Remembrance Day

Today, along with the rest of the country, the School will mark the sacrifice made by those who have given their lives in war. A poppy wreath will be laid after a service in the Chapel and The Last Post will be sounded.

(The School will then differ from most organisations as this will be followed by a performance of Drill, at the end of which every one of the 180 girls will leave a poppy in her place as she marches from the Hall. For more about Drill, see http://www.rmsforgirls.org.uk/userfiles/rmsmvc/documents/AboutUs/History%20Trails/Drill%20history.pdf)

The idea of Remembrance Sunday was born in 1921. The date of the 11th November for Armistice Day honours the official ending of the First World War on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Royal British Legion was founded on 15 May 1921 but the Poppy Day idea started with Madame Anna Guérin.

Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/359443613995900209/

“After taking her idea to Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the British Legion, Madame Guérin’s poppies (made by the widows and orphans of the devastated areas of France) were distributed on British streets on 11 November 1921 – on the country’s first Poppy Day.” https://poppyladymadameguerin.wordpress.com/remembrance-poppy-timeline-for-great-britain/

The Tamworth Herald in 1921 informed the public “They are made in two qualities – in silk and in mercerised cotton.”

The poppy was chosen as the emblem inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields written by Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, in 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend.

The poppies are made “at the Richmond poppy factory … [which] has employed disabled ex-servicemen to construct the huge number of poppies needed every year.” https://britishpathe.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/poppies-an-illustrated-history/. By 1968, the factory had 300 staff and manufactured 13 million poppies per annum and today approximately 36 million are produced, albeit with more automation and therefore fewer employees. “A team of about 50 people—most of them disabled former British military personnel—work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond” (Wikipedia). So, like Santa’s elves, the work is endless for a single day event.

The poppies in UK (apart from Scotland, see below) “typically have two red paper petals mounted on a green plastic stem with a single green paper leaf and a prominent black plastic central boss” (Wikipedia). Until 1994, this boss had the words Haig’s Fund stamped on it whereas today it has the words ‘Poppy Appeal’. The introduction of the words had originally been because fraudulent poppy sellers – there’s always some who try to make a fast buck from a good cause – were selling poppies to the public but pocketing the money. The ‘Haig’s Fund’ stamp of authority, plus an official badge worn by the sellers, sought to eliminate the fraud.

These days “It has become common to see large poppies on buses, tube trains and aeroplanes as well as on lampposts, billboards, public buildings and landmarks” (Wikipedia) and internet sites and social media also display them.

 

The top image needs no explanation, the lower image is a composite made from Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast.co.uk, both family history sites.

In 2014, to mark the centenary of the Great War, the Tower of London installation comprised 88,246 ceramic poppies, one poppy for each British or Commonwealth soldier killed.

(Image from https://bwi.forums.rivals.com/threads/june-28th-1914-102-years-ago-today-the-great-war-aka-world-war-i-began.125052/)

The School did their own version of this for the Chapel for Remembrance Day in that year.

Debate arises every year about ‘poppy etiquette’ and some see it as a political symbol. The Football Association caused a furore in 2016 by fining the players wearing one, claiming it was a political symbol the wearing of which was forbidden by their rules. In 2017, they changed those rules. They weren’t going down that route again! There are arguments about when you start wearing your poppy, arguments about whether it should be on the left (near the heart and where medals are worn) or men on the left and ladies on the right, arguments about whether it is significant that the leaf points towards 11 o’clock or not. This last isn’t a problem in Scotland where the poppies don’t have a leaf. This is because they are made by PoppyScotland rather than the Royal British Legion and they have four petals rather than the two favoured by the RBL. There’s also a white poppy “first introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 and now sold by the Peace Pledge Union.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41942346/remembrance-poppy-controversies-and-how-to-wear-it. It symbolises an opposition to war and a commitment to lasting peace.

However, controversies aside, for poppies to be worn or not, there have to be those that organise the Poppy Appeals, to say nothing of the countless thousands of volunteers who stand out in the cold or in draughty shop doorways enabling the rest of us to buy our poppies. And it is here that we turn to another connection between the School and Remembrance Sunday. William Henry Keppy 1895-1941 is recorded in the 1939 register as Managing Secretary Poppy Day Appeal Fund.

