Monthly Archives: September 2022

Back to School

September is a month traditionally bound up with that ‘back-to-school’ feeling: updated goals for a new season, and the chance of a fresh start blowing in on the cooler air. Even if our schooldays were decades ago, the change from summer to autumn brings with nostalgia for a time when reinventing yourself simply by dint of getting older and moving up a year was deemed possible. Perhaps it still is? I’d like to think so.

Back to school for my mother was the smell of leather satchels and sharpened pencils; while I recall scratchy wool blazers chafing on sunburnt shoulders which had been free for several weeks, along with a vague sense of excitement in knowing I’d soon be learning new things. Even now, I’ll sign up for courses at this time of year, believing somehow that they will make me a better person. While that might sound like a noble aspiration, I often think that endless studying can sometimes be an excuse for inaction – just one more class before I can crack on with a new career plan!

But back in the simpler days of obligatory education, there was something comforting about the rhythm of the seasons and the knowledge that, although many aspects of our lives were out of our control, there was an enjoyment to be had in the freedom to manipulate other things within those constraints. Choosing new season school shoes or deciding that this was the year to finally audition for a part in the school play, for example. And knowing you’d be meeting up with old friends, as well as making new ones, was enough to beat the alarm clock that first week back.

As a schoolgirl myself when I first became interested in the family photograph albums, I was always amazed that my mother could recall the names of most of the pupils in her primary class photograph, as well as remembering the things they got up to all those years ago. Most thrillingly of all, she was sometimes able to tell us what happened to these children in the decades afterwards. The pretty popular girl (there’s always one) who became dowdy with motherhood and housework, or the quiet boy who became a famous musician. I used to wonder whether I’d be able to do the same thing with my own class photos, and of course – surprise, surprise – it turns out I can! 

Alloway Primary School, Class 1, 1969 (I am on the far left)

Our family collection of primary school photos is, for some reason (which possibly involves both world wars), incomplete: there is only one of my grandmother, two of my mother, and four of my own class. While that limited the opportunity to see our schoolgirl selves developing across the years, it did mean we could compare ourselves across three generations at roughly twenty-five year intervals.

The thing that surprised me most of all about my grandmother’s school photograph was the absence of uniforms. Even my mother’s wartime photograph shows some children in school uniform while others – like my mother – are without. As rationing made it difficult for all pupils to obtain the right clothes, uniforms were not enforced during that period. Yet by the time my first primary school photograph was taken, the high watermark of strict uniform codes for state schools appeared to have already been passed, and only a few pupils (often those with hand-me-downs from older siblings) went as far as to wear school hats and matching gaberdine coats.

Murrayburn Primary School c1945 (My mother is in the 2nd row, 4th girl from right)

A second photograph of my mother and her class taken a couple of years later (below) shows her in the traditional gymslip of the day; although as rationing was in place for several years after the war, many of the children are still not in uniform. In fact, this outfit was made by my grandmother, who sewed all my mother’s clothes herself, even her winter coats.

Murrayburn Primary School c1948 (My mother is in the centre front row – the tallest girl in uniform)

When my mother instigated a move to James Gillespie’s – a fee-paying school on the other side of the city, made famous by ex-pupil Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she not only left behind her local friends but had to take on the strict uniform rules of a private school. She can still recall the bugbear of having to wear uncomfortable hats, even while off the premises, while my memories of secondary school uniform rules in the late seventies were rather different. Like all state school secondary pupils, I customised the parts of the uniform I could – the school tie was first short and fat, then later long and slim, as the seventies gave way to the eighties. Going up through the school years, I grew more daring and began to exchange my white nylon shirt for a denim one the moment I was out of the house. (Years later my mother told me she kept putting this shirt to the bottom of the wash box so I’d have less opportunities to wear it!)

Thus it was with envy that I use to gaze at my grandmother’s uniform-free sole school photo (below), taken around 1918 shortly before she turned twelve. She left school a couple of years after this, something I was certainly not envious about as I was a bit of a study geek who preferred the idea of books to going out to work. I’m ashamed to say that I felt my teenage self superior for staying on at school longer than both my mother and grandmother, although in retrospect, age seventeen was still relatively young to be cast out into the world, particularly as this coincided with me having to leave home to study in another town and thus was a steep learning curve in terms of looking after myself!

