Schooldays

by Cynthia Costain

Miss Amy Lefroy

Carol and Doris discovered in the next few weeks that the sun DID shine in England and that there were many beautiful places in London. It was not all dark with dirty buildings and poor-looking people as they had thought that first evening, but they continued to be amazed at the crowds and busy streets.

Fred joined them, looking bigger and older than when they had last seen him the year before, and they soon got over an initial shyness and enjoyed being together again. Dad was a good guide and showed them the beautiful parks and elegant buildings and shops, as well as famous sights such as the British Museum and the Albert Memorial. The Crystal Palace was a big disappointment. Doris thought it was a big dirty building, while Carol had expected a shining glass castle “just like in the fairy stories”

“Never mind,” said Dad, “We’ll go to the White City tomorrow, and maybe you’ll like that better.”

Indeed they did. It was a big Amusement Park with Ferris Wheels, scenic railways, round-a-bouts, and thrilling rides of every kind imaginable. To the girls who had never been on anything more than a swing it was wildly exciting and Fred enjoyed it every bit as much, once he got over being superior. They kept begging for, “Just one more” until Dad finally dragged them away.

All good things must end and first Doris waved goodbye to Carol, as she joined Mr. and Mrs. Hadley who were taking her back to St. Vincent. She did not mind as she had so much to tell them all at home, but Carol saw her go with a sinking feeling. It was worse when Fred returned to school, and Dad called a cab and took her to the Streatham College for Girls. She had tried to imagine this school so often, but she was not prepared for the gracious old country house set in its own grounds, with flower gardens and tennis courts. It was on the outskirts of a wealthy suburb with tree lined streets and handsome houses. The driveway up to the school was long and by the time Carol had crept up the steps to the large porticoed doorway and been ushered into the marble tiled hall she was trembling with fright. “It’s like a palace, Dad,” she whispered.

They were taken into a beautiful drawing room and an imposing little lady rose to greet them. Miss Amy Lefroy was not tall, but the dignity of her carriage and the sharp intelligence of her eyes were impressive. She had been one of the first women graduates of Oxford University and had become the youngest headmistress in the Anglican private school system. Her older sister had a similar school in Halifax in Canada where Muriel had been a pupil. Now it was Carol’s turn to be educated.

All the formalities had been conducted by letter so this was a social visit with afternoon tea brought in by a maid and served from a gleaming silver tea service. Carol was too shy to eat any of the delicacies and listened to Miss Lefroy and Dad chatting while she concentrated on not spilling her tea.

Afterwards they were shown around the school: classrooms, bedrooms for two, dining room and so many other rooms that Carol was overwhelmed. She could not imagine how she would ever find her way around. Her shoes clattered on the Adam staircase and she tripped over the entrance to the Great Hall. At last they said goodbye and Miss Lefroy smiled kindly at her new pupil.

Carol wrote in her journal that she was taken to school by force, but I’m sure that she went meekly but with a faint and trembling heart. (She was given to underlinings and exclamation marks.) It was very strange at first. It was a day school, and the majority of the girls lived in the area and came each weekday from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. The school also took in a small number of boarders, most of them coming from overseas. The numbers varied. Sometimes Carol was alone, at other times Una from Canada, Vesta from India, Marjorie and others were with her. She was in a class of thirty-two girls, but at first she happened to be the only boarder and it was not easy to make friends. Some of the teachers lived at school: Miss Lefroy, Miss Hull, Miss Dart, and others so before long Carol felt it was very much the same as it had been at home with her big sisters. “Carol dear, run upstairs and bring me my scissors” or “Take these books to the classroom for me, please” and she happily ran errands and made herself useful. Some lessons she loved and some she disliked but she did her best and the teachers were kind. Those in residence often took her out when they went shopping or on little expeditions and made a fuss of her when she had her tonsils and adenoids out. Gradually it became quite fun.

As the holidays approached Carol was worried about what would happen to her when the school was closed, but to her joy her Father was still in London and she and Fred joined him for a final week of sightseeing and theatres before he sailed for New York. As most of the boarders had no relatives in England, Miss Lefroy made arrangements during holidays for them to stay with families in different parts of the country. Many of these were clergy living in big houses in villages who were happy to augment their small stipend and welcome boys and girls into their own large families. All tried to make the holidays enjoyable for these young people far from home.

This time Miss Lefroy sent Carol to a vicar and his family in Norfolk where there was a cheerful group of young people and before long Carol was helping with the Church Bazaar, bicycling to the sea and bathing, and learning to sail on the Norfolk Broads. While Fred was still at school many arrangements included both brother and sister and Fred sometimes spent time with Carol at school if their holidays did not quite coincide. The teachers spoilt them both and took them to theatres in the winter and for bicycle rides in the summer to the country for delicious farm teas.

Perhaps the first Christmas in England was not the best holiday she had, but Fred was with her. They went to a family in Hampshire with three grown up daughters and Carol wrote in her journal, “We had a very quiet time.” They had their parcels from home and other presents which they opened on Christmas morning before the family was awake and giggled as they tried to be quiet. After breakfast they all went to Church, and in the afternoon she and Fred went for a long walk although it was a damp grey day with no sign of the snow which they had been hoping for. The Christmas dinner in the evening was a big success though, with a turkey, flaming plum pudding and crackers. It was not all dull as they were invited to two dances in the neighbourhood. Fred was horrified, but was finally persuaded to go and enjoyed himself immensely. One of the daughters took them to a roller skating rink which was `all the rage’ Carol wrote, and they both became very enthusiastic. One day, unfortunately, the poor lady fell and broke her leg so they were not allowed to go any more. “Just as I was beginning to get the hang of it,” mourned Carol. Fred said a very bad word.

