait for no one. Being at the bus stop on time was a new discipline as it was unforgivable to be late for school, and would often mean a detention. A salutary lesson was having to write fifty lines ‘I must not be late for school’ in neat and tidy writing. Any old scribble would not do.

In school the discipline was equally strict. Never be late for school or for a lesson. No running or shouting in corridors. No walking on the grassed quadrangles, not even a short cut over a corner. The worn grass in those areas told another story. We always had to give way at doors to older girls, staff and prefects and hold the door open for staff and prefects. There was to be no eating except in the dining room.

Cleanliness, neatness and tidiness were the order of the day, especially shoes, finger nails and hair. This had to be a certain length above the collar. Posture was important; no slouching, we had to hold ourselves upright. On the way to assembly some mornings we had to balance our hymn books on our heads as we walked along the corridors to the hall. Prefects lined the route to check that we were doing so.

Competition Encouraged

The school was divided into four houses, reflecting the history of the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield. At the beginning of our new life we were allocated one-inch thin enamelled coloured bars to stitch on to our gymslips and coloured shoulder bands for sports events. White was for Warwick which was my house as we were in Warwickshire. Green was for Vesey, which was Margaret’s house, to honour Bishop Vesey of Tudor times who had been responsible for the granting of the Royal Charter to the town by Henry Vlll and the gift of Sutton Park to the townsfolk. Red was for Tudor, the Tudor Rose was the school emblem on the badge on our blazer pockets and at the front of our hat bands and reflected the town’s Tudor history. Blue was for Nevil, presumably because it was the family name of the Earls of Warwick, and the school was administered by the Warwickshire County Council. There was competition between the houses each year. Rivalry could be quite strong, points being gained for various achievements, especially in sports. But points could be lost for bad behaviour.

The Pattern of a School Day

Each of us had our own peg in the school cloak room with our shoe bag hanging from it. When we arrived we hung up our coats and scarves and changed into our house shoes, leaving our outdoor shoes in the bag. We dumped our sports equipment, never expecting anything to go missing. Of course everything had our names on, even shoe bags where our names were embroidered in large letters so that they could easily be identified. Hockey sticks and tennis rackets were quite safe as there was not a pilfering culture when we were young. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ held good in society, except perhaps for a few ‘professional’ burglars and even they prided themselves on a neat and tidy job. They did not like to leave the houses they visited in a muddle. Bad enough to lose your possessions without having to clear up afterwards!

There were two forms of twenty-five girls in each year – the “A” stream and the “Alpha” class, alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Academically there was little difference, although I think the ‘A’ class did Latin. Prefects in the 6th Form supervised the school discipline. We also had form leaders who wore a badge. They were elected by the form but ordinary mortals were not au fait with what they did, except that they were supposed to stop us making too much noise when there were no members of staff in the form room. Maybe they went to meetings to pass on any ideas the form may have but I don’t remember ever being asked.

We had to be in the classroom for 8-50am when the register was called. Homework had to be done on time, with all the corrections completed and handed in. Immediately we lined up and each class in turn walked soberly to the hall for Assembly. All the girls in the large assembly hall for morning prayers was a novelty at first. This was a short service with two hymns, the Lords’ Prayer probably a collect and notices for the day. Then a decorous walk back to the form room and lessons began. Any lapse of individual or class behaviour resulted in detentions. Prefects also gave detentions which meant being kept in after school and writing ‘I must not run in the corridor’ or something similar up to 50 times.

Places in our form classrooms were allocated to those who were less inclined to concentrate. These girls were not allowed to sit at the back or by a window but the rest of us could choose where we sat. Once settled it stayed that way as we each had our own desks for our own books and pencil cases. Because I was short sighted I chose to sit near the front and at one time I was accused of being the popular English teacher’s favourite. I loved English and looked upon English grammar as a game.

Moving About the School

We all accepted the status quo, except when we thought we could get away with surreptitiously eating chocolate! Most of us enjoyed the challenge of school life. A few of the teachers were a bit boring but they were all diligent and made sure our homework was done and corrected. Some subjects were held in their own special rooms and we quickly learnt which books we had to take from our desks for which lesson. General Science was in the labs, Domestic Science in its own special room, art in the art room, music in the music room, gym in the gym, and sports on sports fields. This kept us on the move and on our toes figuring where we should be at what time with whatever we might need, be it books or hockey sticks. The Monmouth Drive playing fields or tennis on the school courts or a session in the gym gave us exercise most days and Friday afternoons were for leisure activities such as chess. There was also a sick bay if one of us was unwell.

Routine Disrupted

After the first year my two friends, Margaret and Audrey cycled to school but I still went on my own by Midland Red bus, and went home for dinner. An opportunity for misbehaviour. Mothers were at home cooking and cleaning, and as we had an hour and a half for dinner it was easily done. There was a very tempting sweet shop, Stones, at the bus stop on our way home. If sometimes I managed to evade paying the bus fare I could afford a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate. The bus fare was a penny ha’penny and a bar of chocolate two pence. The ones filled with green marzipan were my favourites. The chocolate had to be eaten and the wrapping disposed of or hidden before getting home or there was trouble ahead.

During our first two years at school we were blissfully unaware of the political turmoil around us, apart from learning that Haille Selassee was Emperor of Ethiopia and trying to resist the Fascist Italian dictator Mussolini invading his country. We heard Hitler’s ranting threats on the news at the cinema but they meant little to us as we lived in our own confined world of school, home and Guides. But then the war clouds broke and we were plunged into the unknown.

The beginning of our third year at the High School was delayed and disrupted by the outbreak of war and initial evacuation and life was never the same again. All had been well financially until war broke out but after that I was given half a crown, (2/6d) a week for bus fares. As each journey cost 2 pence it was unrealistic. It meant that by the end of the week I was having to walk at least part of the way home. Then I became more independent as I had a Saturday job.

Our parents had committed to keep us at the school until we were 16 and we were expected to keep our nose to the grindstone and achieve good results in what was then known as the ‘School Certificate Examination’ of the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board. Probably because we were bright enough to have passed the entrance exam everyone was expected to pass in at least five subjects. However by the time our year were that age it was 1942 and we were in the worst period for air raids of the war. Perhaps we were treated a little more leniently as we certainly had broken nights.

The social climate where middle class girls married and saw no reason to work as their husbands would keep them became a thing of the past. Higher education and independence for girls became much more important. Perhaps we were deprived of some youthful hopes and ambitions but we were also provided with unexpected challenges and opportunities as I know from my own experiences.