Boarding School Meals before Health and Safety
By Storm Grayson
I was lucky enough to experience a unique boarding school in Sussex during the 1960’s. I started in the autumn term of 1962 leaving my home on a Hampshire farm for the first time. There, we had wonderful farmhouse cooking, rich cakes, beef, our own chickens and eggs and mothers home made bread. I had never experienced much in the way of school meals before except lunch at my day school, which apart from the ‘liver’ was not a memorable experience.
At school we were one big happy family, there were only seventeen of us at any one time with around ten stable staff. Our main reason for being there was to learn about horses and riding, our headmistress had previously run a very well-known riding establishment in London and had very little time for the academic side of life. We were only given around two hours school work each day which at that time was the minimum we could be given, this meant we were able to spend the rest of the day riding and helping in the stables. We rode in all weathers and as we were situated at the base of the South Downs, many cold and frosty days were experienced, but we were young and apart from the hideous chilblains, we did not mind a bit. One thing our headmistress was insistent on was good food and regular meals so we had three square meals a day as well as tea in the afternoon.
School was in a large old fashioned Sussex flint manor house and the kitchens had not been changed since Victorian times. It was a large square space with a massive range along on the far wall and butlers’ sinks along under the window; with a huge scrubbed table in the middle. When I think back it all seemed very dark and old fashioned. We had a head cook who was called Mrs Cook but we referred to her as ‘cookie’ and she had help from women in the small surrounding village. She was tall and willowy with permed grey hair and always had a cigarette in her mouth and a scowl on her face. She produced mountains of food for hungry schoolgirls as well as the stable staff who had their own table in the dining room. The one thing we were allowed to donate to the meals was butter, we were each allowed to have our own in our own dish which we kept in the sideboard in the dining room. I have always wondered about this but never come up with an answer.
We started the day with a cooked breakfast. These were different each day; they ranged from watery porridge, bacon, and eggs done every way and kedgeree. There was always mountains of toast cooked on the range (you cannot get better toast) and mixed fruit jam and marmalade that was portioned out from huge tins. After we had finished and been excused we took our dirty dishes into the kitchen. In the evenings, we had a rota for washing up but during the day, it was left to the kitchen staff. Lunchtime was a light meal and I remember that Thursday was always beans and spaghetti on toast, others that come to mind were cheesy mash and soup all offered during the week. There was always great merriment if we found cookies cigarette ash floating on the soup and as nobody wore head covering hairs were occasionally found. This all sounds disgusting to us today but back then, we thought nothing of it. When we came back from riding in the afternoon, we had steaming cups of tea, toast and jam. Always greatly received especially during the winter when we had been out riding for two hours, usually up on the downs in the cold and rain or sometimes two hours of gruelling lessons in the covered school. For dinner, we always had a substantial two course meal this was usually a roast with delicious roast potatoes and lots of veg from our own vegetable garden. I was never sure what the meat was until some years later when I discovered it to be mutton. I learnt to love it, we obviously had it as it was cheap but filling. We had little thought of dieting and ate everything put in front of us. As soon as our evening meal had been served, the kitchen staff went off duty so we had a rota for washing up. This worked fine except for Thursdays when Top of The Pops was on television. We were continually finding ways to bribe each other so we did not miss our favourite programme.
Sundays were different as we did not ride that day but could go and help in the stables. We went to two different churches in neighbouring villages and the vicar from each took it in turns to come to Sunday afternoon tea. This was always an exciting time as it was the only occasion when we had cake and sandwiches. Our headmistress was always very correct and we said grace before each meal and when the vicar was there we were not allowed to have cake until he had taken a piece. They were usually bought fairy cakes or slabs of fruit cake, I don’t believe cookie ever actually made a cake for us. We all waited in anticipation for our treat but with one particular reverend we knew we were waiting in vain, as when the cake was offered he would always take his napkin to his lips and say ‘ I have had sufficient, thank you’ you could almost hear the sigh go up. Our only hope was that our headmistress would take a cake so we could dive in. I am sure she felt our anticipation and on many occasions she dismissed us from the table and the cakes were sat there untouched. Sunday was also different in the fact we had our main meal at lunchtime and soup in the evenings. I often stayed over half term and so it was just the headmistress the stable staff and I at mealtimes. The menu did not change but there was the occasional treat.
Today the kitchen would not have passed the health and safety inspection and I am sure the food storage would not have been acceptable as we were well supported by mice in the rooms at the back of the house were we had the larder and boot room. Certainly, cookie would not have been allowed to smoke. However, it did none of us any harm we grew to be fit and strong, many married into the aristocracy of our country, and I would not have missed it for the world.
Previously published in Best of British Magazine.