The Times – December 13, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

As the new St Trinian’s film is to be released, our former Cheltenham Ladies’ College pupil recalls her days of extreme misbehaviour at the august institution

Cheltenham Ladies’ College 1974

Hurrah, yaroo, jolly hockey-sticks and all that . . . St Trinian’s is back, this Christmas’s anarchic antidote to Harry Potter, and one of the starlets, the fetchingly named Talulah Riley, warns us that she and her fellow celluloid schoolgirls will be doing “anything and everything — there’s drugs, there’s sex, there’s tattoos and piercings”, to which the director adds (perhaps redundantly): “It’s going to shock some people.”

The first rampaging schoolgirl film, The Belles of St Trinian’s, came out in 1954, a year after their creator, the cartoonist and writer Ronald Searle, thought he’d killed his delinquent gels off for ever in an atomic explosion. One of his early cartoons (the first appeared in 1941) showed a Victorian-looking schoolmistress confronting a line-up of pupils with the words: “Hands up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night.”

Searle’s description of the quintessential St Trinian’s girl is that she should be: “sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable of any excess. She would also be well-spoken, even well-mannered and polite. Sardonic, witty and very amusing. She would be very good company. In short: typically human and, despite everything, endearing.” This sounds like the perfect description of a journalist but it’s also not all that far removed from some other fraffly well-spoken (but also fraffly naughty) girls that I remember from the class of ’74 at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

It all started innocently enough. A vast swarm of chattering girls at Paddington station in our greengage scratchy uniforms, satchels, tuckboxes, my mother in mink with a strained expression of jollity, doubtless concealing her mixed feelings about packing off her 13-year-old to boarding school.

I don’t remember that first train journey but the boarding house certainly came as a bit of a shock.

The dormitory with its basic cubicles — a dozen identical boxes painted magnolia, narrow beds with thin candlewick counterpanes in bleached colours, a flimsy strip of fabric at each doorway for privacy. Many years later, when I visited the inmates of Holloway prison for an article, I got a whiff of my old boarding school but the rooms of the female cons, fortunately, resembled undergraduates’ rooms rather than those we had to endure at the (huge) fee-paying CLC.

Like prisoners, we forged our alliances through what we had to offer — our currency was the ability to tell an entertaining story or share unusual but delicious things to eat. That evening I tasted Kendal’s Mint Cake for the first time with my friend from the North.

Downstairs in the communal living-room, the older girls flicked their hair and moaned on sofas about their summer love affairs to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s heavy-panting hit on the record-player — Je t’aime . . . moi non plus — while we read about the horrific butchery of Charles Manson and his followers — some of the girls had attended the American equivalents of our school — in the copies of Paris Match and Life magazine. While the spirit of the Sixties was raging all around us, we were still walking to Col in crocodiles and having institutionalised “pashes” — the female equivalent of fagging in boys’ schools — on older girls.

In the early years, our naughtiness was restricted to midnight feasts and breaking (sometimes unwittingly ) a myriad of tiny rules. Eating currant buns in a public place while in CLC uniform was a major transgression. Talking in the black and white tiled marble corridor on the way to morning assembly was a no-no. Pretty soon, I was part of a gang of four girls who were always in trouble for minor infringements and we were constantly hauled in front of the headmistress, Margaret Hampshire, known as Hammy.

Miss Hampshire, unbeknownst to us then, was a bit of a rebel herself and certainly a modernist. A civil servant turned industrialist — from 1959 to 1964 she was head of the government relations department at Courtaulds — her appointment at CLC in 1964 was controversial (she remains the only head in the school’s 150-odd years history to come from industry) prompting one retired head to write to the education minister in protest.

During her tenure (1964-1979), which coincided with my years at Chelt, she built a new wing for the sixth-formers, started a school forum and introduced joint lessons in the sixth form with boys from Cheltenham College. (Old boy Lindsay Anderson made his version of St Trinian’s in his explosive film If.)

In those early St Trinian’s films, the schoolgirls were either lower-fourth hoodlums using their lacrosse and hockey sticks as lethal weapons and doing dreadful things to their teachers, or gin-swigging, cigar-puffing harlots, hitched-up skirts revealing black stocking tops, with unspeakable morals. Those of us who had good legs also went in for multiple waistband-rolling, cunningly letting the olive worsted down for episodic skirt inspections. Others of us customised our sweaters by scissoring the cuffs so they unravelled in boho dissaray.

Poor Hammy. She may have been a modernist thinker — as was CLC’s first head, the leading suffragette Dorothy Beale, who also founded Oxford University’s women’s college, St Hilda’s — but she was hopelessly out of date regarding the modern idiom. On one of the Terrible Four’s stern talking-to sessions, the theme she had picked was “Kicking against the pricks”. (A biblical reference to flouting authority.) Oh dear. “You may think pricks have been created expressly for your pleasure,” she commenced, “and, indeed, if you leave this room learning that pricks are something you should love rather than battle against, your education here will not have been in vain.” On and on she went — for what seemed like an eternity — and every sentence included the word “pricks”. I can still vividly recall the sensation of my fellow scallywags’ shoulders vibrating, the physical constriction of suppressed laughter, my anxiety about one friend’s tendency to wet herself in extreme paroxysms of giggling.

