Past Lives and Present Misgivings – Part Three.

by Anna Raccoon on October 23, 2012

DuncroftDuncroft! I never thought I would hear that name again – and suddenly it is on everybody’s lips! It is nearly 50 years ago that the car I was in drew up outside that familiar facade and I prepared to enter yet another ‘boarding school’.

You need to be aware that I was well used to ‘new boarding schools’, approximately one every year of my life. Always ‘well heeled’ as they say, my Father wasn’t short of a few bob (I believe, though whether the reason for so many different schools was that he was not fond of parting with his money, I can’t say – I genuinely have never discovered the reason for the frequent changes of address, both for me, and for my parents). This one appeared not to be materially different from any of the others. The left hand side in the photograph I later discovered to be Elizabethan, rumoured to be King John’s hunting lodge connected by a tunnel to Runnymede, the right hand side fine weathered stone – a gracious country house. Most boarding schools of the time were in gracious country houses – the only enterprises that could afford the upkeep of those draughty halls.

We rang the bell in the grand porch, and shortly a sprightly Scottish lady appeared and bounced up to the door with a huge set of keys. A little unusual, even more unusually she locked the door behind us. Not normal behaviour in any of my previous boarding schools, but something I was becoming uncomfortably used to from my experiences over the previous 18 months. I was beginning to smell a rat in these new ‘arrangements’ for me. I can be a tad slow on the uptake at times.

The Scottish lady – Miss Keenan, or ‘Bridie’ as we referred to her behind her back – took me and my suitcase upstairs to show me my ‘dormitory’. Wedgewood it was called. Now that was a real surprise. No sign of the iron bedsteads I was used to – instead there were comfortable divan beds, and posters – posters covering the walls! Colourful bed linen – good grief!

The last but one school I had attended, a famous establishment on the Sussex coast, had iron bedsteads, and rigid rules about personal possessions – one framed photograph which could only be of family, one other ‘personal item’ – Teddy bears seemed to be favourite for this category – and a ‘mufti’ dress which had to be of brown velvet with white lace collar, any design you liked providing it followed rigid rules on length etc which you were allowed to wear for a few brief hours in the evening and after church on Sunday – at all other times it was gymslip and lisle stockings which were checked hourly to make sure the seams were straight!  The school after that insisted on a one mile – a mile! – run every morning with staff stationed at any cut off points, before you were allowed to go and get breakfast. Duncroft was looking like a novel experience. It was definitely that.

Miss Keenan introduced me to Miss Cole, Miss Cole introduced me to Miss O’ Niall, Miss O’ Niall introduced me to Miss Grey – and Miss Grey took me to meet Miss Jones. Do you notice anything about that sentence? I didn’t at the time, but I came to realise that there was only one member of staff, Mrs O’Sullivan, who laid at least nominative claim to have ever engaged in marital relations with a man. I don’t suppose it was easy for the Home Office to fill positions that required you to live on site in a single bedroom along with 22 or 24 hormonal girls from varied walks of life. Duncroft seemed to have cornered the market in ex-Nuns or those whose proclivities otherwise precluded them from contemplating the married life which was the norm for women in the 40 to 50 age group as these all appeared to be. I later learned that Miss O’ Niall shared a flat with Miss Jones; Miss Keenan and Miss Cole were regular visitors to each others rooms late at night, a few hands of whist no doubt; only Mrs O’Sullivan and Miss Grey seemed to keep to themselves. Interesting – with the benefit of hindsight. Many times over the years I have thought of writing of it – ‘Sad Queens and Sour Widows’© was to be the title. Go figure.

Miss Jones was no exception, a stern lady, dark haired and of typically Welsh appearance, she was about 40 or so I thought. Ancient. What I came to know as her trade mark red slash of lipstick was neatly applied. She eyed me cautiously. She picked up a piece of paper from her desk and informed me that ‘by order of etc., etc., my release date had been set at 27th May 1966…and she added with a sly grin, there would be no absconding from her establishment…

I was genuinely shocked, and for several months afterwards refused to answer the plaintive letters from Paul and Evantia, convinced that they had connived with this fresh approach to getting me under lock and key. They hadn’t, and eventually I believed them and they remained steadfast friends and supporters up to their sad death many years later.

