T. WEBB (nee Joseph, 1891-1893)

T. WEBB1 (nee Joseph, 1891-1893)

Miss Douglas has asked me to contribute some account of the school as I knew it in 1891 to 1893, and my H.M.’s request must, of course, be for all time to me a command, though it reach me when I am grey-headed and in a state of mental decrepitude. But, like all old people’s memories, my memory is vivid and adequately accurate for the events of my youth. I find it difficult, however, to know what to say, and one cannot avoid, if one is to write anything at all, writing of trivialities.

When I went to the Godolphin, the present school on the top of the, hill was only just built, and Miss Douglas had been head mistress barely two years. Her family and mine were old friends, living as they had in not very distant parts of Worcestershire. In those days it was not very usual for girls to leave home to follow a professional career, and to me it was a wide life of rather splendid enterprise on which Mary Douglas had embarked. My father had been keenly interested in her candidature for the head-mistress­ship, and knew and appreciated the good fortune of the school in securing her. But (perhaps because he calculated that he had only four daughters as against Canon Douglas’s eight) he did not look favourably on my aspirations to follow in her steps. To-day, when it is taken for granted that girls as well as boys should be prepared for a career of indepen­dence, the home claims are easily and naturally put aside, even if they are admitted to exist. It was not so forty years ago. I can remember how some of the parents of my friends and contemporaries were puzzled and even shocked and fearful of the future for me when I did take up teaching. And girls to-day, who can run a cafe or a dressmaking shop without fear of any sort of social ostracism, can hardly realise how great is the change of attitude about such things, or indeed what they owe to those girls who, like Mary Douglas, quietly and unassumingly proved that gentlewomen need lose nothing of their dignity because they followed a professional career, and were ready, not only to do useful work, but to earn their own living. To­day, to the onlooker who remembers forty years back, it would seem that the emphasis is changed. Then a girl did not surprise her elders or her social world so much by wanting to do service to her generation as by desiring financial independence gained by her own exertions; to-day the first desire seems less common than the second, and even receives less encouragement in many cases-but that is by the way. It was not very long before I was unexpectedly free to leave home, and that Miss Douglas wrote and asked me whether I would like to try a ‘prentice hand at teaching. There was no doubt in my mind about my desires, and since I had been doing some work at history at home and had done well in the Cambridge Higher Local Examinations, I was encouraged to try, and so, in the beginning of the autumn term, 1891, I went to Salisbury.

Such innumerable vivid mental pictures rise before one as one writes : the warm, rather low, red-brick buildings (formally opened during the term); the walk from the house where I lived my first term with Mrs. Headlam and her daughters, her wonderful old mother, Mrs. Beamish-such a racy, keen, vivacious old Irish lady-and one weekly boarder, Mary Stratton; luncheon interval at school in the cloak-room; prayers at school (the chant to which the psalm at afternoon prayers was sung I can never hear without all the associations of that time coming over me), the darkening of an autumn afternoon, the feeling of the religious purpose lying behind the adventure to which Mary Douglas was committed by what was, to her, so great and exciting an undertaking, in which I was playing my small part; the effect on one of services in the Cathedral, with the light coming through the beautiful old blue glass in the west window. I wonder, does the choir still chant the response in the Litany: “We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord,” in the manner peculiar (as far as my experience goes) to them, with the raised last note which used to go echoing along the roof down the nave? – all these were among the oft-repeated experiences. Then there are isolated memories which stick. For example, I can still see a little scene in Miss Douglas’s sitting-room which served then as her office-and what a pleasant room it was. Miss Douglas, sitting at her desk, her head turned to interview this new and inexperienced member of her staff-myself. The familiarity of old family friendship had to give way exter­nally to the new, official relationship. “I suppose,” I said, as the interview was ending, “you would wish me to wear a bonnet on Sundays?” Now, my elder sister and all really well-behaved, grown-up young ladies wore bonnets on Sundays, but so far I had not done so, but I had, with pride, bought one now, and I looked forward with some complacence to the wearing of it, though I tried to prevent any undignified concern escaping me in the tone of my voice. Did I detect a twinkle in the corner of the head mistress’ eye as she replied: “Oh, perhaps, yes, it would be better”? I wore it that term and appeared in it at home in church on Sunday in the holidays. And the rector’s wife (her daughters, Olive and Audrey and Naomi Peake, went later on to the Godolphin) most undeniably twinkled when she looked at me and said: “School-marm, little school-marm!” Perhaps the fashion was already changing ; anyhow, I never wore out that bonnet and never had another.

