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.

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Sunday service

Religious services have been a part of the School’s history since its inception.

Rule 20: That the Matron attend the children to Church every Sunday morning and afternoon, and on Good Friday, Christmas Day, and the Anniversary, that they learn the Collect for the Day, and such as are capable to read a portion of Scripture every Sunday Evening … and on every Friday the children be taught the Catechism.

(The mention of Good Friday and Christmas Day are reminders that for a considerable period of the School’s history, there were no school holidays. At all.)

But this posting is less about religion and more about the participants in it; less spiritual and more about practicalities. It’s about getting there and sitting still during. The first three school sites did not have a place of worship attached to them. The girls were taken to a local church – twice – on Sundays. To begin with, they had their own pew. To save the mental gymnastics of trying to work out how huge numbers (current school roll 900+) fitted into one pew, in the early days the numbers were significantly fewer. In 1788, fifteen little girls and a Matron might fit fairly comfortably into a large pew, which cost £3 per annum. This cost, incidentally, can be compared with the £24 pa for ‘Books, Sope, Mops, Brooms &c’.

The first church they attended was the Bethel Chapel initially in a pew donated by Jacob Leroux. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1813 referring to Seymour Street in Somers Town said

“In this street was formerly a chapel of ease to St. Pancras. It was a gloomy building, erected in 1787, and called Bethel Chapel; it afterwards belonged to the Baptists.”

Cited in Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London: Volume 5 (London, 1878), pp. 340-355. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp340-355 [accessed 16 November 2016].

There was also St. Mary’s Episcopal Chapel in the same street which may have been used too as may have the old church of St Pancras (the new one was not built until 1819 by which time the School was south of the river.)

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St Mary, Somers Town & Old St Pancras

Image of St Mary’s by Steve F, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11433686

Image of Old St Pancras by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13429363

 

In 1795, the School moved to St George’s Fields, Southwark and the girls would have attended the church of St George the Martyr.

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St George the Martyr, Southwark

Image of St George by Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17840016

The School had its home in Southwark from 1795 to 1852 when it moved to Clapham. St John’s, St Mary’s, St Peter’s and St Paul’s were all used at different times by the School.

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St Paul, Battersea & St Mary, Battersea

Image of St Mary by Derek Harper, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6088418

Image of St Paul from http://www.southwark.anglican.org/find-a-church/battersea/battersea-st-peter-and-st-paul/battersea-st-paul

St Mary’s is the oldest church of these being finished in 1777; St John’s (there is no extant image) was described, rather unflatteringly, as “ ‘A cheap brick church erected for the workers of the factory district of York Road’ according to J.G. Taylor (Our Lady of Batersey, 1925).” www.southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/BAT11.pdf It was consecrated in 1863 so was only marginally newer than the 3rd school site. Later amalgamated with St Paul’s, it was badly damaged during WWII and demolished in about 1950. St Peter’s was built in 1875 and St Paul’s, originally a chapel of ease for St John’s, was amalgamated with St Peter’s in 1939.

By the time the School was in Clapham (or Battersea, or Wandsworth or Putney – take your pick: all can arguably claim to be the geographical place of the School’s third site), it had a considerably enlarged school roll. Now, walking to church was not just a marshalling of 20-50 girls in a relatively straight line but manoeuvring nearly 400 girls, in twos, in Sunday best. Pity the tram driver and the hapless motorist who stopped to allow the girls to cross the road!

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Crossing the road to church

Mention of Sunday best raises that other set of items known variously by the euphemisms unmentionables, unwhisperables, indescribables and underpinnings: the underwear, usually in the form of combinations comprising bodice, drawers and slip. These garments were generally regarded with loathing. Summer ones were made of cotton but winter ones were made of wool which one former pupil recalled “had the consistency of steel wool” and which “itched and prickled” in a most uncomfortable fashion. Being forced to sit still and attend the sermon was made much more difficult by these garments, issued fresh on a Sunday morning – and therefore at their most like a coarse hair shirt – presumably on a basis of cleanliness is next to Godliness. Clearly the constant fidgeting of the girls reached the attention of the Chaplain and ultimately he came to speak to Miss Mason, the Matron, about the matter. Quite what was said, in what sort of language (given the deemed delicacy of ever mentioning such things) and with what degree of mutual embarrassment is lost to history as the conversation was, literally, behind closed doors. The outcome, however, is known. From then on, the fresh ‘linen’ was distributed on a Monday rather than Sunday so it had become slightly more comfortable by the time it was necessary to attend to the sermon again. Modern girls are at this point dissolving into horrified hysteria at the realisation that only one set of underwear was issued per week … Victorian sensibilities were indeed different!

Once the School moved to Rickmansworth in 1934, the walks to and from the local churches were no longer part of Sunday life. Services, as today, took place in the Chapel.

Chapel
The Chapel exterior & interior

The Junior girls, still at this stage in Weybridge, continued to perambulate to their local church, St James.

Weybridge church
St James, Weybridge

Image from http://www.stjamesweybridge.org.uk/

After the service, the girls would write little essays about the sermon and the vicar would award gold and silver stars for the best. Before they departed the School to reach the Church, the girls would be given a penny to put in the collection. One week, a girl put her coat button in instead so that she could put her penny in the bubble gum machine they passed en route. Something went wrong with the mechanism and her sin was rewarded not with one but several – perhaps a case of the wages of sin being not death but illicit chewing gum. Of course, her behaviour did not go unpunished but the vicar’s essays may have been a little odd that week! Even without bubble gum, attention was not always focused on the service. Although girls recall different things about their church visits – such as the choir processional, the occasional use of incense and the bell ringers – one former pupil, under the mistaken view that the memorial plaques on the walls were vertical gravestones, spent a considerable part of her time trying to puzzle out where the bodies were.

