Notre Dame – at home in Cobham for 70 years
Since 1937, Burwood House in Convent Lane has been home to Notre Dame School. When it opened the school had seven pupils, all boarders, under the tutelage of a handful of Sisters who belonged to the Company of Mary Our Lady. The house and grounds have survived many changes in that time, including the strife of war and a destructive fire in 1970, but the school has remained a place of learning in its widest sense, with the ever-present guidance and calming influence of the Sisters.
The following extract is from a letter written by Noni Sheardown, a pupil in 1939, received by Sister Patricia Kelly ODN, in 2007 as the school prepared for its 70th anniversary.
The first time I saw Burwood House was on 3rd September 1939. I had just heard the Prime Minister say we were at war with Germany and the air raid siren had sounded. My mother and I discussed what we should do; it seemed a good idea to put me into boarding school.
We remembered the pale blue noticeboard in Cobham with the Convent’s name. I expect my mother rang up and was invited to come and see Reverend Mother, but I do not recall that. I do remember piling clothes and bedding, books and essentials into the battered Austin 7 and setting off for Burwood House.
The approach was beautiful. An unmade lane wandered along beside the River Mole with fields on either side, large trees and country flowers bordered the lane and war seemed quite impossible.
Burwood House sat dignified and beautiful like a peaceful old dowager enjoying retirement. No hordes of children, no notice boards full of instructions, iron railings or asphalt playgrounds, in fact it didn’t look like a school at all. I fell for it at once and so did my mother.
The inside was as unschool like as the outside. The Gold Parlour with its grand piano was lovely but the Blue Parlour was magnificent with its painted panels and huge windows looking out on the rose garden. The only thing I recognised was the convent smell, a mixture of floor polish and incense.
Reverend Mother was a surprise too, she was small and very welcoming, she patted my hand and told me she would be a Mummy to me. I thought that most unlikely but naturally didn’t say so. I saw a great deal of this Reverend Mother, she came and played Ludo with us in the evenings and she played for keeps, no holds barred. She also gave a holy picture to the winner and toffee all round to the losers.
Madame Mary Josephine was the person who figured the largest in our lives. She woke us up in the morning with Bendicamus Domino and she turned out the light at night. In between she supervised us at meal times and kept a watchful eye on our table manners; she taught the senior classes and was a perambulating conscience. I still, after 60 years, hear her voice when I am about to do something careless or sloppy.
I remember on one occasion during the summer term, the foot of my bed stood across the window and I had crawled there and, lifting the curtains, was reading a book. The rest of the dormitory were talking and indulging in the dissipation of drinking lemonade made from lemonade powder and tap water. I suddenly realised the gentle hum of chatter had ceased and Madame’s voice was saying “Marguerite and Noni are trying to sleep. The rest of you will lose your lie-ins next week.”
I lay totally frozen and went to sleep with the daunting thought that I would have to own up next morning. However, Madame was very human and she probably thought I had suffered enough because she just said, “Very well, you’ll lose your lie in as well.”
The first term at Burwood House I was taught in the classroom which had cupboards with mirror doors across the end. We used to make faces and signs to each other in these when we thought Madame was not looking – not often! However when we returned for the spring term, Mother Agnes had painted a set of pictures of the four seasons which had been neatly stuck over the mirrors.
The gardens at the convent were really lovely, wide lawns sweeping down to the River Mole with a tulip tree and an enormous cedar with its skirts sweeping the ground. I ran under it to fetch a ball once and, catching a branch, made a triangular tear in my new gym slip. Mother Montserrat mended it so exquisitely you could hardly see the repair.
It was war time so the food was boring but there was plenty of it and nobody was ever hungry. There was no excuse for Jane Edgecombe and me to eat the ornamental cherries which grew round the tennis court. After we had eaten them we wondered if they were poisonous and prayed that we would not die in agony. I don’t know why we ate them, they tasted disgusting.
I remember grass fights when the vast lawns had just been cut, the Octagonal house which was mysterious and romantic even when it contained nothing but tennis racquets and games equipment, having baths in the huge luxurious bathrooms where you hung a card on the door saying ‘Engaged" instead of turning a key.
Summer mornings in Chapel with the gentle murmur of the Tridentine mass, squirrels peeping in at the French windows and green woodpeckers on the lawns; Sunday walks in the woods with Madame collecting wild flowers for us to dissect in Botany lessons. It was really very peaceful.
I only remember one day-time air raid when Sister Columba dashed into the dining room crying “The Germans are on us!” Madame stopped trying to instil a few geographical facts about the Canadian Shield and shepherded us to the basement for safety.
It was really a very happy school. I am not going to say that they were the happiest days of my life because that would be very insulting to Frank my husband, but I will say that if one is away at boarding school in wartime, you would be very hard put to find a better place to be. There was no bullying, no theft, and I do not remember any spiteful or nasty girls. I think the influence of Marguerite was responsible for the kind caring attitude. There was, of course, no television or computer games so we made our own fun, I don’t remember ever being bored.
Altogether I think I was very lucky to have spent my school days at Notre Dame Cobham.