Carlisle & County High School: a memoir
A good view of the main building of Carlisle High School. It has been demolished now. I am in the middle of the second row, marked with a x.

We had a grandfather clock in the living room at Midtown, and there was an alcove, by the clock's face, into which my mother put important letters. When I came home from school one day, I spotted immediately that it contained a new addition.

Aunt Nora was visiting and she exclaimed as I came in, "You're a clever girl!" My mother added, "You've passed for the High School".

More letters arrived, one of them containing a long list of school uniform. It was to be obtained from Jespers. My mother was quite pleased about this, because she thought Jespers was a high class store. It was also very expensive, but we were better off by then. I was excited at the thought of so many new clothes. We had no uniform at my previous schools of Cumwhitton, High Hesket and Warwick Bridge.

The uniform was navy blue and maroon. I was disappointed about the maroon. Grandma & I often discussed colours and we had agreed that our colour was blue. My mother liked red, so she might have been happier with the muroon. She also wore green, because she said she had green eyes (untrue!). My mother hated blue as it was Grandma's colour and she was in perpetual conflict with Grandma.

We visited Jespers and purchased many items: a gym slip, 2 white blouses, a tie, pullover with a V neck (muroon!), a blazer with a school badge on the pocket and numerous other items. Berets were worn in Winter and hats in the Summer. Hats or berets had to be worn at all times in the street. Dresses in various pastel shades could be purchased for the Summer. There was also a gym kit. We needed not only outdoor shoes, but house shoes for indoors and plimsolls for gym. It was all very impressive. I soon discovered that eating in the street was a very serious offence at the High School. We were the elite and we had to behave like ladies.

I am wearing a blazer, with the school badge, in this picture (second row, on the right). The badge depicted the castle, the three rivers (Eden, Petteril & Caldew) & the Rose of Cumberland.

I enjoyed the journeys to school. There was a bus at 8.10am which I could catch at Violet Bank at the bottom of Cumwhitton. It started at Ainstable and went through the fell villages like Croglin, Cumrew and Castle Carrock. It was for those who worked in Carlisle and it picked up the same people every morning. I loved watching people, although I was too shy to talk to them. I had used the same bus when I went to my school at Warwick Bridge, only now I went on to Carlisle. The High School was in Lismore Place, which was a street off Warwick Road. It was very convenient.

The first day at school was an ordeal as I knew no one. Some of the girls had come up from the junior school and had friends already. Carlisle High School was still a private school and you could pay to attend it. This phase of its history though was almost at an end. The next year it took only pupils who had passed the eleven plus.

We were divided into 3 forms according to the position of our surname in the alphabet: Upper3 x, y or z. As an R I was put into Upper3z. There were also 4 houses, Netherby, Greystoke, Lanercost & Linstock. I think this was meant to encourage the team spirit. Each of them had their own colours and as I was in Lanercost my colour was green. It turned out that my handwriting was all wrong. I wrote the old fashioned way with loops. Only italic script was permitted at Carlisle High School.

The teachers were maiden ladies with degrees from good universities, some of them from Oxford or Cambridge. Miss Wilson was headmistress during the whole of my time there. She had a Classical Tripos from the University of Cambridge (Girton College). Familiarity was not encouraged, but we did discover that her Christian names were Kathleen Courtenay and she was sometimes referred to as KC. Nearly all the teachers had nick-names. Only, they did not like to be called teachers, but we had to call them mistresses. It was all very new and strange.

My first form mistress was Miss P. Wynne. She taught English. She had a sister in the school, who took the scripture classes, called Miss M. Wynne. We named them Polly and Molly. I found out later that Polly's real name was Phyllis. She was a formidable character and I was terrified of her.

Margaret Forster, the novelist, gives this description of Miss Wynne. "She was tall and heavy with thin grey hair scraped back into the classic vicious bun. Her face was round but her nose and chin pointed and her hostile eyes, of an indeterminate colour, hidden behind spectacles. She wore awful grey suits and thick stockings with laced up shoes - a caricature of the spinster schoolteacher in fact. She never smiled and hadn't the slightest interest in popularity or even in getting to know us. There was total silence for every lesson. These lessons were inspired. She could take a poem and have us, a class of grubby fourteen-year-olds, totally inspired." (M. Scott-Parker. Carlisle & County High School. p. 95.)

In the grounds of Carlisle High School with Miss Wynne. It is a sixth form photograph & we had graduated from gym slips to grey skirts. I am in the back row, third from the right.

Miss E.C.A. Smyth, Head of the English Department, was equally eccentric. When she introduced herself, on the first day, she impressed upon us that her name must always be spelt with a y and not an i. Smyths were superior to Smiths - much higher class. We called her Smuts - I am not sure why. She was a small round woman and came from Ireland.

