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Grammar schools, mid 20th century


Extra-curricular activities at a girls grammar school in the 1950s

Based on experiences at Copthall County Grammar School, north London in the 1950s

Costs of extra-curricular activities

My grammar school in the 1950s arranged a number of extra-curricular activities, although I was only ever involved in three - see below. This was because extra-curricular activities tended to cost money, and it seemed that my parents were always saying that they couldn't afford things. How much this was true and how much simply a natural reaction to anything involving money, I do not know. Nevertheless, I only took part in extra-curricular activities that were reasonably local.

There were certainly overseas visits for those whose parents did pay. It is likely that they came from families who, if Copthall had not been such a top grammar school, would have paid for private schools for their children. There were also cultural visits within the UK for the sixth form, but these were mainly for girls taking subjects in the arts and humanities. I was a science student.

There were also after-school lessons to learn musical instruments, but that wasn't my forte because of my poor hearing - at that time undiagnosed. Anyway, they too would have cost money.

The school dance

The school tried to prepare us for life outside school and after we had left. One way was through ballroom dancing. At that time - or to be more precise, about 20 years previously - all well brought up young ladies knew how to waltz, quickstep and foxtrot, etc, and indeed all well brought up young gentlemen knew how to partner the young ladies and lead them round the floor. When I was at Copthall in the late 1950s, the accomplishment was already well in decline as a necessity. Nevertheless, we all had to learn ballroom dancing.

In my year, the tuition came from a teacher in the hall to music on a gramophone and we girls had to take it in turns to learn the male steps so that our partners could practice the female ones.

Then came the school dance, which was for the fifth form (the O level year) and was free. I believe that we were allowed to invite a boy to partner us, but only a few knew anyone suitable. So numbers were made up with the school inviting a clutch of extra boys from the local public school, Haberdashers.

The dance was an acute embarrassment to me, as at that stage I didn't have a boyfriend and sat like a wallflower all evening as most of the boys were too embarrassed to ask us girls to dance. It was a shame for my mother who had put quite a lot of effort into making me a ball gown and buying me suede evening shoes.

I could not have been alone in my embarrassment because the school clearly learnt from the experience, and - as Sally Lawson's recollections show - things were very different by two years later.

Guest contributions

Where the boys came from for the school dance

We had ballroom dancing lessons with boys from Haberdashers for about six weeks prior to the Copthall school dance. These lessons were held after school and a professional dance teacher took them. Boys and girls were paired up by height. The classes certainly gave us some confidence.

After a few weeks my partner invited me to the Haberdashers dance and because my older brother flatly refused to escort me to the Copthall one, I returned the compliment and the Haberdasher boy came as my partner. I am sure we enjoyed the dance more being with a partner.

On arrival at the dance, we all had to line up and present our partner to Daisy. Then during the dance, the teachers were placed at strategic positions around the Hall and we had to ask permission to go out to use the cloakroom.

Sally Lawson
(formerly Sally Porte)

We had ballroom dancing lessons - I think it was in the 5th form, certainly not before. Boys were bussed in from Mill Hill School. It was all very formal and rather awkward.

Trixie Wardle
(formerly Trixie Thorp)

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

The Royal Institution Christmas lectures take place, as their name implies, close to Christmas at London's Royal Institution. They are annual events at which a renowned scientist runs a series of lectures with inspirational demonstrations. These days they are televised and have been for most of my adult life.

The whole class went in their O Level year, and, being in London, there was no significant cost. I can't remember what the lectures were on, but I do remember the awe I felt in the Royal Institution's curved and raked lecture theatre. I have since been there many times.

Visit to Mill Hill Observatory

Copthall, being in Mill Hill, was close to Mill Hill Observatory. A small group of science sixth formers went there on a visit, me included. It was a clear night and possibly there were far fewer street lights then. The sky was black, and looking though a telescope at the moon was something I shall never forget because I had never seen anything like it. In the ordinary way, the moon looked - and still does look - to me like a flat disc, even though of course I well know that it is a globe. Somehow though, through that telescope, it did seem like a real globe and it was difficult for me to accept how it was possible for it to hang there, motionless and bright in the blackness, without falling to the ground - this even though I well knew the science involved.

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.

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