I don’t know whether I was fortunate or otherwise to have attended this school, already poised on the brink of being downgraded from its former prestigious position as one of the top grammar schools of Stoke on Trent, even as I entered its then all-female portal in the September of 1968.
By passing the long since abolished 11+ exam, I had been set on a course aimed towards academic excellence; failure would have sent me to a mainstream secondary school with different expectations of its pupils, and been a sore disappointment for my parents. Although they were not themselves particularly upwardly socially mobile, they would have wanted to see their children do well and gain favourable and better paid careers than perhaps they themselves had had. They were both from solid working class backgrounds, although even then with ideas of escaping what might have been expected of them; after a brief spell working in a coal mine, my still teenage father joined the army to see out the aftermath of the war, whilst my mother, a grammar school girl, had to end her education prematurely at the age of 15 on the sudden death of her father aged only 50. So perhaps my going to Thistley Hough was important, for her at least, in ways that I didn’t then understand, although the cost of kitting me out in the traditional bottle green uniform (which could only be obtained from approved and hideously overpriced suppliers) was ruinously expensive.
For my own part, I wasn’t tremendously excited by the prospect of grammar school, as its art deco premises were situated a fair way from our house in Trent Vale, accessible by no bus service and so requiring either a lengthy trudge up the sharply inclined Trent Valley Road, or an even longer but not so steep trek through the council estate of Springfields. Either route was certain to bring you an unwelcome encounter with pupils from Oakhill School on Rookery Lane, who wore a similar bottle green uniform and so were less easy to identify from a distance and avoid. They hated us in the vicious and territorial way that differing groups of teenagers always have done, as if our perceived superiority was some kind of insult. There was antagonism aplenty, from name calling and abuse, to jostling and beret stealing or on the worst occasions, spitting and slaps. The aforementioned berets would end up over a garden wall or in the gutter.
The entire uniform belonged to another age, with its belted bottle green gabardine raincoat surely a relic of the 1950s, with an ugly box pleated skirt which we would shorten by rolling over at the waist in a vain attempt to feel less like a dowdy middle aged matron. The shirts were made of a sticky pale green nylon offering no warmth in winter and stiflingly sweaty in warmer weather, with the purple striped school tie, and topped off with the universally loathed beret. Summer term brought us the “luxury” of wearing a cotton print dress (the fabric of which was unique to the school and had to be bought at Lewis’s in Hanley, and woe betide you if your mother was not at least a passable seamstress). A tremendously expensive blazer was part of this ensemble, with the school badge embroidered on the breast pocket, a design of thistles together with the school motto, “My open eyes desire the truth”. This meant nothing to me at the time apart from being a further example of the school’s ingrained pretentiousness, although I have since discovered it is actually a slightly paraphrased line from a poem by Tennyson. Our eyes may have been open, but the school made sure they were thoroughly blinkered by encouraging snobbery and looking down on anything outside its narrow class-based viewpoint. For years I refused to wear any clothing that was bottle green in colour, a hated reminder of its enforced ubiquity for five years and an unwelcome reminder of conformity and servility. Denied any way of personalising the uniform – and this during the years following the Summer of Love, which melted into the fantasy colour and glitter of Glam Rock – we consequently scrutinised the female members of staff for the tiniest sign of fashion or stylishness to remind us of the outside world. Many were older women, still stuck in the tweed-suit wearing, flat shoes and tight perms of at least a decade before, but the occasional new teacher would spark our interest – Miss Crowdace, a Mary Hopkin lookalike, was a vision in her bright mini dresses, long blonde hair and thick black eyeliner as she attempted to teach us the rudiments of chemistry, showing us exciting things like mercury rolling in poisonous silver beads along her desk, or a jar of sodium like a ball of burning fire, so dangerous it had to be trapped under water. We grew copper sulphate crystals in luminous saturated turquoise, and distilled naphthalene, filling the lab with the scent of mothballs, and separated the unsuspected colours from apparently black ink using chromatography. It was heady stuff.
