Memories of Ware Grammar School

A nervous confusion of unfamiliar faces and new regimes

By Joan Woolard

Ware Grammar school buildings c1914
Hertforedshire Archives and Local Studies
Presdales. Lino cut
Joan Woolard
Ware Grammar School leavers details
Ware Grammar school leavers 1955
Joan Woolard

A face like a horse

Miss Woodhead had a face like a horse, a very bony horse in a black robe. The Head of Ware Grammar School was never seen without her academic garb. Perhaps this was because she was only the second Head since 1906 when the school was founded and the responsibility weighed heavily on her. However in seven years I never heard any nickname applied to her. Despite the obvious possibilities there were no references to “Timbertop” or worse. It was always “Miss Woodhead”. Deferential respect born of centuries of militaristic discipline was the norm among most subjects of His Majesty King George the Sixth especially just after the war. Leaning forward slightly over the table the Head smiled kindly at the Eleven-Plus applicant frozen before her. Flanked by one or two other members of staff, Miss Woodhead tried to coax out the word that failed to materialise in my brain.

Like a rabbit caught in headlights

Having read aloud a passage from a book there were questions about it. It was about a dog. “The dog was slow to do anything, wasn’t he?” asked the Head, trying to be helpful. Like a rabbit caught in headlights I remained mute. “What do we say when someone is slow to do things? How do we describe them? What is the word we use?” The word failed me. Finally surrendering to my gross ineptitude: “We’d say that he was lazy, wouldn’t we?” Miss Woodhead answered for me. The written exams had been easier. Ambivalent and increasingly bipolar, it was still a relief eventually to hear the result was a pass, but only just. Thankfully there had been no great pressure from parents or teachers.

My siblings’ progress

My older brother had failed and gone to Ware Central instead of Hertford Grammar. Mary, my even older sister, had passed and was remembered by WGS Deputy-Head Miss Hodge who would ask me about her from time to time. Since we rarely saw Mary there was never much to report. WareCentralSchool did not have a good reputation but nonetheless my brother rose to the rank of Sub-Lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm before marrying a Wren (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and emigrating to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. My younger brother, John, passed for HertfordGrammar School and became a Chartered Accountant. He lives in Hitchin.

Form 1G

The first day at Ware Grammar was a nervous confusion of unfamiliar faces and new regimes. Assembling in the main hall, we new girls were divided into three groups of about 30. My erstwhile pony-riding friend was assigned to a different group and our paths diverged forever. Lining up to go to our new classroom I dared ask the girl standing next to me: “What is your name?” “Pat Radley” she replied. Pat was taller than I, very pretty with dark curly hair.  Later she told me her father had been a skulling champion (a type of rowing); this had impressed my father who had also been a successful athlete with many awards and trophies. We became part of Form 1G under Miss Gower and our classroom was in the Millbrook end of the school, the oldest part of the building that sprawled along the main road parallel to the railway line. A stained glass panel commemorated the ride of John Gilpin from London to Ware.  The uneven wooden floors creaked and the circular stairs were narrow with tales of a mysterious flute heard in the topmost room one night during the war.

Engrossed in new friendships and new timetables

Millbrook had “character” but this was largely unnoticed by the girls, or “gels” (with a hard g) as Miss Woodhead called them. We were more engrossed in new friendships and new timetables. Finding our way along the corridors from one end of the school to the other was a kind of time travel. From ancient Millbrook with its ghostly flautist we progressed through Amwell with the impressive entrance used only by the privileged few, sixth-formers, staff and visitors. The main house of red brick was set back from the road and faced down Ware High Street across the railway line. Hurrying through the entrance hall past Miss Woodhead’s study, the school opened into the newer classrooms and gym. Domestic Science was taught in a separate unit. A large vine embraced the rear wall of the main building overlooking a grass tennis court, scene of many girlish triumphs in summer terms. Athletic types called Slingsby or Fullom attracted swathes of followers blinded by love and male deprivation.

