Girls in a Boys’ World

October 13th, 2017

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On October 13, 1967 the Daily Express published a photograph of three girls at Cranleigh under the headline Girls in a Boys’ World.  It reported that the girls had joined Cranleigh for the Michaelmas term and, as is usually the case with the press, concentrated on the fact they were only paying £70 against the boys fees of £543 a year.

The three – Helen Simpson (left), Rosamund Birks (middle) and Jania Miller (right) – were from St Catherine’s in Bramley, at the time Cranleigh’s official sister school.  They moved to Cranleigh for the Oxbridge exams which at that time were held in the Michaelmas term after the Upper VIth.

They were not the first girls to spend time at Cranleigh – a handful had attended Oxbridge since 1964 – they were the first to spend a complete term. They were also the first to board, being housed in Willscote at the entrance to Sanny Lane, at the time the Sanatorium.

Simpson and Miller were no strangers to Cranleigh either. Both had featured in plays (at that time girls were brought in from neighbouring schools to play female parts) and Simpson had had a major role in Othello in 1965.

Patrick Harpur (West 1967), who described himself as “the fair-haired bloke half-sitting on the desk” in the photograph recalled: “I knew the three girls because they did English with me and one other boy, Richard Rusbridger. It was confusing for them being surrounded by hundreds of sex-starved boys, especially Helen, who was the most obviously pretty.  But they managed OK, I’d say – Helen coped manfully, if that’s the word, with the attention; Jania was a bit moony over me; and Roz was dead feisty.”

At the time St Catherine’s was struggling to keep girls in the VIth form, faced with a challenge from new sixth form colleges as well as a reluctance from parents even less keen to continue funding a private education than they were for boys. In a bid to help out, Cranleigh offered its facilities and teachers to try to help stem the flow by offering specialist options.

For a time the overall Council, which ran both schools, considered a plan to effectively merge the teaching side of the VIth form, with boys and girls being taught certain subjects at each other’s schools. The Council even discussed making St Catherine’s as well as Cranleigh coeducational, but all that petered out in 1969, when the headmistress of St Catherine’s stopped sending any girls Cranleigh’s way.

But the die had been cast and in 1971 Cranleigh opened its doors to its own girls, albeit initially in very small numbers.