Stand up straight, girls, and drink your soup correctly
Kim Bielenberg on an intriguing book celebrating 100 years of co-education at Dublin's Wesley College
Published 26/10/2011 | 05:00
In the 1960s, two girls from Wesley College asked their principal for references when they applied for jobs as air hostesses. The head pointedly refused and said, "No Wesley girl is going to be a glorified barmaid!''
This story is told in a new book, Wesley Women, a collection of letters from female alumni of the South Dublin school.
The volume, compiled by four Wesley students, offers a fascinating insight into the education of girls going back a century.
Wesley, founded as a Methodist school but now welcoming students of all religions, is celebrating 100 years of co-education this year.
Dr Irwin, the Principal of the School in 1911, advocated an approach that was decades ahead of its time, and is still not fully accepted by conservative educationists.
The principal said: "There is no doubt co-education cultivates greater mutual understanding and respect and those best qualified to judge assert that the moral tone is higher than when boys are educated separately.''
Wesley Women shows how co-education in the school evolved over a century.
At the instigation of their English teacher Annetta Kavanagh, the four current students -- Yvonne Corcoran, Esther Glenfield, Nathan Walsh and Thomas Wyse Jackson -- wrote to hundreds of alumni.
Many wrote back with their first-hand experiences of the school. Their accounts include the rigours of boarding, their attempts to socialise with boys and the punishments that they suffered.
Gillian Smeeth, who left the school in 1968, recalls being whacked on the bottom with a hairbrush for stealing a strawberry from the garden.
Other punishments now seem bizarre. On one occasion she was tied to the leg of the teacher's desk by her school tie for a prolonged period for talking in class.
In the early decades of co-education in the school, the boys and girls were in fact segregated for most activities.
They were not allowed to socialise at break time. Girls had to stay indoors while boys went outside to fight. There were also separate dining halls.
Teachers tried to discourage romantic attachments and a Lady Warden boasted in a newspaper interview: "We keep them much too busy for such things.''
The boys and girls found plenty of ways of getting around these restrictions, and even communicated between dormitories in separate buildings, using Morse code delivered by flashlight.
The Christmas Party was one of the few occasions when boys and girls were allowed to mix, but former student Maud Fitzgerald recalled how one of these events ended in disgrace.
'One year, mid-party conduct between boys and girls was deemed inappropriate -- some hand-holding and noisy chatter. The Lady Warden lined up the girls and marched them back (to their boarding house) where they got a lecture on conduct appropriate for young ladies.''
The book offers insights into aspirations and expectations of young Dublin middle-class women through the period. Right up until the 1960s, the focus was on nursing, secretarial and teaching jobs. These careers came to an abrupt halt if they married.
Doris Colter a student from the 1940s said: "We were well treated but the real emphasis was on the boys. The men tended to be concentrated on because they were going to have the careers.''
In the 1960s there was pressure from some parents for change.
Helen Ruffell, a student in the mid-60s, said: "We girls were not encouraged to do science and it was assumed we would do domestic science. Some girls . . . did science but only after their parents made a big fuss.''
Another student from the same period, Gillian Donald, recalled how she was allowed to study science after an "unholy row'' between her mother and the principal.
Perhaps some of the lessons given to Wesley pupils in the 1960s should be included in the core curriculum of 2011.
Gillian Donald said: "We were taught exquisite table manners including the correct way to eat soup.''
Earlier, girls at Wesley were also given lessons in proper deportment, including how to stand in the correct way. Girls learned how to have an upright posture by balancing books on their heads.
Wesley moved from Stephen's Green in the centre of Dublin to its campus in Ballinteer on the edge of the city in 1969.
By the 1970s the stereotyping of girls was coming to an end. Boys and girls now spent a lot of time together, and shared the dining hall.
Eleanor Walker, who left in 1978, said: "Girls were treated equally academically.''
No amount of modernisation can obliterate the eccentricities of teachers, however.
Hilary Cook recalled how she and her classmates in Civics (the 1970s equivalent of CSPE) were urged to help those less fortunate than themselves by giving daffodils to people who did not have gardens in cottages in Dundrum.
"We went door-to-door to present the poor, gardenless villagers with our daffodils. The teacher's plan backfired somewhat when a lot of offended local people viewed this as a condescending gesture by a snobby secondary school -- and some even slammed the doors in our faces.''
School produced two Nobel winners
•Wesley College is a fee-paying second-level school in Ballinteer, Co Dublin. It is a Methodist Foundation but welcomes students of all faiths.
•The school has 800 day pupils, and 100 boarders. The fees for day pupils are €5,500 per year.
•Wesley is believed to be the only Irish school to have produced two Nobel Prize winners -- George Bernard Shaw, and Ernest Walton, the physicist who split the atom.
•Other alumni include: Edward Carson, the Unionist politician; Chaim Herzog, ex-President of Israel; Former cabinet minister Mervyn Taylor; and singer David Kitt.
Wesley Women, edited by Annetta Kavanagh is published by Wesley College