As the Birmingham Daily Post of 6 January 1941 (above) indicates, he was also involved in a number of other charities as secretary or organiser. Given that Poppy Day started in 1921, for Mr Keppy to have been involved in its organisation from 1924, and that he founded the Warriors’ Club (now, sadly, vanished without trace), the notion of remembrance was clearly important to him. His father had been a soldier (Company Sergeant-Major South Wales Borderers and awarded the DCM) and assisted his son with the Warriors’ Club. William himself served throughout WWI, first joining the Warwickshire Yeomanry in 1913. He was discharged in 1919 but re-enlisted in 1921. Although he appears to have escaped unscathed, no doubt his war experience acted as a strong motivation for his efforts in the support of servicemen and women.

The various newspaper reports about William Keppy, arising mostly from his sudden and unexpected death aged just 45, suggest someone who was not only motivated but a ‘doer’. The article in the Daily Post goes on to say:

The Evening Despatch of 4 January 1941, also announcing his death, describes him as ‘the driving force’ in these organisations. As an example of his indefatigable efforts, the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 4 November 1930 carries the information

Interesting that, at a time when cars were owned by fewer people, motor mascots were available. Today, car poppies can be bought on line for £5.49. Using a Bank of England conversion rate gives the equivalent cost of about £3 in today’s money for the 1930 car mascot but of course there would be fewer sales of them than there might be today now that we are knee deep in vehicles.

As if all his sterling work for charities were not enough, Mr Keppy was also “prominent in the dance band world” (Birmingham Daily Gazette 06 January 1941). At one point he organised about five bands, including one called the Esmerelda Band. He was both drummer and conductor and the bands made a point of not playing from musical scores. It is possibly one of his dance bands – although not named as such – that entertained at a function of the Warriors’ Club reported by the Tamworth Herald in 1932.

Apart from his being involved in a number of charities and being very proactive in this work, the main reason for all the newspaper reports about Mr Keppy is his untimely death. As the report of his funeral (Birmingham Daily Gazette 8 January 1941) indicated, he left a widow and two daughters, one of whom became a pupil at the School. The second daughter would have been 17 at the time of her father’s death and therefore too old for school.

Birmingham Daily Gazette 06 January 1941

Although the majority of his life was spent in the Midlands – apart from a visit to Australia where he first had the idea of a dance band that didn’t play from printed music – William Keppy was actually born in Breconshire in 1895. By 1901, however, he, with his family, was in Smethwick. When he joined the army in 1913, his trade was given as machinist for Phillips. This was J. A. Phillips and Co, manufacturer of bicycles and bicycle components, originally based in Birmingham but which had moved to the Credenda Works in Smethwick in 1908. https://www.gracesguide.co.uk

Mr Keppy was a Freemason and his premature death made his daughter eligible for support from the Freemasons’ Charity. Throughout the School’s history, the death of fathers was often the prime reason for daughters to become pupils, so much so that, during most of the twentieth century, it was quite unusual for a pupil to have a father who was still alive. A pupil who left in the late 1950s wrote to her friend, somewhat tongue in cheek, about her ‘discovery’ of life in the outside world beyond the protective walls of the School: “Mary – a revelation. Some girls have fathers!” The tone may have been facetious but it pointed to the reason why the pupils were known by the locals as ‘the orphans on the hill’.

As his daughter would have been 10 when her father died ‘after a brief illness’ in Selly Oak hospital, she may well have been aware of her father’s involvement in the Poppy Day appeal (although children are generally unaware of what their parents do until they become adults themselves!) and, if so, the Remembrance Day services may well have had a specific poignancy for her both at School and beyond it. Personal connections with anything always heighten one’s awareness of it. Ask the girls who participate in Drill on Remembrance Sunday, who lay their poppies on the floor; ask the trumpeter who plays the Last Post; ask the girls who, as part of the Combined Cadet Force, play an active role in the service; ask the members of Chapel choir who sing for the service; ask … but you get the picture.

The service at School doesn’t just include the girls and their parents, and the members of the Old Masonic Girls’ Association (OMGA) but is shared with the Old Masonians’ Association (OMA) whose school closed in 1977. It is their memorial which forms the centrepiece of the wreath laying, so even greater poignancy in the act of remembrance.

During the two minutes’ silence as part of the service, each person will be remembering differently.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk/poems/laurence-binyon-for-the-fallen.htm

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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.

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.