School and other life-changing events

  • There has been a flurry of email and Facebook reminiscences about school which remind us all a) what good friends we made all those years ago, and b) how very long ago all those years were. Yet
    some of those memories are still very vivid. So forgive me while I reminisce a little.

Obviously you will find it hard to believe, but sixty three years ago this January my sister Ruth and I became pupils at St Peter’s Diocesan School, Bulawayo, aged 12 and 11 respectively.

It was January 1953,  and we were nervous. We hadn’t visited the school before, and had never met a nun. We had spent the previous year very happily – once we got used to the strictures – boarding at a school called Sakeji right up near the then Belgian Congo, run by Baptists and Plymouth Brethren for the children of missionaries.

There, my sister, brother John and I were the only children of non-missionaries, and were soon uncomfortably well versed in the sins of families who went to Scottish Country dancing parties in the holidays, had mothers who wore even minimal makeup and fathers who smoked. I felt obliged to write to our mother begging her not to put on the tentative dab of Pond ‘s Natural lipstick she brought out for special occasions, and my father not to smoke his pipe (horror of all horrors…) when they came to fetch us at the end of term.

But we quite quickly adapted, and apart from Sundays when one was not allowed to do anything very much at all, and the threat, avoided thankfully, of a machine belting for serious misdemeanours,  Sakeji was otherwise a happy, relaxed, outdoory, climbing-trees-swimming-in-the-river sort of school where you only had to wear shoes for class and in the dining room; two terms of eighteen weeks each, each with two ‘half terms’, because so many children came from the Congo and Angola, some living over a  thousand miles away and no cheap air travel in those days.

Sakeji was low low church. St Peter’s on the other hand was about as ‘high’ as you can reach, as were soon to discover. What a steep contrast!

That January, the three of us, Ruth, John and I had come up to Bulawayo together on the train from Cape Town where we had had a lovely six week family summer seaside holiday in Fishhoek.  Brother John who was only just eight was sick the entire three-day journey. Ruth and I worried terribly about him, were very nervous and felt pretty sick ourselves so it wasn’t a happy episode.

John was met at the station in Bulawayo by someone from his prep school, Whitestones. Ruth and I were picked up by a tall, very gaunt and unsmiling figure in a black cloak and a strange headdress. This was Sister Lilian Frances, whom we later came to admire and love but she appeared to Ruth and me then as very foreboding, and indeed unwelcoming.  Without much small talk she led us solemnly to the nun’s rather bleak dining room where some supper had been kept for us. We didn’t feel very hungry. I remember her offering me some spinach. It looked rather unappetisingly grey and gritty so  I very politely said ‘No thank you’. She looked shocked and told me I had to have some.  So that was a bad start…

Ruth Cragg (Titch Hall)
A school photo of Ruth, aged 16

The next day we had to kit ourselves out in our strange and brand new St Peter’s uniform  ordered ahead by our mother from Haddon & Sly: dark green cotton tunics, beige blouse, leather belt and green tie, see my sister Ruth above. Goodness knows how we knew how to cope with the tie. There was a dark green blazer, and beige felt hats with a green hat band (crossed keys with SPDS in the front) with a brim which had to be kept down no matter how unfashionable and embarrassing we found it. In summer we wore beige socks, in winter lisle stockings (suspender belts – who remembers them?). And always, truly voluminous  green cotton bloomers, I suppose for overall modesty.

We had quickly to master the ‘Yes, sister’ ‘No sister’ rigmarole, instant silence when the Angelus bell was rung at midday, regardless of what was happening at the time, eating everything one was served at meals, no matter how gristly or inedible, chapel twice a day, even eventually – but that’s another story to be told – Confessions…

St Peter's 1st Hockey X1 1958
The Sr Peter’s Hockey XI 1958!

But of course, eventually, we adapted. We made lots of friends , a number of whom we are still in touch with today, loved all the sport, and six years later were very sad to leave.

Only to face another dramatic life change… My father had retired  and we ‘went home’. England was home to our parents but we were actually leaving home. Northern Rhodesia was our home, which we loved. We arrived in England in December 1958, it was cold, grey and we knew absolutely nobody – yet another difficult change to be faced. 

As always, there was nothing else to do but just get on with life and cope with things, which inevitably, eventually, improved. I think Ruth and I were enormously lucky to always have each other there for moral support and companionship. After he went to prep school our poor brother was always on his own, family-wise, so I am sure it was much more difficult for him. I must ask him about that one day.

I am sure we weren’t unique, and many of you must have had equally difficult adaptations to make as your childhood progressed. 

