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Convent of Jesus and MaryThe Schoolgirl March 1916

Beatrice was still staring at the dirty floor as the train came to a shuddering halt. It was late evening. She knew this because not only was the black sky lit by thousands of bright twinkling lights, but also because her eyes wanted to go to sleep and she needed that goodnight cuddle from her Dada.

Most of the journey had been spent sitting upright on a hard wooden seat, next to her escort, the lady with the spiny fingers. Occasionally the train stopped to pick up more passengers and only then could Beatrice stretch her aching legs, just for a few happy moments.

The lady had spoken kindly to her throughout the train ride, but Beatrice made no attempt to answer. She felt too sad and sleepy and only just managed a nod or a shake of the head. The sicky lump was still in her throat. All she knew was that she had been on this train for two dark nights and one hot clammy day. But at least her blouse was no longer sticking to her body.

‘Look Beatrice, over there. That building is your new school. Aren’t you a lucky girl?’

She did not think she was lucky at all. The only building she could see looked scary and ugly. She could not have known that this building, The Convent of Jesus and Mary, home to two hundred boarders, would become her home for the next ten years. The only holidays she would know would be visits to her parents and three brothers for the Christmas period from the beginning of December until the start of March. Nor could she possibly have known that by the time she left the convent, she would have five brothers, not three.

‘Look,’ she heard the voice again and looked up, but quickly returned her gaze to her feet. She saw that her once shiny, sparkling shoes no longer shone. They, like she were dull and dusty. Her once bright fresh school uniform now smelled strongly of smoke. The scattered freckles on her small face had also been replaced in places with large spots of black smut.

Whenever she had hung her head out of the train’s window to look at the engine, clouds of black grimy smoke had blown straight at her. A large stinging tear now streamed from the corner of one of her eyes. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, freckles and smut now all running into each other.

Her journey to school was now almost complete. A journey ending eight thousand feet above sea level in the hill station of Moosourie, a military town based at the foothills of the Himalayas; far away from the searing heat of the large inland towns. It was a place where many soldiers’ families went to pass the long summer months.

The escort helped Beatrice down the high step from the train to the platform.

‘I must leave you now,’ she said, ‘Your luggage will be taken by cart to the school. You must get on this dandi with these other girls.’ Then she gave her charge an unexpected hug and disappeared forever out of Beatrice life.

The familiar sight of the coolies awaiting their passengers brought a small amount of comfort to the new schoolgirl as she was helped into her seat, next to other small girls. For the briefest of moments she thought she was home.

Soon this tiny, tired, tearful child found herself in a large echoing hall, empty except for a row of hard wooden backless benches. Everyone was ordered to sit down. No-one disobeyed.

‘Good evening girls.’

Beatrice looked up to see where this large voice was coming from.

‘I am the Reverend Mother Rafael,’ the voice continued. ‘You will be very happy here as long as you obey our rules. If you do not obey, you will be punished.’

Beatrice knew all about the importance of rules because her mother had told her - lots of times.

She also knew that the ladies in the room with the Reverend Mother were called nuns, and that they would be in charge of her. They looked like penguins whose pictures she had seen in her story books. They even waddled like she knew penguins did. They made her smile; just a little.

The Reverend Mother continued.

‘You will bathe once a week – older girls on Wednesdays, you younger ones on Saturdays.

You will all bathe together and will wear your chemises. It is a sin for you to see each others bodies.

If you are sick, you will be sent to the infirmary where you must spend time in isolation to prevent your sickness spreading to the other girls.

If you break rules, your free time will be taken away and you will write lines according to your sin.

If you......’

Beatrice could not stop her eyelids closing. It was all too much and anyway she didn’t even understand everything. Her mumma had not told her what lines were. Suddenly a piercing jab in her back jolted her into wakefulness. Back prodding was to become a way of life. It often made the young ones cry, but the nuns seemed to really enjoy it.

‘And finally girls,’ the Reverend Mother went on, ‘you will attend mass every morning at seven o’ clock, rising promptly at six to prepare yourselves. You will now be escorted to your beds. Sleep well’

That night, Beatrice lay in her hard, high bed, in a dormitory full of children, yet totally alone. She cried tears of fear, loneliness and sadness as her head disappeared under the stiff, starched sheets.

