The Redoubtable Miss D

A significant chunk of the nineteenth century history of the School came under the leadership of Miss Sarah Louisa Davis. Appointed in 1862 and retiring in 1896, she led the School for 34 years. In her stature as a Head Governess, it is hard to comprehend that when appointed she was barely 21 years of age. At a time when there was little formal training for teachers and most of the teaching staff (at the School and indeed elsewhere) learned their craft at the chalk-face, so to speak, Sarah Louisa Davis was the nearest to a professional appointment for several decades. Indeed, The Morning Post in 1894 reported these comments from the Anniversary Festival:

From the inception of the School, the education of the girls was in the care of the Matron and this was deemed to be sufficient.

Original advertisement for the matron in the classified ads section of World on Oct 10th 1788

As the numbers on roll increased, the matron was assisted by pupil teachers but as they would have been only 15 years old, their experience of the world was somewhat limited. However, girls’ education was beginning to develop. In 1847, Queen’s College ‘became a pioneer in the field of women’s education and emancipation.’ (Wikipedia) At a similar time, moves to extend the education of RMIG girls by introducing French and Music were initially rejected (1848) but it was the beginning of the beginning of educational improvement. Its direct descendant, as it were, was the appointment of Miss Davis who, almost immediately introduced French and drawing classes.

Time to introduce a more personal note into our biography of Miss D. She was born in Hackney, in the rather delightfully named Paradise Fields, the middle of three daughters born to James and Sarah Jane Davis. Her first public appearance was the 1841 census where she is recorded as an unnamed baby aged 2 weeks. This would give her a birthdate of about May 24th as the census took place on June 6th. Her father was a schoolmaster, and if ever it were a case of ‘being in the genes’, it is with this family. Not only was father a schoolmaster but daughters No 1 and No 2 both became Headmistresses. The career of daughter No 3 is unknown as she ‘disappears’ for over 70 years after the 1861 census, apart from a brief reference in 1876 at her son’s baptism – in Russia!  Why she was there we may never know but it must certainly have introduced an air of exoticism into the family.

In 1851, Sarah Louisa and Esther are pupils in Hackney.

‘The New Gravel Pit Hackney Chapel School, founded in the 1790s, was considered highly benevolent and caring by the local community in its dealings with its pupils…’

https://www.layersoflondon.org/map?record=9694

By 1861, Sarah was an assistant mistress at

1861 census title page

Founded in 1813, it operated on very similar principles to RMIG. Its mission was ‘to afford maintenance, instruction and clothing to destitute orphans of both sexes, and to put them out in situations where they may have the prospect of an honest livelihood’ https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/outline-of-the-london-orphan-asylum.

So her move to the Royal Masonic Institute for Girls the following year would been a geographical shift but a very familiar situation. It is not known how she was selected for her new role. It is possible she was recommended by the Headmaster of the Asylum as Miss Davis, in her turn, recommended many pupils for advancement. But a Head Governess she became and was catapulted into senior leadership above the Matron (Eliza Waterman Jarwood, some 30 years her senior) and the two assistant mistresses, Frances Souter (b 1833) and Mary Ann Kernot (b 1837). Frances is a governess in another London school in 1881, so Sarah Louisa’s appointment may well have arisen from a vacancy when Miss Souter moved on.

Sarah Louisa Davis

This official portrait of Miss Davis is undated but is surely a portrait of a woman in her prime and could perhaps be from about 1880. However, given her elevated status at the age of 21, it is hard to be exact about what her prime might be.

A group photo taken in 1886 shows the teaching staff of that time.

As is to be expected, the Head Governess is at the centre of the group.

Of greater insight into Miss Davis herself are her own words as she wrote a monthly report for the school governorship and we can ‘hear’ her voice in what she wrote.  Her summaries of the girls in her care are sometimes acerbic: she clearly did not suffer fools lightly, as the saying goes.

[The] “youngest pupil teacher, is leaving at Christmas, an uncle & aunt having offered to provide for her entirely; she has been somewhat unsettled and Miss Davis does not regret parting with her” (1887)

Two years later she wrote of another pupil teacher, Ruth, who had failed an exam she was expected to pass: “With proper application and care on her part it would not have happened as she passed last year and this time was expected to take honours”.  Miss Davis expressed “her great disappointment in the girl as she was clearly capable of the work and ought to have at least achieved a pass.” The comments suggest that the recalcitrant girl had probably had a very uncomfortable interview with Miss D as she was to be put on “probation as a pupil teacher and if she does not prove an energetic and intelligent teacher, she must leave.”

Then to ram the point home even more, Miss D proceeds to ask the Governors if they would provide as a reward a little treat for those who pass.

