Saturday, 31 December 2016
A Funded Girl At Wombwell Hall!
The Eleven Plus had most definitely been something of a major failure as far as I was concerned and when all the ensuing dramas were over I could not have been happier to finally be returned to the Girls’ Secondary Modern School in Colyer Road, Northfleet. The good news for my ever hopeful father was that in those long gone days, after the first two years of secondary school, students could take something sometimes called The Thirteen Plus, a further chance to `better themselves’. Sadly he did not live to witness my eventual success in this regard. Passing the examination meant transferring to a Technical School for the remainder of the school years. Again I did not pass the examination as smoothly as I fully expected I would, but I did earn the opportunity to `get in on interview’. I enjoyed the interview process and remember smugly telling the Headmistress that I was either going to be an actress or a writer or perhaps both once I was a few years older but that in the interim it would do no harm at all to learn shorthand and typing or cooking and dressmaking. I was then asked to spell some difficult words which luckily I managed. When we got the good news that I had secured a place, my mother first of all cried and said how proud of me my poor dead father would now be and then we immediately went to Waterdales to visit Aunt Lou and Cousin Connie. My cousin had already been a Tech Girl for a year and she began to tell me all I would need to know about the place. `You get to choose the course you do. You can either do Domestic or Commercial. I’m doing Domestic so I do mostly cooking and dress making. It’s quite a lot of fun and we made Toad in the Hole last week and took it home for tea. My Dad said that cooking would be the best thing for me for when I get married…..and I’ll need to be able to make clothes for my family too…’ `What’s Commercial then?’ I wanted to know. Connie sat opposite me importantly, `When you do Commercial you learn typing and shorthand and book keeping and so when you leave school you can get a job as a shorthand typist and work in an office instead of a factory. The shorthand part of it is very hard and a lot of the girls drop out of that course but they can still be copy typists because the typing is dead easy and the book keeping is quite simple too’ When I said that Book Keeping sounded dangerously like maths to me she reassured me and told me that I was wrong and all you had to do was put figures in the correct columns in an accounts ledger – it couldn’t be more simple. She added that if she had been allowed to choose for herself she would have chosen Commercial but Uncle Walter had felt it would be a waste of time because within a few years of leaving school she would be married anyhow and what good would shorthand and typing be to her then? Cooking on the other hand was a skill that would always be useful. Nevertheless Connie maintained she would have liked a job in an office, maybe in the offices of the factory where her Dad worked. The pay was good, she maintained knowledgeably. As at this stage, although my heart lay firmly with the theatre as a primary career, I was also half planning to enter a convent and I wondered briefly what use Commercial was going to be when put alongside Domestic in that particular situation. However, the idea of cooking for fifty other nuns and sewing habit after habit into the night did not appeal either so I said I would probably be choosing Commercial. Despite Connie’s reassurances I still had considerable doubts about Book Keeping which definitely sounded like maths in disguise, but I would cross that bridge when I came to it. Uncle Walter did his very best to influence my mother sufficiently to prevent my choice coming to fruition. `With any luck Nellie a fine, strong girl like your Jean will be hitched by the time she’s eighteen so what will she want with typing? No, what she wants to be able to do is cook good meals for her husband and make decent clothes for her kiddies….’ And to her credit although Nellie nodded in agreement she said to me later on that she too thought I would be much better off doing shorthand and typing and being able to get a bloody good job in an office in Gravesend where I would earn a decent wage. So instead of going into Form Three with my friends from the Secondary Modern in Colyer Road, in September of that year I went with just a little trepidation into the first stage of the Commercial course at Wombwell Hall, a dilapidated Victorian mansion in Hall Road, Northfleet and the former home of the Colyer-Fergusson family. Before the term started we had collected Connie’s outgrown uniform from the previous year: green serge skirt, two cream cotton blouses, a green and gold striped tie and green blazer. All were much too big for me and I knew that there would be only a slim chance of me growing out of them before the three years at Tech concluded and I left the school for ever. Before the first week of term was over I had to report myself to the headmistress for a uniform breach: shoes the wrong colour and style. My mother’s interpretation of brown, laced up walking shoes had somehow included light tan wedge heel sandals. Miss Fuller, the Headmistress, looked at me sternly. `Why are you not wearing regulation school shoes?’ I remember looking down at my feet and somehow seeing the offending sandals for the first time. I shrugged and said nothing. She sifted through a pile of papers before her, `Now, you are one of the funded girls are you not?’ I just stood there helplessly. What on earth was a `funded girl.’ `You are orphaned are you not?’ `No I’m not,’ I said although I suddenly liked the idea of being orphaned. `My father died, but my mother is still alive,’ I explained truthfully. She rather unexpectedly smiled and said kindly, `My dear child, if your mother is a widow then technically that makes you an orphan because you are fatherless.’ A most interesting piece of information. She went on to explain that because I was funded I got all kinds of privileges that other students did not get such as free dinners, and a uniform subsidy to cover the cost of expensive items such as the missing brown lace-up shoes. My mother, she told me, should have received a voucher for Danby’s the Uniform Shop to cover the initial cost. As well as shoes I needed a proper leather satchel, not to mention a regulation green woolen cardigan for the winter months ahead and also a gabardine raincoat. These were costly items, she told me. I did not need to be told that because Betty Haddon had regaled me with the exact cost of the gabardine raincoat her mother had to buy before she had been allowed through the gates of Gravesend Girls’ Grammar School two years previously. Miss Fuller looked uncertainly at Connie’s cast off uniform, slightly shook her head and said that she would write a note for me to take home. When I got home my grandmother was ensconced at the kitchen table drinking tea with my mother and when the contents of the note were revealed she told Nellie that it was her own fault for even considering sending me to toffee-nosed schools that put unnecessary demands on families - ` like brown lace-up shoes and gawd almighty, gabardine raincoats if yer don’t mind!.’ A great lump of a girl like me apparently should be thinking of going out working, `not sitting around in a school all day on yer fat arse in yer gabardine raincoat’. Some hours later when she had finally left to catch the bus back to Crayford I demanded to know what had happened to my Danby’s Funding Voucher. Nellie blustered and folded her arms across her chest, `What bloody voucher are you talking about?’ `My funding voucher – you know what I’m talking about. I’m supposed to have a proper uniform – a new one from a shop, and proper brown shoes. Why didn’t you tell me about the voucher?’ But she simply shook her head and continued to lie, though added that as I was making such a fuss, on Saturday morning she would take me to Danby’s to buy the shoes. This promise was a small success but I still felt humiliated and indignant. The uniform shop was at that time situated in the Regency crescent directly adjacent to the Gravesend Clock Tower and was a place I had only rarely entered. We pushed our way through the heavy glass door and mounted the softly carpeted stairs to the first floor. It felt a little bit, and even smelled a little bit, like being in church. The rows of school clothes swung ever so slightly in ghostly unison on their hangers as we passed, dark blue gymslips, dark green skirts, grey shorts, blazers of every colour imaginable, and a blissful row of gabardine raincoats, some navy and some green. The tall male assistant had a superior air and looked us up and down two or three times before enquiring if he could help us. My mother did a lot of whispering about vouchers and he looked us up in a register and rather surprisingly found that we were already `customers’ and furthermore, that quite recently a boy`s winter shoes and coat had been purchased, presumably these items had been for my brother, a co-orphan, who my mother in her wisdom had decided was to have a share in my orphans’ voucher. Luckily there was still enough credit left for the brown lace-ups and as I was not prepared to leave without the much vaunted rainwear, a dark green gabardine raincoat that I was still growing into three years later. There was not enough left for a leather satchel but I was so delirious with delight about the raincoat that I barely noticed. The first thing I did when we got home was search for the boy’s shoes and winter coat which I found hanging in the back of my mother’s wardrobe waiting for the first chill of November when undoubtedly Bernard would climb into them. I remained resentful for weeks. However, I was to enjoy my time at Wombwell Hall and this was primarily because I fell in love with the house and found the history of the place totally fascinating for some reason. I learned that there had been three Wombwell Halls, the first being built in the early 1400s. The Wombwells owned the Hall until the sixteen hundreds, when the local branch of the family died out and a certain John Forterie, a Huguenot refugee from Lille, purchased the estate. He and his descendants occupied it until 1774, when they too died out. During their time there the family pulled down the original Hall and built a very fine red brick mansion faced with white stone to take its place. This house was acknowledged by many as being one of the loveliest country mansions in the country, and great was the consternation when in 1860 the new owner, Thomas Colyer, had it pulled down and erected his own Victorian hall which was the one now occupied by the school. Although the old mansion had been acclaimed for its beauty, it did have