Hidden History

Adding the words ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ to anything always serves to attract attention. Often the reality is not hidden or secretive at all but simply not known by very many. Mind you, putting up big road signs does seem a little counterproductive for secrecy:

You can also follow a tourist trail and visit a ‘secret’ nuclear bunker! See https://hackgreen.co.uk/

The School has a number of hidden elements. The first lies in the historical existence of the School itself. That is not to say that any part of the School ever had an invisibility cloak and one might be forgiven for wondering how something currently in 300 acres of parkland could ever be hidden. However, one of the oldest girls’ schools, its existence was one of those ‘secrets’ that those in the know knew but … Educational history is a well-researched field but while much has been written about various girls’ schools, RMSG is never one that is mentioned. As an example, Alice Zimmern, writing in 1898, identified many established girls’ schools in her The Renaissance of Girls’ Education in England: a Record of Fifty Years’ Progress but not one mention, not even a sniff, of RMSG which was considerably older and more well-established than most of the examples she did use. And yet, it was ‘hidden’ in full view as searching online newspapers testifies. The search term the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls has 4,092 hits – and that’s just between 1850 and 1978 (when its name officially changed) and from one online source. There were frequent newspaper reports in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but then, a venture that relied on charitable support did need to advertise its presence. Whilst the School was a Masonic charity, lists of subscribers show only too clearly that there were many other contributors too. So the school’s apparent invisibility was actually in full public view! An article by J R Wade in Pearson’s Weekly in 1934 declares RMIG to be ‘one of the finest schools in Europe’ but adds that ‘it forms one of the never advertised charities of Freemasonry’ which helps to explain how a very large educational establishment can be hidden from view.

Another hidden aspect in full view is the statue by E Roscoe Mullins of Ruspini, currently found in his niche on the Chapel’s eastern wall.

Nothing at first glance hidden about this you might think, and you’d be right. The ‘hidden’ bit relates to the top of the statue’s head. Originally, the statue had been placed high up on the gable end of the School when it was on the Clapham site. Somehow, intrepid girls had discovered that, by scrambling about amongst the rafters, they could reach out and pat the statue on his head. And once one set of girls had done it, another set wanted to try and then it became the ‘done thing’ before leaving the school, for the more trepidatious amongst the pupils, to pat the statue. As soon as the School authorities discovered this, it was immediately banned as a dangerous activity. Perhaps employing a reverse psychology and practically making it mandatory would have taken away the illicit pleasure. A very good example of this was the ladies’ school (not RMSG) which, concerned that their girrrls (as Miss Jean Brodie put it) were reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover illicitly, took the counterintuitive step of making it a class reader. Killed it stone dead!

Not far from where Ruspini’s statue stands today is the clock tower at the top of which can be found four sculpted Anemoi (Greek for the wind). These sculptures by Joseph Cribb are barely visible to those on the ground although the pigeons get a good view as they fly past. In mythology they were minor deities, the four chief ones being Zephyrus, Boreas, Eurus and Noter. One of ours must have gone on holiday as we have Auster, which is the Latin name, rather than Notus. Anemoi in Latin is Venti so we have 3 Anemoi and one Vento.

Images supplied by Joseph Cribb’s grandson, photos taken by Joseph Cribb himself.

It seems a great shame that the sculptures are rarely seen but here’s a closer view (below right) taken when maintenance work on the tower allowed access via scaffolding. Forty years of weathering has hardly made an impact on it.

A definitely hidden bit of the School is the service tunnels. Created to allow for maintenance of the buildings above them, they link all the 1934 buildings with the exception of the San (now Cadogan House). For infection control, the San was a stand alone building. It is possible to walk all round the school under the ground. Possible but definitely not advisable. Walking along tunnels that are all identical but with no ability to define one’s position by reference to external sources is the definition of disorientation. Not only are there no signposts to tell you where you are, there is nothing to pinpoint position or guide direction. Trying to find your way anywhere in the dark is difficult as anyone who has tried it will testify. When there is nothing at all that tells you which way is up, down, right or left, you could wander in a tight little circle whilst believing you were marching forward.