“They are girls who keep close to study [one can almost hear the unspoken words ‘unlike Ruth’] and … Miss Davis feels they deserve some reward.”

Of another pupil, Miss Davis did not mince her words at all.

[She] “is a girl of power & influence but unfortunately not of a nature to be of benefit to those with whom she associates. Miss Davis cannot say that she has at all been a good girl, she has always been difficult to manage, evincing a most spiteful & trying temper and instead of improving as an older girl has been lately most independent about observing the rules of the school.”

But lest we think that Miss D had just got out of bed on the wrong side the day she wrote that, the pupil of whom she was writing remained somewhat fiery all her life it would seem. In 1928, for example, she appeared in court on a libel case the upshot of which was that the judge ordered her retained in custody for two weeks as she had caused a grievance and “You have not expressed to me one word of real regret or apology for your conduct”.

At the age of 60, she had another court appearance for ‘stealing’ a parcel from a car because

Perhaps we might judge Miss D’s assessment of her rather unruly pupil a little more kindly after this!

Miss Davis’ tenure as Head Governess was only occasionally interrupted by absence. In 1883, she had an absence of six months. Such was the respect she had earned from the School governorship that £50 was granted to her in in October 1883 ‘partly to reimburse her for the heavy medical expenses incurred by her late severe illness.’ Although she clearly recovered enough to return to post with as much vigour as ever, there were other briefer absences following this, known only when her deputy signed the monthly reports. In 1895, The Graphic, an illustrated newspaper, was given access to the School and subsequently published some images amongst which was a view of Miss Davis seated in her sitting room.

Here she is shown deep in thought with her feet on a little footstool. What she was thinking about is of course unknown but it should be noted that the following year she advised the governors that she wished to retire, a resignation they were reluctant to accept but one which, perforce, they must. This is not just colourful interpretation. The Cheltenham Chronicle of 11th July 1896 carried the following item:

In 1896, Miss Davis’ salary is recorded as being £225 pa which means that she retired on full pay. If ever there was a marker of the respect she had earned it was this.

In 1901, the census records her living with her older sister Esther, also a retired Headmistress, at 52 St James Rd, Tunbridge Wells.

This image is not actually No 52 as that property on Google Earth Street view is obscured by a large hedge in front of it. However, all the houses in that vicinity appear to be the same style so this view of a property further down the street must suffice.

In 1907 news came that Sarah Louisa Davis had died, her probate being granted to her sister who herself died the following year. Miss Davis’ funeral took place at the local church but this does not have a graveyard so it is unknown where she is buried.

Kent & Sussex Courier 08 February 1907

 

Miss Davis’ legacy to the School was manifold. By the time of her death, two other Head Governesses had come and gone but by 1911, another was waiting in the wings (Bertha Jane Dean) who would become in her turn as esteemed as the redoubtable Miss Davis.

Words per Minute(s)

A slight twist to the office phrase seems appropriate here since many with a wpm qualification no doubt took minutes in their working lives and then typed them up. A piece of transactional writing recording what happened, minutes are important documents but not something one settles down to with a nice cup of tea and a biccy hoping to be entertained. However, when those minutes refer to meetings eighty or so years ago and they are read against the grain (i.e. ignore the dominant reading of a text and look for alternative meaning), they take on a new life force. The minutes in question are those of the Old Masonic Girls’ Association AGMs and by focusing only on the venues of the meetings, they give us a history lesson they weren’t intended to do.

The Association called OMGA came into existence on Primrose Day (19th April) 1912 and continued uninterrupted until 2019 when it became absorbed into an Alumnae Association. What happened to the minutes of the meetings before 1936 is not known. They may yet be uncovered in a dusty attic buried deep inside an old tea chest – who knows? But those from 1936 to 1984, stuck into two ledgers (but occasionally handwritten) have come into the School Archives recently. The minutiae within is formulaic – as minutes are – but as snapshots of where this group was at any given time, they have an unintended novelty.

In 1936, the AGM was at the YWCA Central Club W1 and began by confirming that it would use the same venue the following year, the cost for 1937 being 2gns, with 10/6 charge if a piano was required (it wasn’t). Light refreshments were available at 1/3d per head.

Standing in Great Russell St, and now a hotel following sympathetic renovations in 1998, the building was designed by Edwin Lutyens between 1928 and 1932, so it would have still been very new in 1936 for the AGM.

Images from https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/bloomsburyhotel.html

In 1923 a campaign to provide financial backing for a London base for the YWCA had been started.

