Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s

Generally my Adventures in Research are not all that adventurous, given that they tend to involve nothing more arduous than a fifteen-minute stroll to my local library or second-hand book store and then some concentrated reading. This time, though, there is an actual story to go with the research. Well, not really a story, because it doesn’t have a conclusion. More of a series of events.

So – Sydney City Council has about a dozen branch libraries scattered around the centre of the city, each with a special collection relevant to the particular neighbourhood it services. For example, the Haymarket Library, in the middle of Chinatown, has lots of Mandarin books and DVDs; Customs House, near the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and other places frequented by tourists, has a large collection of international newspapers and magazines; my own branch has lots of LGBT fiction and non-fiction, handily marked with little rainbow stickers on the spines. Generally, these items can be transported between branches, arriving at your local branch within a day or two of your request – it’s really convenient and easy for library members. Anyway, a while back, I was browsing the library computer catalogue and came upon some potentially useful books about women’s lives in post-war Britain. There were histories, biographies and memoirs, including an intriguing book called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties. All of the books were marked as “Non-Circulating Reference Books”, located at Ultimo Library, which did seem slightly odd – why would Ultimo, of all places, have a collection of non-fiction about women, and why would such books, mostly paperbacks, be regarded as so precious that they couldn’t leave the library? Never mind, I would visit Ultimo myself!

So one fine autumn morning, I gathered up my notebook, pen, Gregory’s Street Directory, bus timetable, multicoloured Post-It notes, packed lunch, compass, water bottle, pith helmet and spare pen, and set off on my quest. Due to my excellent map-reading skills, I got off at the wrong bus stop and had to ascend Ultimo’s steepest hill (who even knew they had hills in Ultimo?) before arriving, puffing slightly, at Ultimo Library – the reference section of which turned out to contain a small shelf of books about local council history, but not much else. I searched the general collection, then asked the librarian at the front desk, who frowned.

“Are you sure these books are here?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re in the Sydney City Libraries catalogue,” I said. “Listed as being held in Ultimo Library in the Non-Circulating Reference section.”

She summoned her colleague and I showed them the list of call numbers.

“Ah!” said the colleague. “Those books! No, they aren’t here. They’re in the National Women’s Library. I wish they’d take those books out of our catalogue, because we often have people coming in here looking for them.”

“Then…why are they listed in Sydney City Libraries catalogue?” I asked, quite reasonably. ‘And why does it say they’re here?”

Who knows? Although it turned out the National Women’s Library wasn’t far away – in the very same block, actually. The helpful librarians gave me a set of directions that sounded almost exactly like Arthur Dent in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy looking for the plans to demolish his house, which are on display at the council planning department:

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Except my situation didn’t involve a leopard. (Pity, it would have made this story far more exciting.) So I went down the stairs, turned right, went past the table-tennis tables and the courtyard and the kitchen and down more stairs and found the locked doors of the National Women’s Library. This was during its listed ‘opening hours’, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I spied another door at the back, so I went back outside and around the building and tried that door and it was locked too1. So I gave up.

As it was such a beautiful day, I decided to walk all the way home, which would give me a chance to do some sightseeing. Ultimo used to be mostly old warehouses and factories, but now there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters and the rapidly expanding University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was the latest UTS building that I was most interested in, because it was designed by Frank Gehry and the photos made it look so spectacular – a bit too spectacular, really, a bit show-offy and grandstanding, all wrong for a battered, industrial area like Ultimo, I’d thought. But that building was lovely. It nestled into its space, not overwhelming any of the surrounding buildings, and the famous ‘bulges’ in the brickwork made it look as though it was breathing. The bricks were golden-brown and glowed in the sunlight, and there were a lot of square, nicely-proportioned windows that reflected the blue sky, so the whole thing looked like a squat, friendly creature with a lot of big blue eyes. I didn’t go inside, so I don’t know how functional it is, but apparently it uses a lot of natural light and has loads of environmentally-friendly features. Officially, it’s named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, because he gave the university twenty million dollars to build it, although I’m pretty sure all the students just call it the ‘crumpled paper-bag building’. Anyway, it’s a vast improvement on the main UTS building on Broadway, which looks like a Weetbix box covered in brown pebble-dash. Then I wandered up towards Broadway, noticing that a lot of the old warehouses along the way had been turned into trendy coffee shops and advertising agencies and such, and I had a look at One Central Park, which was recently named Best Tall Building in the World by someone or other. All of the outside walls are covered in vertical gardens, which I didn’t think would work out very well, given the vehicle fumes and the often harsh weather, but the huge variety of plants seemed to be thriving. It probably helps that it’s done nothing but rain in Sydney for the past six months.

