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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

School dinners (lunches) in the austerity
of 1950s England

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This page is based on experiences at Copthall County Grammar School, Mill Hill, north London in the 1950s.

I suppose that the main reason why school dinners were so awful in the 1950s must have been the country's austerity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Rationing continued until July 1954, with meat the last to go. So I had four years of dreadful school dinners. 'Dinner' of course was the meal in the middle of the day. I don't remember anyone using the term 'lunch' much, if at all.

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Collecting the money for the school dinners - and charity

The money for the school dinners was collected by the form teacher on Monday mornings after she had taken the register. It was a simple process, and as far as I remember involved every girl. (This was a grammar school for which all pupils had passed the 11+ exam from a wide catchment area, and most of us lived some considerable distance from the school.)

1944 British ship halfpenny

A ship ha'penny (halfpenny).

I can't remember there ever being any problems with pupils forgetting their dinner money or even needing change. We were a disciplined lot.

A row of ship halfpennies, as collected in charity drives before the decimalisation of UK coinage.

A row of ship halfpennies, as collected in charity drives.

At the same time as the dinner money collection, there was a weekly collection for Save the Children Fund and occasional drives to raise money for charity. These invariably involved collecting what were known as 'ship ha'pennies', laying them in lines and aiming to get longer lengths than other classes. Ship ha'pennies were halfpennies that showed a ship on one side. They were less common than other halfpennies, yet not particularly rare. So the ruse was quite perceptive. At that time, halfpennies were not worth a lot, so were relatively easy for people to spare - and a length of ship halfpennies carried a certain amusement.

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The school canteen

Canteen of Copthall County Grammar School, 1950s

The school canteen. Detail of photo courtesy of Sally Lawson (formerly Sally Porte) who is on the right.

We had our dinners in the school canteen which was outside the main building on the edge of the playing field - the most distant building in the aerial photograph.

Inside the canteen were rectangular tables of varnished wood, set against the walls, and seating - I think - four on each side and a 'head of table' at the end. We were assigned our tables for a year. I suspect that we were allowed to sit with one particular friend, but I can't remember the mechanism for this, but otherwise the policy was to mix the years. A member of the sixth form was assigned as the table head, presumably to keep order, but order was never a problem. I think that the mixing of the years worked well.

At one side of the canteen was the hatch from which the dinner ladies served the dinners.

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The school dinner food

Confirmation of why school dinners were so bad

The awful school dinners in the 1950s must have been due to rationing and other shortages as, according to Julie Vanstone who was in the school some years after me, the dinners were not too bad then. She reported that if someone didn't like something, someone else on the table would probably oblige by eating it. This would never have happened in my time, when the fatty, gristly mince was universally hated. Julie also remembers that she disliked the pilchards - but I never saw a pilchard.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

In the 1960s, school dinners were ordered for those on the roll call the previous day. So if more pupils were in school than the day before, the last table to be served had tinned pilchards.

Maureen Schiller

Now for the really bad part - the food! As I mentioned, it was probably so awful because of rationing and the austerity in the aftermath of World War Two. Mince, ie minced beef, was on the menu every day along with boiled potatoes and a vegetable. Or perhaps I shouldn't use the word 'menu' because it implies a choice. There was no choice at all. The mince was probably supposed to be good for us because it supplied protein. However, not only was it inedible by today's standards because it was mainly fat, skin and gristle, considerable moral force was applied to make us eat it. What was more the dinners was not freshly cooked. They arrived at the school by lorry in large containers.

Prefects took it in turns to stand by a bin for left-overs as we filed past to stack our plates and queue for pudding. If the prefect deemed that what we were leaving was edible, we were sent back to eat it. Many a time, we swallowed gristle with lots of water as if were a huge pill.

School dinner afters were usually puddings of some sort. They were pleasant enough and very filling. They were always served with thin custard. We called them 'stodge'.

Drink was always water, supplied in jugs on the tables.

You may wonder if meals were better at home in spite of the rationing. Nutritionally, probably not, but if we didn't want something, we didn't have to have it. This may have meant that we went short of certain nutrients, but we never went so short for it to be a problem.

Around my third or fourth year, I managed to persuade my form teacher that I was a vegetarian. For some reason she didn't question it, although it was school policy for her to require some sort of document for confirmation. From then on my school dinners were quite pleasant, in that the mince was replaced by mashed potato in a pastry case topped with cooked cheese. Of course around that time, rationing stopped anyway.

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The mid-day dinner break

As everyone stayed for school dinners, the canteen could not house us all. So there were two sittings. This meant that, depending on which sitting we were assigned, our mid-day break came either before of after our meal.

It was the policy of the school that all the girls except the sixth form had to be outside during the mid-day break. This was torture in the winter when it was really far too cold. I suppose that the idea was that we were expected to 'wrap up well and run around to keep warm', but we were really too old to want to do this. The mid-morning breaks were not so bad because they were shorter. We would long for rain because then we were allowed to stay inside.

While I was at Copthall (1953-1960) there certainly was ballroom dancing in the Hall when we couldn't go out at dinner break-time. We could play our own records - until Bill Haley and Rock Around the Clock came out. This was considered unsuitable for young ladies, and jiving was banned.

Trixie Wardle
(formerly Trixie Thorp)

Christine Tolton (nee Culley) remembers that when it was raining, the mid-day break was in the Hall, with music for ballroom dancing. I can't remember this, probably because of my blocking out memories of anything to do with noise, but I do remember being taught ballroom dancing as part of the curriculum. We had to take it in turns to do the leading as the man.

Although after-school detentions were rare, it was not uncommon to be given one for trying to hide in a cloakroom during a break when it was really cold. That was where we hung our coats. The lavatories were outside in the nearest block in the aerial photograph. They were unheated but at least provided some respite from cold winds.

If the mid-day break was unpleasant for us girls in winter, it must have been even worse for the teacher who had to stand around to watch over us. I think the teachers had a rota for this.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer webmaster

If you were at Copthall around this time, you will probably like the pages on life in the 1940s and 50s - see the top menu on the home page. Information and photos are always welcome.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.