 Wholesome and appetising food

Substantial meals were cooked and served in the canteen at some distance in the extensive gardens. On the 6th of February 1952 the unexpected death of King George VI was announced irreverently to the waiting queue by a large, loud girl who had heard the news at lunch inside. Although mildly shocked few of us lost our appetites for the dish of the day; there was no choice but the food was generally appetising and wholesome, particularly meat pie, cheese and mashed potato salad and fish pie. Anorexia and bulimia were unknown in the years that followed rationing. In that less indulgent age self-harming and other symptoms of emotional malaise were largely unrecognised. Children did as they were told and didn’t answer back.

A stolen purse

Stealing and bullying now seem to be taken for granted but were rare at WGS. At assembly one morning we were told by a very concerned Head that a purse had been taken from a cloakroom. She went on at some length about the evils of theft. A deep-seated, unconscious sense of guilt caused my face to redden and burn although I would no more have stolen a purse than flown to the moon. Immobile with dread that someone would notice and assume the worst, I sat cross-legged on that hard, hard floor, praying for the homily to end. Fortunately my extreme discomfort passed without comment.

Illicit nail varnish and lipstick

We gels entered school from Hoe Lane where the netball court shared our secrets in break as well as covert readings from Hank Jansen novels. A year younger than the rest I failed to appreciate these literary masterpieces and was not invited. The girl who initiated them was later to relate her seduction by a ‘displaced person’ and her role as witness in his court appearance. Janet wore illicit nail varnish and lipstick, a sure sign of moral decadence in that puritanical age.

 How I hated Ware Grammar!

For the first time in our lives we had homework. We also had the long trek uphill to the sports field for hockey and to Presdales for further lessons. Having been a tomboy with the freedom of the fields and woods of Thundridge my horror at being incarcerated with only girls for company pierced the depths of my soul. How I hated Ware Grammar! Gone were the semi-feral days of fashioning bows and arrows from the hedgerow and catapults from anything that came to hand. Lost for ever was the careless abandon of boyhood. Girlhood offered only the misery of regimentation, menstruation and isolation.

 School holidays

Old friends consigned to the distant past and new ones simply distant in far off villages, school holidays were particularly isolating, dragging on for weeks of lonely boredom. My brother had his own friends and didn’t need a bossy big sister around. Summer holidays often brought rain and close studies of my father’s encyclopedia. One picture sticks in my mind: the god Mammon, heavy and brutish, seated on a throne, his feet resting on a young woman and young man, both crushed and near to death. This image seems particularly relevant today with its worship of money and materialism, the love of money crushing humanity. It typified my parents’ ideals despite their many differences: good sportsmanship and fair play were more important than material possessions, honesty more than gain. Our home had nothing new in it except my father’s trophies; eventually, disillusioned and bitter, he sold them for scrap. His self-pity obliterated any pride we might have had in his achievements and he died lonely and unloved at 81. In one of those odd querks of human behaviour Mother, who had professed for years to anyone who would listen her misery at his hands presented an elegant silver sports trophy in his memory to Hertford Grammar School after my brother left.

A new resident

Occasional items of gossip leavened the dreary hours. Mother was excited by an intriguing new resident at Fabdens across the river above the osier beds. “You know the anagram ‘Idris for when I’s Dri’? It’s Mr Idris of Kia Ora, the drinks company.”  The Maori greeting was familiar to my mother from her time in New Zealand. She and Pop left that country with my older brother and sister after the devastating earthquake that destroyed Napier on NorthIsland in 1931. They were lucky to survive unscathed. Among the few belongings brought back was a little opalescent souvenir jug with Kia Ora printed one side and a green tiki (good luck symbol) on the other. It now sits on my mantelpiece in rural Lincolnshire. Curiously the ‘quake had occurred on a bright summer’s day on 3rd February 1931 very similar to conditions at the time of the 2011 catastrophe on South Island. Over 250 deaths were recorded.

