A Tale of Two Schools

Unlike the Dickens’ novel which the title references, this is not about two geographically distanced places (or schools). If it were, it would have to be ‘A Tale of Four or Five Schools’ which kind of dilutes the snappy title. No, this is the tale of two schools which, on paper, are seen as one when they aren’t. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the School’s history may have an inkling what is referred to here but for those without any pre-knowledge, this is just pretty riddling.

Allow me to explain. The School began in 1788 and the modern School is very proud of being one of the oldest girls’ schools in the country. It has been in continuous operation since its inception, on consecutively three sites in London and latterly two sites out of London. It has had the same name throughout – sort of. The Royal Cumberland Freemason’s School; The Freemasons’ School for female children; The Royal Masonic Institute for Girls; The Royal Masonic School for Girls; The Rickmansworth Masonic School for Girls and now RMS for Girls. You might detect one word that remained consistent: there was always a reference to Freemasons or Masonic.

It was established in the eighteenth century as a charity and school for the daughters of indigent freemasons and from the first, it provided totally for daughters deemed eligible. Not only did it educate them but it provided a home, food, clothing, medical care and the opportunity to be self-supporting beyond school age. A complete package. And all absolutely free of charge to the pupils and their families.

The first two school sites

The first site was a rented house in Somers Town and the second purpose built in St George’s Fields, Southwark. Girls who met the criteria were put forward to a ballot twice yearly, April and October. The lists were always over-subscribed requiring ever more ingenious means for selecting one candidate over another. Anyone who subscribed to the Charity by 1 guinea became an annual governor. Those paying 10 gns or more became Life Governors. All were entitled to vote in the ballots and there was a complex system of allocated votes: the more one paid, the more votes one was entitled to cast. These votes could be given all to one candidate or spread across several names.

Sample of candidates’ list

The number of places available at the School was ‘advertised’ and the votes cast. If there were [say] ten places, the ten girls with the highest number of votes got in. However, those that were not successful in one round could stay on the list for the next ballot carrying with them their accrued total. At the next ballot, any votes they received were added into their running score and perhaps this time they might be successful but no guarantees. Another candidate might appear on the list and leapfrog her way to the top and win the coveted place. A girl could remain on the ballot until she reached the age of 10½ (when she was deemed to be over age) so, if a girl had been added to the list aged 7½ (minimum age), she could be on four or five ballots and still not be successful.

Example of a ballot sheet cover

The subscribers casting the votes might know of the child and its case personally and want to cast their votes accordingly. They might also then try to persuade their friends with votes to do the same. Newspaper advertising in support of individuals was not uncommon although without detailed psephology it is not possible to say how successful this ploy was. A lodge or province may wish to vote for a candidate whose father was connected with same. Newspaper columns about masonic activities in provincial newspapers often carried the information with a sense of pride when ‘our girl’ was elected. Although some ballot papers carried just a list of names of eligible girls, others had short paragraphs relating to individuals and their perceived need. For example:

The candidate of the above petition was successful although the daughter of a widow earning a paltry living by needlework, and whose petition appeared on the same ballot paper, was not.

This additional information used language guaranteed to wring the hearts of the subscribers who may, after all, have no idea who any of these girls were so how could they decide who was more worthy of a place? These little paragraphs were later left out although probably only because the numbers on the ballot sheets increased as the School grew in size.

At this juncture it should be pointed out that children who were not successful in ballots were often found places in other schools of a similar nature so they were not abandoned to their fate. However, such were the advantages perceived to stem from a successful election that there was great care taken to ensure that this benevolence was not abused. If any strayed over the boundary of acceptable behaviour, there was the threat not just of expulsion but also being sent a bill for everything already received. Charity can be a two-edged sword!

This charitable status remained in place until 1978 and then everything changed. But at the same time, the School apparently continued unaltered. Indeed, a pupil present in the School pre- and post-1978 declared that she didn’t find out until about 2012 that the School was no longer operating in the same way. So it was the same but radically different. In 1978, the School ceased to be one funded entirely by freemasons and became a fee-paying independent school open to all girls. There had been some fee paying pupils creeping in by the back door, so to speak, since the early sixties. The back door in this case would be more aptly called the school gates as they were almost exclusively day girls living locally. Post-1978, there were also some pupils funded by a masonic charity and that continued, in diminishing numbers, until very recently. The School fees were paid by the charity rather than individual families but the pupils were externally indistinguishable from their school fellows. The biggest marker of the change was that the School became the Rickmansworth Masonic School for girls but as most of the pupils didn’t have the foggiest why the name had changed, even if they noticed to begin with, as a marker it was definitely a Failure.