I burst into tears, not an emotional state that Miss Jones had a lot of time for – that wasn’t her style. She offered me a cigarette – Crikey! I’d been given cigarettes before and happily accepted – never by the Head Mistress of any previous school though!

‘Now look, my girl’ she said, and in that ‘my girl’ was distilled every essence of Miss Jones, she really did believe that we were her chosen ones. We came from all walks of life, every possible background, every dire circumstance, the one and only thing we had in common was that at some point in our checkered history we had been IQ tested and found to have an IQ in excess of 140.

140 – not the number of Twitter characters permitted to communicate by these days, but the artificial divide between those whose past history of being in ‘need of care and protection’ – whether by virtue of prostitution, drug abuse, anorexia, or being the victim of abuse in its many forms, emotional and physical – left them at the mercy of such tender establishments as Cumberlow Lodge, or, opened the magic door to Miss Jones’ new emporium. The place where she intended to prove to the Home Office that given the chance to continue their education, given a decent environment, these girls had the wherewithal to turn their lives round. She was a messiah on the subject.

She would nowadays be referred to as a Feminist. A term I have oft derided. In Margaret Jones’ case it meant, not empty rhetoric, but a genuine belief that we could be empowered to control our lives, not remain victims of our circumstances. Her constant mantra was to look forward, not back. To be positive not passive. If I had to place my loathing of the ‘victim culture’ anywhere, it would be firmly pinned to Margaret Jones’ lapel. She fought for us, she moved mountains when necessary. When a fellow pupil from my last boarding school turned up at Duncroft (the only known connection between any two girls other than the ubiquitous IQ test!) a few weeks before the GCSE exam in English, she enlisted the help of Rab Butler to ensure that she was allowed to sit the exam as a late entrant, and spent many evenings reading through Henry V with her willing her to pass the exam with a bare five weeks preparation – she did, and Margaret Jones beamed with pride. My friend decided to abandon her previously determined attempts to starve herself to death and started eating with gusto…sadly in later years she succumbed to anorexia again, but she has a fine daughter who lives on in testament to Miss Jones’ desire to see us help ourselves to a new future.

In truth, you needed the will to help yourself – the ‘education’ budget she had been allocated ran to one registered blind gentleman who arrived each afternoon to try to instill some sense into what must have seemed like St Trinian’s outcasts to him. His eyesight meant that he was extremely careful where he put anything down in order to find it again, especially the blackboard duster. One particular girl took a delight in creeping up to his desk, lifting her clothing and draping herself silently across the desk in such a way that her breast was exactly where he thought he’d put the duster – he would recoil in horror to our great delight, each and every time. It was a regular jape. It would also be fair to say that some of the girls were very experienced little minxes.

We had many visitors, I well remember the coach loads – ‘Thomas Cooks Tours’ – of trainee psychiatrists who arrived at the invitation of Dr Mason, the resident psychiatrist, to peer at the inhabitants of this new experiment in dealing with a cornucopia of teenage misery. The educationalists, the trainee social workers, the Home Office apparatchiks, all came and peered at us myopically – Miss Jones’s ‘cream of Britain’s delinquents’ – she was proud of us, and determined that the way teenage misdemeanor, criminal and otherwise, was dealt with would change.

Time passed slowly. We spent the mornings cleaning the establishment – oh those bloody red tiled corridors! They were endless. We were furnished with overalls and ‘Bumpers’. Great lumps of iron hinged on the end of long poles, with the iron covered in soft polishing cloths. They covered an area some six inches by nine inches, and it does take all morning to polish a 30 yard long corridor with one…but if you worked assiduously you might progress to helping cook in the kitchen, or Mrs O’Sullivan in the laundry (very generous with her cigarettes was Mrs O’Sullivan…) or the heights of good behaviour could see you cleaning the staff dinning room, a beautiful oak paneled room or Miss Jones and Miss O’ Niall’s apartment. The staff dinning room wasn’t a bad billet, they all smoked like troopers, especially Bridie Keenan – unfiltered Piccadilly No 6, such excellent dog ends I remember them still…but the top job was definitely Miss Jones’ apartment, and I got to be such a goody two shoes that it was my domain for a long time. There was always an unsmoked filter tipped Craven ‘A’ in the ashtray left for you to clear away – tidily, mind.