‘The city was supportive towards the cause; buses and shop windows carried slogans – “London, stand by your girls” – appealing for the public to support the YWCA’s campaign.’ https://www.doylecollection.com/blog/revisiting-lutyens-architecture-in-london

It was built in neo-Gothic style and its interior had many Lutyens’ touches such as the ‘designed chairs and tables – recreated by his granddaughters’ company’ (ibid)

This image from the modern hotel website shows a chair of very individual style and, as the hotel were at pains to restore as much of the original as possible, it seems possible that this is an original Lutyens’ chair (or a reproduction thereof at the very least).

One interesting element of the original which has overtones of the School on its Clapham site is that

‘A heavy step on the floor of one of the modern hotel’s meeting suites reveals something surprising: it’s hollow! Where you might expect foundations, there’s space.’ (ibid)

This is the original swimming-pool opened by the Duchess of Kent in 1939 and, like the swimming pool at Clapham, it could be covered over in winter so that the space could be otherwise used. In Clapham’s case as a gymnasium. The same hollow sound is recalled by pupils whilst exercising!

 

‘Known as the Central Club, it continued to operate through the war when the gymnasium was used as an air-raid shelter and the emptied swimming pool was used as a place for people to sleep.https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/bloomsburyhotel.html

The building was deliberately placed in a central location to be available both to Londoners and women arriving in London for the first time and it was designed as a meeting ground for women of different nationalities and occupations. So it is singularly appropriate that it should have been used for the AGM of a girls’ school association whose pupils hailed from all over the world.

For one year only (1939), the AGM took place at the Cavendish Café, 93 Wimpole St as ‘it was not possible to obtain a room at the YWCA’ (committee meeting minutes, October 1938). Wimpole St, named after Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, is in Marylebone and was originally part of the estate of the Harley family. 93 Wimpole St is now occupied by a gents’ shoe shop and a gents’ barbers (‘a quality barbers without the fuss’ as they describe themselves) and there is no sign of the Cavendish Café, although there is a modern day street café at No 92.

Historical residents of note in Wimpole St include Arthur Conan Doyle, whose ophthalmic practice was there, and Elizabeth Barrett who eloped from No 50 with fellow poet Robert Browning. Fictional residents include Mr & Mrs Rushworth (Mansfield Park) and Professor Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady/Pygmalion). Virginia Woolf describes Wimpole Street in Flush: A Biography, as:

“… the most august of London streets, the most impersonal. Indeed, when the world seems tumbling to ruin, and civilisation rocks on its foundations, one has only to go to Wimpole Street…” (Wikipedia)

And go to Wimpole St the OMGA did – albeit only once. By the following year the AGM had returned to the YWCA and between 1940 and 1947, the AGM was either there or at the School but in 1948 we can resume the history lessons as the 37th AGM took place at Crosby Hall, Cheyne Walk. Now we’re really talking history as Crosby Place was built in Bishopsgate in 1466 by the wool merchant Sir John Crosby. It moved to Cheyne Walk in 1910.

‘This is the only example of a mediaeval City merchant house which survives in London, albeit fragmentary and not on its original site.’ https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1358160

By Edwardx – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28357919

By 1483, the Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard III, had acquired the Bishopsgate property. Notable residents include Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, More’s son-in-law, William Roper, and Sir Walter Raleigh. From 1621 it was the home of the East India Company but the Great Fire destroyed much of it and another fire six years later finished the job, with only the Great Hall and Parlour wing of the mansion surviving.

After 1672, and for almost a century, it was a nonconformists’ meeting house, then the Post Office head office before it reverted to the East India Company again. In 1868 it was turned into a sumptuous restaurant and bar. Then finally –

‘It was sold in April 1907 for £175,000 to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China whose directors intended to pull down one of the most ancient buildings in the City of London and build a new bank building in its stead. Its impending destruction aroused a storm of protest, and a campaign was started to save it.’ (Goss, Charles William Frederick (1908), Crosby Hall, a chapter in the history of London.)

As the result of various negotiations, the Bank had the architectural features numbered and stored, and later handed over all the bits to the London County Council. In 1910, the medieval structure was moved stone by stone to Cheyne Walk and this included the magnificent oriel window, shown here from the exterior and the interior.

On the right is a drawing made by J S Ogilvy for his book Relics and Memorials of London City, published in 1910. He must have been a bit cross when he realised that his book, containing 64 beautifully executed drawings, was immediately out of date! The interior shot is from https://www.christophermoran.org/news/crosby-hall-the-most-important-surviving-domestic-medieval-building-in-london/.

Crosby Hall is now a private residence and has been undergoing restoration since at least 2008 with an estimated 3 further years remaining as of 2019.

