Memories of Ware Grammar School
A nervous confusion of unfamiliar faces and new regimes
By 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!