Berkshire to Borneo – An Alumna Interview






By Lily Whitelock

In May, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alumna Polly Corbishley (1954 – 1968) about her time at The Abbey and her hopes for the future.

Time at The Abbey:

Following on from her mother, an ex-Abbey girl herself, Mrs Corbishley joined the school in 1954 and started her journey in Kensington House. She recalls fond memories of her time there and also the effects that the end of the war was still having on the country. One story she shared with me about her 50s’ attitude to food waste: “I had to stay in at break once to try and swallow some fat – my friend had managed to throw hers out of the window!”

Polly’s time at The Abbey saw through a huge amount of social change and she recounts how some of the parts of the school which had seemed perfectly normal before the Second World War such as numerous shoe changes between indoor and outdoor shoes or the strict hemline measuring uniform policy, now seemed outdated and almost Victorian. On Speech Day, mothers would wear large hats and girls would wear white gloves and boaters for confirmation. During lessons, there would be an appointed ink monitor who would bring ink to students’ desks and Posture Badges would be given to the most collected and presentable students. Similarly, the career advice offered to Polly at the end of her time at school was pretty much either to become a nurse or a teacher with a few members of her class wanting to become nuns. Compared to the wealth of future opportunities facing me now, this seems to be a particularly striking difference.

While at the school, a keen dramatist and musician, Polly was a part of a large production of Dido and Aeneas. She told me: “Following the performance, a rumour went round that there had been a talent scout in the audience and we were all terribly excited, but nothing came of it.” It is safe to say that, despite the fifty odd years that have elapsed, some things never change as the same rumours once again whipped round the school following the production of Hairspray in March of this year. That same teenage spirit was apparent in Polly’s recount of a story in which some of the girls tried to climb out of the window to meet some boys and were given away by pennies falling out of their pocket and landing on a cold stone floor, alerting plenty of staff to their plan.

During Polly’s time at the Abbey, Mrs Hardcastle was Head Teacher. For Abbey girls following Hardcastle’s epoch, the woman has become almost a legend. Her portrait resides, rather severely, in the Hardcastle Hall. Staring down at us, she holds quite the presence in paint and Polly agreed that in person too, she was a force to be reckoned with. Polly describes how Mrs Harcastle would wear her gown every day and was always quite unapproachable. Having said that, a year after the end of Polly’s time at the school, Mrs Hardcastle considerately stayed in contact with her and her parents to make sure Polly had secured her plans for the future.

Having left the school in 1968, Polly got married and ended up travelling around the world with her husband, ending up in places such as Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Borneo. In fact it was in the latter that she ended up bumping into an ex-Abbey girl. She described living in the middle of the jungle in a complex of only a few bungalows and talking to a woman who happened to have been at the Abbey at a similar time – the two are still regularly in touch to this day.

Hopes for the future:

I asked Polly what she thought were the best parts of her time at school and what she hopes will be points of continuity and change for the future of the school and The Abbey girls to come. Among the extracurricular opportunities and sense of community, Polly hopes that the school continues to hold onto a sense of not only academic prowess but also knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

As well as this, the ethos that her time at school instilled in her about taking opportunities when you can, which she feels is even more important today. Her few regrets at school came only from not taking opportunities when they were presented to her. Being in school where opportunity after opportunity is handed to me on a plate, it can be easy to forget that the time we have in education is precious and to make the most of it.

Being able to speak with Polly re-instilled in me how, despite changes in society and the education system through the years, there are huge aspects of comforting similarity that we often overlook in the history of the school. Above all, the Abbey has held onto something quite special over the years in its unique sense of community and long may it continue.

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