Of pupils and pandemics

In this year, a pandemic swept across the world. In this year, stringent measures were put in place in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. In this year, millions of people across the world died, more than in the whole of the war.

No, don’t be alarmed. You haven’t missed a crucial news bulletin announcing a massive escalation of Corona virus. ‘In this year’ does not refer to 2020. Eerily it refers to a century ago, to the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918-1920. Like today, the School was affected. Like today, special measures were enforced. Hopefully, fingers crossed, wish on a lucky star etc, there will be fewer casualties of the current virus at the School today than there was in 1918. And as the figure in 1918 was one that would be good news indeed.

The one person at the School who lost her life from Spanish ‘flu was a former pupil who had become a member of staff. May Downes died in October 1918. She was just 20 years of age.

Daughter of Daniel and Frances Downes, May had been born in Upottery, Devon in May 1888, the first of five children. As Tristram Risdon stated in approx. 1632

‘Upottery taketh name of the River Otter … having its adjunct Up in that it is the highest place where its spring maketh itself a river” from Chorographical Description of Devon p.22 and cited by http://www.upottery.com/history

In the 1891 census, the family were at Stillinghayes, a farmhouse which almost exactly a century after May was born became a listed building. However, at the time the Downes family were living there, it was a relative new build having been constructed in about 1870 of ‘Local stone and flint rubble with brick dressings, plastered on the front and white washed elsewhere’ with a slate roof. (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101333691-stillinghayes-farmhouse-upottery#.XnNR3aj7Tcs) Although it was a farm, it was in the centre of the village.

https://planning.eastdevon.gov.uk/ shows its position in the village and an image of the house can be seen on http://mhv.dailyecho.co.uk/homes/homes_for_sale/in/Honiton%2C+Devon/gallery/16951155/ should you have a spare half million or so to spend.

May’s father was a land agent, or a steward, which Wikipedia states

‘was a managerial employee who conducted the business affairs of a large landed estate … supervising the farming of the property by farm labourers and/or tenants and collecting rents or other payments … a land agent was a relatively privileged position and a senior member of the estate’s staff.’

The owner of the landed estate in question here was Viscount Sidmouth, which title stems from Henry Addington in 1805, probably the most unpopular Prime Minister Britain has ever known – and that’s going some!

May’s family moved from Devon to Wiltshire: a 4th child was born in Upottery in 1893 and the 5th in Westbury in 1895. That year, unfortunately, also saw the death of Daniel Downes of Frogmore House, Westbury on 16 Feb 1895. An early Victorian villa, Frogmore House is also a listed building although somewhat blighted perhaps by being attached to a factory on both sides. (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1364393) Sadly, Daniel Downes died in a shooting accident. The Bristol Times and Mirror 23 February 1895 reports the coroner’s inquest and outlines that the deceased had gone out before breakfast, had placed his gun against a haystack ‘for some purpose’ and it had accidentally discharged causing fatal injuries. As Mr Downes was conscious until shortly before he died, he must presumably have given this information. The verdict was accidental death.

His death was the reason for daughter May’s admission to the School in 1899 when she was 11. She was due to leave school in May 1904 (aged sixteen) but was retained as pupil teacher in the Junior school, becoming a salaried teacher in 1908. She is given as a teacher in the 1911 census but in 1913, she switched direction and became 3rd Assistant in Matron’s department. Whether as a teacher or matron’s assistant, May was clearly making herself useful as her successive promotions show:  1917 2nd assistant; 1918 1st assistant on a salary of £75 a year. Where she might have ended up had not a virus intervened, your guess is as good as anyone’s, but on October 30th she died, at the School, of double pneumonia arising from influenza. The majority of deaths in this epidemic were from bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by influenza so May was not exceptional in this.

During the pandemic of 1918-29, disturbingly similar to what is happening in 2020

‘Hospitals were overwhelmed, and doctors and nurses worked to breaking point … In many towns, theatres, dance halls, churches and other public-gathering places were shut, some for months. Streets were sprayed with chemicals and people wore anti-germ masks.’


