To any with knowledge of the School, the name Bertha Dean is a familiar one. To those with little or no knowledge of the history, the name may refer only to a building in the grounds – Bertha Dean House. Originally to be called Cornwallis House, this was changed before the building was complete. Whatever the thinking behind the name change remains a mystery as no-one recorded the reason and all of those involved in the decision are no longer with us.
Who was Bertha Dean? A former pupil, turned pupil teacher, turned salaried member of staff, turned Headmistress, she was one of many pupils who translated from pupil to teacher without leaving the premises. But, clearly, Bertha Jane Dean stood out from the others.
She was born on 6th January 1878 in Chichester, one of eight children born to William and Matilda and, if one inherits career tendencies from one’s parents, Bertha Dean was never going to be anything but a teacher. Her mother was a music teacher and her maternal grandparents were both teachers. Music, too, must have been a major feature as her father was a music seller and lay vicar. This last, also called a vicar choral, is a professional singer in an Anglican cathedral. One assumes, then, that this was in Chichester Cathedral.
William’s death in 1885 was the reason that Bertha came to the School in 1887. Her mother continued to run the family business selling music but it was a precarious income and the stipend from being a lay vicar would have ceased upon William’s death.
By 1894, the then Head Governess was writing of her:
in every way an exceptional girl: she has always been a particularly good girl and has long held the position of prefect. She is a girl of excellent general ability, no study of any kind comes amiss to her and she seems to excel in whatever branch she takes up.
In 1890 she took the prize for mathematics; in 1891 she passed Cambridge Junior with Class II Hons with a 1st class result in Maths and in 1894 took Cambridge Senior where she achieved a distinction in French and Music and passed Associated Board Music at the highest level with distinction.
In 1894, Sarah Louisa Davis wrote to the Committee indicating that she wanted to retain her pupil but also wanted her to attend a local public school to ‘work with older girls more advanced than herself’. There was one in Clapham and the fees, the Head Governess informed the Committee, were under £8 per term. Miss Davis put requests like these to the Committee (although they often read more as demands than requests!) and her master stroke in almost all cases was to indicate how much the School would benefit from this outlay. Allowing this extra for Bertha would mean that she would return to take up a good position on the teaching staff.
‘As it is but seldom as clever a girl in all branches is to be met with, Miss Davis asks that these special arrangements may be made.’
By January 1895, Clapham High felt that Bertha need not continue as she had covered all their syllabus by then. Bertha was then studying for ‘special subjects’ prior to her attaining her 18th birthday and being able to apply for a college. Miss Davis followed this with another of her master strokes – she knew exactly how to get the Committee on board! – as she went on to say that ‘If she returned here, the fees that would have been paid could be used to give her special tuition.’
In fact, Bertha did go on to further studies as she became the first former pupil to gain a degree. Not for her the luxury of attendance at a university though as she sat her degree as an external candidate of London University. By this stage, she was already teaching at the School. The Committee, clearly as impressed with Bertha as Miss Davis was, paid for the academic gown to which she was now entitled as Bertha Dean, B A.
This portrait, familiar from the Great Hall, shows Bertha – albeit in more mature years – wearing the gown she had earned.
In 1901, the census records her as a governess of general subjects although clearly music and maths were her specialisms. By 1911, although listed only as school teacher, her name is written immediately below the person in charge of the School at the time. There is no Head Governess listed in 1911 so Bertha’s position at the top of the list of teachers tells its own story. It hardly comes a surprise, then, to find her appointed as Head Governess in 1915.
This picture, although undated, is thought to be from about 1914, and shows Bertha Dean seated immediately next to the Head Governess of the time, the shorthand being ‘this one’s next’!
Headmistress 1915 to 1938, Bertha Dean retired to Alverstoke to live with her brother. Sadly her retirement was not lengthy as, in 1944, the School received the news that she had died.
But this post is less about her life and work and more about her medals. A box containing six medals is held by the School, some with Bertha Dean’s name engraved on them. At some point, they have been placed in the box to record something of the life of this remarkable woman.
The medals are (left to right, top row then 2nd row) Swimming badge, Gold Medal, Prefect’s badge, 1938 commemoration badge, Head Girl’s medal and commemoration badge 1927.
The silver badge was given in October 1892 for Swimming, as the obverse inscription informs us. But this award was perhaps a little eclipsed by the Gold Medal which was awarded in the same year.
Bertha Dean was 14 years old when this was awarded whereas today’s recipients of the Gold Medal are 18. Even given that the school leaving age was between 15 and 17 (depending on the Head Governess’ recommendations to the Committee), the award being made at 14 is clearly an indication of her qualities. These were further exemplified by her status as Prefect.
The hallmark, although indistinct, gives a date of 1891 from the London assay office. The sponsor’s mark (HTL) is for Henry Thomas Lamb and you won’t be surprised to learn he was a Masonic jeweller!
The two commemorative badges represent important celebrations in the School’s history for which badges were made and presented to everyone in the School.
In 1927 the Princess Royal came to the School to present prizes but the use of the Prince of Wales feathers on the badge implies something else. If it were ‘something else’ it has not been recorded as such although it should be noted that the Masonic Peace Memorial in London had its foundation stone laid in great ceremony in 1927 by Duke of Connaught, President of the RMIG.
The 1938 badge, again a medal struck to commemorate a special event and presented to all at the School, was one to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the School.
The motto – circumornatae ut similitudo templi or as the King James Bible has it ‘that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace’ – was newly out of its cellophane, so to speak, as the coat of arms including it had only been granted in 1936.
The final badge in the box has a little mystery all of its own. The Head Girl’s jewel was originally presented in 1891, in the name of Sir Henry Isaacs, Lord Mayor of London. As such, Bertha Dean would have been one of the first persons to be awarded it.
In 1887 Henry Aaron Isaacs became sheriff of London and Middlesex, and was knighted in the same year. In 1889 he was elected Lord Mayor of London. The medal has the Latin motto of the City – Domine Dirige Nos – the Lord guide us.
It is still presented today but it is no longer the original medal as that was stolen in a robbery at the School in 1967. A copy was made with an indication written on the obverse that it is a replica of the original. And here is the little mystery. Whilst it has Bertha Dean’s name inscribed on the back of this medal in its presentation box, it also says it is a replica of the original.
And, although indistinct in the photo, underneath it has the words ‘worn by Bertha Dean’
This must mean that the medal in the box was created after 1967 but, to show that it is not the actual medal presented to Bertha Dean, the words ‘worn by’ are inscribed. The mystery here is why someone collected all of these medals, clearly long after the lady in question was deceased, and placed them in a presentation case. Clearly at least two of them are the genuine article and there is no doubt that Bertha Dean received all of the others, if not these exact ones, but why put them in a presentation box much later without any kind of legend?
And on that note, let’s close the box until someone solves the mystery!