Some of the best days of her life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am

At the age of 10, when Elizabeth Grubb joined Central British School, she would stare down at the wooden parquet flooring in the assembly hall and see the black smudged marks where the mosquito coils had burned.

The school had been turned into a Japanese hospital during the second world war and the coils burned next to the beds of the injured and sick.

When she joined the school in 1947, a year before the name of the school was changed to King George V School or KGV, there were no books or supplies, and the teachers had to devise a curriculum and syllabus out of what they could remember from before the war.

Even now, she remembers the teachers' dedication to pupils and their ability to devise lessons that were of interest and required a huge amount of extra work without any materials available.

Mrs Grubb returned to Hong Kong this week for a few days for the first time in 53 years, after leaving KGV at the age of 17 to study at Edinburgh University. She relished the opportunity to return to her old school.

With her husband, George, they are the Lord and Lady Provost of Edinburgh. All four principal cities in Scotland have a Lord Provost, a figurative and ceremonial head of the city. The couple were on a trip to Japan to promote Scottish business and decided to return via Hong Kong.

Delighted that she could look down on Tsim Sha Tsui directly over the Star Ferry from her hotel window, Mrs Grubb listed the names of the ferries that she said looked no different from the ones that used to take her across the harbour 'when it was so much bigger.

'I'll always remember the Meridian Star. And there they are just as they were. Of course, Hong Kong has changed completely, but because I lived in Tsim Sha Tsui in Austin Road I wanted to stay in a hotel here. Even if everything looks different - although the Peninsula Hotel is still there, of course - the road names haven't changed, and I remember all of those, so that's how I'm finding my way around. But it's just wonderful. Even after all these years, it feels like home.

'I joined KGV at age 10, just after Easter. It was the beginning of the most wonderful childhood. Being at this school was like a mini-United Nations. That was part of the wonder of it. All these children together, just friends from different nations. I sat next to a Chinese boy, there were Swiss, Dutch, Canadian, White Russians, everything.

'I remember once one girl at the school saying: 'Of course, my father is a Soviet', but that's the only time I remember hearing anything about politics.'

Mrs Grubb was born in Hong Kong in December, 1936, leaving for Singapore and then Australia with her mother when her parents realised that war was threatening.

Her father, Walter Ramsay Grubb, worked as a chief engineer for Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong and then for the Royal Navy Reserve during the war. He was later taken prisoner by the Japanese and it was only back in England in October 1945 that the family was reunited. He had taken a longer route back to England so that his hair would grow and he wouldn't look as emaciated by the time he met his family.

'That was the type of person he was,' says Mrs Grubb. 'Always giving, always thinking about other people.'

He returned to his job at Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong in 1947.

'And then in 1948 the Central British School was renamed the King George V School,' Mrs Grubb said.

'I remember us all standing in assembly on Speech Day and [the principal] Geoffrey Ferguson reading out the royal edict that the king, George VI, had allowed our school to be renamed after his 'illustrious' father George V.

'It was the first time that I had heard the word 'illustrious' and it made quite an impression.'

In the winter, the uniform was brown, with brown skirts and brown blazers, said Mrs Grubb, who still treasures a KGV badge, and who would later become head girl.

'In summertime, we wore white dresses with a belt. There were different houses. Upsdell - for which we wore red belts, Nightingale - they wore brown, and Schoolhouse, which was later changed to Rowell. They were all names of former teachers.

'Marion Hill was the headmistress and very 'old school'. She taught maths and geometric drawing. We were expected to stand as a mark of respect.

'We would stay in the same classroom, and the teachers would come to us. I think now it's the classes that move around. We were expected to stand by one side of the desk, and she was an absolute stickler for discipline.

'If any of us got it wrong she would wait in silence until we moved to the right side of the desk. When I left school she was the only teacher who had been there longer than I had.'

Mrs Grubb was a member of the choir, learned to play the piano and her sport was swimming - backstroke in particular - and she competed in the Colony Cup.

Being head girl meant she was the leader of the rest of the prefects and a source of delight for Mrs Grubb was being the first to walk into assembly.

She won the public spirit prize in her final year before sharing the Peace Memorial Scholarship with another student, which financed her for three years at Edinburgh University.

She had always loved English, particularly phonetics, and dedicated her working life to teaching the hearing-impaired.

Mrs Grubb said that although Hong Kong had become a lot busier, it had not changed as much as she feared it would after the handover.

'I watched television all day long and I cried and I cried and I cried. I don't know what I expected to happen,' she said. 'I was very anxious that things in Hong Kong would change, but they don't appear to have done.'

Returning to the modern KGV, Mrs Grubb couldn't believe how many classrooms there were.

'I'm told that people are desperate to get their children into KGV,' she said. 'It's so much more extensive than when I was here.

I've met a few teachers and they've shown me around the various classrooms. The uniform is very changed. There are sports shirts now, and the girls' dresses don't have belts.'

The old E-shaped building is still there, but whereas she and her peers had one classroom for science, now it's a whole wing. The school was 'massively more extensive', she said, but felt more closed in. There weren't the wide open spaces of her school days, with flowerbeds of hibiscus. The sports field which used to have real grass was now astro turf - 'not quite so nice'.

'They now have another house, named after Crozier, the former director of education,' she said.

Mrs Grubb said she saw some children wandering around the school who had come especially for extra revision classes. And there's another thing that hasn't changed - exams.

As she entered the assembly hall and saw it full of desks for exam time, she said she remembered that she had felt 'a bit sick and scared' all those years ago, emotions that every modern student can relate to.