Chapter 10 FORTIAN 1946
I was notified in due course to enrol at Fort Street, my mother's old school. I was away at Colo Heights when the letter arrived so Mum wrote with the news. Then the bursaries were announced and she wrote again.
335 Miller St Nth Sydney
Well old thing you've really done it. Won a Bursary. It was in yesterday's Herald. Muriel Poole told me and promised to keep the paper for me. I'd like to see if any of the other girls got one, also Cousin Bobby, Auntie Nell's boy. However I can't wait to look as I'd miss the mail. You'll get this tomorrow afternoon, Saturday and next Saturday you return home to commence school the following Tuesday I understand. So you have a new life ahead, High School life, to prepare for further studies that you may be well equipped unto all good works.
You're coming on swimming across the shale pit and back without stopping. How do you feel after? Knocked up? I know I couldn't swim any distance without getting puffed, even at your age. By the way when school starts we must send Miss Schofield and Miss Woodcock our sincere thanks for all they've done and offered to do.
Well now I must hop down to the corner to post this before 10 am.
Love from Mum
Some members of my mother's family sent money-orders, which could be cashed at any post office, expressing pleasure at my achievement. This money went towards buying my uniform which was compulsory in city high schools. Mum's part pension and my Bursary came to 26/- (£1 and 6s). Our rent for one room was 12/6 (12 shillings and six pence - nearly half the total). I had a sense of success, not of poverty although the uniform would be costly, (totalling £30) but I already had some items, black shoes, navy tunic and white blouse. In cool weather an expensive maroon jumper or blazer was mandatory.
It was generally thought that wearing a uniform produced a feeling of equality and removed competitiveness by having identical clothes. At the same time competitiveness in academic work was encouraged. Originality rather than imitation was praised, but not in all circumstances. Rather contradictory.
Ties were plain maroon instead of maroon with a silver stripe which were unavailable. When shopping for my uniform we got the assistant to demonstrate how to manage the tie. I practised putting it on until it was not too messy. I needed black stockings and suspender belt which were also new to me as I had always worn sandals or shoes with socks. Mum wore flesh-coloured stockings unacceptable for me, held up by garters which were not healthy if tight enough to perform their task. Garters and suspender belts were considered very unsightly if they were visible when worn. All clothing was scarce due to continued rationing and every item needed coupons. Adolescent children who reached a certain height were issued with extra coupons.
Once again I had to take myself along for the purpose of enrolment as Mum was again ill. I was dressed in the prescribed navy box-pleated tunic reaching my knees, white blouse, navy velour hat, with school hat band, school tie, black lace-up shoes, navy bloomers and black stockings, held up by my suspender belt. I usually wore my blouse for a week and it was washed and ironed at the weekend.
I caught the tram to Wynyard, went up the escalators, where a man on a scaffold above was painting by hand an advertising sign.
Fort Street school
Hundreds of girls in similar attire were walking along York St from Wynyard station, past St Philip's Church, through a tunnel under Bradfield Highway (tiled in maroon and silver, the school colours), towards the old school, with its huge old fig trees. The school had been built in 1815 as a military hospital and was the oldest building still in use in Australia. Bradfield Highway and other signs of progress had diminished the grounds. There remained an atmosphere of the old traditions. Most of the girls, talking with their friends, made their way directly towards their old classrooms.
I tried to look as if I knew what I was doing, but soon found I had not read the form carefully, had come a day earlier than new entrants should and was sent home.
"Call today a practice run," consoled my mother. She taught me not to regret mistakes but to learn from them.
The next morning I tried again. The man on the scaffold above the escalator at Wynyard was still there painting the advertisement. We would watch the progress for weeks to come.
Those with parents were directed to a two-storey four-roomed building which we were told was called by the girls "Siberia", and where the first-year students would spend most of their time. I looked for my friends from primary school who had also applied for Fort Street, but saw nobody I recognised. Not a familiar face. Many obviously knew each other having attended the "feeder" primary schools. I followed the crowd of over a hundred girls and their parents entering one of the rooms and crept into a back seat. Parents stood behind us. Desks were designed for two people with a shelf underneath for a few books and the seat of one touching the desk behind. They were lined up neatly in rows, facing the blackboard. I was sitting next to a girl both of whose parents had escorted her.