Image of the Great Hall from https://www.christophermoran.org/news/crosby-hall-the-most-important-surviving-domestic-medieval-building-in-london/

The OMGA AGMs were at Crosby Hall until 1953 when they moved again. This time it was to The Holme, Bedford College for Women, one of the buildings used by the College after their own buildings were extensively damaged in the Blitz.

‘Situated in the Inner Circle, it housed the Departments of English, Classics and Italian, while the second floor became an extension of the College Residence.’ From https://aim25.com/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=878&inst_id=11&nv1=browse&nv2=person

After eleven years of using The Holme, the AGM moved to Dartmouth House, home of the English Speaking Union, in Charles St, Mayfair.

Charles St itself has at least 25 listed buildings of which one is Dartmouth House, listed Grade II*. Described by https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk as a ‘grand town mansion’ it was bought by the ESU in 1926 and underwent ‘minor alterations’ by Clough Williams-Ellis to convert the building into the English Speaking Union. Although Ellis’ architectural portfolio is extensive, he is perhaps most famous as the creator of the Italianate village of Portmeirion in North Wales where The Prisoner was filmed.

Images from https://portmeirion.wales/ (left, the piazza and, right, Clough Williams-Ellis)

In 1964, Herringham Hall was used for the AGM. This, like The Holme, was a building which was part of Bedford College. Built 1948-1951 as a new arts building, it was named for Christiana Herringham, an influential figure within the women’s suffrage movement in the UK.

By 1975 it was on to another new building, the American School in Loudoun Rd.

‘ASL was founded in 1951 by Stephen L. Eckard, an American journalist and former teacher living in London. Mr. Eckard was … encouraged him to start a school that followed an American curriculum. The School began with 13 students, and all classes took place in his Knightsbridge flat.’ (https://www.asl.org/about/history)

However, the AGM was not in a Knightsbridge flat but in the ASL’s new building in St John’s Wood.

The school was the venue between 1975 and 1984 and then, there being no further business, as minutes are wont to state, the ledgers come to an end. There is even a little history lesson in the names of those signing off the minutes, including the fleeting appearance of Mary Calway who was Headmistress for such a brief time.

Who knew that minutes could be so interesting?

All at 60s and 70s?

Former RMS pupils from the 1960s are sometimes described as ‘the lost generation’: on leaving, they put as much distance between themselves and their alma mater as possible – and never looked back. However, this is probably no truer for sixties’ girls than it was for the 50s or the 70s. Or indeed any era. The Sixties has been singled out possibly because it was a time of great change throughout the world and a contrast to the perceived ultra-conservative mind set of the School.

‘If the Fifties were in black and white, then the Sixties were in Technicolor.’

Kimberley Watson on https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-1960s-The-Decade-that-Shook-Britain/

 

http://jaquo.com/songs-for-swinging-london/

But if you believe that Sixties RMS was stuck in a time warp, you might be astonished to discover just what a period of change and development it was. If, when you think RMS, you think Indiana Jones 1930 buildings, you’re forgetting about the library and the science block – both built in the 1960s; you’re forgetting all the internal changes to accommodate developing curricula – 1960s; misremembering all the alterations made to existing buildings to better utilise the space – 1960s and on to the 1970s.

Minutes of meetings are not the best bedtime reading but ploughing through a decade of them is certainly interesting. As a time travel method, they can be recommended.

If you are familiar with the School site, try and imagine the non-existence of said library and science block. And also Bertha Dean, Florence Mason & Strathearn Houses. (If none of these names mean anything to you, your imagination will have to work overtime to invent blank spaces.) In case you’re wondering, there was a library and science labs before the 60s but they were in different places.

The old library (now Scarbrough Gallery)
Chemistry lab c. 1940s

In 1964, consideration was being given for an improved library and extended science facilities. For the record, provision of a Sixth form house and the removal of Junior School from Weybridge to Rickmansworth were also under consideration: the former had to wait until 1981, the latter a mere eight years. As early as 1964, the idea of repositioning the Junior School in the redundant former San was being talked about, but that had to wait a further 47 years!

Other changes that were discussed related to accommodation for staff, the replacement of boilers (£20,000 estimate even then so a major expenditure, the equivalent today of a cool 1.9 million.) and also ‘a covered-in space of sufficient size to accommodate 75 cars in marked bays, provided with sliding doors that could be locked and easily opened.’ The car may not have quite been king in 1964 but it was certainly a prince-in-waiting if that proposed provision is to judge by.

The initial idea was for a new library in one of the quadrangles whilst science labs would either be on a new second floor above the existing labs or in the Garth. In March 1965, there was discussion about whether the foundations could be strengthened to allow for a second floor but – confusingly – the alternative of a building in the Garth with a 2nd storey [sic] connection to the main building was discussed.