Milton House School c1918 (my grandmother is standing directly below the girl in the top row, far left) 

The school photograph of my grandmother at Milton House School (which was erected in 1888 in front of the site of Milton House, built earlier in the century) in the Canongate, and now the Royal Mile School, is one that used to always intrigue me. Not only did we have no other images of my grandmother as a child, but to see her as a schoolgirl – as I was then – was particularly revealing. My grandmother did tell me about some of the other pupils in the picture, but the memory of these girls and their stories unfortunately eludes me. Now working in education myself, there are so many questions I’d love to have asked her: about the teachers and their style of teaching, the curriculum they had to follow, the amount of discipline that was enforced.

From looking at my grandmother’s school photograph, I would assume the man is the headmaster, the two women on either side of the children are the class teachers, and the woman in white uniform with the cap is the school nurse. It is interesting to note that even though only unmarried women were allowed to work as teachers up until the 1940s, when the war made teacher shortages inevitable, there were still more women working in the profession than men once the Education Act of 1872 came into force and all children had to attend school from the ages of five to thirteen. However, it would appear that the more prestigious positions were given to men, and at the time there was a concern that too many female teachers – at least in the board schools – was demeaning the profession. 

When I compare this school photograph with the street one (below) that I featured in last month’s blog (see The Children in the Street), the difference between the regimented official class photograph, complete with teachers and ‘best clothes’ is very different from the one taken in the Dumbiedykes, not least because there is a mix of ages.  Yet even that street photograph has been put together in a style reminiscent of a more formal setting, and the more I scrutinise it the more it appears that many of the children have put on their Sunday best for the photographer. In addition, they seemed to have been lined up in a semi-official way that ensures each child is clearly visible. Perhaps it really was a photograph taken to sell to their parents, one the off-chance that even if only a few parents ordered copies it would still be commercially viable. That was certainly the reasoning behind many of the group photographs taken at workplaces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dumbiedykes street scene c1920 (Great Uncle Bob is the 2nd boy on the left, back row (striped tie); Great Aunt Anne is the front row (next to the boy with the striped tie)

One interesting thing I learnt from comparing my schooldays with those of my grandmother and mother was that as we grow up we often have regrets about our schooling, whether it be leaving too early or not choosing the right subjects. As each generation is faced with more post-school choices, the more complex the decisions seem to have become. For many people dreams about returning to school to ‘complete’ their education seem to be a recurring theme, and may have their roots in nobler aspirations to make up for unfulfilled promise rather than those awful nightmares about sitting exams without preparation – or even clothes. 

My mother left James Gillespie’s High School for Girls at the earliest opportunity – too early, she now thinks, but she’d not enjoyed attending the school as a day pupil as much as she’d expected. Perhaps because she’d arrived only for the secondary education and many of the girls had been there for years before she arrived as a ‘newcomer’. The boarding school books she’d read as a girl had fired up her imagination with their tales of derring-do, but her experience of school was very different, and the strict discipline was in contrast to her local primary school.

At age fifteen she decided to take a year long course in secretarial skills: it wasn’t a difficult choice as teaching, nursing or secretarial work were the main professions girls were encouraged to enter in the 1950s. This would, however, still have been seen as a ‘step up’ from the dressmaking apprenticeship my grandmother undertook with an Edinburgh department store in the 1920s, while my university education was a more standard path in the 1980s. Yet even though researching and writing essays and shorthand and touch typing are certainly worthwhile skills, it was the exquisite hand and machine sewing that my grandmother was able to do that my mother and I now consider the most impressive achievement among us. 

Torphichen Street Commercial Institute, Edinburgh, 1954. My mother is the middle row, far right.

I love the fifties’ fashions in this photo – which obviously suited some of the girls more than others. By that time my mother was learning to make her own clothes, too, including the long tartan skirt she is wearing above, made from unpleating a childhood kilt. But perhaps what is most enjoyable about this image is the variety of expressions on the faces of this first generation of teenagers and the subtle differences in the poses they each strike. Many of them look like they can see the irony in a school-type photograph (at their age!), although the two boys look understandably less comfortable with the whole event. 

Most of these young people probably will have been – like my mother- relieved to have their formal schooling behind them and ready to start out in the serious world of work, a topic I intend to explore in next month’s post.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2022

P.S. For Those interested in Muriel Spark’s experiences at James Gillespie’s there’s a link to an article she wrote for the New Yorker about her schooldays here. My mother confirmed that twenty years later several of these teachers were still at the school and were well-known to her.