The headmistress entered and spoke briefly. This was Miss Cohen, then in her late fifties, with short brushed white hair and warm brown eyes. She had been a maths teacher with a degree from Cambridge when my mother and aunts had attended Fort Street and had become the headmistress in 1930.
"Each person is the maker of his own fortune" we were told. "Every girl here has qualified to attend a selective high school. Each girl is very bright. All your teachers are highly qualified. Society looks to the cream of scholars for inspiration. The future of the country is up to the young. The future of women is up to you. You have a duty to fulfil. What you make of your opportunity is up to you."
To the parents "Girls do need a quiet place to study with a desk, a desk light if possible, book shelves and little brothers and sisters should be kept away. They also need support and security."
Three quarters of the names were called to go to the other rooms. We were graded into classes according to our primary school records and my name was called to stay in the lower front room of "Siberia". We were 1A. I was so proud of myself. One girl, Elizabeth, with short, bright red tightly curly hair with her really beautiful youthful-looking blond mother was noticeable. Someone said the mother looked far too young to have a daughter starting High School.
Classes would be rearranged if we did not perform as expected. There was no choice of subjects in first year. We would study English, Maths, Geography, History, French and Science with some music, art, sewing, PT (physical training) and weekly swimming in summer and sport in winter. Some subjects had their own special rooms, the science rooms had Bunsen burners and sinks set in long benches. There was a "gym" for some PT, assembly and occasions such as "play days" (drama).
While waiting, we copied from the blackboard the timetable of classes and a list of requirements, pastels for art, shorts and sand shoes for sport and PT. When my name was called, I went to the table where the teacher helped me fill out the forms. I showed the note my mother had written and did not make the mistake of saying that my father's name was Mr Kinny, but was confused at having to explain that I did not know his occupation. Panic!! Was he still an electrician? How do you spell electrician? Should I confess that he didn't live with us and probably didn't have a regular job? After six years my mother clung to the belief that his absence was temporary, and had given me no clues about how to explain. It did not occur to me to ask. The subject did not come up. Maybe the teacher had some insight into my background from Erskineville school, but she just accepted that Mum's name was enough for my enrolment.
So began my high school career.
As I had no tennis racket or hockey stick my sport would have to be basket ball which I came to enjoy and later made the school team which occasionally played against other schools. I was excused from Scripture but could read or do homework during the period.
Fort Street school entrance
We were all allocated a locker where we should leave most of our books and only take home what we needed, and should be organised in time each day. There was a canteen where lunches could be bought but home packed sandwiches were the norm.
As we were not supplied with ink wells and pens with nibs (the hole in the desk for the ink well was empty), fountain pens were required. Bottles of ink at school were discouraged. Uncle Perce had contacted me at primary school and bought me a fountain pen and watch in anticipation of high school. We could see the nearby Observatory Clock from the playground. A cutting nicknamed "The Grand Canyon" created a road loop to Circular Quay, with the Primary school and Observatory Hill on the other side of the cutting. At one o'clock every day since 1850 a ball on a spire dropped for the ships in the harbour to correct their chronometers. Girls who had a watch used the signal as well. A watch had to be wound every day and clocks and watches were notoriously inaccurate and frequently broke down.
When I got home I told Mum I needed a quiet place to study. There was no escape from the noise of the trams, but we arranged a corner of the room with what we had - a couple of boxes, certainly no desk or desk light. It was the best we could do.
Lying in bed that night I was kept awake as usual until the trams stopped running, thinking about my plans for my future, also possible faux pas and my determination to do well. My sleep-destroying thoughts swung between worrying and being excited. As a twelve-year-old I did not feel very much in control of my future, but my daily choices presented no problems and created no anxiety.
Fort Street was more progressive than many schools and Miss Cohen gave us advice that many of our mothers hesitated to. "Try not to travel alone. Never go through the tunnel under Bradfield Highway alone. If men try to get too close to you or feel you on trains or escalators, put your school case in between or stick out your elbow or tell them loudly to stop pestering." The latter action seemed a bit daunting to young girls taught to be polite and to respect all adults and authority figures. We were also given some information about our adolescence and were told to go to the gym teacher if we were "caught short" without home-made pads. I carried a pad and sanitary belt in a brown paper bag awaiting the day I would need it. The school supply was of the disposable commercial variety, beyond the purse of most people. Those who could afford them had to ask at the chemist and they were always disguised in brown or discreet wrapping paper.