Another set of ‘tunnels’ that exist are the air raid shelters. Constructed at the same time as the School was being built, these tunnels are in a zig-zag shape so that the effect from any direct hit from an explosive device would be dissipated by a blast wall. In 1924 an Air Raid Committee established that it might be prudent to have underground shelters available. Consequently, large organisations such as the School built underground shelters well in advance of the war. For a school built for 400 pupils, plus all the resident staff, plus the Junior girls who, for the Duration, had been moved from Weybridge, this was no mean feat as the space required was rather large. The shelters were built initially as trenches and, after suitable reinforcing, the ‘lid’ of corrugated iron was overlaid and then earth piled on top.

Image on left from https://attain.news/story/network-of-wwii-tunnels-rediscovered-beneath-school-campus; image on right from Archives.

During air raids, the girls would troop down to the shelter and spend the night there on wooden benches that lined the tunnels. The shelving on which the blankets were kept still remain in places.

Images: the storage shelves for blankets; inside the tunnels on a torchlit tour; follow my leader round the corner (from Archives)

The sleeping benches, being wooden, have all now rotted away, Although the underground space was designed for the whole school, it was very quickly found to be too disruptive of exam preparation to sleep there every night. The older girls slept top to toe in the centre of the houses where they might be most protected and where there were few windows for flying glass to be a problem. Only the youngest ones slept in the shelters with any great regularity wearing their little knitted pixie hoods

Image on the left shows the girls sleeping (probably a posed photograph!) and wearing the pixie hoods, whilst the image on the right is a contemporaneous cartoon drawn by one of the girls.

There was an attempt to make the experience less frightening by giving names to different areas such as Moira Mansions or Cumberland Court. Girls who were ill and in the San slept under their beds in the event of an air raid. One girl recalled that, when she woke up one morning, she momentarily forgot where she was and tried to sit up, banging her head on the metal bed frame above her. So her chicken pox was exacerbated with a headache!

The floors of the shelters were covered in duckboards, most of which have since rotted away, like the benches, but the remains are visible in places. There were vents at various intervals to allow fresh air to circulate but the construction of the shelters, plus all the entrances, created a natural air flow. There was power supplied to the shelters and lamps could be suspended along the corridors to provide light. It was otherwise pitch black. During recent tours, conducted by modern torchlight, we were instructed to turn off torches. Immediately it became extremely dark – so much so, that girls at once put torches back on as they clearly did not like it. In fact the tunnels had been used by the local fire brigade up until 1988 as a training location to simulate working in pitch black conditions.

The original entrances and exits were closed off in the 1960s with entrances bricked up. Later, in 2011, the tunnels were sealed with 6 tons of soil and steel plates but in 2018 they were once again opened up for official guided tours for the girls and staff to give them some insight into the School’s history. During the tours, several items have been found: a bone button, a 1916 penny, a protractor (although that looked a shade too modern to be from the war era).

Image on the left, the remains of the duckboards; right, one of the bricked up entrances

There was some wartime graffiti on the walls and, as evidence that post-war the shelters had not been forgotten, some from about 1953 and later. It is a curious thing that people trespassing in places where they are not supposed to be, or doing what they not supposed to do, always seem to want to put a signature to their crime, thus allowing themselves to be readily identified!

The tours gave a fascinating glimpse into the past. Nevertheless, it was with a sense of relief that we reached the steps up to the entrance again and out into fresh air.

The experience provided an insight into a part of the School’s history that wasn’t secret, had not been forgotten but had been made inaccessible (mostly).

Hidden history indeed.

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.

Tranmere Rovers

Not the football team in this case but rovers who have a connection with Tranmere. The story of Dora Mabel Jennings roves across the globe although it begins and ends in England.

Dora, born in Chorlton, Lancashire in 1863 was baptised on August 16 of that year at St John the Baptist church, Hulme. In her baptismal record we learn that the family residence was 26 Greenhill St and her father was a cashier. Sadly, we learn a little more about her father just three years later.

