I attended Colston’s Girls’ School from 1932, when I was six, until I left in 1943. Pupils came to the school from a wide area of both Bristol and beyond.
Transport was by bus, tram, train (to Montpelier Station) or by walking. I don’t remember anyone being driven to school. A lot of girls got scholarships and started at the school when they were 11. No fees for them. This made a nice democratic mix of pupils.
I always felt that Redland High, Clifton and Badminton schools were much ‘posher’ than Colston’s, including their more expensive uniform. Our uniform consisted of an ugly square necked, blue and white striped blouse, a gym slip with three pleats fore and aft and a girdle around the waist, grey lisle stockings and black lace up leather shoes. In summer we had a panama hat with a green school hat band. During wartime, we needed clothing coupons to buy clothes, and the required school uniform became less formal.
We sat at single strong wooden desks, often with carved initials cut into the tops and with an inkwell on the right side. No fountain pens or ballpoints were allowed. French and Latin were the two languages taught, the latter being necessary for entrance to medical school. I gave up Latin but wish now I hadn’t. Games were tennis, cricket, hockey, netball and swimming. Matches were played against other schools. The gym floor was apt to leave one with splinters in one’s bum! One Maths teacher was Miss Brazier which I found hard to say as it was too close to a rude word – brassiere!
School books we no longer needed were taken to George’s bookshop at the top of Park Street and, presumably involving some kind of part exchange, new books that were required for the coming year were purchased.
The most unfair thing a teacher did to me was when she saw me playing with an inflated balloon. She called me over and took it from me. Then she cut it up! I thought it fair that she had taken it, but then to destroy it….
When we were older, at break time we would go across the gym and out of the door on the other side, to the back of the bakery which was the second shop to the left of the school. There we bought currant buns (a halfpenny or 1d). Also at morning break, we had a third of a pint of milk (I think free, a government initiative that also included free orange juice and cod liver oil for young children).
Some of the girls not taking School Cert exams did a secretarial course in the converted shop to the right of the school. Girls who went on to university and got bursarys and degree awards plus those who had gained their degree, all had their names inscribed in gold on huge boards in the main corridor. These are still there though names stopped being added sometime around the 50’s. Very few awards were given when I was at the school compared with the degrees obtained nowadays.
In the war, I wonder if anyone else apart from me saw the bomb that fell on the school during a night raid on Good Friday, April 11th 1941. We lived opposite Redland High School. My father was in the ARP (air raid precautions) and regularly went up to the roof of our house to watch for incendiary bombs, and had taken me onto the roof to watch the raid that was targeted over central Bristol. It was a dark night and we could hear the sound of the planes and the whizz noise of bombs falling onto the city. Then there was a much closer flash of light from an exploding bomb. “Daddy”, I said, “That bomb’s fallen on my school.” And so it had. The wing containing the art rooms, the library and two junior form rooms was severely fire damaged and had to be demolished. [Incendiary bombs on this same raid also set fire to and destroyed the old Cheltenham Road public library on the other side of the road - Ed.] ** As a result of this damage, the school had to initially take over one house and finally three houses in Cotham Grove to accommodate the junior forms.
The school had no blackouts, curtains or shutters as far as I remember. I assume that no one was in the buildings after dark, though homes had to use them. If any light was showing, someone would soon bang on your door to remind you.
At night time during the war, Bristol was protected from low flying planes by a ring of many huge grey balloons around the city. Each was tethered to a lorry by cables so the balloon could be raised or lowered as needed. I loved to watch the balloons on light summer evenings. One day, one of these, tethered on the school’s playing field, came loose from its mooring and floated away, trailing its long hawser over the houses where I lived, big Victorian ones with glass skylights on the roofs. The hawser broke every skylight over which it swung. That was great fun to watch!
The main school had large air raid shelters built underground in the playground. One day, unusually, there was a daylight raid. I assume it was to bomb the BAC. For us pupils, this situation was great fun because we were in the middle of an exam and had to get out of the school building and into the shelter.
Wartime meant we had to take our gas masks to school every day; they were housed in little cardboard boxes which had a long carrying strap. In the event, we never had to use the masks.
I remember a school holiday in Exmoor where, in August 1941, we stayed at the Tors hotel in Lynmouth which had been taken over by Badminton School. We took the train from Temple Meads to Taunton and then by coach to Lynmouth. I kept a log book diary of this holiday. The following details are taken from the diary.
