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Life at a Girls' Hostel

Account by Alison Mack


('Hostelite' from 1920)


Southfield Hostel as it was known for two decades of course charged residence and board fees and in 1920 I think those were £50 per annum but my Education Authority bursary covered most of those as my father's wage (considered high as a shepherd) was just £91 per year in actual money. I paid an account for books and stationery at the Town Clerk's Office (Tom Moore) once a year but could usually make a little money by keeping my textbooks in good condition and selling them to lower classes.

Pupils had to be enrolled  a week before entering classes so my father took me to meet Mr. Mabbot  the rector- whom I liked always but considered rather strict - he had been a Sergeant Major during World War 1 and was nicknamed "Bossie"

After meeting the Rector I was taken down Station Road (I had only been in Duns once before - at a menagerie!) to be introduced to the hostel matron who had been the hospital matron during the War. She was always very strict but fair. Her name was Miss Clerk. She showed me the room (top right as you face the front door - now room 6) I was to share with three others and was given a list of things I would require to bring - 3 of most garments, 2 gym tunics, 2 straw hats (nicknamed Bashers) with the school ribbon (crimson and blue) and silver school badge, one hot water bottle 1 navy winter coat, 1 waterproof, two pairs of shoes, 1 napkin ring, bedroom slippers and a dressing gown. The napkin ring and dressing shoes were wonderful for me as I had never had them before and I got the silver napkin ring at Miss Edrington's where father had bought mother's engagement ring - he did all the shopping as he had to come to Duns in connection with his employment and mother did not cycle.

When I came to the hostel to stay (I was brought by pony and trap by the farm groom) what a time I had stowing my garments in the light oak varnished wardrobe with the little square mirror and admiring the gas brackets! I had never seen gas before as at home we had paraffin lamps and we had to carry our water from a tap outside. I had to carry water until we came to live in Duns in 1934. Besides Miss Clark in 1920 the hostel staff consisted of a lady cook, two maids and a gardener/handyman who lived in the cottage which adorned the back of the premises and had an entrance from Todlaw Road. At that time there was no housing in Todlaw Road only a field part of which was an allotment where the hostel potatoes were grown. There was a summer house in the side garden, heated by a coal stove and connected by a covered passage to the main building. The summer house was of no mean importance to the Hostelites (as the girls were known) as all kinds of pranks were played especially when a few seniors were sent out for examinations. We were allowed to take the fallen apples so the trees were shaken to make them fall and were roasted on the bungalow stove. Potatoes were also roasted there and toffee etc. was made. I remember consternation one day when someone put soda in the mixture and it flew all over the stove. It was some time before we were able to get the stove to look respectable again.

The grass in front of the hostel was laid out as a full length tennis court and we had clock golf and netball at the side of the house.

Miss Clark retired in 1921 and Miss Whyte came and remained over a year before World War 2. Miss Whyte turned out to be a very popular matron, fond of cooking and did an excellent job.

We were a happy go lucky crowd finding fun in everything and I've never heard anyone say they didn't like Southfield. The very strictness of the regime made it all the more fun to dodge.

Miss Whyte tried to relax the rules a little. She changed the hats as she blamed the straw boaters (always called Bashers) for giving us sore ears in the winter so we has white panamas in the summer, navy felts for the winter - with crimson and black ribbon round them and a silver badge in front and navy berets (tammies) for school.

However memories of the bashers lingered on and when we passed the public school the pupils there used to shout out

High School bashers sitting in a row,
Half an ounce of Baccy's enough to choke ye a'"

At first only teachers were invited to the hostel and the most frequent visitors were three young men, Cluness, Kellie and Dunnet, who came to show us how to play tennis, and Mr. Skea, the blind organist from the Parish Church who came every Saturday night to play for about two hours for our dancing. Latterly the seniors were allowed to invite boys to the Christmas parties but before that two had engagement rings and wore them at school - incredible!

The number of girls was about 20 but I have known of 24 and a parrot - some rooms with 5,4,3, 2 and 1. There was no central heating but we never seemed to feel the cold upstairs where the windows were usually wide open. We had no electricity, downies or eiderdowns but we did have a hot water bottle each filled from the hot tap. There were only two bathrooms and two toilets, one fire in the dining room where we sat at tables each might for 2 hours study (2 and a half  hours for seniors) with matron supervising. We had to be in there at 6 p.m. every night apart from the week-end where we got out until 7 p.m. on Saturday and a walk after Church on a Sunday evening. Once a term we had a week-end home by cycling or walking 7, 8 or 10 miles, sometimes partly by train (I did to Edrom) then walked 5 miles.

