1 March 2013

A Boarding Education

Our God, our help in ages past.....

Anna Stella Gibbs (nee McMullin): 
Cutting the cake - 90 years on

Some twenty years ago, my mother attended a creative writing class at West Herts College and was encouraged to write down her family memories. Only now have I come across these writings, and what follows are edited extracts, picking out the elements which refer to her education.

"In about 1800 my great great grandfather went out to India with his small son and joined the Bengal Infantry. For four generations after that they married out there and raised their children and sent them home to England to school.

My Grandfather, Robert James McMullin, 1915

"So it was that my brothers and sister and I were born in India.  My father was manager of a tea estate in the southern state of Travancore, now called Kerala.

"Unfortunately we lived in a malarial district and I got it badly so my parents decided that my brother and I should go up into the hills to be boarders at a convent school in Kodaikanal.  Because of this break in my early life I can focus my earliest memories more exactly.....

My Grandmother, Marjorie Napier Ford, 1915, when secretary and companion to Anna Pavlova (who became my mother's godmother)

"We had lessons from my mother at a very early age and I could read and form letters by the time I went to school at 4.....

"Life was idyllic but time was running out for my brother and me.  My health was endangered by malaria and the quinine which was used to treat it.  My younger brother had just been born when we were driven the long journey to Kodai and left, screaming and clinging to the car, in the tender hands of the nuns at the convent....."

Robert McMullin Junior, and his sister Anna Stella, c 1924

My mother's account breaks off here, in 1927, at 2,133 metres above sea level, but we have her mother's account to allow us to appreciate the grief of parting, though from the adult perspective and not from that of the four-year-old girl.  It is hard to imagine what a child may feel or think, and perhaps  such emotional rifts are less difficult than for a child than an adult might imagine.  In my experience of boarding partings, it is more often than not the mother who feels most upset.  The child's life is full and open, the mother's shrinks as her children leave home and the anxieties she dreams of have no where to go, almost jealous that the child has exciting new stimuli to play with.

Father and children, Arnakal tea estate, Kerala, c 1927

My Grandmother recorded her own feelings in 'Fond Memories,' her account of life in India:  "After breakfast, we all went up to the Convent in the car.  Mother Augustine, the Reverend Mother, greeted us, and showed us round the school wing.  It is all so perfectly arranged, and there is such order and method and both Mac and I were delighted with it all.....

"A very gentle charming sister does the teaching, and al the children are kept so happy.  I am sure Robert and Ann will love it all before long.....

"We were taken upstairs and shown the dormitories with rows of little white beds and white curtains with blue bows in one ward, and mauve bows in another, all spotless and with large windows open on to most glorious views of lake and valleys and hills.  There are nicely fitted lavatories and bath-rooms.  The children have baths twice a week.....

"On the Monday morning we went up to the Convent to say a final goodbye as I had promised to do before going home again.

"Mother Augustine was waiting for us and did not want us to see them.  On the previous night, when they awoke to the fact that we had gone and that strange faces were all around them there was much crying and the poor darlings would not be comforted....  So Mother Augustine advised us not to see them again, but to leave a message.....  However I had promised Robert to come, so I felt I must.

"We were taken to the Kindergarten room, and found them sitting at a table at the far end absently shaping the plastacine [sic].  Little Ann had a pale sad little face, and Robert with such a woe begone expression, and sad wistful eyes, as if he were just aching for me to come.

"As they caught sight of us, they came to me and clung to me, Robert sobbing and saying, 'Oh! Mummy, all night I've been crying for you.  Why are you leaving us?  Why can't you stay till tomorrow?'  Little Ann was braver, but she cried too, and asked how long I was going to leave her there.....

"What a terrible time this first parting is.  Their first milestone and the inevitable.  It was necessary for Ann to be out of the fever zone for those months, and for Robert it was necessary for him to submit to regulations and command, for at home he was getting too much his own master....."

