“At present I am full of ‘pep’ with lots of good resolutions for work, health, exercise, thoughts & deeds.” So begins the 1934 diary of Margaret Foster-Barham as she commenced her final year of study for the three-year Diploma in Home Science at Otago. Margaret lived at Lower Studholme, the original Studholme building (where Unicol is today). As a senior resident she now had the luxury of a room to herself, though she had mixed feelings about that. “It’s rather a pity all the old wives are so far away. However perhaps it will be better not to see too much of them. Their talk upon dress & men becomes a little irksome.”
The freshers’ welcome, held at Upper Studholme, was an enjoyable event. Margaret was impressed with the supper and recorded the menu “as it might be a suggestion for some other time.” The students indulged in oyster and salmon patties with green peas, Parker House rolls, sandwiches, peach ice cream, coffee, salted almonds and other nuts. The Dean of Home Science, the impressive American Ann Strong, then gave a talk about her recent trip, showing “photos on a moving camera.” Strong had also brought back from her trip “a fascinating new gong” for Studholme, “on which different calls can be played.” Margaret found the Dean “most inspiring”, as she “expresses ideals in just the manner I would put things if I could.”
Margaret found her workload pretty heavy at times. As part of the practical element of her home science course she took her turn, paired with another student, at housekeeping at Studholme, which included a stint of cooking dinner over Easter. Later in the year she “nearly bust with pride” when she got 80% in nutrition. Then there was dressmaking. The students all made a “body,” a basic pattern to fit their own measurements, to be used as a basis for other patterns. Margaret’s diary reveals that body image is not a new problem. “I have been working at the old body,” she wrote in March. “She is looking quite nice, though is alarmingly big. It’s rather a good thing we can’t see ourselves as others see us!!” Her sewing projects included a green woollen dress and a peach velvet dress. A green silk dress was “not too successful. Brassiere kept slipping & also straps. Very maternal effect!”
But Margaret’s life was not all work; she socialised regularly with friends, both male and female. She particularly enjoyed the “pictures”, which she attended frequently. Favourites she saw in 1934 included Bitter Sweet, starring Anna Neagle, and The Song of Songs, which Margaret found “very beautiful … in excellent taste.” It starred Marlene Dietrich: “I love her voice & figure.” Wednesday nights at the musical society were another regular highlight: “It is great fun. We are doing a very jolly ballad of Gustav Holst, called King Estmere.” There was also time for a little light reading. One favourite was “a jolly little book”: The Small Dark Man by Irish writer Maurice Walsh. It was “light & well written” and Margaret noted it would be “rather a nice book to give for a present.”
Margaret also enjoyed more energetic pursuits, such as tennis, though she noted that her “tennis needs much improvement.” An outing with her friend Tony to watch motorbike racing was “exciting in patches but for the most part boring & cold.” Motorbikes were, however, an important influence in Margaret’s life. She rode her Triumph from her family home in Nelson to university, and later to her teaching job at a Canterbury school. On one occasion she fell off in the gravel at Oaro just south of Kaikoura. Local farmer Owen Stanford rescued her from the ditch and, as daughter Judy explains, Margaret showed her gratitude by marrying him!
In 1934 there were only 1237 students at the University of Otago, including 79 studying home science. Just 319 – a quarter – of Otago students were women. The campus was clearly a very different place from today, but some things don’t change. Students still struggle to balance work and play, celebrate when they get good marks, enjoy socialising and movies and music, have adventures getting from A to B, and analyse the quality of residential college food. My heartfelt thanks to Judy Hogg for sharing her mother’s charming diary and allowing us a peek into one woman’s experience of life at Otago eighty years ago!