Saturday, 17 May 2014


How often does one understand something you should have known all along? 

While working on my Mary Wollstonecraft story for the Daughters of Time anthology, I started thinking about education for girls, and especially my own mother’s education. So today, because May was her birthday month, let me tell you a little about the schooling of Evelyn Gladys Rose, fourth child and only daughter of an army family. 

I knew where she went to school, because I went to the school myself : Noel Park School, Wood Green, North London. The school is one of the generation of imposing “triple-decker schools” familiar in urban areas, built to last. The healthily high-ceilinged rooms have large windows to let in plenty of light but set well above any inattentive child’s eye level. The schools have large halls and, as any current staff would agree, a quantity of staircases. Sometimes one can still find “Boys” and “Girls” carved in stone above the once-segregated entrances. Noel Park School, when I knew it, still had a “Boys” playground and a “Girls & Infants” playground, divided by a high brick wall and each with its own outside lavatory block. We never went to the top of the school..
In 1921, the school-leaving age was raised from 12 to 14, but it was the 1926 Hadow Report on Education and Adolescents that led to pattern of classrooms that my mother knew. 

Her Noel Park School taught Infants on the ground floor (5-6 years) Juniors on the middle floor (7-11years) and the Seniors (12-14) up on the top floor. The division at age 11 was chosen for practical reasons. Some of the boys, 
I believe, went to a nearby secondary school, where the emphasis was on technical education. 

There was, however, one way out of Noel Park. After a year, able children could win a scholarship to Glendale Grammar School. Among my mother’s “treasures” is the letter offering her a coveted place, but  - a familiar tale of the times - she did not go. The uniform was expensive and the overall cost would be too much. 

My grandfather, she hinted, refused to give his permission. One of the reasons she gave was that it was because she was a girl.  My mother only mentioned this disappointment a couple of times, but I wonder if the incident drove her on all her life. So she studied typing and shorthand, becoming a formidably accurate typist, and during World War II, she left home and joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and was in the typing pool at High Wycombe, across the corridor from the office of Arthur “Bomber” Harris. 

My mother never really stopped working. Her typewriter was her identity. With her toddler in the back seat, she cycled the country lanes of then-rural Cheshunt and Nazeing, collecting and delivering freelance typing.  

Later, she got a job as a typist and then secretary at the impressive Woodhall House, home of the local gas company but now the Wood Green Magistrates Court. One afternoon, aged around eight, I went up the drive, through those polished doors, edged up to the Reception desk and asked to see her. 

In an era when female office staff hid any hint of “children”, my mother the secretary was not at all pleased to see my after-school face, especially when my reason was too complicated to explain. I think I had wanted to prove to my friend that my mum really did work in such a palatial building.
My mother kept at it. Eventually became the personal secretary to one of the top “Gas Men” up in London and after retirement worked on at the St John Ambulance Brigade Headquarters. Such determination! Even as she lay dying, she was struggling to get out of bed to go to work. (What would I get out of such a bed for, I wondered? Soon after that moment, I started trying to write.).

My mother had always wanted me to achieve, too. She wanted me, her daughter, to have the education she hadn’t had. She was the one who was keen on my education, the one who pulled all the strings she could to get me into the local single-sex Convent Grammar School. She was also the one who picked up the pieces between one disastrous school incident and another, the one who pushed me into becoming a teacher. Before the second wave of feminism, my mother was determined to show everyone that girls are just as good as boys and just as deserving of their education and place in the world. Maybe she echoed some of Mary Wollstonecraft's ideals?

However, back to that WAAF typing pool. I recently met up with my mother’s best friend. Shortly afterwards, she sent me two pages from her autograph book of that time. On the left page is a verse by Johnnie, a man who was often calling in to the pool, giving his view of the WAAF typists. On the opposing page is my mother’s spirited reply. Both verses are below.

The Song of the Airman

Beauteous maidens, garbed in blue,
Hindering those with work to do,
Drawing pay for doing naught,
Doing things they didn’t ought,
Powdering noses, apeing fashions,
Eating much more than their rations,
Affected girls with silly laughs
Useless, muddling, blundering W.A.A.F.S.

The W.A.A.F.S Lament

Stalwart he-men, big and strong (?)
Boasting, bragging all day long,
Thinking they do all the work,
Walking round with saintly smirk,
Trying to behave but finding
This ordeal much too binding.
Unfortunately they’re not rare men,
There are too many b - - - - y airmen!

Apparently, she delivered standing on a chair, and to much applause by all the girls. Good on you, Gladys!

Penny Dolan

ps. I do know, and my mother and father certainly knew, that that war took many lives, especially of airmen, so I hope you will read this verse in the context of the post and the time. Thanks.


Celia Rees said...

Thank you for this post, Penny. Odd to think of our mothers as part of history. I also began writing after my mother died.

Sue Purkiss said...

Love the verses! Surely you don't need the postscript? I should think that was the kind of banter that helped to keep people going. My mother was a WAAF too, but a nurse. She never said much about it, though.

Becca McCallum said...

I'll echo Celia Rees and say 'thank-you' for this post. So interesting to think about the autograph books - my grandma has one with little sketches and comics that her friends did. Truly a 'snapshot' of the era.

Love the idea of your mother standing on a chair and reading her verse aloud!

Emma Barnes said...

Lovely post, Penny. I've also been thinking lately about my mother's education, in the context of the times... she was able to accept her grammar school place, I think maybe in part because by then there was more state financial assistance in place.

Kit said...

Very interesting about women's education back then. I've just been reading the memoirs of Molly Hughes, who was part of the first wave of women teacher training graduates back in the 1890's. Fascinating to read and she sounds as fresh and modern as anything... the only evidence of Victorian notions being that she still felt that men should take first place!! I've always loved her books, starting with A London Child of the 1870s ever since I was a child myself.