As the Sixties rolled on and we became fully-fledged teenagers, our naughtiness began to reflect the times. My sad little cubicle resembled a kiosk at Kensington Market — with posters of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Biba girl (Ingrid Boulting), feather boas around my mirror, patchouli oil doused over the candlewick. If you send your children to boarding school, you are effectively handing over their pastoral care to someone else — and some pretty awful things happened during my time there. The prison analogy works in this context, too.

That environment, certainly during my years there, is about the survival of the fittest. Girls who didn’t fit in, for whatever reason, were bullied, and I was at both the giving and receiving end of this. It was here, for instance, that I learnt for the first time that my sister was actually my half-sister during a particularly vicious row with a girl whose sister had been my older sibling’s contemporary. When we weren’t gorging ourselves on “prick stew” (sausage casserole) and “Thames mud and beech leaves” (a pudding of chocolate blancmange with a topping of cornflakes bound by golden syrup), we were strarving ourselves.

We taught one another to smoke Woodbines behind the bike sheds or walking around the sports fields. One of my four best friends — who was around 13 at the time — ran away from school but was tracked down before she got into any real trouble. Alliances began to shift, as two of my gang became prefects and socialised in a separately assigned room from the non-prefects.

The bad girls were about to become badder. If pricks were there to be kicked against, envelopes were there to be pushed. On the weekends, we would buy bottles of cider and hitchhike out of Cheltenham to hang out on the Downs. Since this was around the same time that the Wests were picking up young girls, the imagination recoils at what might have happened. Still, we managed to make connections with various hippy types and visit their squats and — it should remind the doom-merchants that most human beings are decent — no harm ever came of it.

In the sixth form, I ended up going out with a Cheltenham Boy — my first big love — and having sex with him in his prefect’s room. We split up soon after which would have confirmed my mother’s view — one I considered hopelessly out of touch at the time — that “Boys, Ginny darling, need to put their girls on pedestals like goddesses.” He was in a band called Lay Off the Graves, which favoured necrophiliac anthems — I can still recall a winning couplet or two — “Meet me in the morning/At the break of day/ Mincing round the graveyards/looking for a lay”. Baudelaire meets Alice Cooper, we must have thought at the time.

Sex, rock’n’roll and — oh yes — drugs. Just as I was introduced to smoking at boarding school, my first experience of dope was at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I suppose we must have had the odd toke on a joint during band rehearsals but I bought my first and only stash of hash from a beacon of virtue — a top prefect, no less — who had smuggled the stuff in from her home in somewhere exotic. Being largely ignorant about quantities and their effects, I made the mistake of smoking more or less the whole amount (a quarter of an ounce) in one go at my home in London and was quite unwell.

During my time at Cheltenham there was a far more serious drug-related (or so it was assumed) incident that involved the police. In one of the boarding houses, there had been some violent activity — the huge red velvet curtains in the living-room had been slashed to pieces overnight, and piano strings in the prac rooms downstairs severed. Every single girl in the school was interviewed by the police, as I recall, and two pupils were expelled on the basis that they were known to have experimented with LSD. The following year, however, there was more of the same, with curtains in the staff room ripped and the carpet met a similar fate. The word, according to one of my friends who was there at the time, was that it was the actions of a “psycho” member of staff.

Academically, I didn’t do too brilliantly, and was obliged to redo an A level at a London crammer run by an ex-Etonian housemaster (our mothers found him swooningly handsome) whose idea of staff-pupil bonding was to throw toga parties.

Back in Cheltenham, I had been too busy meeting the boys in the band stand in front of Queen’s Hotel to swot as hard as I should have. This was made easy by dint of the ingenuity of my best friend, now a respectable shipping lawyer, who had managed to copy a key so we could escape from our sixth-form building at night.

When I think of the roll-call of old Cheltenham girls that immediately come to mind — the artist Bridget Riley; the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett; Mary Archer; Rosie Boycott, who founded Spare Rib and edited various national newspapers; the actress Kristen Scott-Thomas — I think they all share a certain bullish independence of spirit and I wonder if this may not have been encouraged in some way by the ethos of the school.

I’m proud of the fact that I’m still in touch with my old friends from Col and we still meet up for long dinners two or three times a year, as our children grow older and our parents die off. I’m against boarding, partly because I know from experience — however updated modern establishments are (including, no doubt, CLC) — what nonsense you can get up to, particularly if you’re bright, imaginative and bored, away from the watchful responsibility of your parents.

But I would say when I look around the table at the new version of the Terrible Four — one of the original members has died, another has gone a different route — and observe the sheer energy, volume of discourse and collective brio that I think St Trinian’s headmistress’s words hold true for us Cheltenham Ladies: “In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.”

Margaret Hampshire: 1918-2004, coelesti luce crescat


St Trinian’s is released at cinemas nationwide on December 21