Tony Venison

Another piece of village news was the success of Tony Venison whose parents ran the garage near the top of the hill. They always had a beautiful array of flowers in their garden, often lavender bushes interspersed with pink roses. These were best seen from the top of a bus to be fully appreciated. Tony achieved a well respected name in gardening circles, having a viola named for him. When not polishing my father’s array of trophies, cleaning out rabbit hutches or walking the dog, music became a passionate means of expression, my piano my best friend. Lessons begun in Thundridge continued privately with Miss Cordery at school and for several years afterwards.

Poor Miss Philby!

Most of the WGS staff were female, many embittered by the cruel war that had deprived them of husbands and lovers. Few lessons seemed interesting or worthwhile but outward expressions of rebellion were rare – except in Latin class with Miss Philbey. Poor Miss Philbey! To my lasting regret we all played up in her class and Latin remained a neglected subject more than most.  Other members of staff commanded our grudging respect. Miss Langley (Maths) was fuzzy but kindly; Miss Gower was young and pretty; Miss Bird (Geography) a plump chick, Miss Millard (Maths) and Miss Higgs (Art) were confirmed spinsters of a certain age, both somewhat intimidating to little girls. Even more scary was Miss Clark (English) who kept her angular, discriminating mystique long after we were old enough for perms and nylons. Nylon stockings were fast replacing lyle in the outside world and girls began wearing them against school rules. The powers-that-be soon capitulated in the face of a Sixth Form revolt. Lower forms wore long grey socks with navy gymslips, white blouses and mannish ties. Summer dresses were green and white striped.   Miss Rowe (History) and Mrs Rowe (also History) were totally unalike and unrelated; Mrs Owen (English) was small, dark and sarcastic, Mrs Bowden (German) a severe widow. Miss Lenell was German, a short, passionate brunette often in a rage over some infringement of her PT regimen. Miss Ludlow was attractive and taught music. Occasionally a man would arrive to teach for a few terms but this never lasted.  No doubt the pressure from so many frustrated, lonely women proved too much. School was a hormonal hot house fermenting with repressed female desires.

An embarrassed biology teacher

Formal sex education was limited to one lesson with an embarrassed Biology teacher, the spinsterish Miss Eldridge, extolling the beauty of the bond between men and women without going into messy details. These were provided by the catfish we dissected. At home my mother’s embarrassment was far greater for us both and was quickly terminated by my assurance that we were taught all about it at school.

Limited career options

A few girls in my year rose above the everyday turmoil of teenage emotions and went to university but these were the studious, single-minded few like Mavis Radley and Jean Bacon, both brilliant. Career options were limited mainly to teaching or nursing. The rest were consigned to mundanity and the expectation of marriage in a post-war Britain as yet unaware of Feminism or Women’s Lib. Scions of famous predecessors like Anna Sewell, author of “Black Beauty”, were held up as role models but largely ignored. Feminine domesticity was frowned on and Domestic Science was a dustbin for academic failures like me. Learning to sew a buttonhole or gut a herring proved surprisingly useful in later life however. There was a sense of being encouraged to be second-rate men rather than first-rate women, something that afflicts society even now. Perhaps it is refreshing that the most popular “old girl” with the Presdales generation is pop-star, award-winning gardener, wife and mother, Kim Wilde.

Baroness Blackstone

One lively little girl with curly dark hair in a year well below mine often attracted attention by her ebullient indifference to authority. Jumping up and down in assembly or leading a class in uproar might have indicated qualities essential to a Labour peeress, however. Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone later progressed to the House of Lords via the London School of Economics. Several decades later in Parliament we would speak by ‘phone to each other without realising our common roots. Closer to the 1948 intake was a strikingly pretty girl who became known by her stage name of Paddy Glyn and mother of disabled rights campaigner and actor, Matt Fraser, whose warm, rich tones are often heard in television voice-overs or on the radio.