Jennings' death
Death notice Birmingham newspaper January 1867

Clearly the connection between the Lancashire Insurance Company and the Birmingham Fire Office (which had been incorporated into it) may explain why a child born in Lancashire should be living in Union St, Birmingham in 1867. Her father, however, died in Scarborough at the Prince of Wales hotel, clearly very suddenly and perhaps on holiday, although North Yorkshire seems a little bracing in January! Rose Agnes Jennings, Dora’s younger sister, was born on New Year’s Day in Scarborough so one presumes the whole family were there. Just two days later, their father was dead.

The girls’ mother, also Dora, was a widow at 26 years of age with three small daughters to care for. She had been born in 1841 in Cockermouth, Cumberland (as it was then) and it is quite remarkable how much coastal living features in the Jennings’ lives. William was born in Portsea and died in Scarborough; Dora was born in Cockermouth; Dora Mabel lived variously in Bombay, Algiers, Hythe and Hove and married a man who hailed from Duffus (north coast of Scotland), whose mother’s roots were in Tranmere (Wirral peninsula).

The Prince of Wales hotel where William Jennings died was later described (1932) as: First class Facing South and overlooking bay. Enclosed Suites. Hot & Cold Water in all Bedrooms. The image below shows its prominent position overlooking the sea.

Yorkshire by the sea
Prince of Wales hotel, Scarborough

Image http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/105419.html

We are making the assumption that the family were on holiday – perhaps they had been away for Christmas – although Jeremiah Jennings, William’s father, is described in one census as a hotelkeeper. Perhaps William was considering a career change. We will never know because his death changed everything for the Jennings family.

We next catch up with Dora Mabel in the 1871 census where she is a visitor in the household of George & Sarah Kelvington, 91 Carter St, Chorlton. In that year, petition papers for Dora’s election to RMIG show that the family’s address was Sandown cottage, Esher. That petition was successful on 12 October 1871 and Dora probably joined the School almost immediately, as she would have been eight in July 1871, the minimum age for pupils. Unfortunately, of her time at School we know nothing. She neither excelled nor was notably naughty! She would have left in 1879 at the age of 16 and she is ‘missing’ in the 1881 census. In the light of what we later learn of her, perhaps she was already abroad, although no travel documents have yet been found.

Abroad she certainly was  in 1883 even if we don’t know when she travelled: on 22 November she was married by licence to William James Colquhoun Dunbar. Perhaps she had gone to India as a governess and met her husband there; perhaps, as many did, she travelled to India to marry someone she had met whilst he was on a furlough in the home country. Given their respective backgrounds, it is hard to imagine how their paths might have crossed.

Married lines
Marriage record from Bombay

Dora was indeed ‘under age’ as she was then 20 years old, below the legal consent age at the time.

William James Colquhoun Dunbar was the son of Sir Archibald Dunbar 7th Bt and Sophia Dunbar, nee Orred. William was described as being from Duffus, Elgin, Scotland. The baronetcy is descended from Sir William Dunbar, 1st Baronet (died 1711) but the 4th baronet inherited the title Dunbar of Northfield (which dates from 1700) de jure as opposed to de facto – no doubt horribly complex legalities but as the 4th baronet’s father was not titled, we might assume that the 1st Sir Archibald inherited from a lateral family line rather than directly. Anyway, a lot of Honourables about.

His mother’s family were not Scottish. Sophia Orred was the daughter of George Orred, who owned Tranmere Old Hall. Of him, we know nothing except that he might be the person referred to rather unflatteringly in 1899:

‘… [Tranmere Old Hall] was pulled down by an ignorant boor who became possessed of it by some mischance, to make way for shops and houses.’ (Wikipedia)

In Carol Bidston’s book (1985) Birkenhead… Of Yesteryear, we learn that Tranmere Old Hall was a large, gabled building constructed around 1614. It was demolished in about 1860. An image of it can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jjwillow/8413967185/in/photostream/

Another reference (https://devonshirepark.wordpress.com) makes the claim that it was actually demolished in 1843, by which time George Orred was claiming ownership of half of it with the rest divided between more than a hundred others. Whenever it was demolished, Tranmere New Hall replaced it at some point although that too was demolished in 1936.