Miss Lefroy’s plan of education for her boarders included not only classroom work but an appreciation of all that London and England could offer. In Carol’s journal she lists the sights she saw: art galleries, parks and gardens, museums, castles and cathedrals. After each outing Carol would sit down at her school desk and write a description of what she had seen, usually very factual and with little personal input as it would be corrected by a teacher. Sometimes emotion did creep in, as when she and Una went to the tower of London and were dazzled by the Crown Jewels and then saw the tiny bare stone room where Lady Jane was imprisoned and the place where she was beheaded. Some of her remarks produced red underlinings by the teacher and many exclamation marks, such as her visit to Nelson’s ship `Victory’ in Portsmouth harbour. There she says she saw where he died and his cabin where there were “many of his remnants”.

Success in school work was also important. In July 1912, Carol was proud to receive a leather bound copy of the Poems of Tennyson as an Elocution Prize. She kept it all her life.

From Streatham, trains and omnibuses could take them all over London and to other towns and cities, bicycles could be taken on trains and used for exploring. There was an Easter holiday weekend in Brighton with Miss Lefroy and Miss Hull, and later on a few weeks in France with Miss Dart and some friends.

The huge variety of London’s entertainment world was not ignored. Carol saw the best English actors in Shakespeare plays; popular drama such as `The Scarlet Pimpernel’ and `The Blue Bird’; the famous Russian Ballet’s first season in London; Maskelyne and Devant; and light musical comedies. She had singing lessons and with the other girls enjoyed singing all the popular songs, as well as preparing a more serious repertoire for evening parties where she would be asked to `bring her music’.

During Carol’s time in England there were two events of national importance: the death and funeral of King Edward VII, and the coronation of King George V. Miss Lefroy arranged that her pupils were able to see the great processions during these events. Edward died in May 1910 and the whole country went into mourning: blinds and curtains darkened every window in each house; black bordered posters and newspapers announced the event; shop windows were draped in black crepe while the counters inside were besieged with people shopping for black clothes and armbands. Carol was impressed because even the crowds hurrying to work and the busy shoppers were quiet and solemn.

On the day of the funeral Miss Lefroy took Carol early in the morning to the Treasury Building in Whitehall where she had reserved seats. They had a magnificent view of the whole street through which the procession would pass. Looking down they saw a dense mass of people walled in by a double row of soldiers stretching off into the distance. They had a long wait but the crowd was quiet even when there was a sharp shower of rain and Carol was amused at some of the soldiers trying to keep their busbies dry. At last they could hear the tread of the horses’ hooves and the wheels of the gun carriage with the coffin. The crowd was still and perfectly silent. The black crepe draped from the lamp posts hung down in the damp air as the procession passed. The coffin was covered with the Royal Standard and the crown, the orb, and the sceptre glittered on top. King George with his two eldest sons on either side walked behind; a group of the great military and naval leaders followed and then came detachments of British regiments as well as the cavalry of Hussars and Dragoons of foreign countries. The colourful slow procession of troops followed and at the end was the King’s horse with empty saddle and reversed stirrups, while behind trotted a small white haired terrier.

Still more pomp of bishops, judges, heads of ancient orders and then a parade of royalty representing seventy nations. Carol was too awestruck to try to count but the newspapers would tell her that there were nine kings, five heirs apparent, forty imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens, and ambassadors from uncrowned countries. The sun broke through the clouds and shone on such a magnificence of uniforms in scarlet and gold, silver, green and blue, gleaming orders on imposing breasts, tossing white plumes on shining helmets so that the people gasped as the parade rode by. Carol thought it was wonderful and wrote in her journal she wished she could “see it all over again”. She did not realize that never again would there be such a gathering; that the German Emperor, freed from his Uncle Bertie’s control, was already planning a war which would bring a pall of darkness over Europe. Barbara Tuchman, in her book, calls it `a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again’.

The coronation of King George V more than a year later was a happier event and again Miss Lefroy had booked a room from which the girls could watch the procession which took place after the ceremony. The previous night there were bonfires burning all over England and the girls climbed on the roof of the school to see the flames on London hills. An early breakfast followed by a train ride took them to the centre of the procession area where they pushed through crowds to reach their destination. They found a pleasant room with two big windows and a balcony from which they had a wonderful view. Besides comfortable chairs and a sofa there was a piano which delighted the girls. As this was a festive occasion they passed the time during the long wait by singing and eating an early lunch.

At last they could hear cheering in the distance. The soldiers lining the streets came to attention and the cheers grew louder as the procession drew near. Regiments of colonial troops marched past followed by cavalry and the girls cheered enthusiastically, waving scarlet ribbons at representatives of every country in the Empire. At last the open State Coach drawn by six cream horses appeared with the King and Queen. The girls were a little disappointed not to see them in royal robes with crowns on their heads, but they agreed that the King looked quite magnificent in his uniform with the Order of the Garter across his breast. They exclaimed at the Queen’s beautiful white satin robe trimmed with pale blue and hat with blue ostrich feathers to match. Suddenly Carol screamed, “Look! Look! The St. Vincent sunshade!” and there it was at her side, the present from the people of St. Vincent!

After the whole procession had passed by, they finished the remains of the lunch while the crowds dispersed, and then made their way slowly through the people to the Army and Navy Stores where they had a good tea!

Altogether, what a wonderful education for a young person from a tiny isolated island. Miss Lefroy opened a whole new world to her pupils.

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