Little rewards for good behaviour. They worked too; 10 cigarettes a week for reasonable behaviour, 20 for goody two shoes (should I be suing the Home Office for my 20 a day habit?) a record player in the common room with a motley collection of ancient LPs, the occasional chance to hear the radio in the laundry, a few ‘educational trips’ in the mini bus round Staines – closely guarded by the superbly athletic in-case-you-got-any-ideas Miss Keenan, and generally Miss O’ Niall – and they went on working for a long time, right through to the end of 1965. I was but 7 months away from my 16th birthday when I would be allowed to progress to Norman Lodge, the hostel built in the grounds of Duncroft. A place where the close reins that Miss Jones kept on us would be relaxed, we would be helped to find a job, allowed out on our own occasionally, given the chance to spread our wings. It was a tantalising prospect.

She called me into her office one evening – the delicious prospect of a fag beckoned..! Ah double-entendre alert.

She wanted to talk to me about my future – and my past, for a change. She told me things that she had gleaned from the official records of my Father’s war time past. Probably shouldn’t have done, but it was helpful to understand what had gone on. She told me to forget about them – sound advice that I have followed ever since. Then we got to my future – what did I think I wanted to do with myself? Perhaps the Civil Service, I opined? (forgive me, I knew not what I was saying). That would not be possible, she explained, nor a job as a telephonist with the GPO (not high on my list of things to do before I died, but still) – nor were the armed forces an option, nor the police or other emergency services…why? Well, a ‘care and protection order’ counted as a criminal record so far as those organisations were concerned. It was monstrously unfair, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Now, I’m not saying that I really wanted to do all – or any – of those things, but the fact that I was actually prevented from doing so really hit home with me. All the old anger at being repeatedly locked up for one moment of despair and one bottle of aspirin just welled up inside me. OK, and escaping from police custody several times, I did understand the law even then – but I had never done a damn thing that warranted what had happened to me since. I’d behaved myself, cleaned that damned corridor hundreds of times, been patient, and now it seemed my entire life was to be permanently blighted. I went off to bed in a foul mood.

Somewhere in the course of that night, I remembered how thin I was, how long legged I was, how the window was adapted to open just so far, how there was a bay window just so far below…Yes, I’m afraid that Ms Raccoon was off on her travels yet again, armed with nothing more than a purloined business card from the man who had made new curtains for her flat, and the clothes she stood up in. I was to be back within a couple of months, but that will have to wait for another day.

Good Lord! 2000 words from someone, one of some two dozen girls alive who were in Duncroft in 1965, and she still hasn’t mentioned Jimmy Savile! Has the woman no mercy? You’ll just have to wait for tomorrow…

*Erratum:

I was very tired and didn’t proof read properly; dining is spelt dining, not dinning; I’m has got an m after the apostrophe; I was 16 and coming up to my 17th birthday not my 16th birthday; and the curtains for ‘her flat’ refer to Miss Jones’ flat – I could have worded that better. I am putting them in an erratum because I am very aware that the text from yesterday was downloaded several hundred times, and read many thousands times, and I don’t want to be accused of having changed the text after publication. (and my heartfelt thanks to the few brave souls who ventured into the comments to encourage me, those silent readers can be very daunting sometimes, and this is definitely one of those times!)

Tagged as: Child Abuse, Duncroft, Jimmy Savile, Margaret Jones

{ 48 comments }

Ellen Coulson October 26, 2012 at 13:57

I don’t remember Miss Grey but was not Miss Kelleher there?

Anna Raccoon October 26, 2012 at 14:06

Gosh, Ellen I had completely forgotten that name – was it not Kellagher? Yes, she was. And Minty the cook has just come back to me.