Then the first occasion on which I had to take an extraordinary lesson called dates, if I remember right, with the top forms. It consisted in bombarding the girls with statistical questions, mostly of historical facts; and one had to have so many at one’s finger-ends to make them last out. The mistress’ desk was raised on a platform just on the left of the hall as one entered, and the girls faced one and the entrance door. I can see many of those girls now as clearly as if they were still before me waiting for the next bolt to be shot at them. Mea Edwards, Evelyn Bloom, Violet Wyld, Ethel Sly, and others. It was a dreadful ordeal, but we all got through it, and I dare say it was useful after all to get some hard facts well into one’s head. There were history lessons given there, too. I still recall the glowing eyes of Winifred Horder over an allusion I made to the nineteenth century Oxford Movement in the course of a lesson on an earlier religious movement connected with the ancient university. She came to me afterwards and told me she thought Newman’s Apologia the most moving and wonderful book ever written. She could not have been more than sixteen and had been brought up in a religious atmosphere in which such a discovery must have been due to real individuality of mind. Then the staff. Them, too, I see as they were then : Gertrude Edwards, with her amusing, amused talk (after the first term I lived in the mistresses’ house at Millbrook, so delightful by day with its outlook towards Laverstock, so terrible at night when one had to face a swarm of black beetles to get hot water from the kitchen); Ethel Jones, with her frank honesty and her lovely hair; dear little Fraulein Bechler, who rubbed up my German grammar for the Women’s Preliminary Examination, when I was about to try for entrance into Somerville College at Oxford; A. K. and P. M. Wood, such a contrast as sisters – A. K. large in person and gesture, P. M. so small, precise, and exact, with a real love for the nicenesses of classical scholarship. I owe it to her that I can still just follow the New Testament in Greek ; Miss Spiller, whom I remember her doctor set me to nurse, and I learnt my first lesson in wringing out and applying hot fomentations ; and Maud Headlam, in a delightful bright red dress for best ! She and I were both newcomers. I don’t know if she had taught already, but she had no difficulties with gay, irresponsible youngsters, unless her amazing and apparently almost unconsciously exercised powers of petrifaction were difficulties. She and I, I remember, decided, that we neither of us really desired to become head mistresses, but that probably we both ought to, and should do so; and we both did, if I only for two years before I married, and she not, I think, for many years before she retired into private life. Then St. Mar­garet’s, the Boarding House, and “Miss Lucy” at the head of it. Miss Lucy, an authority, the H.M.’s special sister, not on the throne, but so near it; what a refuge in diffi­culties for all and sundry, and what fun she was!

And then the Salisbury people, who were so kind to one. Miss Fawcett, Mrs. Wordsworth, Mrs. Carpenter, Mrs. Bennett, Canon and Mrs. Bernard, Canon Swayne, with whom, in his lovely house and garden in the Close, and later in his modern house and newly created garden at Branksome, I stayed. And those one knew less well, some only just to speak to: the Dean and Mrs. Boyle, Canon and Lady Ellen Gordon, Dr. Bourne – they are too many to mention, and few of them remain with us. How much one owes them for the kindness that helped to widen one’s mind and outlook, to give one much that one might easily miss living in what may be a somewhat narrow routine and circle of interests.

But one must stop somewhere, and I will end by recalling my memory of the opening of the new school buildings during my first term. I do not remember now the exact order of proceedings, but the opening function itself took place in what must have been, of course, the hall. There was the young head mistress, looking perhaps even younger than her thirty years, and looking also (I am sure it was not merely the halo of office which cast a glamour about her) not only very young but very dignified. There was Lord Nelson, who performed the chief part, and the other Governors; but what stays in my mind and remains a moving impression still is the speech of Canon Douglas, the head mistress’ father. After some remarks which I do not clearly remember, he spoke of his daughter. He hesitated and then, with a complete simplicity and sincerity of emotion, he said words to this effect: “She has always been a good child at home, and I believe she will do her duty as head mistress of this school.” Did he mean, I have wondered in later years, long after both Mary Douglas’s and my own father have gone to their rest, had he not in mind very much what my father was meaning when more than once he quoted to me the lines: “True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home”?

Eight years ago I went down to Salisbury for two nights, just to be at the school again after twenty-eight years’ interval, before Mary Douglas ceased to be its head mistress. My own twenty months there were so short and so long ago; but they had meant for me the beginning of so much: of going to Oxford and taking the History Schools there before seriously undertaking a professional career-and it was at Oxford that I met my future husband, who ultimately ended it for me. Much water had, indeed, flowed under the bridge since then, and in how many lives had not the associations and traditions of the school played and still were and are playing a great and important part? I have always urged that no one should, if she (or he) can possibly avoid it, take up teaching if she does not feel drawn to it, and I believe that there are many good teachers who enjoy teaching, who yet are not adapted for the career of school mistresses; but how glad and thankful one is that there have been and are women who can make a school what the Godolphin School has been for so many hundreds of women, and what we believe it is and will be for their children and for generations of girls yet to come.

1 Wife of Professor Clement Webb of Oxford.


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