Girls school tales of cruel mistresses and midnight feasts

The St Trinian comedy films portrayed life in a fictional girls school. Picture: Getty Images
The St Trinian comedy films portrayed life in a fictional girls school. Picture: Getty Images
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The jolly hockey sticks and japes of Scotland’s true-life versions of Malory Towers have been recalled in a new book about the eccentric nature of all-girls boarding schools.

A compendium of old girls’ recollections of dormitories, cruel school mistresses, formidable matrons, midnight feasts and hearty activity on the games field has shed light on single-sex, private education north of the border after the war.

Terms & Conditions: Life In Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham is based on interviews with women who enjoyed or endured their time at these peculiarly British institutions.

Romanticised by Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series based on a boarding school in Cornwall, Terms & Conditions reveals a strong Scottish strand to a school tradition where fact can be a lot stranger than fiction.

As one might expect, experiences at famous English schools such as Roedean, Wycombe Abbey and Cheltenham Ladies’ College feature heavily in the book, but there are also memorable accounts of life at schools such as Craigmount in Edinburgh, St Leonards in St Andrews and St Bride’s Girls’ School in Helensburgh.

One former pupil of St Bride’s, which no longer exists, described a school run in the 1950s by two spinsters, Miss Auchterlonie and Miss Coventry – one fat and one thin.

The St Bride’s old girl quoted in the book – Helen Holland – remembered that Miss Coventry “poked the girls in the ribs with her stick if they weren’t standing up straight while lining up to wash”.

Miss Auchterlonie once deigned to read a letter from home to a small girl who was too young to read her mother’s handwriting.

“We are all well and we hope you are too,” went the letter, before it was signed off: “Lots of love from Mummy.”

The affectionate end to the letter led to a bizarre retort from Miss Auchterlonie. “That’s ridiculous!” exclaimed the schoolmistress. “Who would love a wicked wee girl like you?”

Life was so miserable that Holland got eczema “from the rage”, while her sister contracted asthma from the “choking sobs”.

Another long-lost Scottish girls’ boarding school – Craigmount – was the scene of far happier experiences.

Daphne Rae was an orphan who had flitted between boarding schools and spent the holidays in other families’ houses. During the war she was sent to a Scottish school, whose name she didn’t know. She ran away after being falsely accused of stealing a hairbrush.

After her guardians had tracked her down she was put on the train to Perth and was met by Miss Ross, the “much loved” headmistress of Craigmount, an Edinburgh school described as a “magical place” which had been evacuated to Scone Palace.

“Everyone wore kilts,” she remembered. “I borrowed other people’s, so I was a Fraser one week, a Campbell the next, a Macdonald the next.” There also appeared to be some extracurricular climbing. “It was lovely. I knew every bit of the roof of Scone.”

At St Leonards, these days a modern co-educational school with day pupils and boarders, great emphasis was put on games. So much so that one old girl recalled being made to turn up for cricket nets, despite having broken her leg.

If it was too icy for lacrosse or hockey, girls were sent on brisk runs along the St Andrews links, a pastime that made another old girl Mary James so “puce in the face” that she thought she was going to die.