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The Life of a Boarder at Freemen's in the 1950s

Jennifer Cordwell, known in school as Jennifer Gibson, reflects on life as a Freemen’s pupil in Ashtead Park back in the 1950s.

Most of us slept in dormitories containing six or seven beds, one of which was occupied by the dormitory prefect.  We each had the use of two drawers and some hanging space in the dorm wardrobe, and we also each had a chair to put our clothes on for use again the following day.

At 7.10am promptly, the school porter rang a hand bell to wake us up. We threw the bed covers over the rail at the foot of the bed and left them there to air while we washed in the communal washroom, dressed and had breakfast, which was served in the hall, with grace being said in Latin at the start and end of the meal. After breakfast, we went upstairs again to clean our teeth, make our beds - with hospital corners - and sweep and tidy our dorms. There was also a rota for sweeping the corridor, which had to be done when all the dorms had been inspected and passed by Matron. As there was only about half an hour between the end of breakfast and the start of taking the register (we did not call it “registration” in those days), the girl sweeping the corridor was often late for school.

Once the registers had been taken in the classrooms, which were in the old stable block, the whole school went to the hall for assembly, which consisted of a hymn from the “Songs of Praise” hymn book (long before the television programmed of that name), some prayers and the day’s notices. The few pupils who were not at least nominally Protestant Christians were allowed to miss the worship part of assembly.

In the middle of the morning, we were all provided with a small bottle of milk, which was a legal requirement at that time.  The milk bottles were stored in crates on a trolley in the covered quad. In the winter, the milk was often frozen so that it stuck out of the neck of the bottle with the lid sitting on top; in the summer it was quite often turning sour by the time we got it!  Unless the weather was really dreadful, we were expected to spend our break times out of doors. 

After breaktime we returned to lessons until lunchtime. Lunch was also served in the hall, and we had to queue in the corridor before being allowed to take our place at the tables. The tables were in pairs, placed end to end, and each pair seated 22 pupils, ten on each side and one prefect at each end. The Master on duty said grace, after which we were allowed to sit down. The prefect at the end of each table served the food, ensuring that all 11 people on his or her table had something to eat. At the end of the meal, we all stood again for another Latin grace.  We then had free time until the afternoon classes started. Once again, we were expected to spend this time out of doors.

At the end of the school day, the boarders were free to do what they wished (within reason, of course!) until tea at 5.30pm. After tea, we went downstairs to the boarders’ cloakroom in the basement to clean our shoes, which were inspected before we could go upstairs again. We then had an hour of prep in the dayrooms until prayers and supper. I don’t recall which order these came in or at what precise time, but the younger children went to bed about 8.00pm and the older ones did more prep after prayers or supper and went to bed about 8.30pm or 8.45pm.  On a Saturday, as there was no school on Sunday morning, the senior girls were allowed to stay up until 9.15pm.

On Saturday afternoons, we lined up in the nurse’s room in the sick bay, where we had head inspection for nits which, I am glad to say, I don’t remember ever being discovered. We then went upstairs to have a bath if it was our turn, and to wash our hair, which was permitted once a fortnight (although the older girls would wash theirs every week and try to stay out of sight of the housemistress until it was dry, if it was not their week to wash it).  We were then allowed to change into mufti and to go into Ashtead or Epsom, in twos or threes, to do a little shopping, if we were not involved in inter-school matches – tennis or rounders in the summer and hockey or netball in the winter.

On Saturday evenings, there was usually some sort of entertainment in the hall, arranged by the senior pupils for anyone who cared to attend.  This might be a film, a dance or a musical evening often featuring the Freemen’s Jazz Band. When Rock & Roll came in, we were not supposed to do that because it was feared that it would damage the hall floor – or that was the reason we were given. Ballroom and country dancing were acceptable, though. Twice a year – at the end of the Christmas and summer terms – we had a formal dance for the senior pupils only, when we girls wore proper evening dresses and a bit of make-up and felt very sophisticated.

On Sundays, we were expected to attend two services, one of which was the school service in the hall in my early days at Freemen’s but in the parish church from about 1956 or 1957, when we had a school Chaplain. The second act of worship could be Holy Communion or Evensong in the parish church or, for the younger girls, Crusaders in a hall in Lower Ashtead, which tended to be followed by a go on the giant stride or the seesaw in the rec on the way back to school.

We spent our free time reading, writing letters, knitting and sewing, which included mending our clothes – darning, replacing buttons, patching holes and tears etc. A fully-equipped sewing box was on the list of things each female boarder had to take with her to school. We also played records (78 rpm shellac) on a wind-up gramophone belonging to one of the girls (I think it was Jasmine). This was supposed to have a new needle for each record, but we made each needle last for many records, which did the records themselves no good.  If anyone went shopping, she was expected to buy another box of needles for the gramophone. When Jasmine left school, we used my portable Dansette electric one with a sapphire stylus. This allowed us to play the new vinyl 45s as well as the old 78s. Around the mid-50s we also acquired a radio, which was bought with the “dayroom fund” and thus belonged to everyone; we would gather round it to listen to the Goon Show. Around that time a television set appeared in the hall for the use of all the boarders, but we were only allowed to watch children’s programmes on it and, as these tended to be rather babyish cartoons, most of us didn’t really bother. 

We could also amuse ourselves in the grounds; some of us had pet rabbits which needed to be fed and cleaned out and exercised on the grass; and we were allowed to play tennis on the grass courts, although I think we had to have permission to use the hard court which was enclosed with wire netting and which doubled as a netball court in the winter. There was also a swing fixed to a branch on a huge old yew tree. The branch was quite high, so the chains were long, and we could swing quite alarmingly high if we felt brave enough. In the winter, we would have snowball fights, and if the winter was cold enough and the ice thick enough, we could skate – or, more likely, slide – on the frozen ponds in the copse the other side of Rookery Hill.