‘What did I do that was so bad my Dada sent me away?’ she sobbed. ‘I didn’t mean to cause such a fuss about always checking my slippers for horrible hairy spiders.’

She could hear her mother’s stern voice telling her not to be such a big baby, but when her Dada was at home, he would always pick her up and cuddle her, before putting her gently into bed with the reassuring words small girls wanted to hear at bedtime.

That night she cried herself to sleep. She didn’t notice that all the other new girls were crying as well. The silent nun in charge of the dormitory did.

During the next few days, Beatrice would help make a necklace out of pieces of paper for each day of the month. A piece would be torn off daily until the holidays arrived. Some girls went home at the end of each term, but Beatrice was told she lived too far away to do this. It was now the first week of March and Beatrice would start to count the days until her holiday, nine whole months away.

Only then could she return to the warmth and safety of her parental home, to spend Christmas with her Mumma, Dada and brothers’ John, Bill and Peter. It was a time she loved, the only time she would long for as each year passed.


So mum’s life as a boarder in the convent began. She regularly told me she hated school, but she clearly loved learning. What she hated were scary cruel nuns, rules for virtually everything and boarding away from home.

Physical contact was not permitted in convent life. Girls were forbidden to hold hands or even play in pairs. When the older girls attended a school play put on by the boys, the nuns would parade up and down between the isles to ensure notes or words were not exchanged between the sexes.

I cannot recall the names of any of the girls at school, Mum told me. Close friendships were strictly forbidden. Punishment was meted out too readily and consisted of loss of free time and writing lines. The naughtiest thing I ever remember doing was to hide in a clothing cupboard and jump out on one of the nuns. I was duly ordered to stay in during recreation to write one hundred lines, ‘I must not jump out and frighten the nuns.’ I once tried to tie three pencils together to complete my punishment quicker, but without success.

All her life, mum spoke clearly and precisely. She said I owed it to the Reverend Mother Raphael, who taught all of us to speak grammatically by giving us personal weekly elocution lessons as she read our sins to us.

Piano lessons were compulsory. I hated them and was regularly cracked hard on the knuckles if I hit a wrong note. After two years, I was considered a failure and my lessons ceased.

Games mum played in the convent were similar to the games that I played as a child. (I am not sure about today’s youngsters living in a politically correct and safety conscious age.) – Oranges and Lemons, London Bridge, Hop Scotch and Rounder’s. Walks and rambling were commonplace but tennis was not taught in school, or any other sport.

Mum continued, my favourite childhood books were Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson, Aesop’s Fables and the Swiss Family Robinson. School plays were quite an event but I never aspired to great parts. I can only remember playing a rat in The Pied Piper of Hameln and part of the wall in a Midsummer night’s Dream. I had to stand under the sheet with another girl, forming the wall in the scene featuring Pyramus and Thisbe.

I hated birthdays, she said. All I wanted was to be at home with my brothers. My parents just sent a card with a few extra rupees enclosed. The money could be spent in the school shop, which was run by the nuns. There I could buy fancy soap, toothpaste or ribbons for my hair. Students were allowed to spend eight annas at a time. It was about the equivalent of sixpence, quite a considerable sum at that time, she recalled.

School examinations were of a high standard. They were set by Cambridge College in England. I remember about twelve preliminary exams. Junior Cambridge taken between thirteen and fourteen year’s old and Senior Cambridge taken between fifteen and sixteen. The blank papers were sent to India from England, and then returned to Cambridge on completion for marking. I passed all my exams with the exception of the compulsory mathematics. I hated this subject, I could not understand it, she said.

After ten years, which she described as being in purgatory, mum spent her final year until the age of seventeen in a convent in Naini Tal, run by German nuns.

It was a big improvement on the Convent of Jesus and Mary.

It may be significant that mum’s father was posted to Naini Tal, a hill station famous for its lake, so family would have been close by during this period of her life.

One of the happiest days she ever recalled, was the day she finished school and returned home where she was to remain for five years until she started her nursing career at the age of twenty two.

This closes mum’s recollections of her life as a girl at boarding school, but we will soon return to Christmas time in the Mason household.

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The Story of Beatrice Mary Mason. Written by F. J. Louis | Copyright © 2009