In this prescient Independent article actually written fifteen years ago (22 October 2005) and now seeming horribly familiar, Jeremy Laurance referred to the world preparing for the next influenza pandemic which ‘England’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, says is now inevitable.’ (ibid)

The epidemic of 1918-1920 is often referred to as Spanish ’flu because, like Italy in 2020,

‘Spain was hardest hit, with an estimated eight million dead which led the BMJ to label the disease “Spanish flu”, though it is thought to have originated in China.’ (ibid)

This theory is not accepted by all virologists however and there is plenty of argufying going on between them a hundred years later. At least the source of the corona virus seems not to be in dispute although how that helps anyone who gets it is unclear.

Spanish ‘flu emerged in the spring of 1918 and soldiers in the trenches became ill with what was then called ‘La grippe’. It spread rapidly as it was highly infectious and probably hastened the end of the war. In fact, so deadly was the pandemic that it claimed an estimated 20-40 million lives across the globe, a significantly higher death toll than the Great War itself.

Glasgow was the first place in UK to be affected in May 1918 but by June it had reached London and the Wandsworth area was one of the worst places within London. All the more remarkable then that only one person succumbed in the whole school then situate in Battersea.

RMIG taken from Wandsworth Common

In all, 228,000 people died in Britain mostly from pneumonia or septicaemia. It was swift and, like the outbreaks of the Plague of earlier centuries, those who were hale and hearty at breakfast could be dead by tea-time.

And in a warning for the present time, it should be noted that there was an initial outbreak which then died away only to be replaced by a more vicious second wave.

‘… Armistice Day on 11 November, called to mark the end of the war, set off a second wave of infection. As people gathered to celebrate, the virus swept through them. Parties and parades turned to disaster.’ (ibid)

In contrast with what appears to be the pattern with corona virus, and indeed ordinary ‘flu, Spanish ‘flu ‘…

‘disproportionately struck those aged 20 to 30. Young adults with the strongest immune systems were, unexpectedly, the most vulnerable.’ (ibid)

Although May was the only person in the School to die in the Spanish ‘flu pandemic, she was not the only person affected by it. Two other pupils, Barbara and Joan Essenhigh Corke, became pupils when both of their parents succumbed.

‘Both Henry and his wife Evie died in the flu epidemic of 1919-20, leaving three children, Joan, Norman and Barbara. Apparently no one in the family felt able to take all three of the poor little things, but each was brought up lovingly by a different family member.’ (Recollections by a family member in the Kent & Sussex Courier)

Henry Essenhigh Corke, known as Essie, was a photographer as was his father Charles. They had a studio in Sevenoaks in Kent and Henry became joint manager of the studio when he was just eighteen, eventually taking over the control of the business.

Image from https://thegardenstrust.blog/2016/05/21/henry-essenhigh-corke/

Henry did pioneering work in colour photography, wrote articles for photographic magazines and his lantern lectures were a regular attraction at the RPS annual exhibition. (from http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/nmem/autochrome/Notable_Photographers_detail.asp?PhotographersID=3 )

‘Mother and Child’ Henry Essenhigh Corke (1883-1919); Autochrome, part of Kodak collection, National Science and Media Museum

Although not specifically stated, it is possible that the subjects in the above photograph are Henry’s wife and possibly Joan, his elder daughter.

Henry died on 24 February 1919 at New Park Villa, Eardley Rd, Sevenoaks. On the same street is Tusculum Villa which is thought to be where H G Wells penned The Time Machine.

The image above shows Tusculum Villa as marked by the blue plaque on the wall. Whilst the position of New Park Villa in relation to this is unknown, the style of housing is what is of interest here. And we can safely assume that the Essenhigh Corke home was similar. (Photo from Jackson-Stops – Sevenoaks)

A virological time machine has enabled us to jump back and forth between two pandemics and link them to the School’s history. Let us hope that, like the 1918 pandemic, the corona virus in time becomes a fading memory but one from which everyone ‘may remember the lessons they have here been taught’ (from the Old Girls’ Prayer).