Since 1934, the School has been on its present site so all the current Old Girls would have attended Rickmansworth, pre- or post-Masonic watershed.

When cross-generational Old Girls meet they find that the school they remember is not actually the same one others remember. The difference is most pronounced between pre- and post-1978 pupils. For the former, most arrived at the School having lost their fathers and, in some cases, their mothers too. The locals in fact referred to the pupils en masse as ‘the orphans on the hill’. The School was their alma mater in all senses rather than just, as it is usually used, to indicate an establishment with which one was formerly connected for education. The education they received was free, their clothing provided, their school books part of the package. One mother, asking what her daughter should bring with her, was told ‘a dressing gown, slippers and a teddy bear’. Everything else was provided.

In 1978, that all changed and whilst those girls remaining in the care of a masonic charity still had everything provided, all the other pupils were family-funded. From the 1960s, day girls were admitted tof a boarding school. Now, there are more day girls than boarders and even fewer full time boarders as there is both weekly and flexi-boarding available.

The pre- and post- schools occupy the same site and, at least outwardly, look the same but when present pupils take Old Girls round, there are frequent confusions about the names of things and their places. Statements such as ‘I was in Alex house’ and pointing west are gently corrected by current pupil pointing east and saying Alex is now a performing arts centre. Or it might be ‘I was in Atholl. Where’s it gone?’ (Answer it is now a school house but without a physical entity.) Former prefects may recall their privilege rooms Bei Uns and Chez Nous only to be told they became specialist classrooms. (Behind the stage to left and right of Scarbrough gallery stairs. Scarbrough gallery?? Don’t ask!)

All of the above changes show that what appears to be the same isn’t and none of this includes the internal alterations. The School continues to adapt and yet looks pretty similar for those who haven’t been back for a while – until they start trying to find things.

So physically the School has changed. Spiritually the School has changed. The alma mater has undergone radical plastic surgery. RMS girls themselves have changed fundamentally and trying to find common ground between the two sets is like trying to square the circle, particularly when older Old Girls feel that the School they knew has been changed beyond recognition and grumble about things not being like it was in my day etc etc. And in that, they are right. It is different and calling them all ‘alumnae’ doesn’t tell the half of it.

So through the best of times and the worst of times, through charity or by fee-paying, celebrating its 232nd birthday or its 42nd, this is most decidedly a tale of two schools.

In the Somers time

1788 must have been an extraordinarily busy year for the Charity behind the School. Officially, it began on March 25th: ‘the Royal Cumberland Freemasons School, initiated Lady Day 1788’ (Morning Herald).  Until 1752, Lady Day was the start of the legal year, one of the quarter days (the others being Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas) and when year-long contracts were begun. Between this date and 5th January 1789, when the first pupils were taken in coaches to the Schoolhouse in Somers Town, all the preparations had to be made. This would have been an undertaking of no small proportion if it had proceeded like clockwork but in fact the School was not intended to be in Somers Town at all. The intended place was ‘Logie’s Academy’ [otherwise Lochee] in Little Chelsea.

London Chronicle, July 24, 1788

However, the Patroness, the Duchess of Cumberland, ‘took agin’ this – the records do not state why – and so another property suitable as a school had to be found and all the preparations begun again. This time it was successful and it was to the property in Somers Place East in Somers Town that fifteen little girls and a Matron were transported by coach in 1789.

Time to have a look at the first Schoolhouse and Somers Town itself.

Somers Town lay to the north of what we now call Euston Rd but which, at the time, was still referred to as the new road. This land ‘was acquired in the seventeenth century by the Cocks family, a member of whom was ennobled as Baron Somers in 1784 (Survey of London, vol. 24, 1952)’ http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/streets/somers_place_east.htm  The baronetcy had originally been created for John Somers in order that he might enter the House of Lords as Lord Chancellor to William III. On his death, it fell into abeyance but his sister, and heiress, married Sir John Cocks and their grandson became Baron Somers on his ennoblement.

The area now known as Somers Town was undeveloped until Euston Rd was built. It was mostly fields and some parts of it were used as rubbish dumps in an eighteenth century version of that modern scourge, fly-tipping.

