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 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.
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.
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.