Clearly by this stage the writing was on the wall for Weybridge to leave Surrey – well, the Junior School Weybridge anyway – although it was 1973 before it happened. The ‘plateau’ which had once housed the tennis court for Park House, and which was used as the VIP enclosure on Sports Days (then on the Lowers) was considered suitable for building a new Junior School. This would mean the planning for the 75 parking spaces which were to be behind some existing garages (since demolished) and the Junior School would require extensive use of terracing on the eastern flank overlooking the Chess valley.

Aerial view showing where new construction was planned

 

 

 

1 Accommodation for Headmistress

2 & 3 Staff accommodation

4 Parking for 75 cars [didn’t happen]

5 Suggested Junior School, then Science block

6 Library (inside rose garden, not in quad)

7 Old Sanatorium, later Sixth Form house, later Cadogan House (Prep & Pre-Prep)

 

 

By January 1966, the siting of a new science block on the plateau and the library in the Garth had been decided on. The latter, at this stage, was intended as a single storey building with a possible further floor in the future. Prior to settling on the plateau for Science, there had been consideration given to one building housing both Science and library, the latter on the ground floor. Presumably this ties in with the ‘bridge’ linking Science labs on 2nd floor level and the realisation that said bridge would end in mid-air as there wasn’t a 2nd floor in the main building to which to connect it …

The bridge idea resurfaced in July 1968 to connect the new Science building to the School as there was a road between the two. Would there be a bridge over the access road, or a tunnel under it or [the option selected] should the road be diverted around the science block? So if you’ve ever wondered why the access road suddenly swings east, goes round a loop and then emerges at the top of South Drive, now you know.

Once the idea of a new Science block was decided upon, it was realised that its design ‘could be functional rather than traditional since, as the site was beyond the general outline of the existing buildings, there was not the same need to harmonise with them’. The jury is out about whether the style of architecture used was functional, experimental or zeitgeist run mad.

Whatever it was, the roof has given problems from the beginning.

In comparison, the library ‘would need to harmonize with the existing buildings’. Both of these buildings (and indeed the other new buildings at this time) were all designed by the same architectural firm as the rest of the school: J L Denman & Son. It seems most likely that John Bluet Denman was the architect of the science block and library and John Leopold Denman the staff accommodation: son and father in that order.

As part of the design of the library – once described by a pupil as the globular building in the Garth – it was felt some decoration was needed on an exterior wall, along the lines of Epstein’s St Michael at Coventry cathedral. Hmm – perhaps an overly ambitious description of the relief of the School badge that was put there.

The library was constructed by James Langley & Co of East Park, Crawley at a cost of £107,989. The minutes contain some of the extraordinary detail discussed at these meetings: the borrowing system, which despite the installation of a ‘lending bureau’ was designed to take place in the central area ground floor; the style of bookshelves; the list of books to be purchased; and even exactly where the furniture was to be placed. The Librarian didn’t get a look in on these matters! Included in the design was a gold and silver chandelier, costing £988, intended to ‘enhance the beauty of an already imposing building’ and there appears to have been lengthy discussion about whether a winding mechanism for maintenance would be part of it. At an additional cost of £350, this was finally added as was concealed lighting for the dome.

The gold-coloured carpet was estimated at £300 but actually cost £518. Even then, a fault was found and it had to be rewoven. The tables – designed by Denman – cost £76 each with sixty chairs @ a fiver a throw. The finished building was ready by 30 December 1969 although the opening ceremony was not until 1st December 1970, as recorded on the plaque above the door. The wording of this was discussed minutely but the work was done free of charge by L M Samuel who, as well as being a Freemason, was also a stonemason.

The same amount of detailed discussion went into the Science block including many pages itemising all the furniture and lab equipment. Subsequently there was also considerable discussion about how to cut back all the expenditure as it was an horrendous overspend. After very careful consideration, £52,000 was shaved off the overrun cost. (It all went by the board with the roof problem but that’s a story for another day.)

Neither the Science block nor the Library has ever been given a name although part of the Science block is called the Ashley Edwards Laboratories to acknowledge an extremely generous gift by that person. The accommodation buildings, however, were named. In Sept 1968 the suggested name for one was ‘Stradbroke House’, the name recorded without explanation for the choice. It seems likely that it was for George Edward John Mowbray Rous, 3rd Earl of Stradbroke (1862 –1947), who was Provincial Grand Master of Suffolk for forty-five years, and also Provincial Grand Master of Mark Masons of East Anglia. The accommodation block previously called Senior Staff block was going to be called Cornwallis House. Again the minutes simply note this but presumably the discussion had more detail. This is probably for Colonel Fiennes Stanley Wykeham Cornwallis, 1st Baron Cornwallis (1864 –1935), a British Conservative politician who was also an eminent Freemason (Provincial Grand master of Kent and a Past Grand Warden in the United Grand Lodge of England).

