An Alternative Curriculum

A St Mary’s girl today has a wide range of subjects and co-curricular activities from which to choose. However, some that were available for previous generations of pupils may be harder to access today.

A hundred years ago, at the beginning of the 1921 Autumn Term, pupils arrived back to find they had the opportunity to learn a variety of new skills, the first lesson being plumbing. One student, Norah Fisher, reported, ‘The first thing we did was to put new washers on taps. We all repaired to the cloakroom for this and practised on the taps there. Another very interesting lesson was upon the way that panes of glass are put into windows. We experimented on the windows of Murray and Duncan. We have also learnt about gas, pumps, and cisterns, and how to solder leaking tins. The solder went on beautifully when Mr Gunning did it, but when we tried to do it, it suddenly became most desperately obstinate.’

Marcia Matthews, the Headmistress, felt strongly that practical lessons, alongside academic subjects, were vital for a rounded education. On her arrival in 1915 she had delayed the onset of afternoon school by an hour to give the girls more time for activities such as games, gardening and walks. She soon introduced carpentry saying of it, ‘I value this class very highly for its practical utility and the interest it arouses, but above all for the training in accuracy which it provides. Anything in the nature of slip-shod work is impossible in the carpenter’s shop, and the lessons learnt there must surely react on all work, while everyone recognises nowadays how much work of that kind helps to quicken the brain.’ The importance of this subject was emphasised in 1923 when one of the four rooms in the new Jubilee Building was a large well-equipped workshop.

Every Thursday morning Mr Culley instructed pupils in the tools, terms and techniques of carpentry allowing them to produce a variety of items, listed by one pupil as, ‘tables, corner-cupboards, picture frames, dolls’ beds, trays, numerous bookshelves, one large bookcase, a sword stand, boxes and a clock stand.’ She went on, ‘we very soon understood enough to make it intensively interesting, and I am sure we all find the lessons are very useful.’ A doll’s house, completed in 1926 and put up for sale that autumn was bought by Lord Methuen, Governor of Malta during the First World War, who had been the guest speaker at St Mary’s Speech Day in 1915.

I have mentioned in an earlier blog that gardening was a prominent activity on the St Mary’s girls’ weekly timetable. When Miss Matthews arrived at the school in 1915 she had a small team of three resident teaching staff, including herself. One of them was Miss Grover who together with geography, botany and drawing, taught gardening, ‘inspiring everyone with her zeal’. The following year a gardening club was started with members reading papers on aspects of gardening, Miss Grover lecturing on ‘Gardening as a profession for women‘. A ‘craze’ for growing vegetables took over individual garden plots: a development which proved invaluable during the privations of the war. After Miss Grover’s departure just before the Second World War, the girls continued to be taught by a lady gardener into the early 1950s.

With the start of the Second World War, St Mary’s girls had the opportunity to take courses and gain certificates, in both first aid and home nursing run by Sister Cathrow, the school nurse, and Miss Broome, a games mistress. At this time Miss Matthews, ever innovative, decided that pupils should learn about the workings of the internal combustion engine. St Mary’s had bought the old isolation hospital, now St Margaret’s, in 1937. Without the necessary funds for developing it during the war, it was used by the Sixth Form for lectures and practical sessions on the ‘construction and operation of the car‘ under the guidance of an ex-mayor of Calne, Mr Cooper, who donated an ancient Fiat.

Domestic science classes, at a time when fewer girls were going to university, often provided skills that were later taken up as careers. Cooking has never lost its appeal but in 1916 it was embedded in the curriculum when a kitchen in the newly acquired St Prisca’s became available. From here girls learnt to cook and catered for guests to the school. In 1919 they prepared a dinner party for Dr Spooner, Warden of New College Oxford, who was the guest speaker at that year’s Speech Day. Two pupils served, and written menus and lampshades were designed by another. Indeed, menus became quite elaborate with one including ‘cutlets in aspic, roast ptarmigan, peach biscotins and anchovy croŭts‘.

From dress-making techniques to complex embroidery stitching, sewing was part of the domestic science course. It found a useful application in mending school clothing, whether lost buttons, a stocking and a vest to darn, a hem to fix on a serge dress or a triangular tear on a velveteen dress: these items all being described as being in a pile beside Giovanna Durst, a Fifth Former, as she sat with her needle and thread on the hard wooden floor of the school hall in 1931.

Times move on, fashions come and go, new opportunities arise, and our changing choices reflect the reality of life around us.

Photo: A Carpentry Class in 1915