A happy day when I left school

The Sixth Form brought relaxation of the regime and the prospect of release. We no longer had to kneel on the parquet floor for morning prayers with the cracks between the oak blocks imprinted on our knees. Instead we stood on the platform facing the rest as we sang the daily hymn. Despite the school motto: “Bold in God” I was now a confirmed atheist and resolutely declined to sing. Nobody noticed, of course. Nonetheless staff attitudes were softening. Even the redoubtable Miss Higgs proved to be human. Painting in oils under a tree at Presdales my work was hindered by flying insects. “Do you smoke?” asked Miss H. Surprised, and reluctant to incriminate myself, “Sometimes” was my cautious reply. “Well I think cigarettes are the answer,” she said. Although not a real smoker, the remedy proved effective. Fortunately it did not prove addictive. Nonetheless it was a happy day when I left school, not to return until many years had passed. My aversion to the colour navy lasted almost as long.

 

 Moving on

Having no career plan and few GCEs the best option was a secretarial course. Hatfield Technical College offered a nine-month Intensive Secretarial Course. This proved intensive in every sense. For every girl there were scores of boys – Paradise regained indeed!

This page was added on 18/03/2011.

Comments about this page

  • I was in Miss Birds class in 1952 with all the people mentioned. I have very similar memories of the teachers. I was very friendly with Judith Jackson and Leonie Jasper. I remember the staff well. Miss Violet Rowe was my favourite. I loathed Miss Higgs and once threw My satchel at her. I wasn’t happy there but learnt to keep my head below the parapet.
    When I eventually became a teacher I was determined not to treat my pupils as we were often treated. We had Mrs Massa for a year, she was small and fierce but very fair.
    Pamela Hallworth ( Hodson)

    By Pamela Hallworth (11/08/2017)
  • My friend Doreen Bay (nee Hearn) yesterday lent me a copy of the Ware Grammar School Magazine 1960-61 that she’s just found among her memorabilia. She’d recently been to the Golden Wedding celebrations of another ex WGS girl, Pat Moyle.

    I’d never seen the magazine before: 68 pages, full of interest, with accounts of school trips, music club and sports reports, prize winners, list of Head Girl, senior prefects and Leavers and where we went on to: Secretarial Training with British Railways for me. Absolutely fascinating.

    Presumably there was an edition each year – so strange that I never knew it existed. Anyone else have a copy?

    By Brenda Mathews (was Park) (29/06/2017)
  • Does anyone have any information about the heat of Top Of The Form on BBC1 in the Autumn of 1964. Your opposition on that occasion was King Edward VII Grammar School (for boys) at King’s Lynn. KES was robbed. 🙂

    By Alvin (08/06/2017)
  • How fascinating to read these comments. I was at WGS from 1947-54, starting in Miss Gower’s form. I also remember being very frightened of Miss Clark, although she was a brilliant teacher. I also remember if one had done anything particularly ‘naughty’ you had to stand outside Miss Woodhead’s office, in fear and trepidation! I also went on   the school trip to Rome with Janet Giles,Sheila Preston and of course many others. I still have many photos of that trip. And, of course, we never ventured out of the school without wearing a hat and we certainly never never ate in public. Although as I lived in Wareside, I had to wait 40 minutes for my bus home, so was always tempted by  the sweet shop opposite the bus stop. Sheila Bunce (McGowan)

    By Sheila Bunce (30/08/2016)
  • Life is strange. I grew up in Hertfordshire and was a pupil at Ware Grammar School 1936 to 1942. I left to attend London University at Royal Free Hospital medical school as a scholarship student, thanks to the help I had from the staff. I remember Miss Eldridge(Biology) who allowed me to play at making plant dyes, and Miss Herklots (Maths).

    I married a Malaysian and came to Singapore in !955 and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1960. Recently I was at a birthday party and discovered that I was sitting next to a lady who had attended Ware Grammar School. She is younger than me so we didn’t overlap but we had some mutual memories of staff and setting. Miss Woodhead as headmistress, Miss Eldridge(Biology) and Miss Hodge and Miss Clarke and the old buildings of Amwell House.