Stradbroke and Cornwallis images both Creative Commons Wikipedia

By January 1969, however, the buildings were given the names they are known by today: Florence Mason and Bertha Dean Houses. These two ladies were Headmistress and Matron at the time the School moved from Clapham and were instrumental in ensuring that everything ran smoothly – what was described at the time as ‘we had moved house, that was all: the meals were on time, the bathwater was hot’, a comment that glossed over the huge amount of planning that enabled this state to be reached.

 

Florence Mason and Bertha Dean, portraits by Maurice Codner, RA

 

Florence Mason House and Bertha Dean House

Abbiss & Hale Ltd of Rickmansworth constructed both blocks (£119,998), including road access curved to go round the Engineer’s garden (!)

Strathearn House, the accommodation for the Headteacher, was a detached residence – a forward thinking move for the time, allowing that, in future, said person might be married and have a family. Until this time, all the Headmistresses were single, dedicated professionals. Married women did not have paid professional roles except through necessity. Times they were a-changing.

By the end of a decade of construction, the various committees and sub-committees might have been forgiven for voting themselves out of existence but, no. The beginning of the 70s brought discussions about what to do with the old library, the old science labs, the old San; how to accommodate the Sixth form and the junior pupils and how to make provision for music and drama. Which last brings us very nicely up to date as a Performing Arts Centre is currently under construction and due to open in 2019.

The 1970s are sometimes viewed as

‘… the tired, miserable hangover after the long party of the Swinging Sixties [but] it makes much more sense to see them as the beginning of a new chapter in the story of modern Britain’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17703483

The 1970s for RMS was yet more building, innovation and change to keep abreast of modern life – decidedly a new chapter.

First Day at School

Parents up and down the country are this week experiencing for the first time that rite of passage known as ‘First Day at School’. Their little darlings, clad collectively in their brand new school uniforms, clutching – some apprehensively, some in fevered excitement – their school bags, are being deposited at school gates. It might be small steps for little legs but, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong, it is one small step for a child, one giant leap for parenthood. Parents watch in astonishment as their tinies take their first steps away from them and many of the tears shed are actually those of the parents who can’t quite believe that those helpless little babies who needed them for everything are the same people now skipping gaily across the playground.

From a different perspective, there are probably a number of schools taking in pupils for the very first time this week, either because they are brand new schools or because they are taking younger children for the first time. For those establishments, it is also a time of trepidation. Will all the planning come to fruition? Will everything work as it should? Will the logistics all come together?

Wind the clock back 228 years and the very first pupils were embarking at a school in a house in Somers Place East with, in the minds of the steering Committee, many of those same worries. After a year’s intensive planning, a new school came into existence that still operates today. The Royal Cumberland Freemasons’ School officially began in 1788 but the first pupils entered the school on 5th January 1789. The Morning Herald of Thursday, January 8, 1789, stated:

It must have made an interesting spectacle for a (probably) grey January day. There must have been a goodly number of carriages. There were fifteen pupils, presumably the Matron (although she could have been waiting at the school to receive them – the records do not indicate), the gentlemen of the Committee and possibly some of the ladies and subscribers who appear to have witnessed the event.

The actual route is unknown but it is likely to have passed the area where the National Gallery was later to stand (built 1824), along past the British Museum (built 1753 so it may have been a witness) and up to what is now Euston Road but what was then known as the New Road. The gentlemen of the committee retired to dine at St Alban’s Tavern but the new pupils stayed at the school. And unlike today’s mummies and daddies waiting at the school gates at home time to hear all about the experiences, these little girls remained in the school house until they were old enough to leave school aged 15.

The School went on to have more First Days as it moved house three times. In 1795, it moved from its home in Somers Town to Southwark. It moved without any ceremony. In fact, the only reason any date is known is because the Minute Books of the Committee record that the meeting was held in ’the new School House’.

By 1852, the School had long outgrown its allocated space and so it moved again – to Clapham.