When I arrived home an hour later, I went online and discovered that there were multiple copies of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties on sale for less than ten dollars from various British second-hand bookshops. This seemed a lot easier than trying to gain access to the National Women’s Library, so I placed an order. And waited. And waited some more. Then I gave the bookseller an extra couple of days, due to Easter. Then I emailed them, more than a month after I’d ordered the book. The bookseller was very polite and apologetic. The book must have been lost by the postal service. They would send me another copy. So I waited. And waited. Then I emailed them again. They were very, very sorry. The replacement book must have been lost in the post, too. They didn’t have any more copies of the book, so they would give me a refund.

I can understand that one book might get lost in the post, but TWO? I had a vision of their new office boy, keen but not very bright, being sent off with an armful of parcels and diligently posting each one in a rubbish bin instead of a post box. I waited another week for the refund to arrive, then used the money to order a copy of the book from a different bookseller. I’m still waiting. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? This one will get lost, too. Or all three copies will arrive simultaneously in my mail box.

'My Secret Diary' by Jacqueline WilsonAnyway, in the meantime, I bought a copy of Jacqueline Wilson‘s My Secret Diary: Dating, Dancing, Dreams and Dilemmas. This is an account, aimed at teenage readers, of the author’s life in 1960, when she was a boy-crazy fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in suburban Surrey. It included lots of great black-and-white snapshots, as well as some excerpts from her real diary, which are as hilariously earnest and angst-ridden as you’d expect. I took notes on the clothes and records and films she liked, and the food, and the ridiculous school regulations and horrible uniforms, although I’m not sure how similar her life would have been to an upper-class London schoolgirl. In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out just where her family fitted into England’s rigid class system. Jacqueline’s family lived in a small council flat, but in a ‘genteel’ new block, rather than the rough council estate up the hill. They had a car, a TV, a telephone and a brand-new record player, but no washing machine or fridge. Jacqueline walked several miles to and from school (she was in the grammar stream at the local girls’ comprehensive) to save on bus fares, but there always seemed to be enough money for new clothes, cinema tickets, hairdressing appointments, pocket money and Christmas presents, and the family went on holidays (although not abroad) once a year. I couldn’t figure out what her father did for a living – he worked “at the Treasury” in Westminster, but doing what? Her mother worked locally, as a book-keeper. So, maybe lower-middle class – but could you live in a council flat in the 1960s and be regarded as middle-class? Maybe aspiring, ambitious working class, about to move into the middle class?

I was also interested to read about her favourite books – The Diary of Anne Frank, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Rumer Godden’s The River and The Greengage Summer. She secretly borrowed Peyton Place from a friend and thought it was “sheer trash”, but was impressed with Lolita (“I wasn’t particularly shocked, just enormously interested”), although the author adds that “nowadays I find the whole story so troubling, so distressingly offensive, that I can’t bear to read it. I strongly recommend that you don’t read it either.” She was also determined to be a writer, so she bought a book called How To Be A Writer by Kathleen Betterton. This advised that “the writer for children must not attempt subtlety of character in which good and bad are blended”, so Jacqueline vowed, “If I ever write, I won’t write for children.” Fortunately for her many fans, she changed her mind, ignored that advice and went on to sell twenty-five million copies of her children’s books. (Teenage Jacqueline was also unimpressed with the writing advice doled out by Enid Blyton in her autobiography – “surely her books are not all that great”). I found this to be an entertaining, informative read – and if my other book about schoolgirls ever arrives, I’ll be able to figure out how typical Jacqueline’s experiences were.

You might also be interested in reading:

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

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  1. Later I discovered the National Women’s Library is run by volunteers, so it’s understandable that the opening hours would be limited and unpredictable. And I guess the books aren’t allowed out because they’re all donated and many are out of print and not easily replaced.

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