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Grammar schools, mid 20th century


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

school dance 1950s

Schools in the 1950s arranged a number of extra-curricular activities, many of which had to be paid for by parents. This page elaborates on those relatively local ones that were low cost or free: the school dance, the visit to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and the visit to Mill Hill Observatory.


By the webmaster, based on personal recollections from Copthall School and contributions from former students from later years of the mid 20th Century

Costs of extra-curricular activities

Most extra-curricular activities run by Copthll School were for the sixth form and were expensive because they involved overseas visits and were for the arts and humanities pupils. There were also after-school lessons to learn musical instruments, which cost.

My sixth form subjects were maths and science. As a scientist, as the school rather dramatically called its A Level science pupils, the relevant extra-curricular activities were relatively local and therefore inexpensive, so I was able to go.

However there was one extra-curricular activity which was for the whole of the O Level year (Year 11 in today's terminology) - the school dance. That is certainly worth recounting!

The school dance

The school tried to prepare us for life outside school after we 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 we-brought-up young gentlemen knew how to partner the young ladies and lead them round the floor. When I was at Copthall, 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.

The school dance, which was for the fifth form (Year 11, the O level year) 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 a 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. We didn't know them and they didn't know us. 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 following contribution shows - things were very different by two years later.

Where the boys came from for the school dance in later years

For about six weeks prior to the Copthall school dance, we had ballroom dancing lessons with boys from Haberdashers. These lessons were held after school and a professional dance teacher took them. Boys and girls were paired up by height, so no-one felt embarrassed at being less popular. 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.

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)

Boys for my year's school dance were bussed in from Mill Hill School, a local public school. It was all very formal and rather awkward.

Trixie Wardle
(formerly Trixie Thorp)

Visit to 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 as the lectures were deemed suitable for all ages, irrespective of specialism, 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 School, 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, there being no television at home. In the ordinary way, the moon looked 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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