‘When London ended at Euston Road in the 18th century, it was famous for being where the city chucked its rubbish in mountainous landfills.’ https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/jan/18/lets-move-to-somers-town-one-of-londons-best-kept-secrets

https://londontraveller.org/2014/04/03/bradshaws-hand-book-to-london-day-8-bagnigge-wells-exmouth-market-no-52/  writes that ‘Early in the last century Somers Town was a delightful and rural suburb, with fields and flowergardens [sic]. A short distance down the hill … were the then famous Bagnigge Wells, and close by the remains of Totten Hall, with the ‘Adam and Eve’ tea-gardens’

Image from http://www.sub-urban.com/lost-bagnigge/

Bagnigge Wells was a popular and fashionable spa with ‘a banqueting hall, gardens, bowling green and other entertainments on the banks of the Fleet River.’  (The London Encyclopedia) However, they gradually fell into disrepair and attracted a poorer class of clients and eventually closed in 1841.

The ‘Adam and Eve Tea Gardens [were] thought to have been established sometime in the early 1700s. With spacious gardens of fruit trees and arbours in the rear and side of the tavern, it became a destination for tea drinking parties, with room for skittles and Dutch-pins in the forecourt which was shadowed by large trees, tables and benches were placed for the visitors. A monkey, heron, parrots, wild fowl and gold-fish pond were also once boasted attractions.’ (ibid) Unfortunately, these began to be frequented by criminals and prostitutes and in the early 19th century they were shut by the magistrates.

In Somers Town, Jacob Leroux became the principal landowner under Lord Somers. He built a handsome property for himself and it is probable that his hand in design can be seen in the Schoolhouse and some extant buildings in Chalton St. In addition to housing and the laying out of basic streets, ‘a chapel was opened, and a polygon began in a square.’ Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London (1878), cited by British History Online.

‘The Polygon was a housing estate, a Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses.’ https://www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=51223

https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp340-355

This image showing the Polygon on the left dates from 1850, long after the School had gone elsewhere, but it existed contemporaneously with the Schoolhouse. Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth there in 1797. The child that was born, of course, went on to write Frankenstein as Mary Shelley. Another author who lived in the Polygon, perhaps only briefly, is one whose name seems to crop up rather frequently in the School’s history: Charles Dickens. He ‘lived at No 17 in the 1820s shortly after his father, John Dickens, was released from debtors’ prison.’ www.theundergroundmap.com (cf) Dickens later made the Polygon a home for his Bleak House character Harold Skimpole. This somewhat unpleasant character, ‘in the habit of sponging [off] his friends’ (Wikipedia citing Nuttall) perhaps implies Dickens’ emotional response to his residence at the Polygon.

Map from http://www.theundergroundmap.com (cf)

The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1813 describes the area that became Somers Town as having ‘an excellent private road, belonging to the Duke of Bedford, and the fields along the road are intersected with paths in various directions. The pleasantness of the situation, and the temptation offered by the New Road, induced some people to build on the land, and the Somers places, east and west, arose’

All was going well ‘when some unforeseen cause arose which checked the fervour of building, and many carcases of houses were sold for less than the value of the building materials.’ Edward Walford (cf)

It would appear that his grand scheme did not bring as much profit as he would have liked and ‘war and recession forced down the value of property, and the neighbourhood soon acquired ‘shabby genteel’ status.’ https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town/

The exact location of the School in Somers Place East is not recorded in the Minute books which supply much of the information about the School itself but it was a terrace on the north side of Euston Road just east of Chalton Street with houses numbered consecutively from 13–23, west to east.

‘According to the Survey of London, Somers Place East was “a commanding block of houses” (Survey of London, vol. 24, 1952) presumably intended for well-to-do tenants’ http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/streets/somers_place_east.htm

The only image we have of the first school house is an artist’s impression showing, presumably, the rear of the premises as it appears to have been drawn from the garden.

With any artistic impression, it is unknown how much liberty has been taken with the truth. However, the tree on the left and the steps mounting to an upper floor together could imply the end of a row of houses. Might this suggest that this property was therefore No 23, the last in the row?

When we consider today Georgian architecture and terracing, we envision a row of identical properties something like the image below:

The sketch of the School does not fit this idea. However, taking a modern photograph of part of Chalton St (from https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town)

and putting it in juxtaposition to the above drawing reveals an interesting parallel:

It is clear that taller Georgian-style architecture was interspersed with lower pitched-roof buildings which suggests that the drawn image is an accurate rendition. As one building is shown from the front and the other from the rear, it is impossible to be sure but it gives food for thought. Could it be that the first Schoolhouse looked like that shown below and that this was Leroux’s signature architectural style?