This was accompanied by a little more pomp and ceremony. £400 was put aside “so that everything might be done with grace and splendour” (G Blizard Abbot, Royal Masonic Institute for Girls from 1788 to 1900) – the equivalent today of £16,500. On August 2nd, visitor numbers were estimated to be between 3000 – 4000. Amongst other ceremonial events, one of the pupils, Caroline Rhoda Davies, recited a poem especially composed for the occasion. Nine hundred dined and, as this was presided over by the Grand Master, it can be assumed that they were all Freemasons. There was also dancing in the grounds to a quadrille band and other military bands and the last visitors left shortly before midnight. And the pupils in all this celebration? Well, sadly, they were still at Southwark because they didn’t actually move until December 9th!

For the next 80 or so years, the School remained on its third site with a variety of adjustments and expansions to accommodate the growing numbers. One of these adjustments was the Junior School disappearing into Surrey. In August 1918, the younger pupils had their next First Day when they moved to Weybridge. There were 45 pupils which included 20 pupils for whom this was same school, new site and fifteen for whom it was entirely a new school. But the Clapham site continued to be crowded and eventually it was realised that, not only was a bigger site required but that it was highly unlikely to be in London. In 1926, Rickmansworth Park was found. The new buildings were ready by 1934 and on March 24th 1934 the doors of Clapham were locked for the last time (the honour went to Eileen Hones, then the youngest member of staff) and staff and pupils went off for their Easter break. When they returned almost a month later, it was the First Day of all First Days and almost 400 pupils and all the teaching staff, domestic staff, ancillary staff and maintenance staff found themselves in grounds and buildings that were as yet unfamiliar. A pupil who was there at the time commented later on the way many staff and pupils kept getting lost. But then, as well as being a new set of buildings, it was also huge. The old school, including the playgrounds, would have fitted inside the Garth of the new one – and the Garth is approximately 1.5% of the total acreage! It is a tribute to the leadership of Bertha Dean (Headmistress) and Florence Mason (Matron) that it all went so smoothly. As a member of staff at the time commented: “We had moved house that was all: the meals were on time and the bath water was hot …” In June 1934, the site was officially opened by Queen Mary.

 

 

The weather, as it so often is in British summer time, threatened to be inclement (and it did rain earlier in the day) so the route to be taken by the Queen was considered. As the parquet floors were thought to have a risk of being slippery if wet, it was decided to lay a temporary rubber matting down over the very slight slope in the corridor between the Great Hall and the Dining Hall. Naturally, it was red in colour. And this temporary matting was still there fifty years later!

The School has now been on this site for the greatest length of time it has been anywhere – 83 years and counting. In that time, not only has it seen 83 First Days – one for each year – but it has also seen younger and younger pupils having their own First Days. Each September, there are new pupils joining the School community and when you are a Newbie and it seems as if EVERYONE else knows exactly where they are going, it can be a little daunting. In recent years, a new style First Day has been trialled. Known as Focus Days, the entire school participates in activities on a theme. As, then, it is a new experience for everyone, it has the effect of putting even the most bored teenager (hey ho, another year) on her mettle as she does not know quite what to expect. In the last decade or so there have been, to name but three, Chevalier Day (2013), Environmental Day (2012) and 1934 day (2009) as the School celebrated its being on the site for 75 years. Below are the staff on two of the Focus Days.

These are First Days to remember. But then, whatever their format, your First Day at School is always important.

Wiser Words

(This continues the story of Sara Wise, former pupil)

Sara’s own memoirs of her time at RMIG give us a valuable and unique insight into her life at school. The School at this time was at Clapham where it had been since 1852.

RMIG Clapham

Sara describes her time there as being uneventful with a simple, but thorough, curriculum. It culminated in public exams set by Cambridge University, known as Cambridge Local Exams. As any modern practising teacher will affirm, at some point in their teens most girls switch overnight from being sugar and spice into monsters. This is clearly not a new phenomenon as Sara writes “We all went through a troublesome stage at about 13”. In her case, it coincided with “a certain class with a very ineffectual teacher. The poor thing was just a sitting duck” and Sara admits to being something of a ringleader in making trouble.

“She daily threatened to report me and finally did, and I waited for the blow to fall, but the H.M. [Headmistress] didn’t send for me. Instead, one day as I passed her office she casually called me in, and had a quiet little talk with me, from which I emerged feeling rather ashamed and a bit unsporting at having taken advantage of the poor old dear.”

The H.M. Sara refers to would have been Elizabeth Hutchinson, a former pupil herself.

RMIG Staff 1886, Elizabeth Hutchinson shown by arrow

“Anyhow the salutary little talk bore fruit, and I ended my school life as Head Prefect, and also winner of the Silver Medal for Good Conduct – with £5 bonus!”

In equivalent value, that bonus would be worth £560 today so not an insignificant amount. Sara was very surprised to have been awarded the prize as, according to her memoirs, both she and the rest of the School had decided it would go to someone else.