A few pages later, my grandmother recorded:  "I got a telegram within a few days from the Reverend Mother to say that Robert and Ann cheered up and were happy almost directly after we had gone and were perfectly happy....."  I wonder how it would have seemed had they had mobile phones?

The second part of of my mother's memoir was written in Spring 1994.  It starts like this:

Anna, aged 8

"The second phase of my life began when my brother Robert and I were left in England at boarding school, while my parents took Eve and Peter back to India with them.  These early parts of my life are very distinct sections. Leaving India was a great trauma I recognise now and took me years to recover completely.

Anna, Storrington School, aged 9

"England was a lovely country to be in but it was horribly cold.  As I had been at a boarding school before, I settled into the life quickly but we missed a settled home life in the holidays.....

This is borne out by a description of their first Christmas.  "We really were miserable that Christmas, and to add to it all we found a copy of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' by Rudyard Kipling somewhere and read it together and wept and wept.  We wrote to our Mother and told her our experiences and she wept too...."  Again imagine if they had had mobile phones or skype!

Anna, aged 9

"After Christmas we went on to Aunt Elsie I don't really remember a Christmas dinner or anything else about that visit with the Osts [an elderly couple they had spent Christmas with] but nothing jolly happened that's for sure......

Robert and Anna, aged 12 and 10

"Mine was a small private girl's school.  It was in a pair of large Edwardian houses adapted for the purpose, and joined by a passage in the middle of which was the front door.  It was situated in Seymour Rd. Westcliff-on-Sea near Southend.  Our grounds backed onto the Essex tennis club, and in the summer we would lie on our tummies on the grass close to the fence and watch the comings and goings of the visitors to the club, amongst whom were Gottfried Von Cramm and Henkel [both famous German tennis players: Von Kramm was later imprisoned for homosexuality; Henkel became a Luftwaffe pilot and was shot down]....."

As I read this, I look for Storrington School on the internet. The first entry I find is an obituary of Charlotte Kratz, one of the most influential British nurses in the 20th century, the first nurse to graduate as a doctor of philosophy. She was a German Jewish refugee, born in Dortmund in 1922, the only child of Norbert and Johanna Kratz. She was sent to Storrington School in Westcliff-on-Sea. The Headmistress offered to stand security for her parents so that they could escape the German persecution of the Jews and join their daughter in England. Due to bureaucratic bungling their papers were not completed before the outbreak of the Second World War and Charlotte never saw her father and mother again. They were sent to a concentration camp.

The second entry I find includes the following by Warwick Charlesworth, of Australia: "I lived at 61 Imperial Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea which was at one time Storrington School. I would dearly like to find out more about the school and find if possible any old photos..... I realise that this was many many years ago but some second or third hand information may have been passed down. Once, while playing in the garden, I dug up an old school broach with the school name on it but alas have no idea what became of it. The house when we first moved to it, about 1959, was in a very bad state of repair having I think been used during the war for one of the services. I was always led to believe that there had been a searchlight battery in the tennis courts behind but this may be totally wrong. I do remember my father burying vast amounts of army beds and general rubbish in a very large hole he dug in the garden." [Issue 32 - January 2011, 'Leighway,' The newsletter of the Leigh Society - An eye to the future with an ear to the past in the heart of Leigh.] Warwick responded to my email as below at the end of this piece.

Anna, Storrington School, aged about 14

The account continues:  "Our Headmistress was Miss Farrington Walker, a quiet academic woman who was an easy, clever teacher who made her subject, biology, interesting and memorable.  She had an air of authority and was very much respected by all of us.  In the dining room she sat at a table on the platform and would ring a brass bell when we got too noisy.  Her partner Miss Tooby looked after the domestic side of the school, though she also taught physics.  They were an oddly assorted pair really, and we wove our own stories about how they came to be running the school together.  We decided that Miss Walker's fiance had been killed in the war, and that Miss Tooby had been her pupil....