Sadly Miss Crowdace was replaced by Mr. Chettleburgh, a highly nervous young man whom I suspect was fresh out of teacher training school, with little experience of class control. Sadly this ended my previous interest in chemistry and physics; I took little notice of the lessons beyond the bare minimum.
Still seeking fashion thrills, we had a games teacher whose name I can sadly no longer remember, also a fan of eyeliner and navy blue eye shadow and long chiffon scarves, although to be fair she was very beautiful and we all had crushes on her. I still hated PE, was incompetent at the most basic forms of physical exertion, and would actively avoid team sports if possible. Standing in an icy gale on the wet hockey pitch, while trying not to have my ankles broken by a chunky determined girl heading my way at high speed, absolutely terrified me. Ditto netball compounded by the risk of a fall onto solid tarmac.
Along with the hated uniform, there was a long roll call of rules and regulations to be observed at all times. Some of them seemed to exist for no other reason than to make our lives miserable while others extended to policing our behaviour outside the school. The despised beret had to be worn properly, and we were not to be seen eating in the street, although of course given the revolting inedible school dinners we were served, the sweet shop was always our first port of call on the way home. It would seem that such heinous crimes as these, together with larking about whilst in uniform were of such gravity as to blacken the good name of Thistley Hough beyond redemption. We were solemnly informed that any off-duty teacher or indeed any responsible adult could report us to the terrifying Headmistress, Maud Dawson for the severest of dressing downs, as if we were expected to behave like debutantes at a finishing school rather than normal, mostly working class teenagers. In our collective teenage paranoia we anxiously scanned passing cars lest they contain a homeward bound teacher, some of whom seemed to harbour an active dislike of us and had no reservations about saying so.
Top of this list would be the teacher of Domestic Science, as cookery was quaintly termed, a fearsome pinch faced and over powdered martinet, allegedly the daughter of a vicar but lacking the slightest human warmth. She would spell the word “doily” (i.e. a decorative paper lace mat) as “d’oyley” in a most affected way – her snobbery knew no bounds. She was deeply critical and sarcastic and seemed to harbour an overwhelming sense of resentment towards us as we attempted the culinary delights of rock cakes and a particularly disgusting course of pallid steamed fish, which my mother took one look at and threw in the bin, and rightly so. It was with a huge sense of relief that I was able to opt out after a couple of terms to study Latin instead with the jolly Mr. Rowlands, whose enthusiasm for the grammar of an archaic language was infectious, and a rare skill.
Maud Dawson was replaced after a couple of years by the formidable Miss Robinson, who would stride about the corridors in her dusty black academic gown, presumably the relic of a graduation many decades ago; if the morning assembly hymns were not sung with sufficient enthusiasm for her liking, she would brusquely order us to re-sing them, all the while looking at us thunderously as if we had personally offended God with our feeble songs of praise.
The school was arranged around a quadrangle, in the centre of which was a small planted area too shabby to be called a garden and a small lily pond. I didn’t think it unreasonable to go and have a look at this one day, but yet again I had fallen foul of another of the mysterious rules; I was shouted at to come back immediately, and never ever again to dare trespass on the unkempt square of privet surrounding a 2 foot square of dank water. Had I attempted to break into the Tower of London and make off with the Crown Jewels I would have met with less opprobrium.
On one of the first frightening days there, my best friend Jayne and I had held hands as we walked down a corridor, unsure of our surroundings in what was turning out not to be the fun-filled Mallory Towers experience we had secretly hoped for, when an older girl, a sixth former, came along and slapped our hands apart with a scornful snort: “You can stop that, you pair of lezzers!”, she shouted. We had no idea what she meant, except that the harshness in her voice held a hint of our having behaved in some disgusting and shameful way. I hated the sixth formers after that, in their nasty cerise nylon twinsets supposed to mark out their near adult status. They sat in the balcony at Assembly, and I hoped devoutly that it would collapse under the weight of their obvious self-satisfaction and covert preening as they primped their feeble attempts at fashionable hairstyles.