its dark side. In the early 1800s, one of the servants, a young maid, said to have been strikingly beautiful was murdered by a man called Farmer. Having shot the girl, he attempted to commit suicide by cutting his own throat. A Miss Brabazon, who was a keen history and travel writer, in her book entitled A Month in Gravesend reports with relish 'the blood of murdered and murderer mingled together on the floor'. However, Farmer did not do a very good job and did not die. At his trial he claimed that his pistol had gone off accidentally and he was finally not convicted. Later he was transported to Australia for a subsequent crime. At the time they acquired the Hall and estate the Colyer-Fergussons were already very large landowners and had property and land as far away as Farningham and Crayford. The estate began to prosper but sadly for them this was at the time of the rapid industrialization of Gravesend and Northfleet and almost as they watched, artisan housing began to creep across the once green pastures towards them. By the end of the first World War the worker housing and amenities were almost on their doorstep so the family finally moved out in disgust. During the Second World War the Hall served as a hospital for wounded anti aircraft gunners from the Tollgate and Green Street batteries and after the war the family finally sold up to the Kent Education Authority, who turned it into a Girls Technical School where I now happily daydreamed on a daily basis, placing my ever more elaborate mythical families within its walls. My favourite part of the place was the huge former kitchen, dairy and utility rooms where the bells to call those who served to Dining Room, Morning Room, Ballroom, Blue Bedroom, etc, were still in evidence. None of my enthusiasm for the Hall transferred into academic excellence of a general nature, however, and overall the only subjects I did consistently well in were shorthand and typing. At times I showed potential and what was termed `originality’ in English but this was primarily because I had fallen wildly in love with one of the English teachers, Miss K. Smith. Decades later I learned that Miss K. Smith had influenced a number of her students in exactly the same way. I was not alone in my adoration of her. At the end of my first year I actually got the highest mark in the Religious Instruction class, not because of any crush on the teacher but rather because the whole idea of religion fascinated me and clearly bored the rest of the class. But it was Pitmans Shorthand where I really excelled. As Connie had warned, it was difficult to master and this made it exciting. I loved being able to write in a secret language of complicated squiggles that I could later, with a modicum of luck, decipher. During the first term Chicken Pox followed by Mumps ensured I was absent for six weeks but desperate not to fall behind I practiced shorthand forms diligently throughout this time and was largely unhindered by my absence. About a third of the girls who started the shorthand course, dropped out after the first two terms and decided that being Copy Typists in a Pool was an acceptable option. A few even dropped out of the typing class because they found the grinding determination of Miss Hart, who had somehow or other flown planes during The War, to not allow them to look at their hands as they worked, too draining. She stood at the front of the room in her tweed suit, armed with a heavy ruler which she drummed on the desks of the front row. Her iron grey hair flew in all directions and her voice was huge. `Right Girls are we ready to begin? We will begin: DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR HANDS………asdf ;lkj – and again, asdf ;lkj do NOT look at your hands…..’ I found it exhilarating and could manage it all quite easily – and I did not look at my hands. When we all needed a break or to allow the slow ones to catch up we would ask her a question about planes. `Oh I thought I heard a plane go across Miss Hart. What kind of plane do you think it might have been?’ Then she would stop drumming, stop shouting, perch on her table and talk about Spitfires and Hurricanes and Lancaster Bombers as well as Focke Wolfes and Messerschmitts. She would talk for so long and we became so bored that we then longed to return to asdf ;lkj and the ongoing demands that we should NOT look at our hands. Suddenly being good at something was a strange feeling, especially when so many others struggled with the commercial subjects. Maybe in the end it is all to do with aptitude rather than academic ability; some of the strugglers after all, had not needed to pass the interview process in order to secure their place at Wombwell Hall. Later I learned to my very great satisfaction that both Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon of the dreaded eleven plus episode in my life, went on to commercial college at sixteen and neither were able to satisfactorily absorb the intricacies of Pitman’s Shorthand. This fact was later not lost on my mother. `Both them two, that Benfield and that Hadden girl `ad to go to college to learn to do typing and shorthand – and there was you able to learn it at school, years before they did. That Grammar School didn’t do them much good in the end did it?’ She actually seemed to be suddenly proud of me. And indeed I was more than a little bit proud of myself. I have never forgotten those Wombwell Hall years.