Reunion of The Old Girls of The Central Foundation School in Spital Sq
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When Beryl Happe of the Old Girls of the Central Foundation School (which was in Spital Sq from 1892 until 1975) contacted me to write about them, I asked if I could come to one of their gatherings. When Beryl explained that the Old Girls existed only as a group on the internet, I suggested we collaborate to stage a reunion.
Thus it was that Beryl and I went along to Spital Sq to speak with the management of the Galvin Restaurant, which now occupies the building that was once the school assembly hall, and we organised a joyous reunion of more than seventy Old Girls which took place recently – where Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven took the portraits published here today.
Senior guest of honour was Zena Yorke who had been a pupil in the thirties and returned as a teacher of Domestic Science in the post-war era. “What is it like returning to your old school after all these years?” I ventured tentatively. “Whenever I’ve got a lot of money I come here for lunch,” she declared, gazing around the swanky restaurant with bright-eyed enthusiasm, “The food is excellent.”
I could not resist savouring a certain irony in the occasion, discovering that the school cultivated an Eliza Doolittle tendency in its pupils, teaching deportment, elocution and which fork to use for fish. A prophecy was being fulfilled before my eyes as these pupils, once from modest backgrounds, were now shown to be supremely comfortable in such elevated surroundings – especially as they all appeared to have done rather well in life, thanks to the classy education they received at the Central Foundation School.
“Do you remember Jesse Cash?” enquired Zena of the assembled throng, “She did very well, she sang the Queen of the Night at the Royal Opera House. They wouldn’t give her a grant to train as a singer, only as a teacher of singing. But now she has retired and teaches singing.”
Zena nodded to herself in private acknowledgement at the poetry of life. She and a few other Old Girls still live in the East End, but for most it was an emotional return. As the top grammar school for girls in the territory, Central Foundation School encouraged class mobility and very few of the Old Girls would consider themselves East Enders anymore.
There was plenty of laughter and a few tears too. One Old Girl told me how they were permitted to choose the hymns they sang on their last day at school, half a century ago in that very room, yet they were unable to sing because they cried so much – and, subsequently, she and her friends all had the same hymns at their weddings.
There were differing opinions on whether the school encouraged enough ambition or imposed limitations upon girls’ expectations, though Mrs Dunford, the progressive head mistress, was remembered fondly by everyone. In particular, her introduction of sex education was applauded, as was her court appearance defending the “little red book’ that was used to teach the ‘facts of life’ to girls.
The guest speaker was Fiona Skrine, one of those brave individuals who locked themselves into the hall to stop its demolition in 1981, speaking with eloquent passion and startling everyone with the tale of how Dan Cruickshank fought to stop a workman who wanted to strip the architectural features for salvage.
In sum, there was a collective sense of euphoria engendered by the discovery that something which had been lost could so elegantly be restored to life, simply by gathering the Old Girls in the former school hall for a fancy tea party – and it was generally agreed that an annual reunion had been inaugurated.
Central Foundation School for Girls, Spital Sq
Zena Yorke, pupil in the thirties and Domestic Science teacher in the post-war era - “Whenever I’ve got a lot of money, I come here for lunch! It was a brilliant school and many of us were East End girls who came from poverty. I was born in the East End, but people say to me, ‘You don’t talk like a cockney.’ I say, ‘I’ve been educated to speak correctly, not everyone in E1 is ignorant!’ I’ve always lived in the East End, it’s such a friendly place to be.”
Beryl Happe – inspired organiser of the reunion.
Beverley Marling (1968-74) - “I’m from Stepney and I had a very good education here, learning loads of languages, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and sciences, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. We were taught that whatever you wanted to do it was possible. If you had ideas, Mrs Dunford was always interested, I’ve swapped careers several times, I worked for the Bank Of England for a while, I had my children and I ran a pub, and now I’m managing Chelmsford City Football Club.”
Sheila Norman (1948-56) - “We were all East End girls from deprived backgrounds and this school was the making of us. They had a box of knives and taught us how to eat properly if we were taken out. I’m in the school livery, we used to wear all green – even our knickers!”
