North Walsham & District Community Archive

Memories of North Walsham Girls' High School

Memories of North Walsham Girls' High School

This article was submitted by Gillian Shephard (nee Watts) pupil North Walsham Girls' High School 1951...1958 to a collection of reminiscences published in 1982.

When you look back to school days after nearly thirty years, it is difficult to disentangle what is memory and what is enduring effect, especially if, like me, you have stayed in the area and never really lost touch. The physical environment of the High School, so very important to us, with the mellow old buildings, the spacious grounds, the mulberry tree, and the great beech tree, has not changed so much despite the addition of a few more rooms here and there. And I suspect that the atmosphere of our day, with its insistence on hard work, service to the school, good hand writing, and POSTURE, although perhaps a little expanded in accordance with the times, remains essentially the same, and will stay as ineradicably with its present generation as with all those who have gone before.

Most children retain a very clear impression of their first day at secondary school. Mine was overwhelmingly one of size - not surprising in one from a primary school with 32 on roll. We were all convinced that we would never find our way about the rambling buildings and awed by the size of the Old Gym, where Assemblies were wont to be disturbed by the ominous sounds from the slaughterer's yard next door. It was in this hopelessly inadequate building that all large gatherings, performances and exhibitions were held, and we did not know what we were missing until the New Gym was completed in about 1954/5.

We were overwhelmed too by the numbers of teachers, here called Staff, most of whom taught just one or two subjects instead of everything as we had been accustomed too in our primary schools. How disappointing it was to find that the fascination of French was to be preceded by something called phonetics, and that instead of being able to understand a French conversation after our first term, we should be completely mystified and therefore, of course, reduced to giggles by a rapid conversation between Miss Sanders and our first French assistants. Disappointing too that Latin and Science were to be left until the second year, while distinctly juvenile subjects like the Earthworm and Pre historic Times, all familiar stuff, were to be studied here. Cookery was reserved for the second year but once it started, after the first few lessons on how to wash a brush and comb, and how to clean a sink, it made up for lost time. We all loved it, and proudly bore home our offerings of lemon jelly, vegetable soup and Christmas cake. Even today, as I roll out pastry, I find myself reciting Miss Burwood's ten rules and reasons for making short crust pastry -(Never roll pastry on both sides, keep everything very cool, etc, etc.) and I never leave a pan to soak without hearing her say 'Economy of effort is just as important as any other economy.

As someone completely suited to a 1950's Grammar School mould, some of my clearest memories are of pleasure in work achievement, but the school, in accordance with the great English tradition of education in its widest sense, devoted much time to sport, to house activities, and to music and drama which punctuated the year in great set pieces. We felt somewhat deflated in our first year when we realised that the glamour (as we thought) of hockey and tennis would be deferred to the following year.Any glamour there might have been in hockey was quickly dispelled by the gothic reality of playing it on the Siberia exposed Cherry Tree Lane field. Tennis was another matter - nearly everyone liked it. For one thing we played it on the campus, and it afforded the possibility of wearing clothes a little more fetching than gym knickers and vest. And there was the thrill, only just earned in my case, of playing for the School, with real slices of orange, and iced sticky buns in the canteen afterwards.

Music too was very important. In my time the school had Senior and Junior Choirs, a Morning Choir which was supposed to lead the singing at Assembly and later, a Madrigal Choir which eventually made a record, all supervised tirelessly by Miss Gosling. The ever-present traveling difficulties prevented most extra-curricular activities taken for granted today, but we did two major drama productions in my time:- a Coronation Masque written and produced by the multi-talented Miss Ali, and performed in the open air with many a prayer perforce, since the Old Gym could not possibly take performers and audience as well: and "Arms and the Man" in 1955 with evening performances which seemed very sophisticated to us. Our own school careers were crowned with a strictly unofficial production very reminiscent of "Not the Nine O'clock News" and called "The Drop of Another Clanger". We were heavily influenced by the Goon Show and played attired in meal sacks. I recall that mine was inscribed with the immortal legend "A 112 lbs of Sow and Weaners Food". I don't remember now who else laughed, but we all did.

Other regular set pieces included, of course, the annual Carol Service at which in our last year we sang some pieces from the Messiah with enormous enthusiasm. By that time the prefects had a cubby hole, grandly named study, in which we used to laugh a lot and practise our singing with consequent disturbance for the classess next door. And then there was Speech Day, the mere mention of which brings back to me the scent of summer flowers, and of the delicious baking done by the fifth form, (one piece of cake only for the members of the school, Miss Middlewood would say optimistically) and the lump in the throat stifled by self consciousness brought on by "Go forth with God".

Uniform was strict in our day. Tunics, blouses, cardigans, blazers, reefer and gaberdine coats, and of course The Hat, all had to be of the designated pattern. The Hat had become a sort of hybrid beret by our time, but a few of the old quasi-A.T.S. type remained on mutely protesting heads of some of the older girls. Summer dresses were strictly controlled. There was legendary girl who was reputed to have a dozen green and white dresses, each deviating just a little from the regulations and declared unfit by vigilant staff, languishing in her wardrobe. As we got older, uniform began to lose its charm, and we took reprisals by wearing lacy petticoats, patterned stockings , and slip on shoes when we could get away with it. The summer of 1958 when we were leaving was THE summer of the starched petticoat and I can remember how silly we looked, like so many green and white bolsters, with layer of stiff cotton under dresses not cut to accommodate such volume.

Reams have been written about school meals, and our stock reaction had to be one of disgust, dispite the fact much of what we were given was perfectly good. The canteen had a curiously unpleasant atmosphere, dank and gloomy in winter and airless in summer, and low indeed were our spirits when those who had had first dinner passed on the gloomy message "it's fish and ginger pud". In about 1955, the Education Committee introduced a four week experimental scheme for school meals with a different menu for each day. On the first day, we were amazed to be served with sausage and mash, and trifle covered with a glutinous, artificial, and to our palates, ambrosial cream. The greed which led to a stampede for seconds had to be publicly rebuked by Miss Middlewood. I suppose our reaction proved the success of the scheme, but alas, after the four weeks it was back to chocolate semolina, unparelled before and since by anything in my experience, and cabbage a l'anglaise. Our lack of enthusiasm ungateful as it was came in handy later on when "Woman's Own" launche upon an astonished teenaged world the concept of calorie counting. Then of course cabbage came into its own, and complicated indeed were the calculations which would allow you to have a bag of broken crisps on the way home, and still keep within 1200 calories.

Getting to and from school was extraordinarily difficult and complicated. The school then had an enormous catchment area, from West Somerton in the east, to Thorpe, Hellsdon and Drayton in the south, nearly to Fakenham in the west. People came by bus, train or bike, or a combination. Some girls had to cycle two or three miles before catching a bus, leaving their bikes under a designated bush. Others left home at 7.30a.m and did not get back until after 5.30p.m. The steam train going to Cromer and Sheringham was known as the Plum from its red and yellow exterior, and travelling on it allowed fraternisation with Grammar School boys, not otherwise encouraged. In 1958, a Great Snow actually stopped the Thorpe buses at Tunstead, and the intrepid travellers were bedded down for the night in Tunstead primary school.

When I look back on my years at the High School in the fifties, I'm struck by the fact that we were probably the last of the great conformers. Having your childhood in post war years does not make for rebellions. And yet I believe that the solid values inplanted in us by Miss Middlewood and her staff were and are enduring, and not just the product of an era.