In 1935, after a short period of teaching in a day school, I accepted a temporary post, as Deputy, in a small Approved School for Girls. This was an experimental establishment which no longer exists but which fulfilled a very useful purpose in the transitional period before the Second World War. At that time girls from Approved Schools, as from Homes and Orphanages, had little opportunity for any career other than domestic service. This ‘school’, which was really a hostel, had accommodation for twenty-eight girls, of thirteen and over, who had been selected from other Approved Schools as being ‘capable of further education and training’. They all started at a local day school and then attended Technical College, Trade School, Grammar School or Nursery Training College in different parts of London. They became Hairdressers, Shop Assistants, Dressmakers, Nursery Nurses, Hospital Nurses etc. One girl left to enter a Teacher Training College.

No girls were committed direct from the courts, so all had experienced the rigid discipline of the ordinary ‘Home Office Schools’ of the day. Some of them must have found it hard to adjust to the relatively greater freedom of the hostel. Once having been introduced to their new school or training centre, they were expected to find their own way afterwards and to learn by experience how to cope with London traffic and London Undergrounds. There were seldom more than two girls attending any one training centre and more frequently there were none. This was, I believe, why so many of them were successful. Outside the Hostel there were no opportunities for becoming a member of a gang.

Discipline within the Hostel was strict but the girls must have become aware of the dedication of the young Headmistress to her job and the degree to which she cared for them as people. She was particularly clever at obtaining for them attractive and fashionable clothes. Expeditions to the local Marks & Spencer must have been their first experience, since committal, of shopping in a real shop and wearing clothes other than uniform. The Common Room was comfortable and attractive and every effort was made to provide facilities for dancing and other amusements with which to occupy the evenings.

In spite of the progressive nature of the establishment, I cannot remember any girl ever having a visit from friends or relations. They were compelled to go out for two hours on Sunday afternoons and it was during these enforced walks on the common and in the cinema that friendships with boys were made. These ‘boy friends’ were countenanced, but they were not admitted to the house except once a year for the annual ‘party’.

In addition to the Headmistress and her Deputy, there was a young Housemistress and a Cook. As was customary, all the domestic work was done by the girls and no domestic staff were employed. The main weakness of the establishment was the extent to which everything depended on the Headmistress. When she was within the building, complete order was maintained. When she was out, or even incapacitated by illness, this order changed to chaos.

So far as I remember, the only punishments were loss of pocket money and, for more serious offences, loss of the privilege of going to the cinema on Saturday afternoon. There was, however, a rule which decreed that any girl guilty of an assault on the staff should be returned to the Approved School from which she had come. This meant the loss of further education and relegation to a future of domestic service. This rule was, I believe, introduced after the girls had rioted and thrown a member of staff down an emergency staircase.

This was the only period in my life when I was conscious of being actively and aggressively disliked by almost all the children with whom I was working; a salutary experience which I hope made me more sympathetic with young staff in a similar position. It was due I think in part to having no share in the girls interests. I did not dance, seldom went to the cinema and had no flair for clothes or hairstyles. I was also extremely inexperienced in handling difficult adolescent girls in a residential setting, and my inefficiency engendered contempt. Three incidents remain in my mind.

On one occasion a small resentful girl of thirteen struck me in an abortive attempt to enter a room from which she had been excluded. From a mistaken sense of duty I reported the incident and I was entrusted with the task of returning the child to the Princess Mary Village Homes which she had left in a blaze of glory only a few months previously. While waiting in an office, we met a Member of the Committee who, having heard of the episode, delivered a homily on the evil in the world which manifested itself in so many diverse and alarming forms. ‘For instance’ she said ‘the evil in this child is exactly the same as the evil which prompts Epstein to make his terrible sculptures!’ Kinship with Epstein was, I am afraid, small solace for the unfortunate child whose ambition to work in a Post Office had been so rudely shattered. This taught me that it is a mistake to emulate the principles of George Washington and that when working with children one should exercise discretion as to what one sees, hears and, certainly, reports.

The second incident concerned a truculent young woman of fifteen who deftly placed her toe under a large teapot which I was carrying and effectively kicked it over my head. The tea was not scalding but my appearance, with my already straight hair plastered over my face and tea dripping from me to the floor, can hardly have been dignified. There was no need to report this offence which was painfully obvious. The girl had, however, improved so considerably in the hostel, and was so near the time for her discharge, that the Headmistress wisely evaded the rule and sent her home on licence. The other girls were left wondering what had happened to her.

The third incident was different in that it involved all the girls in the hostel. It was alarming because it was a manifestation of mass hysteria such as I had never previously encountered. The Headmistress was away and the girls, for no apparent reason, became mutinous and refused to go into their Common Room after tea. Instead they surged through the house in a gang; up the front stairs and down the back, at first in silence but becoming increasingly noisy and destructive and noisy on each successive journey. When the noise of crashing china became positively deafening, I telephoned the Chairman of the Managers to let him know that the girls were temporarily out of control and that property was being destroyed on a fairly large scale. He said, I think wisely, that it would be useless for him to come as he could do nothing and it would only bring the authority of the Committee into contempt. He advised me to call the Police but when I demurred he did not insist. In less than two hours the uproar subsided as suddenly and inexplicably as it had started and the girls made some attempt to clear up the havoc they had created. My own position in the hostel improved after this, again for no apparent reason except that I had weathered the storm.

It was in this hostel that I first saw the Children’s Department of the Home Office in action and realised that the welfare of children in Approved Schools was a matter of concern to an enlightened and progressive body of Civil Servants, whereas the plight of children in orphanages appeared to be nobody’s business.