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Girls' boarding schools in the 1900's-30's
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elevator_child wrote in little_details
I'm writing a story set at a girl's school in a made-up country that shares similarities with both England and Canada. The time period is similar to the early 1900's to 1930's, although info from as late as the 50's would still be helpful.
What I'm looking for specifically is what sort of living arrangements these girls would have. It's a private boarding school with students ranging from 12-17, all either upper-middle-class or wealthy, and it's a religious school. I'm looking for real-life examples of room setups, how often the girls would be allowed to leave school grounds, whether they'd have roomates or separate rooms, etc. Hopefully this post makes some kind of sense?

Keywords used:
1900's boarding school
1920's boarding school
1930's boarding school
1930's boarding school room layouts
1930's girl's boarding school


Thanks for any help!

If it has a religious background, try "convent school".

You might also get useful info if you investigate school stories of the date; try Googling that term.

For starters, they would sleep in a dormitory room with something like a minimum of five others and only be allowed to leave school grounds in very limited circumstances; in the 1990s at my daughter's school, for example, they could not leave the grounds alone and had to request permission first. They would also need permission to leave the grounds with an adult family member.

An important part of school life would be (field) hockey or lacrosse, depending on which the school played; this is where the "gym slip" (Google that too) first came into its own before becoming standard wear for schoolgirls.

Have you read any enid blyton books from the St Clares or Mallory Towers series? That'd be around the right period and although they're not amazing books or accurate historical record it's probably the idea most readers would have in their heads about life in that environment at that time. They're supposed to be semi-auto biographical and if nothing else they'd give you a feeling for daily routine and language use.

I was going to suggest exactly this. I went to boarding school from 1996-2004 so I'm not sure how much my experiences would be useful; however:
- up until age 13 we shared dorms of at least 6+ people. from 14+ we had our own rooms with a sink in. there was about 6 toilets and 4 showers per floor (3 floors and 70 girls in my house).
- we weren't allowed to leave school grounds without permission, and we had a "signing out" book in our boarding houses, where you'd write where you were going, what time you left/were expected back, and who gave you permission (it had to be a member of your boarding house staff).
- my prep school (1996-1999) was much more religious and we had assembly every morning that concluded in a hymn and the lord's prayer. we had obligatory Sunday morning services every week and a lot of the staff were very religious as well. at my secondary school (1999-2004) we had a morning service on Weds for 10 minutes and a Sunday service; again these were obligatory. both Sunday services were around an hour to an hour and a half. we got ticked off a checklist as well so you couldn't dodge them! oh, and we had to wear our best clothes as well -_-

oh, and at both school we had one hour of sport 6 days a week, as we had Saturday school until lunchtime. in the winter term hockey was the girls sport, and rugby the boys. in the easter term, netball was the girls sport and hockey the boys. in summer it was tennis for both. there were other options but those were the main ones - there was also a lot of rowers at my secondary school.
it's extremely likely that your school would be set up in an old manor house like my schools, so here are the websites:

www.portregis.com - my prepatory school (1996-1999)
www.canford.com - my secondary school (1999-2004)

they look a bit Harry-Potter-esque, but that will hopefully help you to get the atmosphere and style of the buildings/layout.

Dormitories the norm (the curtain created cubicles at the Chalet School were unusual enough for comment).

They simply wouldn't have been able to leave the grounds without supervision. None of the "going into the village for a tuck shop" that you see in the boys' books. Older girls might have had the privilege of a group trip on a Saturday but it is likely a mistress would go with them.

Keep in mind limited clothing: usually two tunics, two shirts, and one dress (plus underwear) and sports kit. Not a lot of storage space needed.

Limited clothing? Thats interesting. I thought the old girls boarding schools were renowned for having a heck of a lot of kit and clothes and general gear.

Lots of kit: tennis kit, gym kit, hockey kit; but little of what we would think of as clothing ie probably one walking suit and one evening dress, for a *whole term*, and two of everything of uniform.

"Giggling in the Buddleia" by Arthur Marshall is a collection of anecdotes and memories from women who went to boarding schools from the 20s to 50s or so. If you can get hold of a copy, you'd probably find it helpful.

I'd agree that reading Enid Blyton would be a good start, and I'd like to add Charlotte Sometimes This shows the same school in 1918 and 1963, and the differences between the two dates.



Try Angela Brazil's works on Project Gutenberg: many of them use the war years of 1914-1918 in girls' boarding schools, especially the earlier years.

I was going to suggest the Chalet School series, since there is such an awful lot of it and it seems to be set at about the right time, but I think it was a kind of mish-mash of English/Continental ideas and also, there were a lot of things in it that were possibly not really normal for boarding schools - the cubicles, for one thing.
I used to love them as a teenager, but then when I grew older I noticed that E.M. Brent-Dyer really wasn't that good and the recycled plots and abundance of Mary-Sues were really pretty thick on the ground...

The early Chalet Schools were a lot better (if rather like travelogues) than the later ones which went as far as the 1960s in book terms.

Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce and particularly Angela Brazil are in England at the right time period (the Abbey series, Dimsie, and lots of standalones, respectively).

But basically dormitories for two or more girls - schools tended to be in converted large houses, so you used the rooms available. Most English boarding schools would be Church of England, so service in school chapel or local church every Sunday, possibly twice; school assembly on weekdays (format: hymn, prayer, improving story, school notices, possibly extra hymn or prayer, march out to first lesson of the day). THere's a few Catholic boarding schools but I don't know of any girls ones still going.

No leaving the school grounds during term, except possibly on an escorted trip. My ungodmother was at boarding school for a couple years in the late 1920s and hated not being able to go out. Even when I left school in 1992 leaving the grounds without permission was cause for immediate expulsion (staff put effort into not noticing a lot...) Sixth formers might be allowed to go to a local village in pairs.

Malory Towers gives you all the classic details for a largish school of around 250 pupils, but tiny schools of say 30 girls would have been common in the 1930s. Fairlie Bruce and Brazil tended to write about small schools.

Grace before meals; sunday services; religious assemblies. Quite cold, frugal conditions - to 'toughen the girls up'. A lot of permission needed, for anything really. For lots of little details in books that aren't really boring (Enid Blyton etc. etc) try 'Beswitched', and 'Back home'.