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.

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Tradition!

Georgina Burnet (1906-1980) arrived at the School, as too many of the pupils did, following a family tragedy. Her father, Robert Burnet, was the County Medical Officer in Cornwall in 1911 having served his home county of Lancashire in the same way previously. He had qualified as a doctor at the end of the nineteenth century and when WWI broke out, he signed up to the RAMC and held the rank of Lt-Col when he died in 1915. But not, as you might imagine, as a direct consequence of war.

newspaper report
Newcastle Journal 30 January 1915

He left a widow (who described herself as ‘your broken-hearted Alec’ on the funeral wreath) and three children. He was buried with full military honours, the service being at Exeter Cathedral but with the interment following in Chorley.

funeral report
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 03 February 1915

Burnet had been a member of two Cornish Masonic lodges and this made his daughter eligible as a pupil and she is listed on school roll by 1918, referred to as Nina. On leaving school in 1922, she first went for commercial training in Cheltenham, subsequently taking a secretarial post at a school in the town. However, in 1926 she followed her father into the medical world by training as a hospital nurse. In 1929 she combined two of things that she had experienced in her 23 years and became a nurse at a school in Oxford. It is not recorded when she first became a Matron but in 1939 we find her at Kilvinton Hall School in Enfield. The school had been founded in 1925 by Baron Mowll of the Cinque Ports. It later moved to Haywards Heath and was renamed Great Walstead. One of the school houses retains the name of the founder, Mowll.

GWschool
Image from the school website http://www.greatwalstead.co.uk/

In researching this former pupil of RMSG, and discovering her subsequent career in other schools, this rather delightful school tradition was uncovered. Kilvinton Hall School – now Great Walstead School – has something called “Q Day”. One pupil would have been told a secret code and when this code was spoken in a public place (the dining hall, chapel, sports field, etc.), he would shout “Q Day”, at which point the entire school (now the senior pupils) decamped to the woods in the extensive school grounds, to camps that each team had worked on all summer.

camp in woods
Image from the school website http://www.greatwalstead.co.uk/

‘For ‘Q Day’ the Seniors have the added excitement of spending the night in their camps and taking part in a Night Operation as well as a series of daytime challenges which might include orienteering, a treasure hunt, archery, swimming competitions and teamwork challenges.’ (School website)

Q Day may be unique to Great Walstead School but there are many schools that have their own weird and wonderful traditions, some more eccentric than others. For example, Abbots Hill School (not far away from RMSG in fact) has a uniform drawn from tartan and a clan system rather than a house system to reflect the founders who were Scottish. Christ’s Hospital, Sussex, still retains its original Tudor costume and pupils have the right to free access to the Tower of London – as long as they are wearing their uniform.

tudor uniform
Christ’s Hospital uniform http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29047752

The Head Boy or Girl at the school is known as the Senior Grecian and has the right to address the monarch en route to or from the coronation. This, of course, has not been exercised for a considerable time given the longevity of our present monarch’s reign.

Other Head Boys’ or Girls’ traditions include keeping a pig in school (Blundell’s); riding a horse under the arch at Repton; allowing a goat to eat the grass at Strathallen. The Head Boy at Uppingham has the right to grow a moustache or get married but it is believed that, so far at least, none has exercised the latter of these.

https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/boarding-school-rituals-traditions.html gives a list of ten eccentricities attached to boys’ schools, such as the Eton Wall game. At Winchester, as the autumn term closes, there is something known as ‘Illumina’. At the end of afternoon school, pupils finish lessons to find there are candles illuminating the wall around the school playing fields. Westminster School has the very odd tradition of The Greaze which began in 1753. It is celebrated

… on Shrove Tuesday each year. It involves the cook tossing a pancake (which has been reinforced with horse hair) over a high bar, and the pupils then fight over the pancake for one minute. This activity is presided over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Head Master and the rest of the school – sometimes even by distinguished Royal guests. The pupil who manages to get the biggest bit of the pancake is awarded the prize of a gold sovereign, and the Dean requests a half-day holiday for the whole school. Thankfully, one aspect of this tradition has now died out: in the old days, if the poor cook failed to toss the pancake over the bar, the pupils would throw their Latin books at him. Modern employees of Westminster School are no doubt glad that this practice is now no longer a feature of Shrove Tuesday! www.oxford-royale.co.uk

No doubt this was witnessed by two young Westminster pupils in the eighteenth century who happened to be the sons of Bartholomew Ruspini the instigator of RMSG in 1788.

Which brings us nicely onto some of the traditions of the Girls’ school. Of course, there is Drill (http://www.royalmasonic.herts.sch.uk/userfiles/rmsmvc/documents/AboutUs/History%20Trails/Drill%20history.pdf) and, until fairly recently there were Duos and Trios (eight pianos with either two or three pupils at each one, playing in synchronicity). There was also the curious belief, given the even more curious name ‘Dig Dipper’ (or sometimes Deeper), that the statue of Ruspini on the east exterior wall of the Chapel leaned on one leg in one year and on the other in the following, the changeover happening (natch!) at midnight on All Hallow’s Eve. [Sorting through photos of the statue and knowing this to be the stuff of childish imagination, for one blood-curdling moment, I noticed that in some of the images the forward leg had changed from right to left. Then I realised I was holding some of the slides back to front … ]

Statue doubled
Ruspini statue

One other ‘tradition’ that developed started life with every pupil’s wish for the end of term to arrive more quickly. The little rhyme they sang was ‘This time next week, where will I be/ Not in this RMIG’ and each girl mentally crossed off the pictures in the dining hall one by one (there are 14) until the last day arrived.

dining hall painting
Sacrificial lamb?

This morphed into the girls at breakfast pointing at each picture and silently marking a cross in the air. Somehow over the years, the ‘silently’ bit got dropped and the pictures were ‘shot’ with an imaginary finger gun. Inevitably perhaps this began to be accompanied by cries of ‘Bang!’ and on the final day, all 14 pictures were shot in turn on the same breakfast. Wise and experienced members of staff wore ear plugs.

So, shooting pictures, hurling pancakes, grazing goats and decamping to woods are all part of the rich tapestry of English boarding school life, some of which Georgina Burnet would have experienced.