Looking Back on a Catholic Girlhood

I was educated at a Catholic school – St. Ursula’s High School for Girls, Bristol -between 1958 and 1964. Although housed in a modern building, the school was run on old-fashioned lines, the nuns being Sisters of Mercy.

New girls were given the school rules to learn by heart in the first week. After that, you had no excuse for transgressing them.

Prominent among the rules were those concerning school uniform, a matter in which the headmistress took an obsessive interest. Winter uniform was a blue serge tunic (gym slip), white blouse and school tie, grey knee-length socks held up by elastic garters, which cut red rings into the flesh of our legs, black lace-up shoes (which had to be kept polished), navy blazer with the school crest and motto Quantum Est Sapere on the pocket, straw boater with a ribbon in school colours (or navy beret) and brown leather gloves.

From the fourth form upwards we had to wear stockings in winter, which of course meant an uncomfortable suspender belt about the hips. An abiding memory of winter schooldays is of the swish, swish of our stockinged thighs rubbing together as we walked.

Summer uniform was a beige gingham dress and yellow sash, white ankle socks, boater and cotton gloves.

What was worn beneath was also strictly prescribed: white brassiere (if required), navy slip in winter and navy cotton knickers, of generous cut and tight leg elastic, which dug into the flesh of our thighs like our garters.

Another permanent memory of the school was the slightly ammoniac smell of 35 girls’ bodies in the changing room, each girl trying furtively to get into and out of these difficult clothes without exposing their nakedness, and of white bodied twinkling through the acrid steam of the shower bath, under the watchful eye of the nun.

Our mothers had to go to the prescribed shops for our uniform requirements if they were to accord precisely with the list given out by the school. Incorrect uniform could not be excused by saying that one’s mother had purchased the wrong item.

Rings, bangles, clips or any other kinds of adornment were forbidden. The nuns were far too experienced not to know that even of
such as cricifixes are fashion statements made!

The headmistress used to hold unannounced uniform inspections. She’d enter a classroom, speak briefly to the nun, and before anyone had a chance to as much as slip off a bracelet the class was marched to the assembly hall and lined up. Names were first taken of any girls whose hair was not bobbed, braided or tied back according to regulation. Then, in her black habit and white coif, our head nun went down the row of apprehensive girls, pausing long enough to cast an eye over each, and lift the hems of tunics with her fountain pen.

Skirt length was, of course, a burning topic in the early 1960s. The tunic or dress had to cover the knees, and however much we might complain, this was non-negotiable. A girl who put up her tunic to make a mini-sldrt and wore it to school was sent straight home, and dealt with for defiance.

Girls called out of the line had to face a form teacher made angry at having been disgraced, and the following morning these girls had to present themselves to the headmistress correctly attired.

The headmistress used to stand at the window of her room high above the school gate watching. If she caught sight of a girl entering or leaving school without hat and gloves, someone was despatched immediately to take the culprit’s name. This was treated as disobedience.

Rebellion over uniform was in any case looked down upon as childish. Much more sophisticated was to be politely truthful -more so than the nun might have wished, but this took nerve.

The tone at St. Ursula’s High School was ‘high’. Girls above fifth form were addressed by juniors and mistresses alike as “Miss”. As might be expected in a convent school, there were usually a number of pious girls who stuck together and looked down on the others. More worldly and socially-aware girls could be just as proud and exclusive, but it was easier to be accepted by them for some quality of daring or wit.

The girls I liked regarded it as a matter of honour to accept the discipline of certain nuns whose character we respected, and to tell the truth, especially where to do so would have serious consequences. “Ah, Elisabeth:
did I see you yesterday in Civic without your hat?”

‘Yes, Sister Thomas.”

“I see” (slight air of dismay, unless it was one of the nuns who enjoyed this kind of thing). ‘Very well. Then at four o’clock you had better present yourself to Sister Clare (the headmistress) and inform her of the fact.”

‘Yes, Sister.”

Although we considered bad behaviour in general somewhat disreputable and beneath us, certain crimes, as we called them, commanded respect. To have to see the headmistress for misbehaviour on a public bus was unthinkable. To have to see her for reading Ulysses was an entirely different matter – particularly if the ‘criminal’ had a witty observation about the book to entertain her friends with.

Wit was in fact the one exception to oUr own rule forbidding misconduct. A sharp remark, provided it was delivered with all due politeness, was admired by most girls and even a few nuns. All the nuns knew this, and tended to reserve their wrath for stupidity.

Bad behaviour (by which was meant ‘immorality’ – using bad language, truancy, telling fibs and the like) was not tolerated and was punished severely. When it occurred, the nun made out a pink slip and gave it to the girl to take to the school secretary. Once a slip was taken from a drawer, the nun had made up her mind what was required: it was no use trying to say sorry then. The following morning the headmistress announced that she wanted to see the girl after assembly.

To get a pink slip was dreadful. Everyone knew exactly what it meant. The girl was interviewed by the headmistress, after which she was taken by matron to the box room and spanked with the back of a hairbrush.

My legs used to turn to water when girls spoke of these proceedings. Nevertheless, when I was in third form I received a pink slip. It was given for missing Benediction, and telling my form mistress an untruth. The headmistress made me admit that I was a liar, and I was punished twice for my error – once by the headmistress and matron, and once by my friends, who did not recognise what I had done as a proper ‘crime’ deserving respect.

Such was school.

Mrs. Elisabeth McQuade (Australia)