Furor Teutonicus October 26, 2012 at 14:54

XX And Minty the cook XX

Does “Minty” in this instance, have the same meaning as with the Royal Navy?

(Dirty, unwashed, etc)

Anna Raccoon October 26, 2012 at 14:57

Oh no, she was lovely, a big cuddly grandmother of a woman. Terrible cook though!

Furor Teutonicus October 26, 2012 at 15:10

Good!  I just had vision of OUR old school cook, who would have fitted the RN description VERY well, had we known of it then.

Loving your “Past lives…” posts.

Mewsical October 26, 2012 at 20:30

It was short for Minton.

Furor Teutonicus October 25, 2012 at 03:58

You’ll just have to wait for tomorrow…

DAMN!!!!

Have you ever thought of finding a publisher? Or even, doing it yourself? Bloody GOOD read!  )

Thanks!

Wendi October 24, 2012 at 22:29

Beautifully written Ms. Raccoon! The headmistress would no doubt be happy to read this after her nephew’s unsavoury aspersions – he must surely have been around the same age as the girls in care himself when he visited his aunt at Duncroft with his mother? You would think it would have been a turn on rather than the “something very dodgy going on here” attitude he professed last year. I understand that Duncroft was the créme de la créme in it’s Home Office days, so hardly surprising that the odd Royal would be making the usual diplomatic rounds as they do with many charities and, as for the occasional actor visit, I believe the head psychiatrist was married to a film director and may have thought it healthy for the girls to meet the occasional happily married, avuncular celebrity. Savile certainly doesn’t fit in that category by a long shot, one wonders how he passed through the headmistress’s tight net. No doubt that tale/tail will be pulled out of the net and that sorry mistake revealed at a later date!

Mewsical October 24, 2012 at 20:44

Well said, Racoon! I hope MJ has a chance to read your kind comments. I was at the school 1963-1965 and like yourself, ne’er saw ‘ide or ‘orrible ‘air of Savile either. Ms. Roberts should be ashamed of herself at the very least.

Humble Observer October 24, 2012 at 16:02

Not well enough at the moment to read it all. Here’s a smiley anyway!

Brian October 24, 2012 at 13:36

GCSE exams weren’t introduced until 1988; before then there were GCEs (introduced at O and A level in 1951 and CSEs (introduced 1965).

Edna Fletcher October 24, 2012 at 13:41

Stupid government education department to be so uncreative as to make these interchangeable ‘acroynms’ to confound the public..

Anna Raccoon October 24, 2012 at 14:19

Thank you pedant, you are absolutely right. I stand corrected.

Brian October 24, 2012 at 15:35

Pedant? The other lot were “brave souls”.

Furor Teutonicus October 25, 2012 at 04:00

Aye. And as early as 1990, try explaining to a boss, at the interview, what a CSE is! (was?!?)

All useless bits of paper, which only serve to get MORE useless bits of paper.

Amfortas October 24, 2012 at 13:02

If we are to believe the current conventional wisdom, early experiences are ‘shaping’ and underpin later adult life and behaviour. I don’t know much at all about Pippi Longstocking’s later life but we already have some idea of Anna’s. All this independance, self reliance and innovative action shows.

Edna Fletcher October 24, 2012 at 13:27

Not just adult life and behaviour, but importantly ones views and thoughts are shaped. I started off with school reports stating ‘ somewhat harsh voice’, later ‘exemplary behaviour’ to some years later work colleagues suggesting my ‘creative thoughts’ were due to ‘my being argumentative’. I stopped being a ‘yes’ person somewhere along the way.

Bill October 24, 2012 at 12:57

A poignant and very personal tale, told with humour and grace of style, for which Ms Raccoon is famous.

A story which should certainly be told, but which I hope is not proving too hurtful to the author in the telling.

I hope you carry on, but if it becomes too much, then please stop or take a pause Anna.

Edna Fletcher October 24, 2012 at 11:54

Anna

In your tale of a period that must have been incomprehensible to a young girl moving into an adult world you are in some part telling the story of others too- few have your gift of being a raconteur so we rarely hear of them. The fact your journey relates squarely to topical matters makes your story the more compelling and unique. It has brought back memories of places and people, (the area you write about was in the vicinity that I lived when I was near to your own age in the story). I could not write about these, or other things that clearly shaped me, with your sense of detachment and touch of humour.. Is your keyboard wet?.