Barbara Marling (1965-72) – “Miss Idison had a go at me for not being good at Maths, but then I went to the London College of Fashion and worked in the rag trade for thirteen years.”
Mary Hanbidge, Head Mistress, 1898 – 1929
Barbara Jezewska (1965- 72) - “I was very happy here.”
Barbara as a pupil
Valerie Noble (1967-74) - “I grew up in Shoreditch and people said it was deprived but I never felt deprived. There were no black girls at the school when I arrived. When I came for my interview, my mother showed me the roll of honour with names of pupils on it and said, ‘If you work hard you can go to university and get your name on this board.’ And I went to the school and I did get my name on that board. Years later, I showed my daughter and, last week, she got her own degree. I’ve been a teacher for thirty years and a head for six.”
Lisa Jarvis (1962-68) – “I found it difficult coming from a poor East End background, though it was a fantastic school and I still have some of the knowledge I acquired here – Miss Yorke taught me to cook, and I passed it onto my son and now he does all the cooking! But it was the sixties and we all wanted to be out enjoying ourselves.”
Pinning the corsage on the Lady Mayoress.
Carol Green (1965-72) - “We were all poor East End girls who managed to pass our Eleven Plus exam. We all came here and did well. We all got in to University. My seven years here were the best years of my life, just saying it makes me cry! It was the camaraderie of the girls, we became friends for life and still see each other regularly nearly fifty years later.”
Josette Hill (1968-73) - “Looking back, it was a lot of fun – but I didn’t think so at the time.”
Textbook used from 1913 to 1962
Josephine Collins (1968-73) - “We were considered special, but there was a limit to what was expected of us – either a nurse, or a teacher or secretary to an important man in the City.”
Francs Robertson (1951-57) - “I wasn’t the best student but I loved being a City of London girl, and it gave me a sense of purpose. We always used to clap for anyone who achieved something good, when girls got into teacher training, or nursing, or Oxford & Cambridge.”
Miss Roberts says goodbye.
Susan Goldman (1968-73) - “I’m from Roman Rd. It was a really good school and I got a career at Lloyds, before I married and had four daughters.”
Susan Brencher - “We used to go out at lunchtime down the market and visit Bert’s Photography Studio in Wentworth St, when we probably shouldn’t have. We were supposed to be nice girls. At school dances, we were told not to sit on the boys’ laps but we weren’t interested in those spotty kids. I lived near the ‘Ready Steady Go’ studio and afterwards we’d wait for the stars like Freddie & the Dreamers to come out.”
Susan as a pupil
“We were all boy mad. One of our friends got pregnant and married the school coach driver”
“All the porters used to whistle as we walked through the market.”
Sheree Ashley (1969-75) - “I grew up in Whitechapel and it was quite a prestigious thing being here. It was a bit too academic for me, I spent all my time in the Art Room. I wanted to do Art but Mrs Dunsford said, ‘Not as a career?’ I tried to give up Chemistry to do Art but Mrs Dunsford said, ‘As an artist, you’ll need Chemistry to mix pigments.’ I went to Chelsea School of Art and I became a textile designer, and my parents were very supportive, but Chemistry never figured.”
Netta Bloomfield (1948-53) - “I worked hard and liked school. I used to come on the bus with my friend Sheila. I remember, when it arrived, people going to work used to elbow us schoolgirls out of the way.”
Rosemary Hoffman (1956-62) - “Subsequently, I’ve become a food technologist.”
Rosemary as a pupil, stands central in this photograph
Verinda Osborne (1965-72) -”Mrs Dunford was very progressive and she encouraged me to have confidence in myself.”
Form IIX, 1960 submitted by Jane Hart (née Silvester)
Portraits copyright © Patricia Niven
The Bishopsgate Institute is collecting a digital archive of memorabilia from Central Foundation School for Girls. If you have photographs, reports, magazines or any other material that the Institute can copy for the archive, please contact the Archivist Stefan.Dickers@bishopsgate.org.uk
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