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Living a Culture Through the Ages

The culture of boarding at Melbourne Girls Grammar stretches all the way back to February 1893, when young Agnes Snodgrass came to board at the new school and lived in the same house as her headmistresses. As other boarders joined them, they became a small family. This continued with the move to Anderson Street under the Morris sisters and, indeed, the new Merton Hall building was a family home with the boarders living on the top floor and Mrs Morris as their matron.

In the Gilman Jones era, the boarders were more numerous, and their lives more organised. After school, they had formal meals in the new dining room and, in the evening, learned the art of conversation in the drawing room with Miss Gilman Jones. Despite this formality, their reminiscences and photos indicate a great sense of fun and friendship, sport on the hockey field and excursions to the beach and country for picnics. These are aspects of the culture of boarding which have never disappeared. Phyllis Tonge, a boarder who left in 1914, summed it up: “…we made wonderful lasting friendships and … we had a lot of simple fun and life was very secure.”

The Second World War and the evacuation to Marysville provided a boarding experience in reverse for hundreds of city girls who would never have expected to become boarders in the country. Interestingly, their memories of that time as boarders have echoed the same cultural norms of the earlier boarders, with some early homesickness thrown in – enjoyment of time spent together, learning to live in a community, becoming more self-reliant and especially the enduring friendships. As Barbara Stephenson (Brown, 1945) said, “Boarding was scary and lonely initially, but I wouldn’t change my time there at all. It made me an independent person and also made me grow up very quickly. We were like one big family with older girls helping the younger ones if they needed it.”

The Second World War and the evacuation to Marysville provided a boarding experience in reverse for hundreds of city girls who would never have expected to become boarders in the country. Interestingly, their memories of that time as boarders have echoed the same cultural norms of the earlier boarders, with some early homesickness thrown in – enjoyment of time spent together, learning to live in a community, becoming more self-reliant and especially the enduring friendships. As Barbara Stephenson (Brown, 1945) said, “Boarding was scary and lonely initially, but I wouldn’t change my time there at all. It made me an independent person and also made me grow up very quickly. We were like one big family with older girls helping the younger ones if they needed it.”

The Second World War and the evacuation to Marysville provided a boarding experience in reverse for hundreds of city girls who would never have expected to become boarders in the country. Interestingly, their memories of that time as boarders have echoed the same cultural norms of the earlier boarders, with some early homesickness thrown in – enjoyment of time spent together, learning to live in a community, becoming more self-reliant and especially the enduring friendships. As Barbara Stephenson (Brown, 1945) said, “Boarding was scary and lonely initially, but I wouldn’t change my time there at all. It made me an independent person and also made me grow up very quickly. We were like one big family with older girls helping the younger ones if they needed it.”

From the 1950s through to the 1990s, the boarding houses were significantly overcrowded, as they struggled to keep up with post-war demand for places. They struggled even more to navigate the rapid social change of that time and its reach into young people’s lives. Pity the various boarding house mistresses as they tried to respond, relying on tried-and-true methods of more rules and consequences. Some rules seem plain ridiculous now – hair washing on Saturdays only, very restricted phone calls and parent contact – and rule breaking and testing the limits became the norm. The girls put a lot of pent-up energy and creativity into breaking through the restrictions – ignoring lights out rules, stealing a tin of biscuits from the kitchen for a midnight feast. It was mostly low-level rebellion, with little malice or ill will. Misdeeds were frequently uncovered by the staff, but the wins were great fun and worth the risk to the girls – and these of course are the memories they share whenever they get together! Despite chafing at the numerous restrictions, many girls have echoed the culture of previous generations – learning to live with others with tolerance and respect, the joy of belonging to a small community, of enduring friendships and increasing independence, as their comments show: “Growing up in a boarding school atmosphere made you very close to those you shared your life with,” Belinda Liggins (Baldwin, 1964). “In hindsight, maybe these years were character building, taught me to manage on my own. They certainly gave me a lot of friends – day girls and boarders, who still remain special in my life,” Sue Sweetland (Robertson, 1961).