When we arrived at the hotel, we had a high tea of fish pie, followed by bread and jam. We were allocated various duties: cooks who had to report to the kitchen at 8.15 each morning, washers up, common room orderlies to clean the common room, dining room orderlies to wait on people at meals and staff orderlies to do staff bedrooms, and odd jobs. Bedtime was 8.40 and lights out by 9pm.
We had a swimming competition one day and our team won. We each got a prize of a bag of liquorice all sorts, a small present chosen by the teacher and a medal made of flour and water, stamped CGS 1941. Another day we had an expedition to the Doone Valley. This is what I wrote in my diary at the time:
‘While we were sitting down to a picnic lunch in the valley we heard some banging behind us. Suddenly something whizzed over our heads and landed about 80 yards from us. We laid flat until the noise stopped and then we jumped up to find out what it all was about. A range warden came up and told us there was a shelling practice and we must go away until the operation was finished at 2pm. We hadn’t seen the red flag flying that indicated that shelling practice was in operation. We vanished in a cloud of dust. At the appointed time, we rushed back and then when Miss Kerr found the shell’s position we proceeded to dig for it. It took half an hour to heave it out, during which time, Miss Prudhoe fell on top of everyone in her effort to see down the hole and Joan Relph and I got terribly dirty. A great shout went up when we heaved it out at last and feeling very pleased we kicked it down the slope into the stream to wash it (and ourselves). We managed to take it to nearby Cloud Farm where we all stopped to have a cup of tea. The man there said he would take the shell to Lynmouth as he was going there himself ’. [No worries about Health and Safety in those days! – Ed.]
Our behaviour in the classroom was, I think, very good on the whole – some minor infractions like the passing of notes but nothing worse. I do remember being shocked once at the daring of one girl, after we finished a chemistry exam, telling us that she wrote, in answer to a question asking for the identity of some chemical, “Suck it and see”. We kept all our school books in our own desk and took home what we needed for homework in our leather satchel. I can’t remember ever hearing of anything being stolen.
For me, one highlight of the year was the play put on by the staff. A lot of the teachers appeared to me, to be elderly. When I saw one such older teacher, who usually had her hair arranged in a plait pinned neatly around her head, but was now wearing it long and loose - wow!
In my last year at school we twice went to Slimbridge, at Easter and then during the summer holidays, to plant and pick potatoes as part of the war effort. This land was later taken over by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. But back then it was flat farmland bordering the Severn. We slept in a big barrack-like building. I have a photo of us washing in the dykes and another of us queuing for a meal, probably a stew, cooked in a huge tureen in an open farm shed. An Italian prisoner of war drove the tractor that pulled the load of potatoes. I’d never seen a prisoner of war, or even an Italian before. Here is an extract from my diary:
‘Glennis and I cycled to Slimbridge and discovered this summer (July 25th - Aug 1st 1943) that there were over 400 in the camp. Every evening we went swimming in the canal and every day we became a little browner (with the aid of Glennis’s fish oil). Food was good but the cooks were extremely overworked. Hordes of sailors came down every day to haul potatoes.
On the last night we all went down by the Severn river and, on the green, short grass, laid our supper by the water’s edge. The river covered the mud, almost lapping our feet and with the background of a beautiful sunset we ate for the last time as a group of Colstonians’.
Just inside of the front door to the school is a large statue of Edward Colston (1636- 1721) the school’s founder and earlier founder of the Colston’s Boys’ School. He was known for his benevolence, being one of Bristol’s most generous charity donators. He gave money to many of Bristol’s schools, almshouses and hospitals and restored a number of churches. Once a year we went to a service in his memory in the cathedral. As pupils back then, it was quite unknown to us that Colston’s wealth was accumulated as a result of his trading with the slave owners in the West Indies. He himself employed a black woman slave. Now of course we are fully aware of how much of Bristol’s growing wealth at that time was derived from its extensive slave trading activities and all the horrors and suffering endured by the slaves that this entailed.
** This was part of the Good Friday raid that resulted in the deaths of 180 people and about 380 injured. The first phase of the raid, which started about 20.00 and lasted for 1 hour and 45 minutes chiefly involved a line running from Victoria Street to Horfield – Ed.
You can see an article on our website about the old Cheltenham Road library here