The name Tranmere is believed to be Viking in origin, from Norwegian Vikings who settled and colonised Wirral in the 10th century: in Old Norse Trani-melr means ‘sandbank with the Cranebirds’. (from Wikipedia, citing Professor Stephen Harding, Vikings In Wirral: Introduction). John Marius Wilson’ Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales adds

T. Pool, a creek of the Mersey, separates it from Birkenhead proper; a bridge over the pool connects the suburb with the town, or Tranmere ferry with Birkenhead ferry; and steamers incessantly maintain communication with Liverpool. T. Hall is an ancient edifice, commanding a fine view of the Mersey; and T. Old Hall is now a farmhouse.


Sophia Orred, George’s daughter and Lady Dunbar, was an artist in her own right.

Women artists
Dictionary of British Woman Artists by Sara Gray

Duffus, from where William hailed, is a long way from Yorkshire which appears to be the furthermost northern point in Dora’s travels. The name Duffus has undergone a variety of spelling changes through the years but it is probably a compilation of two Gaelic words, dubh and uisg, meaning ‘darkwater’ or ‘blackwater’. At one time, the region was below sea-level and the Loch of Spynie and stagnant pools of water were a conspicuous feature of the area. (Wikipedia) But all that is by the bye as Dora probably never went to Scotland. At the time that she married him in Bombay, he was Deputy Conservator of Forests in the Bombay Presidency. This is an officer role in the Indian Forest Service ‘responsible for managing the forests, environment and wildlife related issues of a Forest Division of a state or a union territory of India.’ (Wikipedia)

Despite all this rather complex interplay of connections, the marriage was not destined to last long. Just two years later, William died in Marseilles and, rather as her mother had been, Dora found herself a widow at a young age. In her case, she was just 22. She never remarried. In 1886, there is a fleeting reference in August 1886 to her at Villa du Palimer, Alger Mustapha, Algiers, an area that Sophia had visited and painted.

Algiers image from Google Earth

By 1891, Dora had returned to UK and was living at 69 Sackville Rd, Hove with her mother and sister. Ten years later, all three were living in London at 18, Vincent Square Mansions, St Margaret and St John, St George Hanover Square, London, overlooking the park.

masnions from Google
Vincent Square mansions from Google Street View

There is no entry for her in 1911 census although, if she had travelled overseas again, no travel documents survive. In 1925, she is writing to her cousin from Haslemere in Surrey and in this year, her mother died. Our next reference is the 1939 register which places her at 5 Brockhill Road, Hythe (with her sister Agnes; her older sister had died) and the following year sees her death on 24 October at Greenhayes, Hythe Kent, which may be the same place but given by a name rather than a street name and number. Her probate adds very little more to her story indicating only her date of death and the fact that her estate value was some £3440. So Dora’s roving came to an end on the south coast – a life reconstructed via fleeting and often impersonal references.

And then we went to war: Part Two

The remaining ten of the former pupils undertaking war work were all involved in nursing in some capacity.

Margaret Josephine Bailey is recorded in the 1911 census as a nurse and, as she left school in 1901, had probably been nursing for some time before the war began. During it, she was a ward sister at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Boscombe. Built in the 1880s, this hospital in Shelley Rd continued to serve the community. A question raised in parliament in 1965 notes that the accommodation falls short of the standard but that “in the long term, it is intended that the Royal Victoria Hospital should be replaced by a district general hospital.” http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1965/jul/19/royal-victoria-hospital-boscombe. It was certainly a long term solution – the hospital was not finally replaced until 1993! Margaret did not live to see it. Although she lived to be 85, the hospital, built at about the time she was born, lasted until its 11th decade. Continue reading