The image above is an extant building in Chalton St whereas the original Schoolhouse has gone – as has Somers Place East. It appears on early maps but a combination of the misfortunes of Mr Leroux and further building in the area, eventually it becoming quite overcrowded, meant that ‘this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution’ and the ‘rather fine’ terraces became attractive to ‘the exiles of the poorer class’ Edward Walford (cf) The area had started on a rapid downward slide.

Map of 1790
1837 map

In this later map, Somers Place East is still shown, as is the passageway to its rear – Weir’s Passage. By the time of the 1837 map, the School had long since left the area, moving south of the river in 1795. Within a few more years, Somers Place East had gone although Weir’s Passage remains which enables us to fairly accurately pinpoint where the Schoolhouse had been.

This modern map from https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town/ showing Chalton St and Ossulton St allows that Somers Places East and West are now buried beneath a hotel (The Pullman, formerly Novotel) which incorporates the Shaw Theatre.

https://all.accor.com/hotel/5309/index.en.shtml

In fact, seated in the Shaw Theatre might place one almost exactly on the spot from which the drawing of the Schoolhouse may have been made all those years ago.

If land could speak, what stories might it tell of the school house that once occupied this very spot?

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.

The Wisest Words

We left Sara Wise about to set sail for the Antipodes as an English Governess.

“My trip to Australia was not eventful. I was to have sailed on the Waratah, but it never got to England on its first trip from Australia – it disappeared off the coast of S. Africa, and its disappearance has never been solved.”

It was named Waratah after the emblem flower of New South Wales, Australia, but this appears to have been an unlucky name: one ship of that name had been lost off the island of Ushant in the English Channel in 1848, one in 1887 on a voyage to Sydney, another south of Sydney, and one in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1897. Quite possibly the mysterious disappearance of the ship in 1909 (and no, it was nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle!) brought forth the response ‘The Waratah? Again?’

Waratah plant image by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=857590

SS Waratah photographed in 1909

Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=943368

“On 26 July 1909, the SS Waratah, with 211 passengers and crew departed from Durban bound for Cape Town, and disappeared without a trace …” http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/discovery-wreck-passenger-liner-ss-waratah

Emlyn Brown, a marine explorer, searched for more than two decades, once believing he had found it [1999]. However, the above website states “Despite the use of highly sophisticated equipment, Brown was forced to admit defeat in 2004; ‘I’ve exhausted all options. I now have no idea where to look.’”

In 2009, the above memorial was placed by the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum to honour all those lost in the tragedy. http://paulineconolly.com/2014/ss-waratah-australias-titanic/

The SS Waratah being unavailable, as Sara’s memoirs revealed “I came on the Moldavia, P & O.”

http://simplonpc.co.uk/PO_Liners3.html#anchor8156

“I travelled with Mrs Black’s old aunt, a Miss Maria McCauci. She kept a hawk’s eye on me, being determined I should fulfil my contract and not run off and marry the first man who spoke to me. However, I got what fun I could.”

Given that Sara’s memoirs reveal that she could sing well perhaps some of the ‘fun’ was courtesy of the music room on board. Music rooms were a feature of P&O ships from the earliest days. The Moldavia’s Music Room was situated directly above the Dining Saloon.

Image from http://www.poheritage.com/the-collection/galleries/Photographs/Life-on-Board/The-Music-Room-on-board-MOLDAVIA

In 1915, the Moldavia was purchased by the British Admiralty and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was sunk on 23 May 1918 off Beachy Head in the English Channel by a single torpedo from U-Boat UB-57. A very full account of this can be found on https://americanlegion142.org/ including a list of the men who died as a result.

But back to 1909, Sara’s journey to Australia being uneventful “We arrived in Melbourne on Cup Eve.” The night before the Melbourne Cup is Cup Eve. The event itself starts at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November and is known locally as “the race that stops a nation”.

Newspaper article from http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10745037

William H. McLachlan rode Melbourne Cup winners in 1909, 1910 and 1917.

Melbourne Cup Day early twentieth century from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/148829962659411288/

Image of jockey from http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/archive/discover_collections/society_art/races/ephemera/jockeys/index.html

“My first night in Australia, and for all I knew I might be in the middle of the jungle, especially when I heard what to me was a horrible animal sound outside my window. In the morning I was told it was a possum, and harmless. But worse was to come; when being shown around the park like grounds I was warned to be on the look out for snakes, and after that I imagined a snake under every bush, but though I daily saw tracks across the gravel paths, I never saw one.”