    It is a long time ago but I would love to hear from anyone who was at the school at that time.

    By Gwen Smith (08/05/2016)
  • I am writing on behalf of Pamela Welbourn (nee Hepden) who was at WGC 1947-1953.  She is very keen to contact the author of the article, Joan Woolard.  Does anyone know of her whereabouts?

    By Marion Hill (15/02/2016)
  • I discovered this page while working on an obituary for my sister Susan Noble (nee Barfield).  I attended WGS from 1963-1970 and Susan was there from 1951-59.  Sylvia’s comment caught my eye as I think she and Susan must have been in the same year, certainly Leonie Jasper was her best friend.  The names of the teachers are all so familiar, amazing how much we remember from those long ago days.   

    By Linda Aronson (Barfield) (12/02/2016)
  • I also have found this page wonderful. I attended the school in 1951 and was in Miss Bird’s class.  Even to this day I would be too scared to describe Miss Woodhead in the way of the opening letter, although it was accurate.  I remember “Gels doornt rrun down the corrridor!  I have re connected with Jean Adamthwaite, we were friends in the lst year.  Names that Jean and I have remembered are, Freda Adams, Kay Garland, Leonie Jasper, Pauline Pedersen,Anne Robinson-Sawyer, Ruth Redmayne, Tessa Thomson-McCausland, Caroline Brigham, and Pat Guy, who could sing. The school grounds were lovely, I used to enjoy going right to the top of the woods, and sitting there.  You could just about hear the school bell there.  The other day I looked through some old school books, and got the same feelings that I had at the time about the marks and comments.  School education has fortunately improved since those days.  Getting an “E” because work was handed in late, although might teach discipline, doesn’t help encouragement.  I still have fond feelings of those days, but mainly for the friends I made.  

    By Sylvia Bazell (09/10/2015)
  • How I applaud Joan’s writing skills and memories about WGS. I guess I was in the year after her, but I remember the teachers with great affection. Miss Eldridge Biology, Miss Ludlow Music, Miss Foxton Geography?,and the wonderful Miss Philbey who took a group of naieve 15-yr olds to Rome. Never to be forgotten! especially the bottom-pinching, lack of water in the digs – a Catholic convent, and the excitement of seeing the Forum and Trevi Fountain. An experience never to be forgotten. And the lovely grounds of Presdales, and my one achievement of winning a tennis tournament – not followed up in later life! There were unpleasant teachers – Miss Higgs? But I never ran in the corridor (fear of order marks) and always kept my beret on in the street. How times change. Marilyn Norvell (formerly Early)

    By Maz Norvell (14/02/2015)
  • I have just found this site and found it fascinating to read the article.  Though interviewed by Miss Woodhead, I joined the school in Autumn 1956 when Miss Robinson became the new Headmistress.   My sister, Audrey Park, was a pupil ten years before me and some of the teachers were still there.   I particularly enjoyed the lessons given by Miss Clark and Mrs Owen, and am sure my love of the English language stems from them.   I was so shy and unconfident in my first form, 1Z, that I took in very little of the maths taught us by our form mistress, Miss Butlin.   Fortunately Miss Meggy, in my 4th and 5th years, understood my nervousness and somehow managed to help me gain an O level in the subject.

    In 2003 I was delighted to attend a school reunion, and am still in touch with a few of my former classmates.  We should love to hear of any future such gatherings.

    By Brenda Mathews (Park) (19/01/2015)
  • I was a pupil 1952-56 and have memories of Ware some good and not so good.  I left in 1956 and migrated with my family to Rockhampton Australia and later became a Salvation Army officer. My sister was also a pupil for two years and our education caused us problems as we were two years ahead of our Queensland schools.  Consequently for me it meant leaving school at 14 and going to work.  However the basics of Ware stood me in good stead and I continued my education in other ways.  Thanks for the memories.

