Then and Now

Adrienne May, Old Persean (1958)
October 23, 2015

On my last visit to the school on Benefactors’ Evening, on 19th March, I spoke to several people who had no idea of The Perse as it was, less than sixty years ago, but the difference is stark.

I left the Perse when it still remained at Gonville Place, just opposite the Catholic Church of Our Lady. The school was quite small, all boys, about 30 to a class, ten classes to ‘O’ level, 40 pupils in the lower sixth and upper sixth, total in senior school less than 400.

There were three science labs: biology, physics and chemistry, and a tiny science theatre; a staff room, the dining hall, which always smelled of boiled cabbage, that stench sometimes fighting with hydrogen sulphide some wag had cooked up in the chemistry lab above.

We possessed an art room, where not a lot happened; a library, seldom used; nine other classrooms and a school hall that served as assembly area, gymnasium, boxing ring, concert hall and theatre.

Outside there was a scout hut and a brick built armoury that housed the CCF’s ancient Lee Enfield rifles, left over from WW1. We also had fake grenades and a bren gun. Another hut held bits and pieces, theatre scenery.

There were ‘fives courts’: excellent game, bare hand squash. Football was played on the broken asphalt.

There was also Pendene House, which contained the famous mummery, Douglas Brown territory, which had a robing room, musty and damp, with a few old costumes and aluminium painted hessian chain mail. It also had a music suite – well an electric gramophone on which inappropriate music was often played for the class performance. Dougie would go mad when that happened; he had soul, music meant a lot and defined mood, which some failed to understand. Opposite was the music room – called that because it contained an upright piano. We sang traditional songs from the traditional songbook, ‘Clementine’, ‘Cockles and Mussels’, ‘Greensleeves’, and we were half-heartedly taught notation. Sitting at the back, one could do homework.

Monday afternoons were devoted to the Combined Cadet Force. Most were in it, except for those deemed ‘weird’. Every cadet served a basic training year in the Army section and afterwards could pass out to belong to Navy or Air Force. The Air Force was generally thought to be the least disciplined and most fun. The Air Force wore ordinary black shoes, with an absence of blanco or any ‘bull’. The Naval uniform was the smartest but also the most troublesome. Roger Andrews fainted at attention, falling stiffly onto his face.

Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, we all played sports; that was rugby in the Michaelmas term, hockey and athletics in the spring term and cricket in summer. There was tennis but it was a minority sport. One could opt to run ‘the large triangle’, up Hills Road past where Addenbrooke’s is now, towards Balsham, turn left to Cherry Hinton, on and back along Queen Edith’s Way or the small triangle, back down Wort’s Causeway. We learned to swim in the Cam, dead fish and other objects floated by. It was cold and dirty. I hated it.

In class one could be slippered for quite small crimes, this in front of the whole form. If one did not attend or fooled about, a board rubber might be thrown at you. A board rubber was made of wood, so if it connected, it was painful.

More heinous crimes were dealt with by Mr Stubbs, a caning in his office. Those occasions were rare. Mr Stubbs had a secretary. There was also a bursar. That was the entire admin staff.

Masters were also: officers in the CCF, scout leaders, expedition leaders and sports coaches. Life for a master was pretty well full time.

We boarders lived in Glebe Road. We walked, bussed or cycled to school, ten minutes to bike, twenty to walk or bus. Every lunchtime we returned to Glebe Road and afterwards returned to school. I said something to Roger Andrews as I cycled by as he walked. Looking at me, he head-butted a lamp post and further damaged his looks. Lunchtime was 12.45 to 14.10. School ended at 16.30. We had school on Saturday morning.

When George VI died in 1952, we were dismissed for the remainder of the day. Two masters took turns to play the ‘Death March of Saul’ over and over. It is indelibly printed in my memory. I liked it. I argued with Mr Croft over the value of the monarchy and whether they were brave to stay in London during the blitz. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they were quite safe, sixty feet down in their plush bunker.’ 33,000 less fortunate souls had died. I think Croft feared me because I stood up to him.

We were undoubtedly dirty by today’s standards, but at least we boarders bathed according to the rota, twice a week. We washed morning and night and showered after games or at anytime we felt like it. Matron shovelled malt extract into us, similar to Virol, the latter advertised on every railway station, ‘Virol for anaemic girls’. Ridiculously I wanted Virol.

January and February 1953, there was a flu epidemic, dormitories became sick bays. Boys living on the East Coast were reassured that their homes had not suffered from the East Coast flooding, but 307 souls had died in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.


I see an absence of blackboard rubbers to hit one on the back of the head. The cane is no more. The art suite produces art. There are so many sports now available, I wonder that success is achieved in any of them. There are no boarders. I see girls walking about lithe limbed, carrying hockey sticks in bags. The school food is edible and varied. At lunch time, I have heard a string ensemble and a rock band practising, basketball in the gym, football and hockey on the astro-turf. There is a theatre that has been outgrown and a new 360-seater is planned. There are all sorts of after hours activities, for pupils, alumni, parents and benefactors. There are expeditions to far-flung places in other continents, run by a dedicated Expeditions Organiser, a lovely fellow. Life has changed immeasurably for the better. The Perse is reaching out to the larger community. The Perse results are consistently stunning and improved by the move to co-ed.

Even I might have felt at home there now.

Photo credit: Photo-Reportage, 1954

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