The contract under which Sara had travelled to Australia was that if she stayed for three years, the family would pay her fare back to England. However what she found in her new life was that –

“These people lived in the grand manner of the English aristocracy … There was a large staff inside and outside. The children had a nurse and a nursery housemaid, so there was nothing for me to do beyond the few hours K.G. [kindergarten teaching] every day.

I had meals and spent the evenings with the parents, and though all the families around had governesses, no attempt was made for me to get to know them… So by mutual agreement we broke the three year arrangement and I left there in March or April 1911.”

Archbishop Clarke (Archbishop of Melbourne) and his wife and daughter Elsie visited Sara’s employers.

“Elsie and I became great friends … Mrs. Clarke helped me make my decision to leave and invited me to stay with them until I found something. Though the Black [family] offered to pay my fare back to England I didn’t want to go, as I didn’t feel that what I had seen was typical Australia.”

The Archbishop suggested that Sara might join the staff of a private girls’ school but she decided to take her future into her own hands.

“So I went to an agent that I was personally recommended to go to, and there I met Amy – Mrs Germain McMicking.”

This, it turned out, was Fate.

Having negotiated an employment deal, the party set off for what was to become Sara’s home.

“I will never forget the drive through the gum forest and hills … I felt I was entering a different life and beginning to see the real Australia. And I have loved the smell of gum trees ever since.”

http://treepicturesonline.com/gum_tree_pictures.html

[And in an interesting twist, there is a eucalyptus tree in the Garth of the present RMSG although Sara would not have known the School on this site.]

One who travelled with them was Gilbert, the half-brother of one Cuthbert McMicking. When Gilbert went home the following day, Cuthbert got the news about the new English Governess…

“He turned up at Manus on his motorbike to see Germain [McMicking] on business – he said.”

Cuthbert became a frequent visitor and by January 1912 he and Sara were engaged. [I told you it was Fate!] The last school record of her was ‘married by 1912’. In fact it was exactly 1912, on 18th September, in Parramatta, Cumberland, New South Wales. Curiously the original name for RMIG was The Royal Cumberland Freemasons’ School, although that Cumberland was the Duke of Cumberland, George III’s brother, not his uncle Cumberland, the Elector of Hanover after whom the NSW area was named. There is also Baulkham Heights not far away from Parramatta and there today can be found the buildings of the William Thompson Masonic School (closed 1978), a kind of sister school to the one in London. So in Australia, Sara was both a long way from her school home and not very far at all!

https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/ahf_event/william-thompson-masonic-school-walk/

Germain [Sara’s employer] had bought Pullitop, a large estate between Wagga Wagga and Holbrook, to subdivide, and naturally wanted to sell as many blocks as possible, and got other McMicking boys including Cuthbert involved. Unfortunately, this turned sour and all too soon they were all broke:

“They were growing wheat, and the first season there was a late frost which destroyed the crop, and the next year a disastrous drought, and there were not enough returns to pay the interest, nor the payments on the very expensive machinery … These were the first years of our married life… The conditions were very harsh, I would almost call it pioneering.”

Maps from Google Earth

Life remained difficult with Cuthbert working extremely hard but events conspiring. There were times when Sara and Cuthbert and their six children were having to depend on family support but they stayed together as a family unit.

“Looking back over the long difficult years from the calm seas of the present, I feel the truth of the saying ‘There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew it as we may.’ [Hamlet, Act V, Scene II]

Family was always important to Sara. Her memoirs are littered with references to her brothers and sisters, her parents’ brothers and sisters and, of course, her own children. Despite the hard life they experienced in Australia, all six of Sara and Cuthbert’s children lived to full maturity. Despite the geographical distance that separated Sara from her own siblings, they remained in contact. In 1955, they met together in England, the first time they had done so since 1909.

Images supplied by family

Sara wrote her memoirs in the year she died. Cuthbert had died in 1968 and Sara followed him in August 1970. The McMickings have a private family cemetery at Manus and Sara’s ashes are interred there.

 

http://www.australiancemeteries.com.au/nsw/tumbarumba/mannus.htm photo by Faithe Jones

But the last words should be Sara’s:

“… I don’t think, given the same circumstances, that we could have ordered our lives any differently. I am proud of the way my family has turned out – children and grandchildren alike – and I hope you can remain a well related family group and live in harmony.”