From Rochdale to Worthing, via Turkey, Canada and St Albans, perhaps only the Turkey reference hints at the unconventionality of Gertrude Ashworth, former pupil RMIG and later much revered, if unorthodox and sometimes anarchic, headmistress of a girls’ school by the sea.
Born 150 years ago in 1870, the first of six children born to Thomas Baker Ashworth and his wife Elizabeth Heys, Gertrude was described by her great-great-nephew as the most dynamic of the Ashworth brood. It was a dynamism that informed her whole life.
Gertrude’s father, an attorney and enthusiastic freemason, died suddenly of a heart attack following a spirited defence of his client. The court had adjourned when Ashworth, complaining of not feeling well, suddenly expired, throwing the whole family into financial turmoil. The result was that Gertrude was elected to RMIG and left Rochdale on the first of her travels.
Mr Ashworth was described as genial whilst Mrs Ashworth appears to have been a force majeure. Given that Gertrude was likely to have inherited traits from both parents, the scene was set for future clashes between Gertrude and her mother. This was temporarily resolved as Gertrude was at a boarding school, the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls, then in London. Pupils only had two holidays a year (one at Christmas and one in summer), so the potential Ashworth sparring ring was separated by some distance.
That Gertrude was also forceful can be shown in the remarks made about her by the Head Governess, Sarah Louisa Davis. Never one to mince her words, Miss Davis described Gertrude as
‘a girl of ability but most careless and heedless of an uncertain, undecided character …’
For that, read that Gertrude and Miss D did not always see eye to eye. And oh! the sub text in the comment
‘…had she not been under careful control she would have gone to any length of mischief and insubordination’
There are no records surviving that might identify the ‘mischief and insubordination’ laid at Gertrude’s door. One of the misdemeanours indulged in by a few girls, almost as a rite of passage before they left the School, was to scramble about amongst the rafters and lean out to pat the statue of Ruspini on his head. There is no way of knowing whether Gertrude did this but it seems the sort of thing she might have done and it would certainly not have gained Miss D’s approval. It is, however, probably fair to say that Gertrude was showing spirited leadership even at 16, just not in the direction that Miss D wanted.
Nor did her unconventionality stop when Gertrude was a headmistress. Seemingly on one occasion she arrived in the classroom with several small screws of gunpowder in her pocket which ‘she proceeded to drop … at intervals, with startling effect, behind those deemed to be looking vacant or bored.’[i] Not in your usual repertoire of methods for keeping the class to attention.
Having got Junior and Senior Cambridge under her belt, to Miss D’s possible relief, Gertrude’s time at RMIG expired and she could, as the modern phrase is, be let go. However this was rather like having a fully inflated balloon by the neck and releasing it. It seems likely that Gertrude returned to her family in Lancashire where her mother expected her, as the dutiful daughter, to take a share in family and household life. Gertrude had other ideas and, at the age of sixteen, she ran away to Turkey – Smyrna to be exact. This is modern day Izmir, currently in the news – sadly because of a major earthquake. It is possible that Gertrude ran away to someone in Turkey. There had been a Turkish bookseller resident in the family household who – possibly coincidentally? – hailed from Smyrna. If this were an elopement, nothing seems to have come of it and Gertrude moved on to Constantinople (Istanbul) to become governess to the children of the British ambassador. Miss D, had she known of this, might have been horrified at the influence her erstwhile pupil may have had on the ambassador’s children! In later years, Gertrude ‘spoke with enthusiasm of her travels’ and urged her pupils to grasp all the opportunities life presented. This was heady stuff for the early twentieth century but then not many girls attended a school where the Headmistress treated life as an adventure, spoke Turkish, drank Turkish coffee and likened the school gymslip to a djibbah, a long coat worn by Muslim men.