When a teacher came into the room we were all required to stand. We contrived to bend our knees slightly so that we could stand without putting the seat right up which was noisy. Lessons were of about 45 minutes, marked by a siren which could be sounded from the staff room. During the war the old school bell (near Siberia) had been used instead of the siren which could have been confused with sirens signalling imminent air-raids or air-raid practice. After the war, the siren was again used. The siren was dependent on power and there were many blackouts due to increasing demand and problems and a seven-week strike at Bunnerong Power Station for better and cleaner conditions. When the power went off, the bell was again used for change of lessons.
A petite teacher in a neat black dress arrived to introduce us to the study of French. All my teachers were unmarried except our French teacher, Mrs Patterson who was a widow.
"Bonjour mes enfants. Je m'appelle Madame Patterson. Asseyez-vous", and she indicated that we should sit. We had stood as instructed. I did not realise that the seat went up as we stood and as I sat, I found no seat but came down hard on the metal hinge. It severely jarred the base of my spine, bruising it for weeks. I held my breath. Tears came to my eyes. It took me all my strength not to cry out. It may have been better for my health if I had made a fuss, my injury would have been examined, rather than ignoring it to compound my back problems.
We copied lists of French vocabulary and verbs to be learnt by rote. To offset this we also learnt a number of traditional children's songs such as "Au Clair de la Lune" and later "La Marseillaise" and at the end of every term we put on a play such as "Little Red Riding Hood" ("La Petite Chaperon Rouge," ) which helped to put the vocabulary into context. I greatly admired and was a little envious of the girls who enthusiastically played the parts. When given the opportunity I was self-conscious and stood stiffly reciting my lines. I performed this so well I was asked if I would prefer to be omitted and having agreed, felt left out. Silly girl. Also there were simple stories from "Contes et Legends".
In a geography lesson we were told "You may write 'The earth is a part of the planetary system of which the sun is the centre', or you may write 'The sun is the centre of the planetary system of which the earth is a part'." Trying to write word for word, we managed to get confused, as we had not got used to listening to the message rather than the words. The teacher also talked a bit about her travels and how she had ordered a bath in a French hotel, which was an extra cost and included a maid with enormous bath towels to envelop her when she stepped out. How odd.
In history we started with lessons about the earliest civilisations and the earliest recorded languages, ancient Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia and China. Cave men and prehistory were fascinating to me, involving archaeology, but were not included in the curriculum. The history we learnt began with writing and early recorded messages in hieroglyphs and cuneiform. I was surprised to learn that Stonehenge was built before the time of Moses and the Chinese had been making intricate bronze utensils for centuries before that. All old cultures seemed to be perpetually fighting with one another and sacrificing to their gods for victory. They never learnt!
Pat and Margaret
Science in special rooms equipped with sinks, benches and Bunsen burners introduced us to the principles of experimentation and observation in developing a consistent set of natural laws, rather than relying on our preconceptions. Air pressure was demonstrated by heating a kerosene tin to remove the air and moisture in it, then screwing the cap on quickly. The dramatic collapse of the tin surprised us and we dutifully agreed it must be due to air pressure. End of lesson on air pressure!
We learnt that scientists continually question theories and are curious about the unexplained and were told that we should do the same, but it would have taken a lot of courage to voice such thoughts as we felt we would look foolish. I was motivated to learn about nature and how things work. I heard about atoms and molecules but was not sure of the connection if any to blood cells or skin cells.
Our shapely maths teacher drew a very regular circle on the blackboard and asked "Don't you like my figure girls?" We appreciated her lightheartedness. She introduced algebra and geometry and we learnt the difference between maths and arithmetic. Maths was not dull but was more than extracting number facts (tables) from our memories. It was solving puzzles.
In art I was acutely embarrassed at not having a box of pastels. Those who were without pastels were brought out the front. I smiled self-consciously and was singled out and further castigated. I blushed, near to tears and heard not one word of the rest of the lesson. I took money from my Bursary and bought the stupid pastels, planning to drop art at the first chance.
