1920-1931 Memories from Claremont

By Jeanne Simon (nee Benson)

1920, my first year at Claremont at the age of five, was also the first year of the new kindergarten building. This was a modern addition to the two beautiful large stone residences set in very large grounds which housed the rest of the school until the late twenties. To reach the kindergarten we entered a narrow board walk which ran under the foundations of one of the houses. This was known as ‘the tunnel’ - ark and eerie and to little girls definitely inhabited by ghosts. Hysterical screaming and playing ghosts in this area was frowned on as was dropping stones through a hole in the floor which covered an old underground well. It seemed an age before we could hear the sound of a stone hitting the water. Needless to say because it was forbidden to play in the tunnel we played there all the time. Progressing to the Lower School we were under the aegis of the principal Mrs Brimacombe, gracious, calm, never seen without her academic gown, and able to give young girls the feeling of awe as if in the presence of at least royalty. She took charge of all scholastic activities taught by the staff, while her Co-Principal Miss Williams looked after more practical matters and was in charge of the boarders, as well as most matters pertaining to discipline. We are all in some fear of Miss Williams’ tongue and quailed at the approach of her uneven footsteps caused by the need to wear a heavy surgical boot as a result of contracting polio as a child. “Here comes Bill” the nickname by which we all knew her was enough to scatter us in all directions. But she was an excellent teacher and told us wonderfully exciting stories of her early life in Java and other parts. She had witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa as a child in 1883 and could tell most vivid impressions of the spectacle. After exams were finished she would read us wonderful stories and introduce us to classics outside the school curriculum such as the story of the Ring of the Niebelugen which in my case led on to a love of the music of Wagner. In the years of which I write there was a very high proportion of boarders from the country at the school, some from sufficiently far away not to go home for the short May holidays. We day girls couldn’t imagine being in an empty school during the term break with only one or two girls instead of a noisy couple of hundred. At one stage I too was a boarder and learned how different it was to sleep in a dormitory with a dozen or so others, take 4” baths and deal with boarding school eating rules. Nothing to be left on your plate which was passed to the duty mistress at the head of the long table for checking before being taken away by the maid. After having my plate returned to me to be finished with all eyes watching, a few times, I soon realised it was easier to eat everything than be the focus of attention. Not everything could be controlled however. On one occasion one of the girls from a sheep station in the west brought some emu eggs back after the holidays and the cook made a baked custard with them. This we all enjoyed until Miss Willilams announced that it had been made with emu eggs whereupon we all gasped with dismay; one girl said “I’m going to be sick” and rushed out of the dining room, followed by another and then another. In a matter of minutes half the dining room was outside retching, and in various stages of losing their emu custard. Miss Williams had a great deal to say about the mass stupidity of little girls. To say that she was furious would be an understatement.  Our school curriculum was English, French, Latin, Mathematics, History, Geography, Botany, Scripture and Sewing. There was much learning by rote of spelling, tables, dates of kings of England and battles won in English History. We learned our tables up to twenty times both backwards and forwards, and by the time we were in upper school most of us could answer 17 times 14 and 19 times 16 in a flash. Spelling mistakes were required to be written twenty times, and staying in at playtime, part of lunchtime and after school to write 100 or 200 times “I must not talk in school” or “I must not be late for school” etc were the norm. Very serious breaches such as taking something that did not belong to you, or cheating very often earned the punishment of being “sent to Coventry” and no one was allowed to speak to the offender for a week or perhaps longer. This was nearly as hard on the friends of the wrongdoer as we always felt very sorry for the girl who had to sit by herself and had no exchange with others either in school or in the playground. At the end of the year Speech Day was held in St. Judes Hall with prizes presented by Lady Storey, and this was the occasion when we all hoped to have a new white dress, which in most cases would be our “best dress” for the coming year or years, depending on how quickly we grew out of it. Most days we had Physical Culture and a Mr Turner from Bjelke Petersons in the city supervised us and gave us little coloured cards with saying on them if we exercised well. “The camel has a hump, have you?” A favourite one, was purple and rather prized as it was not given lightly and meant you really had put your heart into your physical jerks that day. At the end of the year we handed them all in and the one with the highest number according to their value received the Physical Culture Prize. To get the Physie prize rated higher in our girlish criteria than receiving a prize for an academic subject, as did being in the netball or tennis teams. Claremont had a number of outstanding sports girls in the years that I was at the school and we were very proud of the Interschool shields which we held. When we were in the Lower School we loved to play marbles at recess. We all had our marble bags with our initials on them. Once a week we had sewing classes and if you had finished making your crepe de chene petticoat and had done “fine French seams”, you were permitted to embroider your marble bag as a treat. Hopscotch we played endlessly and at lunchtime many of us climbed high the Moreton Bay Fig trees in the grounds, many of which must have been at least sixty years old, to eat our lunch. We all had favourite spots high in the branches, although these retreats were declared out of bounds when one of the girls fell about twenty feet and had to be taken to hospital. In the late twenties, the school was transferred to the present site a block or so away, and the old school was pulled down and replaced by houses and flats. Though the new school was more modern we all missed the old stone buildings with their high ceilings, large classrooms and wide verandahs, and the spacious grounds. In upper school we all began to grow up in a gentle way. Scripture classes were given by Canon Cakebread from St Judes each week were full of appropriate religious instruction. But once a month we throbbed with excitement when Mr Polain the Curate came. Young, good looking and full of smiles, he had been a Padre in World War I and spiced his stories from the Bible with graphic word pictures of life in the trenches during the War. We heard all about Ypres, Verdun, Villers Bretonneux and hung on his every utterance. We tended to do our Scripture homework well in order to receive a word of praise. Simultaneously I recall a devotion and adoration in the direction of Miss Gibson, our Botany teacher. This must have been an embarrassment to her, because in case my exceptional progress in Botany had escaped her notice, every attempt was made to draw attention to myself by talking in class, answering back and being generally troublesome in order to receive a detention, or better still, a double detention, which meant that she would have to stay back after school to supervise me. My day was made! But she must have been very patient and understanding because I remember on several occasions when detention was over she allowed me to take home a book on art or music from her personal library of beautiful books. As the Intermediate year got underway we all worked furiously to endeavour to get A’s or at least pass, which was in fact somewhat of an achievement in that period. When the time came for the exams we went to Sydney Girls High, where, together with other girls from the area we sat in the Assembly Hall. It was all rather strange and unnerving and did not help us to perform as well as we might have in our classrooms. Following this came one more Speech Day in St Judes, where those who received prizes curtsied to Lady Storey, and apart from two or three who stayed on to do the Leaving it was a somewhat sad affair knowing that it was our last time to be addressed by Mrs Brimacombe in her end of year report. With a final singing of the School song - “Since 1882 we’ve stood, o’erlooking oceans blue.” We dispersed into our then unknown futures as educated young ladies of Claremont College.