From the 1950s through to the 1990s, the boarding houses were significantly overcrowded, as they struggled to keep up with post-war demand for places. They struggled even more to navigate the rapid social change of that time and its reach into young people’s lives. Pity the various boarding house mistresses as they tried to respond, relying on tried-and-true methods of more rules and consequences. Some rules seem plain ridiculous now – hair washing on Saturdays only, very restricted phone calls and parent contact – and rule breaking and testing the limits became the norm. The girls put a lot of pent-up energy and creativity into breaking through the restrictions – ignoring lights out rules, stealing a tin of biscuits from the kitchen for a midnight feast. It was mostly low-level rebellion, with little malice or ill will. Misdeeds were frequently uncovered by the staff, but the wins were great fun and worth the risk to the girls – and these of course are the memories they share whenever they get together! Despite chafing at the numerous restrictions, many girls have echoed the culture of previous generations – learning to live with others with tolerance and respect, the joy of belonging to a small community, of enduring friendships and increasing independence, as their comments show: “Growing up in a boarding school atmosphere made you very close to those you shared your life with,” Belinda Liggins (Baldwin, 1964). “In hindsight, maybe these years were character building, taught me to manage on my own. They certainly gave me a lot of friends – day girls and boarders, who still remain special in my life,” Sue Sweetland (Robertson, 1961).

From the 1950s through to the 1990s, the boarding houses were significantly overcrowded, as they struggled to keep up with post-war demand for places. They struggled even more to navigate the rapid social change of that time and its reach into young people’s lives. Pity the various boarding house mistresses as they tried to respond, relying on tried-and-true methods of more rules and consequences. Some rules seem plain ridiculous now – hair washing on Saturdays only, very restricted phone calls and parent contact – and rule breaking and testing the limits became the norm. The girls put a lot of pent-up energy and creativity into breaking through the restrictions – ignoring lights out rules, stealing a tin of biscuits from the kitchen for a midnight feast. It was mostly low-level rebellion, with little malice or ill will. Misdeeds were frequently uncovered by the staff, but the wins were great fun and worth the risk to the girls – and these of course are the memories they share whenever they get together! Despite chafing at the numerous restrictions, many girls have echoed the culture of previous generations – learning to live with others with tolerance and respect, the joy of belonging to a small community, of enduring friendships and increasing independence, as their comments show: “Growing up in a boarding school atmosphere made you very close to those you shared your life with,” Belinda Liggins (Baldwin, 1964). “In hindsight, maybe these years were character building, taught me to manage on my own. They certainly gave me a lot of friends – day girls and boarders, who still remain special in my life,” Sue Sweetland (Robertson, 1961).

Jean Norris’ initiation into the role of Head of Boarding in 1984 gives an indication of the prevailing culture at the time. She described one night in Phelia Grimwade after lights out, when the girls (50-60 of them), organised a protest march around the corridors on both floors, chanting, “Go home, Pommy!” Her response was to ignore it, because, in her words, “I really didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, the girls gave up and went to bed. 

Jean Norris’ initiation into the role of Head of Boarding in 1984 gives an indication of the prevailing culture at the time. She described one night in Phelia Grimwade after lights out, when the girls (50-60 of them), organised a protest march around the corridors on both floors, chanting, “Go home, Pommy!” Her response was to ignore it, because, in her words, “I really didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, the girls gave up and went to bed. 

Jean Norris’ initiation into the role of Head of Boarding in 1984 gives an indication of the prevailing culture at the time. She described one night in Phelia Grimwade after lights out, when the girls (50-60 of them), organised a protest march around the corridors on both floors, chanting, “Go home, Pommy!” Her response was to ignore it, because, in her words, “I really didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, the girls gave up and went to bed. 

