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The boarding school dream

Words and images courtesy of Christine Perrott

From before the Great Depression until well after World War II, Australian boarding schools provided a service for isolated rural families and those whose profession demanded residing out of the country, such as a Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea or a diplomatic posting.

In the days before television and the internet, young girls spent much time with their heads in books. In the mid 20th century, books telling of adventures and relationships at a girls’ boarding school were popular; raiding Matron’s pantry, midnight feasts, breaking bounds to meet a boy or buy goodies at a nearby store, and friendships fraught with anguish of break up or meanness.

The readers would fantasise about going to boarding school – but how closely did the ‘real thing’ match the stories?

One way to find out is to ask those who attended such a school. Christine Perrott has done this and gathered the memories into a book: ‘We Survived’ Collected Memories of School Days at PLC Armidale, 1936-1964 was edited by Perrott, and was published in 2021 via The Book Reality Experience.

Her boarding school was one of five at Armidale, on the New South Wales Northern Tablelands. Perrott, who attended this school, provides an edited version of her recollections below.

PLC Armidale school grounds

‘My family left Sydney for a town near Armidale in 1951. Because my parents wanted me to do the Leaving Certificate, which the local school didn’t offer, a decision had to be made about my secondary schooling. Armidale was the nearest option, but too far by road for a daily trip. Staying in a hostel and attending Armidale High School was out of the question as far as Mum was concerned; questionable supervision and access to boys, oh dear me, NO!

‘PLC was chosen. The uniform list was daunting, different garments for winter, summer and every occasion – prep, church, lessons, weekends, outings, sport, etc. Each must have a name tag. I arrived proudly in my school suit, hat and gloves only to discover my Panama hat should be turned down at the front. Such shame!

School day uniforms

‘My first dorm was in Junior House, one of three houses – Prep, Junior and Main. Our beds were end-to-end along an enclosed verandah. We each had a drawer and hanging space in a wardrobe. The classroom block had heaters, but there was no heating in the dorms. Also, we weren’t allowed inside them or the classrooms at recreation times no matter what the weather, which, in the winter term, was often less than 10 degrees Celsius.

‘Later, in Main House, my dorm was an open verandah with roll-down blinds. Once flakes of snow floated about our beds and heads as we dressed for tea. We’d take cardboard and pages of the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald to put under out kapok mattresses as insulation. Some mornings, our damp towels hanging on our bed ends were frozen. No matter how cold the morning, a run around the block had to take place, frost crunching under our feet.

‘And, of course, there was the midnight feast – more likely at 10 pm. It was so exciting, until we were sprung. Food and drink were forbidden in the dorms, so it was a double misdemeanour; talking after lights out plus the food.

Church uniforms

‘Meals in the dining room were taken at tables of mixed ages led by a prefect who served out the food. Manners were emphasised; pass the butter, no seconds until everyone’s finished, don’t grab your bread slice, don’t talk while eating, etc. A turn at High Table each term was a terrifying experience. Most put on weight filling up on bread and spread. Some meals were inadequate for growing girls, particularly tea at weekends; a slice each of devon and cheese, with a small tomato rolling around on the plate. At morning recess, bread and jam (usually melon and lemon – ugh!), and in the afternoon an apple or orange.

Drill exercises

‘We rehearsed for Gilbert and Sullivan operas and put on our own plays. Another activity was ‘drill’, a form of group eurythmics which we displayed. The best contributor won a medal. Saturday evenings we had a film or danced together in the gym. Often, I was the pianist for this. Weekends were spent outside on rugs reading, writing letters, gossiping, or playing tennis and practising basketball goals. Of course, church was on Sunday, and we would be wearing our white ‘sacks’ with the green pussy bow at the neck.

‘I recall a group of girls deciding they must get some treats from a nearby shop. They pooled their money and drew straws to decide who’d be the shoppers. At 10 pm the whole school was summoned to the assembly hall in pyjamas and dressing gowns. The headmistress called for those who’d broken bounds to step forward. To everyone’s surprise two groups stepped forward, some seniors and the shopping group. They’d become the small fish caught in the main net. So unlucky!’

You can find ‘We Survived’ Collected Memories of School Days at PLC Armidale, 1936-1964 online here.

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