In sewing we made white aprons, decorated with rows of red embroidery stitches, a similar sewing bag and a pair of navy bloomers with "run and fell" seams, suitable for flat seams on strong material as opposed to french seams for fine fabrics.
In an English grammar test, the teacher wrote a paragraph on the blackboard with most of the words underlined. I had always done well in parsing and analysis and plunged in confidently and checked carefully when I finished. Knowing I was good at grammar I expected to do well. The next day the teacher gave back our tests in order of merit. She read aloud everyone's name and mark. I couldn't believe that my name was not called until the last, by which time I was mortified. How could I possibly have been so wrong?
"Oh this should have been on top." The teacher had by mistake put my paper to the bottom. This did not destroy my delight in books, but was humiliating. However it probably meant that the teacher knew who I was from that moment.
We were issued with books to take home to read. I loved "The Wind in the Willows", which I had previously enjoyed and renewed our acquaintance with Toad, Rat and Mole, and now I was entranced with the language and concept of the chapter "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn". We were introduced to "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Pride and Prejudice", "The White Company", (a historic novel by Conan Doyle which led to his other works about Sherlock Holmes), all of which were entertaining, with a degree of humour. My favourite poet was Tennyson ("Ulysses"). Mum found them acceptable, being part of classical literature.
Feeling inspired to write, I invented a story about wildflowers in the "gully" in England. Mum suggested I should write my life story. "Better to write about what you know." To me that seemed a boring topic.
The teacher did not have time to look at extracurricular poems or other things I wrote, so I soon ceased to show them to her and concentrated on the given tasks. Anything else was regarded as a distraction except as a contribution to the school magazine. The emphasis was on the highest possible mark in the given exercises, whether they appealed or not. Spelling was very important but we did not have access to a dictionary at school. There were spelling competitions in which I was always eliminated early. One girl misspelt "speech" and the teacher said "No that's ‘Speaches and cream’ ". The lists we had were of little relevance to the words we needed. But there was a little book of "schoolboy howlers", with lists of ludicrous spelling and grammar errors. "The king was in bed together with 50 of his followers".
One of my classmates, Pat was put in the corner for "answering back". She was quite unabashed and complained that there was a spider in the corner. She was obviously listened to and given a say at home. Her two older brothers were young doctors. She was early in trouble (very mild) for being cheeky, saying that her doctor brother said children over twelve did not need milk. She would be remembered by that teacher. Each teacher taught a hundred or so different girls and did not get to know individuals unless they were exceptionally bright or disruptive (rare at Fort Street). They taught subjects rather than students, which was the opposite of Erskineville School.
In summer we walked across the Harbour Bridge carrying our swimming costumes and towels to swim in the pool at the northern end, from where I was allowed to catch the tram home. In winter we went to Moore Park by tram for sport. For sport and PT we changed into navy shorts, a white short-sleeved blouse, white socks and sand shoes.
The school was named after a nearby street which led to the site of an early fort. Local streets also gave their names to "houses". For the school swimming and sports carnivals we were encouraged to cheer participants in our "house". Mine was Kent, (after nearby Kent St) my sports colour red. (Bradfield was blue, Gloucester was green and York gold).
We also went from time to time to Symphony Concerts at the Town Hall which was within walking distance. Among the memorable items was everyone singing in unison from a sheet of words, watching the conductor "Land of Hope and Glory" ("Pomp and Circumstance" by Elgar). It made my spine tingle to be part of that magnificent sound. After the war the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was formally established arising from the ABC Concerts. Bernard Heinze, the conductor, was to be knighted soon after to recognise his part. Many of the other girls talked about songs they heard on the latest hit parade, but these left me unmoved once the novelty had worn off.
We tended to concentrate on subjects in which we did well. Next year we would "drop" all other subjects even if we enjoyed them. Very few girls would continue with sewing, music or art from choice. So began inculcation with the principles of competitiveness and conformity in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. We were encouraged to improve our marks in each subject and our reports always stated our position in class which we accepted as innate.
Our teachers were slightly distant, even more so than primary teachers. Once I had to go to the staff room and was astounded to see that some of the teachers were smoking, others laughing and chatting. To us they were impersonal, people without Christian names, homes, families, human characteristics or bodily needs.