"We had a liberal if not academic education - no one took higher qualifications or aspired to university, but lessons were interesting and we were encouraged to discuss anything, and to read widely.  We were taken to London to visit Museums, the Mint, the Tower, the Houses of Parliament with our MP, and to concerts at the Queen's Hall [in Langham Place, home of the proms until destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941].

"We boarders thought of ourselves as the cream of the school.  We were well looked after but we had to be hardy, because we were not cosseted. There was no such thing as central heating in our dormitories [which] were built on the top of the building which had weak foundations so that the[y] were constructed of light material, and the inner walls were all hard asbestos..... We had our own eiderdowns and a toy on the bed if we liked, so the room didn't look altogether regimented.  In the very cold weather the water in the jugs froze at night......

"A senior dormitory had metal rails with curtains which could enclose each space containing bed, locker and washstand-cum-chest-of-drawers.  We had a mirror on each chest and could decorate our space a bit, though nothing was ever stuck on the walls.  The best spaces were under the windows amd I remember those days with much happiness.  We used to sit on our beds and talk and laugh and tell each other stories until (and often after) lights out.  Friendships were forged then but most didn't survive the war when we were all flung apart.....

"We went for walks twice a day in crocodile. A favourite was down Chalkwell Avenue to the front. The Thames was very busy in those days. When the tide was out and the mud flats were exposed with a deep channel beyond, it looked as if you could walk over them to the Kent coast. There was a path called the Hard running out across the mud and we used to break ranks and walk down it collecting winkles, and watching the shipping. It's a wonder we didn't die of food poisoning, because we used to take them home with us and put them in our toothmugs, and put hot water on them and eat them in the dormitory with a pin.....

"The Thames barges were a wonderful sight sailing down the deep channel, their huge sails beautiful dark shades of brown, red and beige.  The tea clippers too came in occasionally when they raced from China.....

"We used to walk to Leigh sometimes where the cockle sheds lined the banks of the river.  The empty shells would scrunch beneath our tread and the smell of the sea was strong in the air mixed with the smell of cockles.

"My memories of school are mostly social.  I remember lessons.... but the overall memory is of a beehive throbbing with activity, and filled with the voices of the past.  I am saddened now that I have no connection left with the nine years of such an important part of me....."

The third section of my mother's social history picks up in 1934, when her father, for health reasons, returned to the UK and started farming near Robertsbridge in Sussex.

Peans Farm, 1934

At the age of eleven, my mother remembers: "we were all full of joy at being all together and having a home and a mother and father.....

The McMullin family, Peans Farm, c 1935l - r: Anna, Robert, Marjorie, Peter, Eve, Robert

"[Robertsbridge] was a pretty town in those days with a high street bordered by old attractive houses.  Trains to London stopped at the station and there was a branch line which ran to Tenterden.  I used it in the war when we lived near Sedlescombe [after my grandfather had died].  You could ask the driver to stop anywhere along the line to get off and then sit back and enjoy the journey through unspoilt countryside.....  People got off at farms and oast houses, and I stopped off at a road junction which was less than a quarter of a mile from my home.....

"We had a car - an old Morris Cowley, but going to our boarding schools was always done by train.

"Our luggage was packed into large brown trunks with wooden strapping to keep them firm, and a brass plate with a lock in it on the front.  It was sent by PLA - passenger luggage in advance, which meant you bought your ticket at the same time as arranging the transport of your luggage.  The trunk was collected and delivered the other end by Carter Patterson's van, and no one had any worries about its safe delivery.  

"Travelling to school by train was always an adventure. I always spent the first part of the journey in tears because I hated saying good-bye to Robert, who would stand on the platform, also in tears, waving until I was out of sight. When I was very young my guardian would choose a kind-looking elderly woman to take care of me. Or sometimes I was put in charge of the guard. He travelled in the guard's van at the back of the train, and looked after parcels, luggage and bicycles and would keep a look out for children travelling on their own.