“There is nothing like a dame …”

And actually, the main subject of this blog isn’t a dame although she was awarded the British Empire Medal for her services to the Land Army during and after WWII. The reason for alluding to the song from South Pacific is that what both have in common is Vanuatu. James Michenor’s stories, on which South Pacific is based, are drawn from his time stationed with the US Navy on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands, a place now known as Vanuatu.

The main subject of this post, pupil-wise, is Norah Mary Banwell 1919-2006. Born in West Bromwich, she is buried a considerable distance from it – in Cimetière de Port-Vila, Vanuatu.


One of two children born to Leslie and Mary Banwell, Norah was the elder. Her father died when she was eight years old and she probably came to the School almost immediately. She remained as a pupil until 1936 whereupon she attended Birmingham College of Domestic Science ‘with a view to taking up Domestic Science electricity demonstration’ Masonica 1937 informs us. Now University College of Birmingham, the college started in 1874 when the Birmingham School Board wanted to introduce instruction in practical cookery and household work (https://www.ucb.ac.uk/about-us/history-of-ucb.aspx) Shades of the School prize for usefulness in domestic duties methinks!

The outcome of Norah’s course is not noted in school records but fortunately this information gap is filled by the Leamington Spa Courier of 18 March 1949 in an article about her which carries the information that she earned a diploma after two years. However, she did not use it as she changed direction and began work in a Birmingham surveyor’s office as a telephonist. Then war broke out and Norah decided to become a ‘Land Girl’. Had she still been at school when war broke out, she may well have participated in the School’s version of the Land Army, helping to grow produce in the kitchen gardens to augment school meals.

So Norah donned the green sweater and knee breeches and worked on the land. At first, she lived in a hostel and worked wherever she was sent but she decided that she wanted more continuity so she applied for a permanent job on an individual farm and subsequently arrived in Loxley, Warwickshire, firstly at Atherstone House Farm (Masonica 1942) as Land Army 61497 and then at Lower Farm, Loxley where she and the farmer, Mr Whitehead, managed 150 acres. By 1945, she had earned her scarlet arm band for four years’ service.


The image above is actually a 2 year service armband, the four year service one having two pairs of diamonds on either side of the insignia.

Memories from a Land Girl in Essex gives a description of the uniform:

‘Each of us was issued with yellow, thick drill dungarees, beige cord velveteen breeches, cream cotton shirts, two olive green pullovers and tie, a pork-pie shaped brown felt hat, a three-quarter length brown overcoat, an oilskin raincoat, one pair of brown leather lace-up shoes, wellington boots, three pairs of thick brown woollen socks. A pair of green serge breeches (very smart) were sent to us later for walking out! I was told to wear my uniform at all times, and during the winter months I could hardly do otherwise!’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/76/a5026376.shtml

Up at the crack of dawn and on the farm by 7.30am, winter and summer alike, finishing the day at 5.30pm Monday to Friday, midday on Saturday, life for a Land Army girl was no picnic but, despite the hard work, this Land Army girl recalled it with fondness most of all because of ‘good friends, sharing our problems, our losses, and our rations!’

Members of the British Women’s Land Army harvesting beetroot (circa 1942/43). Image courtesy of Wikipedia from British Ministry of Information

Despite their hard – and vital – work, for many years the women of the Land Army received little acknowledgement (scarlet armbands aside) but, finally in 2008 45,000 former Land Army ‘girls’ were issued with commemorative badges to acknowledge their war work and in 2014 an 8ft high bronze statue was installed at the National Arboretum Memorial in Staffordshire.

By Egghead06 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,




Although not certain, it seems likely that this map marks the position of the farm on which Norah worked. The farmhouse is a listed building today.

Image of Goldicote Lodge in 2011 photographer Nigel Mykura.


Living in a small cottage, Goldicote Lodge, courtesy of the farmer, for whom she is described in 1949 as a mainstay, Norah was involved in all aspects of general farming: cattle, sheep, poultry and driving the tractor.

The Leamington Spa Courier captured Norah in a rather grainy image showing her with Topsy, a triplet lamb she saved by hand feeding.

In 1948, Norah represented Warwickshire at the National Service for Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey where the Queen had spoken to her.