    By Christine Broadbere (Beattie) (11/11/2014)
  • Having attended a small primary school, Ware Grammar School seemed to me , a very shy first year pupil, to be huge and filled with a great number of people.  I was in 1B – Miss Bird’s class. At first, I hated the school, but gradually I settled and began to enjoy my time at Ware – although I never lost my fear of Miss Clark. I have always been grateful to those teachers who instilled a love of learning which I never lost.

    If anyone recognises my name I would love to hear from them.

    Jean Packham ( nee Adamthwaite )

    By Jean Packham (01/09/2014)
  • Loved the article. I was at WGS from 1959 – 1966 and recognise a lot of the names. I was mad on music (still am – still playing!) and loved the school.

    Kathleen (then Mills)

    By Kathleen Berg (23/08/2014)
  • Have just found this article, it’s fascinating as all the teacher’s names are familiar. I was there from 1944-1951 and loved it. I was very left wing and keen on politics and was a sort of school mascot for my ‘strange’ views. We came to England from Vienna in 1939 as refugees and my friends were very proud of this! I would love to hear from anyone from that time, especially Patricia nee Clark, Sheila nee Fullom and Caroline nee Pilcher.

    By Helen Richards nee Roth (29/01/2014)
  • I’m contributing these memories on behalf my godmother, Iris Prentice (nee Syer), who attended from 1936 to 1942. She writes: Joan Woolard has a photograph of the back of Amwell House and the “new extension” which was built to include assembly hall, form rooms, lab, cloakrooms and music room. I have several photos of activities taking place there. She refers to the John Gilpin window being in Millbrook, but it was actually on the staircase in Amwell House, near the headmistress’s study. I believe all the other buildings have now been demolished so I hope it has survived. Although Joan Woolard seems to have been at the school in the first half of the 1950s, Miss Clark, Miss Millard and Miss Eldridge were teaching during my time there. I was pleased to see the comment from B Kinsman (nee Chard) – she started in form 3A on the same day that I did (16.9.36)! Joan Woolard says that she now lives in rural Lincolnshire. I too live in that county now.

    By Sarah Higgins (22/08/2013)
  • I hated WGS, I never belonged there. I had a hard time academically and having been held back one year will never forget Miss Rowe telling the class I was about to be installed in, to have nothing to do with me because I was a failure. If only they had had the common sense to realize that all the bruises and injuries that kept me out of school were not due to clumsiness.

    By Victoria Centeno (11/03/2013)
  • While I didnt attend WGS until 1960 I could have written much of this narration myself. My views were and remain the same in so many ways and I know a number of others from my era who also feel the same. I finally threw off the academic rebellion engendered by WGS and despite leaving WGS with only “O” level cooker to my name in my 30s I did a law degree and enjoyed a very successful career as a commercial lawyer up until recent retirement.

    By Frances Firmin (nee Lightfoot) (09/03/2013)
  • I was a pupil at Ware Grammar School from 1949-1956 and would love to revisit the school, and find out whether there is an Old Girls Association. I live in the north of England, near Hull, and have happy memories of my time at WGS.

    By Ann Liles ( nee Coxall) (13/08/2012)
  • I lived in Hatfield and won a scholarship to Ware Grammar School. I was there during the war. I have many happy memories of it and of the staff. My interview included questions which, I see now, indicated my social class! To go to and fro, it was single file in the corridor because 3A was at the top of ‘Amwell end’. I was taught by a Miss Eldridge. Surely not the same Miss Eldridge you mention! On the first day, I missed my bus and was raced home by Miss Hazeldene-Bretel in her open-top sports car!

    By B. Kinsman(nee Chard) (27/11/2011)
  • A beautifully written, interesting and fascinating article. I went to the school (long after it ceased to be a grammar and became Presdales) and some of the old fashioned ways lingered on into the early 90s. Miss Woodhead’s portrait hung in the lobby of the old house and I remember thinking that she looked a bit scary!

    By S Williams (01/04/2011)

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