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Boarders' Midnight Feast in 1978.
1980s: Mrs Siroka, Mrs Gordon and Head of Boarding Miss Norris.
1995 Boarding Council pose for a 'Footy' style photo.
Boarders wait outside the doors of the Boarding House in 2015.
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Boarders' Midnight Feast in 1978.
1980s: Mrs Siroka, Mrs Gordon and Head of Boarding Miss Norris.
1995 Boarding Council pose for a 'Footy' style photo.
Boarders wait outside the doors of the Boarding House in 2015.
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Change was needed and Jean Norris did her best to create it, but her age and background meant that she often fell back on the familiar ground of a somewhat punitive culture. By the time Polly Winterton became Head of Boarding in 1992, she was under instructions from the Principal, Nina Crone: “I want you to stop all the punishment and gating, the oppositional behaviour.” Changing culture in an institution is a slow process. As Polly said, “It took a long time to change the culture to one where the girls were genuinely part of a family, a large one, with responsibilities to each other, and where they were more accountable on a personal level for their own behaviors.”  In fact, this change was echoing the long-standing boarding culture of family, friendship and loyalty, but putting more self-responsibility and self-discipline alongside it. Reducing the over-crowding and renovating the boarding houses were crucial factors in achieving the changed culture.

Change was needed and Jean Norris did her best to create it, but her age and background meant that she often fell back on the familiar ground of a somewhat punitive culture. By the time Polly Winterton became Head of Boarding in 1992, she was under instructions from the Principal, Nina Crone: “I want you to stop all the punishment and gating, the oppositional behaviour.” Changing culture in an institution is a slow process. As Polly said, “It took a long time to change the culture to one where the girls were genuinely part of a family, a large one, with responsibilities to each other, and where they were more accountable on a personal level for their own behaviors.”  In fact, this change was echoing the long-standing boarding culture of family, friendship and loyalty, but putting more self-responsibility and self-discipline alongside it. Reducing the over-crowding and renovating the boarding houses were crucial factors in achieving the changed culture.

Amanda Haggie, the current Director of Boarding, has carried a huge load through these pandemic years and never has the culture of family, responsibility, and care for each other been more apparent, or indeed, more necessary amongst our boarders.

Amanda Haggie, the current Director of Boarding, has carried a huge load through these pandemic years and never has the culture of family, responsibility, and care for each other been more apparent, or indeed, more necessary amongst our boarders.

Amanda Haggie, the current Director of Boarding, has carried a huge load through these pandemic years and never has the culture of family, responsibility, and care for each other been more apparent, or indeed, more necessary amongst our boarders.




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"The culture in a boarding house always owes so much to its leaders and its community members."

Pip O'Connor, School Historian

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In the same way that boarders gain so much from the experience of living in Melbourne, the presence of boarders, from country and international areas, adds richness to the lives of the day girls, whether it be in friendships, in classrooms or simply in awareness of a wider world. Marg McNaughton (Atkins, 1955), a day girl in the 1950s, summed it up: “…being at the school with boarders brought a wonderful balance to the culture of the School.” Rachel Peterson (Morphet, 1997) felt the same way, “My friendships with the boarders were such a memorable part of my schooling.”

From 1893 to 2021, the boarding culture has always been at the heart of Melbourne Girls Grammar.

In the same way that boarders gain so much from the experience of living in Melbourne, the presence of boarders, from country and international areas, adds richness to the lives of the day girls, whether it be in friendships, in classrooms or simply in awareness of a wider world. Marg McNaughton (Atkins, 1955), a day girl in the 1950s, summed it up: “…being at the school with boarders brought a wonderful balance to the culture of the School.” Rachel Peterson (Morphet, 1997) felt the same way, “My friendships with the boarders were such a memorable part of my schooling.”

From 1893 to 2021, the boarding culture has always been at the heart of Melbourne Girls Grammar.

In the same way that boarders gain so much from the experience of living in Melbourne, the presence of boarders, from country and international areas, adds richness to the lives of the day girls, whether it be in friendships, in classrooms or simply in awareness of a wider world. Marg McNaughton (Atkins, 1955), a day girl in the 1950s, summed it up: “…being at the school with boarders brought a wonderful balance to the culture of the School.” Rachel Peterson (Morphet, 1997) felt the same way, “My friendships with the boarders were such a memorable part of my schooling.”

From 1893 to 2021, the boarding culture has always been at the heart of Melbourne Girls Grammar.

Written by
Written By

Pip O'Connor (Farrer, 1965)

School Historian

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