“Again the H.M. had to take me to her office and explain why I had been given this prize. She knew I was surprised. She laid great stress on the difference between active and passive goodness, and the fact that whereas the worthy girl was very good, she just lived a quiet passive life that had no influence on anyone else. It seems that I, on the other hand, had influence on the girls under my charge – in my dormitory, at the table and the group of girls that were my special charge as a prefect.”

Of course, there is a moral here (and, in case you were wondering, the other girl won a different prize!) and after her prize, Sara discovered that

“Life wasn’t terribly easy after this. It wasn’t enough that my charges behaved themselves, but I had to be careful not to put a foot out of step, and to remember that I was expected to set an example.”

In Sara’s own words, the Headmistress was “a wise and discerning woman” who clearly knew how to get those with leadership qualities – well OK then, potential rebels – on her side!

Sara’s silver medal would have been presented at prize day, a momentous occasion then as it still is today.

“Prize Day was held in May. We prepared for months and put on quite a show. Calisthenics and figure marching for all, choral singing for different age groups, and finally the most spectacular item – a piano recital with eight pianos across the end of the hall and a series of performances. First solos, with one girl at each piano; then duos – one at each piano, but playing in complimentary parts in pairs; and finally, trios – three at each piano, and in which I managed to qualify as bass in my last year. It was fascinating to watch the performance, with all the girls’ movements in rhythm, especially the trios with 24 girls.”

Until very recently, these duos and trios were still a set piece on Prize Day and Drill is still very much a feature.

Duos, Trios and Drill

The value of the prizes, it has already been seen, were large and pupils were asked to select what they would like. Today the girls receive books or book tokens but then, even those who selected books didn’t just receive a single book but perhaps a set of complete works, all beautifully bound.

“The year I got the silver medal I got another prize, I think for French, and I asked for what was then called a Sat-Monday bag – in other words a weekend bag, brown leather, and do you think, dear Head Mistress, that I could have a silver mounted umbrella as well?

She didn’t know if there would be enough money, but she would see. I got it, and there was some silver on the handle. So I went to receive it, with my medal on a pale blue ribbon round my neck, and came marching proudly down with the bag in one hand and the umbrella in the other.”

This Prize Day occasion would have been Sara’s last as a pupil. Due to leave school in 1905, she was retained as a pupil teacher in the Junior school: “My job was to teach the very junior pupils the 3 Rs – with no instructions on how to set about it.” The switch to pupil teacher brought not just a different status but also a small income. All the pupil teachers received two outfits and £1 a week – equivalent today to £112 so a bit more than pocket money. If they were kept on as teachers – and many were – they then became salaried staff with that salary rising incrementally as their experience and seniority grew. Most of the teaching staff had been pupils at the School; it was rare to find a member of staff who wasn’t. Sara’s headmistress, and the Headmistress before her and the one that followed (the redoubtable Bertha Dean) were all former pupils.

Meanwhile, across the Channel:

“With us all away at school, Mother was joined by her sister Agnes Humphreys, and they started a small finishing school for girls from England … They were both very well educated and very accomplished at such things as music, singing and painting etc. A French and a German governess visited and the results were very satisfactory. When the girls went home for the holidays their place was taken by English paying guests, who came over to the Continent for the summer.”

But all that changed when Sara’s mother died at the age of 49. “This made the greatest change in all our lives, because it was no longer practical to live in France.”

The British Chaplain in St Servan was able to place Sara as a pupil teacher with a group known as the Kilburn Sisters.

Emily Ayckbowm

image from http://sistersofthechurch.org/about-us/our-founder

Founded by Emily Ayckbowm in 1864, by 1875 it had opened an orphanage for girls known as the Orphanage of Mercy. It housed 500 girls by 1892. The Sisters established schools in many London parishes and at one of these, St Hilda’s in Paddington, Sara received kindergarten training.

During the holidays, the six Wise children tried to be together as much as possible. They stayed with cousins on their mother’s side and they always tried to be together at Christmas which “we spent with the Aunts in Ireland.”

The picture below, taken in 1907, shows the three girls of the family together.

 

“The Aunts had a wide circle of wonderful friends who were all very impressed with [them] taking on the responsibility of this large family and were very good to us. They mostly had estates and after a shoot always dropped in with contributions of game and other produce from their estates.”

One of these friends had a relation who was over from Australia on a visit with her husband and children. They wanted an English governess for their children, and “as I had almost finished my K.G. training it was suggested I might like the opportunity of coming to Australia.”

Thus it was that, in 1909, Sara went to Australia as a Governess. We will follow her there shortly but for now, we will leave her on the cusp of a new life on a different continent.