Midnight feasts, dormitory japes, the unbridled joy of a full tuck box. What could be more wholesome and fun than life at a girls’ boarding school, as depicted in the BBC’s adaption of Malory Towers, which started this week? But does Enid Blyton’s classic really capture the essence of these institutions? Here, our female writers recall the magic, misery and mayhem of their boarding school days…
Tasks of Maoist pointlessness, and our diet was as restricted as our liberty
Charlotte Moore, writer
Nothing could have prepared me for lockdown better than the five years I spent at Badminton, an all-girls boarding school in Bristol, from 1970 to 1975.
Confined with the same people for months on end, we were allowed out only for exercise. Our diet was as restricted as our liberty.
We couldn’t go to the hairdresser, or to parties, cafes or cinemas. Shopping for ‘essential supplies’ – buns, Marvel milk powder, Jackie magazine – was a rare Saturday treat, chaperoned by a matron. We had no privacy, little money, but lots of time.
The authorities occupied us with tasks of Maoist pointlessness, like making and remaking beds and polishing our shoes, whether we’d worn them or not.
There was ‘No talking after lights out’, so we crept into each other’s beds to continue our conversations in whispers.
By day, we huddled for warmth like monkeys, inking in each other’s freckles with a Biro. Sharing was enforced, which we resented; sweets sent from home were evenly distributed which could mean literally one sherbet pip on each teatime plate.
CHARLOTTE MOORE (pictured): Nothing could have prepared me for lockdown better than the five years I spent at Badminton, an all-girls boarding school in Bristol, from 1970 to 1975
But we willingly shared jokes, confidences, gossip and moral support. Rules governed us down to our underwear: two pairs of knickers worn at all times, white ‘linings’ under ‘Navy blues’, but we could only change the whites twice and the blues once a week. Gentle reader, I’m afraid it’s true. Bending the rules was essential.
We rinsed our knickers and slept on them to get them dry. As we got older, we climbed walls, jumped on buses, met boys. School work seemed uninteresting and unimportant. What mattered was friendship. Boarding school meant cold, boredom, hunger, subversion – and laughter.
Even Reverend Mother was racist
Libby Purves, broadcaster
I had both extremes of boarding school life. The first was a year in Krugersdorp in the 1960s, when my Dad was posted to Apartheid-era South Africa.
The Ursuline nuns had no idea how to be Christians, teachers, or indeed tolerable humans. Even Reverend Mother used racist language.
Food was mealie-meal porridge, discipline was blows with a ruler and military drill, washing a jug of cold water. But back in England, four years of liberal, intellectual nuns at Beechwood Sacred Heart School in Tunbridge Wells was a relief.
Holy, of course (you got woken up with a stoup of holy water and a blessing) and there was typically awful science teaching for girls at that period. But there were wild feast days , a n d terrifying candlelit story times on Halloween after bedtime.
LIBBY PURVES (pictured): I had both extremes of boarding school life. The first was a year in Krugersdorp in the 1960s, when my Dad was posted to Apartheid-era South Africa
You could keep hamsters in a hut called Assisi, and gossip over smuggled Merrydown cider in dormitories. Finally you got a room of your own, where I concocted experimental flower wine in a shampoo bottle, which exploded and speckled the ceiling blue. Luckily, the nuns of that period still wore frilled medieval wimples, and never looked up.
Being ‘young ladies’ trounced education
India Hicks, designer and entrepreneur
I was ten years old when I arrived at Ladymede School, Aylesbury, the first of three boarding schools. My tuck had been stolen by the second week, after which I realised I needed to toughen up.
At the age of 12, I was moved onto North Foreland Lodge, Kent, an all-girls’ school. The headmistress was so large she was nicknamed (with irony) Twiggy. We had to wear green knickers over our knickers in case someone ever saw our knickers.
We were not allowed to phone our parents for the first two years. The school Chaplain would carry a pin in his jacket lapel, and if we fidgeted during the morning service, he would take it out and prick us. We once replaced the blackboard duster with a dead mouse during a Latin class.
The teacher screamed when she picked it up. We were given detention and made to write out lines. The focus on education was rather secondary; raising us up to be proper young ladies came first. I fear I failed in that, so it was decided that Gordonstoun in the freezing north of Scotland would be more suitable.
‘Plus Est En Vous’ (‘There is more in you’) was the school motto. Founded on the idea that young people flourish when their horizons are broadened, we were prepared not just for exams but also for life.
MARGARET BEMAND (pictured with Rachel Johnson): I was one of only two girls sent to Ashdown House in the mid-70s, a boys’ prep school where our brothers were boarding
Every morning began with a characterbuilding run outside before breakfast, regardless of sleet or snow, and you learnt very quickly to lick your knife and fork to prevent anyone else nicking these off you when you went to get your Weetabix.
Boarding school provided me not with the education my parents might have hoped for, but certainly with lifelong stories and friends.
Punishments involved sleeping on the ‘haunted’ landing
Rose Prince, cookery writer
I was ten when I began my first term at Hatherop Castle School in 1972. With only about 120 girls, it was a small boarding school in a Victorian castle in the Cotswolds, complete with a tower. But there the resemblance to Malory Towers ended. Hatherop was a fashionable school, but neither progressive nor traditional, only eccentric.
We wore no uniform. Girls swished down panelled hallways wearing everything from midi-skirts with cheesecloth peasant tops to their mother’s baggy hand-me-down tweed skirts and twinsets. We had few proper teachers.
Latin ended when the dashing young classics master left after an alleged affair with a sixth-former; maths, taught by the Chaplain’s wife, petered out because she preferred to read us novels. We spent hours learning to sew.