"When I got to London I was supposed to be met by an uncle who would take me out to lunch and put me on the train to school where I joined all my friends.  My uncle was very absent-minded and often didn't turn up so we were taken by a station porter to the stationmaster's office where we sat waiting.  He would enquire about our uncle and possibly ring up and remind him of his charges.

"When my parents settled at Pean's Farm I aged 11 would take my 9 year old sister with me and we did without guardians and go-betweens.  We would arrive at Victoria Station and get ourselves something to eat and drink and then go to the News Theatre.  This was the cinema at the station where they showed newsreels and cartoon films.

"I was street-wise as you would say today, and knew some of the dangers from men that might assail us.  We always sat on our own and if a man sat near us we would move at once to other seats.  Then we would go by underground to Fenchurch Street and walk through the city to the mainline station for Southend where we waited for the school party.  There were moments of anxiety until we met up with the others, but it was not something that was at all traumatic, and my mother would have been surprised if we had made any fuss.....

Marjorie Cecil McMullin, 1948

And then, after some thoughts on how things have changed and how no one would dream of sending an 11 year old on such a journey alone these days, the narrative comes to an end with the following paragraph:

"Writing down my memories gives me a clearer view of some of the things that made up life for me,  It may not seem so strange to my children but who can tell what it may seem to my grandchildren  or even their children if ever they read what I have written?"

It is now almost 75 years since my mother left her boarding school, though in all probability life in the WAAF during the war was not so very different.

As W B Yeats wrote, in 'Among School Children,'

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things,
Solider Aristotle played the taws 
Upon the bottom of the king of kings.....

Education has forever had its place in human society, though its application has varied....  In forms of literature we have seen children abused from Jane Eyre to Harry Potter, from David Copperfield to Jennings and Derbyshire, or Billy Bunter.  Teachers too have played their part in the story, from Ursula, in D H Lawrence's 'The Rainbow:'  "Ursula faced her class, some fifty-five boys and girls who stood filling the ranks of the desks.  She felt utterly non-existent....."

"She did not tell anybody how this state was a torture to her.  she did not confide, either to Gudrun or to her parents, how horrible she found it to be a school-teacher.  But when Sunday night came, and she felt the Monday morning at hand, she was strung up tight with dreadful anticipation, because the strain and the torture was near again...."

To Mr Gradgrind, in Dickens's 'Hard Times:' "'Bitzer,' said Thomas Gradgrind, 'Your definition of a horse.'

'Quadruped.  Graminivorous.  Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.  Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too.  Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron.  Age known by marks in mouth.'  Thus, and much more, Bitzer.

'Now, girl number twenty,. said Mr Gradgrind.  'You know what a horse is.'"

That of course is a digression.  We have no idea now how Miss E Farrington Walker or Miss Tooby, or the mistress who slept in "a wooden cubicle at the door end," of the junior dormitory at Storrington School, felt in their position of care, though somehow I suspect they may have felt pride, and joy, in the community they managed?   

When I think of school, I think of fish.  And a boarding school is where the fish sleep together.....  The most telling thing, for me, in my mother's accounts is the clause:  "the overall memory is of a beehive throbbing with activity....."  She's just celebrated her ninetieth birthday, and although she is a little lonely, and her beloved husband Peter and brother Robert have gone, her schooling prepared her for a social life, not an academic one. Although it's not for me to judge, it is apparent from all the cards in her sitting room that socially her life has not been unsuccessful, and though it is difficult to understand what effect the dislocation of a four year old from her home and mother might have, and further how being shipped thousands of miles to a cold climate might have affected her, it does seem as if the institutions she found herself in did well in not increasing the trauma.

A social scene from boarding today

School inspectors in the 21st century would not be happy with frozen water in bedrooms, nor asbestos walls. There would be frowns (from Mr Gove at least) about the lack of aspiration in the pupils: the idea of a social/liberal education does not cut the mustard these days, I'm afraid. Trips to London are all very well, but where is the risk assessment for those solo trips to the News Theatres and the failure of 'uncles' to meet charges on mainline stations? And picking winkles on tidal mudflats and then cooking them in hot water and eating them with pins in the dormitory? Unsatisfactory to say the least!