Stabledoor October 24, 2012 at 11:48

As a regular silent reader and only occasional commenter I just want to register how gripped I am by the story and eagerly awaiting the next installment. Fascinating and very well written

Woman on a Raft October 24, 2012 at 11:41

You forgot to put a copyright notice on…..yes, I know, I know..

Dan October 29, 2012 at 09:44

Copyright exists in a work as soon as it is written, though it’s not a bad idea to make that explicit.

bilbaoboy October 24, 2012 at 08:03

You couldn’t make it up.

Startling, awesome, compelling….

Have you never let it out before?

Thank you for sharing

Dick the Prick October 24, 2012 at 07:50

Cheers Anna, although am quite concerned as to where this is going.

Hysteria October 24, 2012 at 12:13

yup – my thoughts – where is this going? Maybe not a Good Place…

Stevegee October 24, 2012 at 07:46

Compelling, enthralling, beautifully written. Surely there is a book to be written of this?

GildasTheMonk October 24, 2012 at 09:43

I agree. This cries out for a book and indeed a film.

Mudplugger October 24, 2012 at 10:49

Judi Dench would obviously play ‘Miss Jones’. Any nominations for the inevitable Oscar-winning role of ‘Anna’ ?

I’m torn between Olivia Newton John and Keira Knightley – (but that’s nothing to do with this film, it’s just a permanent state I’m in !)

Amfortas October 24, 2012 at 03:14

‘Bumpers’ ! memories flood back. I spent much of my ‘first posting’ at RAF Oakington (Cambs) polishing the floors of the control tower with a bumper. We had a daily routine of stripping the floors of yesterday’s polish with ‘tepol’ and then applying the polish of the day. Our Sergeant would penalise anyone below his rank for actually walking on the floors. We positioned wads of cloth at every door and slid across, maintaining the sheen as we went.

As for not being allowed to join the forces if you had a criminal record, that was presumably just for girls. We chaps were conscripted for National Service regardless of youthful misdemeanours; indeed after NS finished in 1962 it was a running joke that half the RAF lower ranks had been given the choice by a Magistrate of joining up or going to Borstal.

I take note of the female staff at your ‘establishment’ being ‘Miss’ this and that. After WW2 as had been after WW1 there were many unmarried women about. That was because of the lack of men. WW1 saw over 1 million men killed (the adult male population was just 10 million in 1914) and another 2 million maimed. 30% of mariageble men were removed from the gene pool. WW2 saw off another 800,000 men and a similarly large proportion of maimed chaps as previously. If there was a ’cause’ for feminism it lies in these figures. The women who would ‘normally’ have found a man to support them, suddenly had to compete with many women for the few sound men – and support themselves. Women became – as a gender – neurotic after WW1 and psychotic after WW2, first from sheer disappointment of the loss of their male-supported future and guilt for the atrocious White Feathering’ of men (but blaming men nonetheless) and then from Anger, fueling the blaming. It was all men’s fault for dying. It was the fault of MEN !!! ™ that the women remained ‘Sad Queens and Sour Widows’©’

Dom October 24, 2012 at 00:11

Just wanted to add my name to the list of those who are enthralled by these stories. I hope writing them has been cathartic for you. I love the humor behind it all.

Gloria Smudd October 23, 2012 at 23:52

Absolutely riveting stuff, beautifully written. Thank you.

Engineer October 24, 2012 at 10:48

In the comments to the last installment, you told us that you were on the edge of your seat. I’d just like to add that I am, too. (That’s the edge of my seat, not Gloria’s; just in case anybody gets any funny ideas.)

Gloria Smudd October 24, 2012 at 11:06

You are welcome to join me on the edge of my seat, Engineer: it is, as you might expect, a very sturdy item of furniture …

AndrewWS October 23, 2012 at 23:06

Raccoonteuse, surely?

cascadian October 23, 2012 at 21:52

I can see where this sorry tale is leading us already!