Miss Smyth was incredibly emotional. She flung herself around the room and sometimes burst into tears when the beauty or poignancy of a poem overwhelmed her. We never knew what to expect with Miss Smyth. Anything could happen in her classes.

Her favourite poet was Wordsworth. I knew practically all his poems off by heart by the time she had finished with me. She was also fascinated by his sister, Dorothy and gave us her thoughts on the relationship between them. Margaret Forster was taught by her too and she writes, "I can clearly remember the day Miss Smyth - we understood her names to be Emily Charlotte Anne after the Bronte Sisters [actually Edith Charlotte Annie] - took us to see Wordworth's grave at Grasmere, where she sobbed and sobbed at the graveside."(M. Scott-Parker. Carlisle & County High School. p. 104.) She refused to teach English grammar, but most of us didn't mind as we disliked it as well.

She could be incredibly insensitive. My brother, Walter married a woman called Elizabeth Henderson. She was the youngest of 6 sisters and these older sisters went to Carlisle High School. Sheila and Jean had serious medical problems and they died, quite close together, when they were 15 and 14. The whole school was extremely shocked.

Noeleen, the third sister was in my class. She returned to school after a few days looking very pale and distressed. On her first day back Miss Smyth chose to go into a soliloquy on Sheila, Jean and death. Noeleen burst into tears. We all tried to will Miss Smyth to stop. Of course she didn't, or only in her own time. We thought no one could control Miss Smyth, but I did see her defeated once.

There is no doubt that Miss Smyth was a good teacher. Some thought that she was far more talented than Miss Wynne. The trouble was that no one could persuade her to teach the syllabus. This was important when we took out-side exams. After a particularly bad year Miss Wilson took action and handed over the sixth form teaching to Miss Wynne. This was very insulting to Miss Smyth as she was Head of English.

We knew this had happened. The school always abounded with rumours. We waited expectantly at our first lesson, in the Lower Sixth, expecting Miss Wynne. Along she came and started the lesson. On the whole we were pleased as our future depended on good grades. Then we heard foot-steps. In came Miss Smyth and ordered Miss Wynne to leave as it was her class. Miss Wynne remained completely silent, but stood her ground.

Miss Smyth lost her temper and a very abusive few minutes followed. We were mesmerized. At one point we thought Miss Smyth was going to strike Miss Wynne. Miss Wynne had still not said a word. She was above it all. Miss Smyth turned on her heel and left - defeated by silence. Miss Wynne carried on with the lesson, where she had left off, as if nothing had happened.

Carlisle High School had moved to Lismore Place, from Castle Street, in 1909, with Miss Gardiner. It had flourished and expanded under Miss Wilson, who was Head Mistress from 1929 to 1952. I remember particularly the school assemblies where we stood or sat in rows, youngest in front, the staff on chairs along the side, under the gallery and opposite their form. The senior prefects were on the platform with Miss Wilson.

We were very attentive, as Miss Wilson was a strict disciplinarian. There could be heavy penalties if she caught anyone whispering. The school song was Forty Years On which I understand was adopted from Harrow Public School. We were fond of patriotic hymns and songs like Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

Games were very important at Carlisle High School and there was an excellent gymnasium. I was easily the bottom of my class in gym. After the hated gym, worse followed. We lined up, completely naked, for cold showers. The gym teacher made sure we stayed in the showers for an acceptable length of time. Otherwise we had to repeat the whole process all over again.

I dreaded hockey almost as much as gym. I was frighened of the hard ball and tried to keep as far away from it as possible. The only sport I showed any talent for at all was netball. I was tall and a surprisingly accurate shooter. I almost always got the ball into the net.

I enjoyed the sixth form. I had a marvellous teacher for history called Miss Stephenson (nicknamed Stevie). All the way up the school, I had come first in history and it was assumed that, if I went to university, I would read history. Miss Stephenson encouraged discussions and although I was never verbally fluent I had begun to talk. Ideas fascinated me and I began to wonder if I should really be planning to read philosophy.

A sixth form picture taken in the High School grounds. I am in the back row (right).

None of my teachers had heard of Cumwhitton and they sometimes asked me if I meant Cumwhinton. I had to explain that there were two villages in Cumberland with similar names. During my time at Sheffield University Miss Stephenson and Miss Smyth came out to find Cumwhitton and to ask how I was getting on. My mother said she offered them tea and cake. I am not sure if they accepted.

It was a narrow world, but it suited some of us. I am a great believer in diversity. The Education Department though had other ideas. Carlisle High School became a mixed school (St Aidan's) in 1970. This new school closed in 2008 and the building was demolished in 2009 to make way for the Richard Rose Central Academy.

We had a plan to meet after 10 years to exchange news. It would be interesting to know if it happened. I was not there. I remember the faces in the photograph, but not the names. It was a long time ago!

Marian Robley (Foster). April 2013.