“I was frightened to death when she stopped in front of me but she at once put me at my ease and was most charming,” Norah told the Courier.

https://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk/ww2-photo-queen-talking-to-land-girl-at-harvest-thanksgiving-november-1948/image source: Catherine Procter Collection

The above image may have Norah in the line-up but carefully scrutiny of the shoulder badge indicates the person in the foreground is from Cardiganshire. For this information, see https://www.facebook.com/womenslandarmy/posts/2490750610968448?__tn__=-R

We know that Norah was present on the occasion so perhaps holders of the 4 year scarlet armband in various counties were selected as representatives and for the ‘guard of honour’ to whom the Queen spoke (as indicated in Norah’s recollection to the Courier). Clearly Norah’s work was known as in 1949 she was awarded the British Empire medal (B.E.M.) for services to the land.

London Gazette 1949

Like so many of our former pupils, before and since, our girls are too self-effacing to draw attention to themselves. The Headmistress, Audrey Fryer, made sure to note in her report the news of the award. Her comment indicates that Norah was still at the farm but at some point after 1949 and before 1952, Norah moved to Colchester and married Eric John Wolsey Hawkes there, with twin sons born in 1954. Thereafter there is ‘radio silence’.  For 52 years. Neither Norah nor her sister appear as members of OMGA after 1947 so we cannot trace them this way. Norah’s husband died in 1992 in Clacton. We do not know whether the couple remained together until his death but, assuming they did, at some point after 1992 and before 2006, Norah went to Vanuatu – a place as far removed from either Warwickshire or Essex as might be possible and still be on the same planet! (For the record, Vanuatu is 1000 miles east of Australia.) What she was doing there, we have no idea. As there is a gravestone in Port-Vila cemetery recording her death, it seems unlikely that she was a tourist who just happened to meet her Maker whilst on holiday but more than that it is impossible to say. Furthermore, whoever placed the headstone clearly had information about Norah such as her maiden name and the fact that she was entitled to B.E.M. after her name. Perhaps one of her sons was living there and Norah had moved to be with him upon widowhood but that is mere speculation.

Map of Vanuatu with its capital Port Vila, located on its third largest island.

Map from The World Factbook, United States Central Intelligence Agency – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-

Officially the Republic of Vanuatu, the islands form roughly a Y shape. Both France and England laid claim to parts which is why two of the three native languages are French and English, the other being Bislama, a pidgin or creole language comprising Melanesian grammar with mostly English vocabulary. However there are over a hundred other local languages and that is not including linguistic imports such as Mandarin Chinese, the result of migrating peoples.

(Right) The panorama of Port Vila, capital and largest city of Vanuatu.

Photo: Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand, 29 Nov. 2006

Today, one might reach Vanuatu by air via Australia or Fiji (no direct flights). There are also cruise ships that call at the islands. In 2020, another RMS former pupil – born some 70 years after Norah – will be visiting Vanuatu by sail as part of eXXpedition, an all-female voyage exploring the impact of plastics and toxics in our ocean.

‘Over two years and 38,000 nautical miles, a crew of 300 women will take on 30 challenging voyage legs to sail through some of the densest ocean plastic accumulation zones on the planet to study plastic pollution on board expedition sailing vessel S.V. TravelEdge.’ https://exxpedition.com/

Pippa will join the crew for leg 12 Fiji to Vanatu and thus will be keeping up the pioneering spirit of many Old Girls before her and. specifically. Norah Banwell.


In Pippa’s case, she might say bae mi go long Vanuatu (I will go to Vanuatu) to which one would reply Mi hop se trip blong yu i go gud (hope you have a pleasant journey).

In whatever language one uses (or attempts to use), the remoteness of Vanuatu is still the same, even in today’s global travel. But, as Pippa’s purpose in visiting the islands demonstrates, the devastation wreaked by the world, even in remote places, is very clear and very disturbing. Sadly, it will take more than pioneering women to bring about a change but it’s a start. To all pioneering women everywhere, of any age or time period, with or without connections to RMS, a heartfelt