A letter arrived at the school from Uncle Viv in Rabaul. He was one of my mother's older brothers. He had been in both World Wars and at the end of the second war was in Rabaul involved in demobilising the forces. He had stayed on to set up the telephones' department, only coming home on furlough. I did not remember having met him or his family.
I am writing this care of your headmistress because I do not have your home address.
Don't be too surprised at receiving a letter from me, my excuse is that I am your uncle, and I have heard that you have won a bursary at your mother's old school. Well done girlie - I am proud of you, just as I was proud of your mother's school successes. I know that you have it in you to achieve much more success and you have my best wishes for and interest in your progress.
I know from my own experience that when you go out and contact so many diverse people as you do at a big school, you become aware of many needs that you did not think of before. So I do hope you will forgive me if I presume to offer you a little help to meet these needs. This little gift is, I know quite inadequate for the purpose but I hope you will find it of some use.
I would like to hear from you when you have time. Give my love to your mother and love and best wishes to yourself.
From Uncle Viv
He enclosed a money order. Marvellous!
In the first half-yearly exam I came 17th out of 132 in the Year, with 97 for elementary science, 87 in geometry, 81 in English, 86 in French and an average of 84%. Mum was pleased that I was a diligent student. In fact I found it easy to learn.
Nobody lived anywhere near me which was depressing. They all lived between Redfern and Strathfield and soon formed friendships among their new classmates. I had no such friends and as I was not invited to their places, I felt they were all more popular than I was. After school I sometimes walked to the Municipal Library, near Town Hall station to get extra books. I had discovered the Municipal Library in the basement of Queen Victoria building with a choice of books only rivalled by the Mitchell Library from which people could not borrow. Few books were illustrated. I borrowed a variety of books although this meant walking as far as Town Hall station. There was always a particular smell in the building which I associated with the basements of hotels where barrels of beer were stored or maybe it was wine.
I borrowed books about the solar system and the stars, which interested me and learnt how far away the stars are, showing that their light had been coming for many light years, much longer than the few thousand years since their creation according to the literal reading of the bible. Looking at the stars at night, even with the naked eye we were in fact looking into the astronomically far distant past. I had been taught that in the beginning god made the earth for man and the stars to light the night sky. This did not explain why there were so many myriads, stretching into infinity. Prehistory and archaeology were also interesting.
Soon after starting high school I gave up all religion. I still acquiesced in attending meetings and going from door to door with "the message", carrying a small case of books and magazines, mainly so that Mum was not out alone, but with growing boredom and doubts. I became convinced that scientists must know the answers if they can predict eclipses which always turned out to be accurate. Jehovah's Witnesses eagerly awaited the end of the world and often talked about the event and the topic came up at the meetings. I had lost any conviction that I may once have felt in the prospect. The predictions of anyone forecasting "The end of the World is Nigh" and Armageddon always turned out to be wrong. And many events as described in the Old Testament did not obey the natural laws we learnt in science.
I had not really probed and Mum did not explain. It was just not done to question the bible. I should have "had faith". When I had expressed doubts she had been hurt and even indignant that I did not believe her. When once I had tried to persuade her to change her mind about something she had said "Are you trying to make a liar out of me?" which was very effective in quieting me although I thought to myself "Of course not, I only want to be allowed to do what I want sometimes."
One night I had a dream (influenced by "Pilgrim's Progress") that I was walking along a narrow path near molten lava and being tempted to stray from "the straight and narrow" to a broader and more attractive way. I woke up terrified that I was about to choose the wrong path.
After the war, there were street photographers who waited in strategic places, where there was good light and background, to take photographs of passers by. Most people would then order a copy and more than one if it was good, as few people had their own cameras, certainly not professional cameras with good focussing and lenses. In the holidays Mum and I while in Sydney called at Uncle Perce's office, near Wynyard. When he asked me about my interests and I mentioned photography, he bought me a Kodak box brownie camera to learn on. Using 620 rolls of film I could record my visits to Macks, also outings, school friends and family. Contact prints were 2" X 3" (5.5cm X 8cm). Enlargements were prohibitively expensive. On one of my occasional visits to Kogarah to see Grandma, Uncle Ernie, Dad's brother gave me some discarded equipment in which I could develop and print the films I took, which saved a lot of money and supported my hobby.
Hat: 5/9, Blouse: 3/11, Tunic: 4/11, Hat band: 2/11, Tie: 2/6