A requirement for religious services throughout the School’s history there may have been, but it is probably fair to say that it did not always guarantee the girls’ focus. Although the steel wool underwear is no longer a reason for a lack of attention …

Long Service

Recently tributes have been paid to one of the School’s long-serving housemistresses who had died aged 90. But she was by no means the first member of staff to have a long working association with the School. The School’s history is littered with examples of them. This particular lady put in 32 years (and then continued her association post-retirement) which seems even more impressive when you consider she was in her forties when she began at the School.

Coming in at 33 years, however, we need to go back to the nineteenth century with the first appointed Head Governess in 1862, Sarah Louisa Davis, who informed the governing body in 1895 that she wished to retire. They were most reluctant to accept her wishes but awarded her a pension that equalled her salary at the time. How glorious to retire on full pay!

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Eliza W Jarwood & Sarah L Davis

In office during Miss Davis’ tenure was the Matron Eliza Waterman Jarwood. Her length of service is trickier to calculate because she had been a former pupil who became a member of staff. Many of the staff then were former pupils. Indeed in 1934, when the School moved to its current site, all the staff barring one had been former pupils. Miss Davis was one of the exceptions in being an external appointment. In one sense, Eliza’s length of service totalled 68 years because she arrived as a little girl of 9 and never left. She died in 1886, still in post.

The focus of this posting, however, is an earlier Matron who, like Miss Davis, was an external appointee. The above mentioned Eliza served under both matrons. Frances Crook was appointed as Assistant Matron in 1802. This may – or may not! – have resulted in the Great Rebellion as she did seem to be a fairly tough cookie whereas the Matron at the time was perhaps a more gentle soul. Reading between lines is always tricky but it would appear the two women did not really get on. Both probably thought her way was the best. The girls, as any schoolgirls before or since, took full advantage and probably played one off against the other. Whatever the real truth, both women were deemed to be at fault. Rebellion quelled, they continued to work together for another five years although perhaps amicable is not the best word to describe their working relationship. In 1807 the Matron died and Frances Crook was appointed in her place.

Her tenure saw the School through a period of four different monarchs: George III, George IV, William IV and Victoria.

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Four Monarchs

She must have offered a degree of stability to her charges during this period and at a time in their lives which was uncertain. Many of the girls were minus one parent and sometimes both and the School was their home. Although its roll was growing, by 1841 (the first census where the information was published) it still only had 55 pupils and 6 staff. One of these was the Eliza mentioned above and another was her sister Sarah!

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The Morning Post March 26, 1852

On March 25 1852, presenting her what was described as ‘elegantly emblazoned testimonial’, the School honoured Mrs Crook’s service, albeit described here in somewhat purple prose:

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The Morning Post March 26, 1852

Amongst other attributes, it was said that “she has never been absent from the school twenty-four hours at one time.” (The Era, March 28 1852)

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The Era March 28, 1852

Such ceremonies tend to stray into the sentimental – how could they not? – and the Victorians loved a good wallow in sentimentality. The Era’s almost verbatim report demonstrates the kind of expressions which to modern eyes seem rather too gushing but which were nevertheless heartfelt at the time.

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The Era March 28, 1852

The ceremony concluded with something the children had probably looked forward to most of all: “[They] were regaled with cakes, fruits &c … [and] were to be allowed to amuse themselves with singing and dancing in the evening.” (The Era)

portrait
Mrs Frances Crook

The date of this portrait is uncertain but it is feasible that it was painted to commemorate her 50th jubilee. Of course it would not at all have been the done thing to refer to Mrs Crook’s age throughout all the praise being heaped on her although perhaps the references to the ‘remnant of her days’ may hint that she was beginning to look a little elderly. In the 1841 census, Frances declared herself to be 50 and she added ten years to that in 1851 but neither of these was at all accurate! She would have been 11 when appointed as Assistant Matron if they had been. Sadly, the earnest wish that ‘the day when she should be taken from amongst them might be far distant’ was never likely to be the case. Appointed as Matron on July 30 1807, her age declaration in census returns was never anything more than a ‘mind your own business’ response but when she died in 1854, it was finally revealed that she was 78. It was also never clear whether her title ‘Mrs’ was honorary or not. She was never referred to any differently but she would have joined the School at the age of 26 which would have made her a young widow if she had been married.

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The Era October 22, 1854

Described as ‘zealous and energetic’ in life, there can be little doubt that she was a revered character who took great pride in her girls and appeared to be held in genuine affection by them. She died on 15th October 1854, described unflatteringly as ‘An Aged Matron’ by the Daily News, apparently of some unspecified illness that she had suffered from for some time: she had “long been subjected to a painful disease” declared The Era. At the same time it also stated that she had died after a few hours of illness and there is a fleeting reference more than half a century later of a former pupil of the time declaring that Mrs Crook had died from a cholera outbreak and that a pupil had also died of it at the same time. Neither source is medically sound enough to draw a definitive conclusion so we must just settle for the fact that she had died.

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The Era October 22, 1854

The Era’s guess (“Miss Jarwood … will most probably be the successor”) was exactly right. Eliza Jarwood was appointed as Matron and was another long-serving matron but then she’d already done 25 years before her elevation to matronhood. And her successor, Florence Mason, put in at least 35 years before retirement. In fact, there have been so many that any service less than twenty years is almost regarded as fleeting! Think of all the column inches that it would take if newspaper articles were as lengthy today as they were then …