The climax of these classes was the summer fashion show on Open Day. Junior girls took to the catwalk in nightdresses they had made, senior girls in handmade bikinis. Totally inappropriate – my father didn’t know where to look.
We slept in ‘dorms’ and behaved appallingly after lights out, knowing the school was watched over by a slow-moving matron with a leg injury.
But when you were caught there was no detention. It was worse: you spent a night on the haunted ‘red landing’ – a huge dark hall with a camp bed and a cabinet of antique Chinese dolls staring at you. It was terrifying.
Hatherop girls rarely went to university – we joked that Oxbridge was a ‘town up north’. No Hatherop girls became scientists or Olympians, but we were great chatters and readers which led, in my case, to a writing career.
To be an old girl is like belonging to a very unconventional club – I have no regrets.
I went to Bedales – and into Hell
Amanda Craig, novelist
What irony that Malory Towers, or rather the BBC adaptation of it, has become the nation’s comfort in this crisis. For my adoration of Enid Blyton’s six-book series was why I went to Bedales in Hampshire – and into Hell.
With its progressive, co-ed reputation, my liberal parents believed it was the perfect place. I anticipated dorm feasts, lacrosse and the company of pupils who would become what the headmistress of Malory Towers called ‘goodhearted, loyal women unafraid to forge new futures’.
Yes, there were dorm feasts (squalid midnight picnics that left me exhausted). The sexism was relentless. So was the bullying. We had a terrifying housemistress whom everyone hated. The other housemistress – our ‘Mamselle’ – committed suicide.
Dorms sound fun, but the total absence of privacy in adolescence is hideous. The noise, the stench, the bad food all haunt me. Unlike Malory Towers, at my school spoilt, spiteful Gwendolines ruled. Children’s books never tell you how snobbish these places are. Bedales inspired Knotshead, the fictional school in my novels. But for me, its comfort is that nothing else will be so bad again.
Boris’s sister was my partner in crime
Margaret Bemand, cook and food critic
I was one of only two girls sent to Ashdown House in the mid-70s, a boys’ prep school where our brothers were boarding.
The other girl was Rachel Johnson (the future Prime Minister’s sibling). I couldn’t have wished for a better partner in crime.
We were expected to play football, rugby and cricket and I remember Rachel being pretty handy at these games.
We had our own ‘wing’ in the attic, up a creaky staircase next to Matron’s rooms – and there was no way we could get up or down without her knowing.
Luckily it was a grand old house, with fire escape ladders, which we learnt how to navigate (terrifying idea now) so in the middle of the night we could sneak out and go on a rampage with the boys.
The food store rooms were all secured with old padlocks but I worked out that if we borrowed a knife at supper, we could unscrew the padlock, take some stores (a box of KitKats was our first heist) and then screw the padlock panel back on. No one would know.
It worked until it was noticed that valuable food stores were disappearing, so we hid them places where they wouldn’t look such as the coal cellar.
There was a rumour about a stash of sweets in the roof so I went to see if it was true. As I stomped around, the ceiling fell all over Matron’s rooms below. She had me ‘rusticated’ – sent home to my parents for a few days. My mother was furious, but my father thought it was very funny.
In dorms, we made toast with an iron
Veronica Henry, novelist
The Royal School Bath for Daughters of Officers of the Army was a towering presence on a hill overlooking the city.
In 1974 it was impressive on the outside but spartan within. We had iron beds, all the rage on Instagram now, and lumpy mattresses.
A bell clanged at 7am each day and we tumbled to the dining room to fight for the white toast (no one wanted brown), clutching precious jars of Marmite from home.
VERONICA HENRY (pictured): The Royal School Bath for Daughters of Officers of the Army was a towering presence on a hill overlooking the city
We were spirited and naughty. We had midnight feasts on the roof, tiptoed out at dawn to plunge into the icy pool, sneaked into the back streets of Bath at the weekend to buy joss-sticks, and peroxide to bleach our hair.
We pierced each other’s ears and plucked each other’s eyebrows. We made toast in the dormitory with an iron. We lived on Wonderloaf and an assortment of ghoulishly named dishes from the school kitchen: train smash, dead man’s leg, frogspawn.
Our friendships ran deep and true and still do. We were stoic and resilient, most of us far from home (my parents lived in Washington DC).
Writing and receiving letters kept us going, and we made the occasional trip to the phone box on the nearby village green, shovelling in a 2p piece in the hope of hearing a familiar voice if the homesickness got too much.
At boarding school, you learn how much pleasure the small things can bring you. The sight of a shiny Crème Egg still makes my heart beat faster.
We ate the yellow and white goo, dreaming of the Easter holidays when we would see our families again.
Vodkas at midnight: I loved school!
Tamasin Day Lewis, cookery writer
Luckily, I arrived at Bedales the first term they stopped compulsory daily cold showers. The children there all seemed super-confident, stylish, smoked in the bushes and wore make-up and heels.
Mixed-age dorms were brilliant: we got to know the older girls and they could teach us about boys. One term I moved into an attic with a friend called Rachel whose parents lived in India.
Rachel brought fresh limes back from Bombay and my grandmother sent me a Fortnum’s hamper of cooked duck, chocolate Bath Oliver biscuits and a Malvern water bottle filled with vodka.
Every night Rachel and I made vodka gimlets, I cooked pasta on an old primus stove I kept under the bed and we smoked cigarettes out of our dorm window.
One term we made cider in Ribena bottles from the school apple orchards and hid it behind our lockers. We unscrewed the tops and a hideous aroma of sulphur dioxide emerged as the bright pink liquid shot out.
We arranged to meet the boys at midnight in the swimming pool to drink it. But their alarm didn’t go off, so we drank the vile brew, swam and went back to bed. Boarding school life was everything I had fantasised it would be and more. I loved it.