Do you think they have affected us? And for the better or for worse?

How can one tell…?

Published by

Marion Fuller-Sessions

Retired and downsized, and sadly now widowed, but keeping in touch with family and friends and friends far and wide via my blog

9 thoughts on “School and other life-changing events”

  1. This is a fascinating and poignant story. I wonder how it influenced your religious beliefs in later life? It must have been hard to lose the magical time spent outdoors on leaving the first school.

    1. Gill, I’m not really quite sure about the religious question. Constant church going certainly put me off but now I find a traditional service with all the music and responses can be very nostalgic and comforting. The Sakeji approach was much more intimate – we were constantly urged to be on the alert for a sign we had been Saved. It felt important and wholly desirable, but while I waited (in vain) I dreaded being called to the sisterhood at St Peter’s and for at least two years I thought that my fate!

    2. I was sent to boarding school at St Peter’s Carnegie House at the age of seven in 1952. It was not seen in our family as cruel since my my father,aunt and uncles were sent away to St Peter’s at anything from age 4 to 7.

      Fortunately, I have forgotten most of it. Memories that remain are of playing jacks and pick-up-sticks in the sand, being taught by Sister Jennifer to darn my own socks at 8, playing Mary in the house nativity play and a classroom with Sister Bertha (ancient and scary) in Fletcher House. I was totally miserable for the first three years. Was then transferred to Heyman House for two years, supervised by Sister Lilian Francis which wasn’t too bad.

      I left at the end of Form 1 to go to Townsend. I was delighted to leave the regime of chapel twice a day, once on Saturday and three times on Sunday! To this day, over sixty years later I remember the words for many of the hymns we sang and all the words to almost every Christmas carol we ever sang.

      1. Pat, that does all sound very sad – a good thing you’ve forgotten most of it, more than the hymns. I’m the other way around.
        People these days just won’t understand, that being sent away to school was often pure necessity, and also, often, family tradition (both true in my case and I suspect yours). I remember telling people at work I’d been to boarding school. They were all politely horrified, and their immediate response was ‘Why?’ Almost implying it was a reformatory!! Did you board at Townsend?

        1. Just seen this so apologies for not replying before. Yes I did board at Townsend and although I was never thrilled by it, it was a lot less rigid and the food was 10 times better!

  2. One night in July 1943 I sat on my father’s shoulders watching as the Lady Russell Infant School blazed. The Petersham school – which had received a direct hit from a German plane – was just inside Richmond Park, Surrey, England.
    The next day and for several months a large underground concrete bunker became our school building. Wooden benches stretched along three sides of the room upon which sat more than 60 children who were taught by 4 teachers. Along the fourth wall were positioned the Elsan buckets providing no privacy to pupil and staff alike.
    When the war ended my farming family moved to a Sussex village in which was a Congregational Church- far less structured than the Baptist Church and lower- with a Sunday School in excess of 70 children. Life in the village and attendance at the Church was to shape the rest of my life. Indeed Jenny and I – whenever possible – drive 40 miles to attend evensong conducted by a Minister who attended Sunday School with me.
    I was sent to boarding school when I was 15 years old at an age when I was able to understand what was required of me. I loved it.
    Marion you are quite right to highlight childhood …. Give me the child and I will show you the man.

    1. Derek, what an amazing memory, and thank you so much for sharing it with us. I bet you were taught well, in spite of the appalling conditions. The first school I went to, in Fort Jameson near the Malawi (Nyssaland then) border, had twelve pupils, one teacher and one classroom. The pupils’ ages ranged from six to twelve, with several Afrikaans children for whom English was a second language. Yet we we all loved school. Lessons were stimulating and fun and we worked very hard with great enjoyment. When I was nine my parents went to England on leave and we were all sent to a school in Paignton where to our surprise and discomfiture we were two years ahead…

  3. Oops, I’ve only just seen your reply. Yes I boarded at Townsend (five years there and five at St Peter’s) and have to say it was a lot easier and the food a great deal better. I have awful memories of lumpy and burnt porridge, fried egg plant on toast and boiled pork at Cecil House. We were forced to eat everything on the plate. Hated boarding but loved school.

    1. I think the food may have improved somewhat from the Cecil House days, but we certainly always had to eat everything, regardless of how revolting. Only starting to board at 12 I really loved it, eventually. It took me two or three terms to get used to it, and all the ‘Yes, sister’ ‘No, sister’ business, and the Angelus every midday. I don’t know how I would have felt if I had started as a youngster.

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