Sir William White remained as ambassador until his death in 1891 but whether this was what impelled Gertrude to move on is unknown. At some point, she went to Canada and there are travel documents to Montreal for a Miss G Ashworth in 1893 but there is so little detail here that it is impossible to say if this were Our Woman. By 1895 she was a student teacher in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Time to see Gertrude herself, ‘a tall imposing woman who believed in dressing well’
Likened to the actress Ellen Terry – there is a similarity – Gertrude cut a dashing figure and it was said that her pupils were very proud of her appearance on public occasions.
Like many people of the time, all of Gertrude’s clothes were made for her. Ready to wear stuff was for a later generation. In Gertrude’s case, she used the same London dressmaker and milliner for many years and seemingly their bills made Miss Ashworth’s secretary blench a little! But it was all part of the non-curricular teaching a good Headmistress gives – ‘a woman should always look her best’.
On her return from Canada, Gertrude took up a post at Parkfield School, Barnet. She was a stern disciplinarian, perhaps to counter her own pupil mischief and insubordination: as in ‘I know what you are up to because I did it in my time, so nothing is new…’ One of her pupils, Evelyn Popplewell, described her as having ‘a terrible temper’ but she clearly made an impact because, when Miss Ashworth moved to the school in Worthing with which she was to remain, Evelyn (‘Pop’) persuaded her parents to transfer her and ultimately became Gertrude’s deputy. After Miss Ashworth’s death, ‘Pop’ became the headmistress.
The school in question was The Steyne School, later renamed the Warren School, in Worthing. Gertrude is listed there in the 1901 and 1911 census and the 1939 register, whilst neatly slicing five years off her age. In this, one could argue that she was following the example of one of RMIG’s revered Matrons – although Gertrude would not have known her, she may have known of her – who managed to cut 18 years off her age in 1841 (age 50) and 1851 (60). Only when she died in 1854 was it revealed that she was actually 78!
Gertrude became Headmistress in 1913 on the demise of its founder and headmistress Mary Louisa Bennett. She was not the conventional headmistress, born in the Victorian era and remaining firmly rooted therein. She was far more liberal and considered ‘it important to give each girl an opportunity to discover and to exhibit some hidden ability’ something that perhaps she felt she had not been given the opportunity to do at RMIG. (That peculiar whining noise is the sound of Miss Davis spinning in her grave!)
Gertrude’s great-great-nephew, David Cross (to whom this post is indebted for much of the detail), has written about her very interesting life in Churchill in Petticoats: this post seeks to supplement that from additional sources. For example, during WWII, although many of the girls were evacuated to Cornwall, Gertrude kept the school open. A brief attempt by an army officer to requisition the buildings for billets was repulsed firmly.
‘Over my dead body will you take this house. I have a school here.’
It was a school moreover with 349 windows to black out every night – no mean feat. To this can be added the report in the Worthing Herald of 25 September 1942
Interesting that a slip-up in the black out of 349 windows merits less punishment than Cecil Cook’s Pantiles on the Upper Brighton Rd, presumably a building with significantly fewer windows.
This was not the only run-in with the law that Gertrude had. She had become one of the earliest women motorists in Worthing towards the end of WWI. Her first car was a Bean which appears to have been almost as wilful as the younger Gertrude.
In 1943, Gertrude, driving ‘a saloon car’ (unspecified) fell foul of the law again.
Miss Ashworth was fined £5 for using the car to take Alderman Bennett to the golf club. Using fuel granted to her during war rations for the business of running a school brought her into conflict with the rules. Gertrude perhaps yet again doing things her way!
In a curious echo of her father’s death, Gertrude had a sudden heart attack in 1950 and died a few days later in Hopedene Nursing Home. At the age of eighty and still ‘in harness’ as the headmistress, the life of this Rochdale maverick came to an end.
A year later, memorial gates were installed at the School.
When the School finally closed, the estate was purchased by the Excess Insurance Company who demolished the mansion. Now installed in Beach House Park, the gates remain, a lasting memorial to a former RMIG pupil (sometimes mischievous) and respected headmistress for 37 years.
[i] Churchill in Petticoats, David Cross 9780955320804