Very soon records of the locations of burial plots of the above-mentioned ladies will be consulted, heavy equipment will be hired, tomb-stones will be removed, charitable donations will be reversed, further enquiries will be necessary (no matter what the cost). Tabloid newspapers will scream for Justice for Anna. Questions will be asked in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary may even issue an apology.

Don’t you see? They encouraged a minor to smoke! There is no greater sin.

I hope the landlady will not mind a little levity.

GildasTheMonk October 23, 2012 at 21:18

We are like star travellers, reaching the very core of the Raccooniverse, the essence of the creation of the system. We await the next compelling instalment….awe struck.

Frankie October 23, 2012 at 20:43

And…. you weren’t going to write this article? My God woman! This is some of your best stuff!!

Reading it is a bit like being in a road accident – you know – the moment prior to the impact when time seems to slow down and you can see the ‘point of impact’. I think I can see where the collision will be up ahead in this tale… I don’t want it to happen… I think it will hurt… I will feel bad afterwards.

Only one amusing thing… is a staff ‘dinning’ room much like a staff ‘dining’ room, except much noisier?

Dick Puddlecote October 23, 2012 at 20:39

Bloody stories in instalments, when can I get the box set?

Amazing stuff, Anna, and brave too. On this evidence, a book should be in the offing by adding more than shortened excerpts.

Single Acts of Tyranny October 24, 2012 at 07:03

As is often the case, Dick is right on the money with this one. Even if you couldn’t get a publisher (for being insufficiently a ‘victim’) give us the long version on Kindle.

ivan October 24, 2012 at 09:59

At the moment each part is going into my standard ePub editing program, then at the end I can run it through kindlegen and get an ebook for the Kindle as well.

What Anna wants to do with them is up to her – I will not be sending them to anyone unless she approves.

Now to find higher resolution pictures to go into the ePub.

Ljh October 23, 2012 at 20:22

What a raconteur(raccoonteur?)!

Ljh October 23, 2012 at 20:21

What a raconteur(raccoonteur?)! Merci, a demain.

Joe Public October 23, 2012 at 19:24

Your early-years adventures are so interesting, I suspect the vast majority of your readers eagerly await the further instalments with no need for a hint of any Savile-induced titillation.

The power of your pen, Ms Raccoon.

Thank you.

macheath October 23, 2012 at 19:34

Absolutely – this is, I think, the most riveting post I have ever read; for the last three paragraphs I even forgot to breathe….

Single Acts of Tyranny October 24, 2012 at 14:14

I am so taken with this series that for the first time ever, I have linked the blog from one I sometimes contribute to here

http://www.countingcats.com/?p=13203

This is a remarkable tale that needs to be heard by as wide an audience as possible; perhaps I could commend other readers to do likewise?

jonseer October 23, 2012 at 19:06

Dreamy stuff Ms Raccoon. Really not so different from any boarding establishment in the 50′s. Mine was particularly philistine. Remember being in the biology building when the Corps Sgt Major trundled a wheel barrow past full of blood soaked straw from the direction of the shooting range.
The captain of shooting had blown his brains out with a .22 rifle because he owed the local bookie 50 quid. We looked out of the window, then carried on with the lesson.
The story never made the local press. Quite different to-day.

Uncle Nick October 24, 2012 at 11:42

More likely to have been a .303, I think. A .22 wouldn’t be guaranteed to do the job, even at point blank, and wouldn’t generate barrows full of blood soaked straw. There would have been stacks of .303 WWII Lee Enfields knocking about the country in the 50s; I’m assuming that a place with a “Corps Sgt Major” to hand would also be using these?

jonseer October 24, 2012 at 13:56

Hi Uncle. I was a member of the shooting team with my very own BSA Sportsman 15 with aperture sights fore & aft.
High velocity .22 lead travels at 1760 ft per second muzzle velocity ( in excess of sound) which is why it cannot be silenced.
That is quite enough to make a hole in your head.
We had .303′s as well, but please do not let us divert interest from Ms Raccoon’s extraordinary and gripping yarn.

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