Lately I have been reading the memoirs of famous people. It is quite amazing to me just how much minutiae of their early life they seem to be able to recall. Me? I find I am quite fuzzy on much of my early life and seem to have big voids where there should be all sorts of fun, funny, and not so funny things that happened that I should be able to remember.
I do however, remember the Mitford-Colmer Seminary for Young Ladies in Belgravia, London, described as “ a private school where the daughters of well-to-do families are prepared for their eventual emergence, alongside other well-heeled daughters of well-to-do parents, as society debutantes.” I was about eight or perhaps nine (see, I cant even remember how old I was) when I first attended this private school housed in a Georgian style building in Eton Square, London. This “Square,” along with Sloane Square, Grosvenor Square, Bloomsbury Square and other squares that early twentieth century writers love to set their scenes around, is one of those residential areas of London where embassies now like to position themselves. (Today the average price for a house in Eton Square is upwards of seven million dollars!!!)
Our school was in one of those look alike Georgian homes with white pillars and steps leading up to the front door. At street level were wrought iron railings and steep narrow little steps leading down to the basement where, in earlier days, tradesmen would make their deliveries and where the kitchen was often situated. Today, when you peer down through those railings, you often see these spaces now converted to offices. If you are in one of those offices, the view out the window is an ongoing parade of feet and legs up to the knees.
The Mitford-Colmers were two spinster sisters. Tall, thin, always dressed in grey skirts and loose grey sweaters. Their grey hair was pulled back into buns and on their hands they wore those woolen gloves with the finger tips cut off. I never did figure out which one was a Mitford and which a Colmer.
School was serious business. No one thought to make learning fun. The day began with all students assembled in one large room. It probably was a ball room in the “old days” with tall ceilings, a wood floor and tall windows with their wooden shutters folded back. We sang a Christian hymn, said the Lords Prayer and listened to whatever announcement the Sisters had to make. The teachers (they weren’t called instructors in those days) were lined up in front. The only empathetic one among them in my opinion, was Miss Westbrook. Miss Westbrook was my favorite. I think she felt empathy for us “rich” kids, perhaps knowing that any other school would have been far less regimented and perhaps allowed a little more levity during the school day.
Wooden rulers were used to enforce rules. A rap on the knuckles if you were caught talking out of turn or to remind you of correct decorum. Perhaps that is why they are called “rulers?” And talking of decorum, I remember we had to practice walking with books on our heads and rulers placed behind our shoulders secured under our arm pits. We were young ladies after all, and we had to learn to walk correctly with shoulders pulled back, head held high. (Later, at my next school, we were instructed on how to curtsy before the Queen, in preparation for being presented at Court – but that’s another story.)
At exactly eleven o’clock each morning we would line up and walk down the stairs to the basement where we were each handed a 8oz bottle of milk from a crate. I remember how wickedly cold it was in winter. Ah, the milk. That, and the uniform, are the memories I take with me from my days at that school.
It was milk in a glass bottle, warm as if straight from the cow when the weather was warm and in winter it would be almost frozen. Each bottle was sealed with a silver foil cap and right below that was the cream. I want to gag even now as I think back on that milk. It was so utterly horrid. It was probably milk that hadn’t sold in the past few days and was being foisted on us. I have never liked drinking milk and this was whole milk with this almost solid cream on the top. Of course that cream is a delicacy when poured onto a bowl of raspberries or something, but if you don’t like milk, then you certainly don’t like drinking straight cream. Empty bottles had to be deposited back into the crate. Sadly, there was no where to tip the unwanted milk but occasionally I found a student willing to drink two bottles instead of just one! I remember we had to save the tops “for the war effort?” Rationing was still in place so perhaps the aluminium was used to rebuild the country?
Lunch was not much better. I was raised a vegetarian and so stringy grey meat swimming around in some brown stuff, had absolutely no appeal whatsoever. No provision here for vegetarians and no one had heard of vegans, gluten free, paleo diets. You had to eat what was put in front of you. Or, if you were me, you carried a hanky and secreted it off the plate, piece by piece, when teachers weren’t watching. Dessert was tolerable. It was inevitably semolina pudding or tapioca.
Our uniforms were grey (now that I think about it, they matched the sky that seemed grey most of the time.) Grey with pleats. Our blazers were grey with some embroidered motto over the left pocket.
A Mitford-Comer girl would never be seen without her grey felted hat with school colors in a band above the brim. In summer, we wore boaters with the same colored band. A boater is a flat brimmed straw hat with a flat top. It was popular in the nineteenth century and worn mostly by men when they went boating. Perhaps that is where the name came from? Like everything else at Mitford-Colmers’, they seemed to have forgotten this was now 1952 and fashion had moved on.
The Mitford-Colmer Seminary for Girls was no doubt an excellent school. However, when I learned that other schools rewarded their students at the end of the year with prizes for achievements, I begged to be removed and sent to one of “those” schools. After three years at the school in Eaton Square, my constant begging, pleading and sulking paid off. I was transferred to another school where indeed I was awarded prizes for excelling in certain subjects. Awards Night, was a gala reception held at the Dorchester Hotel.
The Dorchester is one of London’s finest hotels, with a doorman to open your car door and a carpet leading to the entry. The event was held in a large wood-paneled room, embellished with gold and lit with sparkling chandeliers. I even remember I wore a green net dress with little gold dots all over it.
Despite this brief moment of glory, I knew in my heart that I had made a big mistake in leaving the sisters. Mitford-Colmer was a far superior school educationally, those horrid bottles of milk not withstanding. It would be many years and another continent before I could return to a school with academic excellence.