But the National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools, January 2013 edition, have this to say, for example:  "Standard 6.2 The school premises, accommodation and facilities provided therein are maintained to a standard such that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of pupils are ensured."  And from the evidence above this was the case in both India and Southend.

Boarders in the 21st Century..... 

Times change.  Building regulations change.  My mother referred to termly fire drills:  "One end of a webbing belt was thrown out of the window and the other end was fastened tightly round the waist of a girl and she climbed out of the window and was lowered gently, pushing herself  away from the house wall as she went....."  but not to fire alarm systems; to the homeliness of laughter with friends, but not to the rigors of roll calls or security systems. Perhaps the world was safer then, before the war?

I sent Warwick Charlesworth a copy of the picture of Storrington School, above, and he kindly replied:

"You have no idea how much pleasure that photo has brought me. Without doubt the same place. We lived in the house furthest away in the picture. The one nearest is now,and has been for as long as I remember, an old people's home.

"I do know the house we lived in was built by Joseph Rothschild, who made millions selling tobacco, as a summer home. Not sure why he would choose Southend for a holiday!

"When we moved into the house it had been very badly treated during the war years as it was the base for an anti aircraft battery set up in the tennis courts behind. Much of the garden area was filled with old beds and every sort of metal junk you can imagine. As a small boy it was heaven but Mum was always worried about my safety. Dad spent a very long time burying tons of the stuff in big holes he dug by hand. No idea why he didn't get it carted away but my Dad never did things the easy way. I do remember him rushing in one day and saying he had found an old well under all the rubbish. Old maps show the stream running under where it was situated and may have been the original Chalk well."

To me the passage of time is a curiously emotional thing. It's not just nostalgia for the past, or the sense of loss, but the two accounts here of a particular place do highlight our experience of impermanence.

I visited Southend not many years ago, on a school inspection (not Storrington School, of course, as this had moved to Devon at the outbreak of war - my mother with it for her last term - and the school never returned) but I was struck by the desolation of Southend.  Although the residential parts of Westcliff or Leigh-on-sea still have a faded elegance, the views of the river, bereft of colourful sailing vessels, to the exhaust flames of Thames Haven, beyond Canvey Island, or of distant Kingsnorth across the estuary, are dispiriting.  The Southend Hotels, once thriving on the tripper trade out of East London, are now mainly shells or hostels, and it was starlings coming in to roost in the dingy little trees along the otherwise bare esplanade that made the most sense of this urban environment.

The two houses at the junction of Imperial Avenue and Seymour Road, Westcliff-on-Sea, as they are today.  The one on the right is St Martin's Residential Care Home

W B Yeats again ('Among School Children,' stanza 7)

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows, 

And that all heavenly glory symbolise — 

O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.....

Anna, with close family, inters her brother Robert's ashes
in their mother's grave in Sussex

My mother's writings started with the words: "As I have lived in places and situations that are becoming part of history I thought I would put some of memories on paper....." I hope that others will find some interest here.

*     *     *     *     *

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream 
Dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our God while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

(Isaac Watts, sung to the hymn tune "St Anne")

Anna, July 2015


  1. Dear Richard, Thank you so much for this fascinating information. I've just been looking through old family photos, and found one of my mum's from 1936 at Storrington School - a YWCA camp, photo of all the staff. She had come from Indonesia as a Dutch-Indo of 22 years of age, initially as an au-pair in Cheadle, and then had apparently moved on to Storrington School.
    Funnily, not knowing any of this history, and having grown up around the world myself, I ended up moving to Liverpool in 1990!
    I've previously not had any luck online with info about Storrington School, so I was very pleased to find your blog.
    Best wishes, Barbara

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