Opposite the dining room was the music room. Most of us took piano lessons from Mr. Skea who in 1921 acquired a grand piano at the sale of Langton House for a very small sum - one guinea I think. Others went to Miss Fairbairn in Todlaw Road. Practices were on a rota basis - half an hour at a time and there was only one piano and woe betide the girl who tried to cut music short as I did on several occasions. Punishment for wrongdoing was usually being confined to the hostel grounds for one week. The music room was used for dancing and parties and Miss Whyte played for hymn singing there on Sunday nights.

Miss Whyte had a parrot brought home from India by her brother and it was usually in the kitchen. Its name was Polly Cochrane and in the 1920s it used to be sometimes in the Music Room but it was moved when it was found to be using language which was "no very daecint".  It used to shout "see you puppy" when a black spaniel came in and it once caused great hilarity when a sleek haired youth came near its cage and it shouted this out to him.

Many things were on a rota such as baths, games of tennis etc. and our matron must have been a very busy person. She took the 5th. and 6th. year girls in the kitchen on Saturday forenoons for cookery lessons and frequently helped us with dressmaking. We baked and iced big sandwich cakes and sold them in aid of Quarrier's Homes for 2/6d (12 and 1/2 pence ) each- a great ploy as we got out later than usual to deliver them. Other ploys were choosing books at the County Library and records at Davie Porters for our gramophone (His Master's Voice) with its big horn.

Miss Whyte told me later that her worst times were when we were twice in quarantine for two weeks when we had cases of Scarlet Fever which were taken to Gordon Hospital but even then she was kept busy helping Murray - our wonderful man of all trades - to dig up potatoes. Murray cleaned our outdoor boots and shoes (black) which were left in the boot room near the back door and he brought in coal etc for the fire as well as cutting the grass and keeping the large garden. His wife was friendly too and many a hot scone we got at her back door.

Our meals were very good but scones and pats of butter were counted out and if Miss Whyte was not present bargains were made e.g. if you didn't want your scone " I'll take it and you can have my drop scone".

Travel began to get easier and by 1939 the Hostel numbers were beginning to drop especially as the Education Committee lowered the grants for Hostel fees to encourage people to come by bus. The came the threat of war and the evacuation of children from the towns and Southfield was again given over to war purposes.

Further accounts

Life at a Girls' Hostel 

Account by Agnes Piotrowski


('Hostelite' 1928 to 1931)


"These were extremely happy days when we went to Berwickshire High School after completing three years of secondary education in Eyemouth.

In charge of the hostel at that time was a lady named Miss Whyte, gentle and kind most times, but firm when discipline was required. Meg from Hutton was cook and Ada was her kitchen maid, while the gardener, Mr. Murray stayed next door.

The hostel with its five bedrooms plus two single rooms for the head girl and assistant head girl catered for 24 girls A grassie tennis court in front of the hostel was an important feature and was frequently used.

Every Saturday night there was dancing for over an hour with Mr. Skea at the piano. He was blind but gave piano lessons in Duns. A year or two later the dancing became more exciting when four "well mannered reliable boys" were invited to attend.

On Sunday evening we had Hymn singing for an hour; there was a rota for different girls to chose a favourite Hymn. "Here we suffer grief and pain" was absolutely banned.

All the girls went to Church on Sunday morning but since I was the only Episcopalian it was absolutely embarrassing on my first attendance to find Mr. Mabbot who was my rector and Science teacher sitting immediately in front of me.

I do not recall any wireless entertainment. There was one hour's supervised homework every week night (taken by the head girl or her assistant) and supper was at 8 p.m."



Account by Effie White

('Hostelite' 1930)

"I had to reside in the hostel because there was no transport available to me from my home to school. I could stay there only because I had won a bursary of £40 per annum for three years which was awarded after I had sat an exam at Reston. The £40 was to cover the cost of the hostel accommodation and my text books. I enjoyed only one year of the bursary as my father moved across the border into Northumberland.

The hostel was lit by gas I had never been away from home before, nor had I encountered gas. On the first night when going to bed, very homesick, I blew out the gas light. Agnes and Daisy discovered me later with the gas still on. I was only 14 and no-one had though to explain.

We had walks on Sundays; we walked in twos and wore hats and were led by the head girl.

Despite my unhappy beginning at the hostel it broke my heart when I had to leave a year later".

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