Joan Lingard

Joan Lingard 1946

Well-known author, Joan Lingard, reflects on her Bloomfield years in the 1940s:

I became a Bloomfield girl in 1943 – a lifetime away – and yet I can still clearly remember going down the hill in my new green gym frock, blazer and beret, and wondering, a little nervously, if I was going to like it. I need not have worried for, from that first day, I felt at home and was actually enjoying school for the first time. The size of it – only about three hundred girls – and the quirkiness of the staff suited me, and, as it turned, out, it was a good breeding ground for a writer.

The school in those days was in a big old house further down the Upper Newtownards Road. It was overcrowded and space was tight, but since it was wartime nothing could be done about that, so one class had to be housed in the hall of Bloomfield Presbyterian church at the foot of Cyprus Avenue. Miss Walker, the headmistress, an excellent teacher of Latin and normally a wise and discerning woman, made a very unwelcome decision, which was to put Form MA into the hail. We Were eleven to twelve years old, a mischievous age, and our heads were full of girls’ boarding school stories where the girls got up to ‘pranks’.

We got up to quite a number. Since the hall was five minutes’ walk away from the school we were left for those few moments totally unsupervised. Possibly it would be illegal now. Fortunately, for us, it was not then. We ran riot – well, some of us did, anyway. We had a group of eight known as The Gang and even became notorious. Outside, in the street, stood a large, high static water tank, ready for use should the normal water supply be put out of action during an air raid. It was full to the brim with scummy water. We were caught one day up on top of it, balancing around the edge, arms outstretched and wobbling horribly. Another day, we were found inside the church itself with one of our number up on the pulpit preaching a sermon. This did not go down too well with Miss Walker, as it was she herself who found us. She had come over to check how our history class was going, only to find that half of us were missing and Miss Scott was struggling on, reading aloud her notes, presumably trying to pretend that she had not noticed her class was depleted.

Poor Miss Scott. After we’d grown up a little, we felt for her. She was unable to control us and so she read her notes out over the top of the noise and hoped for the best. When our behaviour threatened to get completely out of hand she would rap on the top of her little brown case with her raw red knuckles and shout as loudly she could in her soft voice, “Girls, girls!” The raw knuckles were the result of a skin problem. As I said, poor Miss Scott. She was not a natural teacher, apart from not being able to keep control. At Christmas, feeling remorseful, we decided we should buy her a present. One or two of us of us collected up the money and set off in a trolley bus downtown to a chemist’s in Royal Avenue. We felt more important doing that than we would have by simply walking to one at the Arches. And what did we buy her? Skin lotion for her hands. We really did mean it sincerely, thinking that this would be something that she needed and would be grateful for. On looking back, one can only hope that she was not totally insulted.

Another teacher that we semi-persecuted was our German teacher Fraulein Weil. We suspected her of being a German spy who had managed to slip across the border and we could not understand how the wise Miss Walker had not realized this herself. We decided it was up to us to do our bit for the war effort – we were constantly being exhorted to do so – and find evidence against her. This was more appealing than knitting socks for soldiers. We bought notebooks and began to stalk Fraulein Weil around Belfast, recording her comings and goings. She was most likely aware that three giggling girls were following her but she did nothing about it, from a lack of confidence, I feel sure now She must have felt insecure in her situation. We were astonished in June 1945, when Paris was liberated from German occupation and she came into school with a tiny Union Jack which she set up on her desk, saying, “This is a happy day. Paris is free!” So she was on our side? We didn’t say much to each other afterwards; we sensed that we had not come out of this particular episode very honourably. Fraulein Weil did not return after the summer holidays. She had gone to live in Israel, then known as Palestine. It had not occurred to us that she was Jewish and had had to flee from Nazi Germany. She lingered on in my mind and many years later I wrote The File on Fraulein Berg, in part, perhaps, as a kind of apology.

In Form VI, when we numbered only twelve girls in total, and half of the Gang had gone elsewhere, we decided to write a school song. “Green for the grass, blue for the sky, silver for friends that are nigh…” Some of us have strayed to fields far away, to France, Canada, England and Scotland, but we have remembered the green, silver, blue, and kept the friendships we formed all those years ago. In October 2003, all eight of us – Norah Abernethy, Elizabeth Anderson, Hazel Bassett, Audrey Chambers, Mollie Knowles, Barbara Shanks, Florence Shannon, and myself – attended the Old Girls’ Dinner, and managed to behave ourselves quite well. I trust that Miss Walker would have been proud of us.

Joan Lingard

Joan Lingard 1946



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