Marion was at the forefront of new art teaching in elementary schools in the 1930s, but her contribution has been eclipsed by that of her rather better-known colleague Robin Tanner, and her part in this teaching epoch has been buried – possibly as her medium, needlework, was not considered worthy of a traditional art focus either then or now, and instead is often viewed merely as a woman’s practical skill.
She was born in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in the summer of 1902 – the fourth child and second daughter of an insurance agent and his wife. The family were almost certainly non-conformists in religion – Marion’s older sister was baptised in a Methodist church, and Marion herself was later reprimanded for teaching scripture lessons from the perspective of a non-CofE denomination. After moving when she was small, she was brought up in Chippenham, a well-connected Wiltshire market town, and would probably have been initially educated at St Paul’s elementary school, just across the road from her family’s home.
In her teens she decided to train as a teacher, and went to Salisbury Teacher Training College, an institution that trained women teachers for National Schools. Here she would have been given two years’ training to instruct children in English, history, geography, music, needlework, arithmetic, drawing, domestic economy and scripture – all subjects that were felt essential for children’s basic education at the beginning of the 1920s.
It’s likely that her first job post-training was at Melksham Boy’s National School, in a town about six miles away from home, but the log book of this institution for that period is not available. In September 1923, the boys’ school amalgamated with the girls’ school, and Marion is on the staff of this new school – the head teacher’s comments about her in the school log book perhaps indicate a longer acquaintance, and she is certainly not on the staff of the previous girls’ school, which leads to the assumption that she had taught at the boys’ school.
At this newly amalgamated school, Marion taught Standards I and II and was an assistant mistress. She left her post in the summer of 1924, with no reason given – there is nothing in her personal life that would indicate why she quit. She did not get married, which was the usual reason young women teachers resigned, as a marriage bar prohibited them from working, nor did she transfer to another school. The head writes: “The departure of Miss Young from this school is a matter of deep regret to all. She has rendered extremely loyal service during her period of service at this school.”
Marion returned to the same school a year later, with no remark made upon her return, and taught there until the winter of 1930, when she secured a post at a school back in Chippenham, where she was still living.
This school was Ivy Lane Elementary School, which had Robin Tanner on the staff at that time. Tanner – an etcher and artist whose work was starting to be noticed – had been at the school for about six months, and was beginning to work with the pupils on arts and design, book binding, and painting on enamel. To this portfolio he later added weaving, with the school purchasing its own loom to achieve this. The headteacher, seeing the benefits for his pupils of this creative outlet, encouraged Tanner to include the girls’ decorative work from the needlework classes in this design work – and to this end he worked with Marion as she was the school’s needlework specialist.
Needlework at this time was very much seen as a practical skill, with utilitarian needs, and part of a preparation for girls’ future lives as wives and mothers. Because it was viewed as a woman’s skill, the decorative aspect of needlework was not considered as art in the traditional sense, but the work of Robin and Marion together changed this for pupils at Ivy Lane Elementary at least, and later displayed this to the education community nationally.
A report of late 1930 says that a striking feature of the art teaching at the school is the linking up of design with decorative needlework, and in 1931 the headteacher of Ivy Lane – Frederick Hinton – remarks that: “Mr Tanner and Miss Young have co-operated and the lessons in Design and in Needlework have been correlated with remarkably pleasing results.” He also notes that as a result of this collaboration, the girls in the school are showing a much greater interest in art and design, and that the approach was helping remedial children in the school to feel more confident about their work.
There is no doubt that Robin Tanner was the driving force behind the new approaches to art within the school, but he was ably supported and embellished by Marion’s skills. Indeed, the work going on at the school started to be noticed – initially by local schools’ inspectors within Wiltshire, and then further afield. An exhibition of the school’s handicraft, art and needlework led to senior inspectors visiting the school directly to look at the work. Then a party of students from the Salisbury Teacher Training College came to visit the school, and every class worked on art for an afternoon with them. Packages of artwork, including needlework, were sent to education conferences elsewhere – the work went as far as Dartington and Truro in the south of the country, and Durham and Newcastle in the north. Principals of art schools also visited the school, as did specialist art lecturers, and in 1934 the needlework was borrowed for a course by the Board of Education. This achievement by Robin and Marion, alongside Miss Miles, another needlework teacher who joined in the work later, brought the school to national renown. One famous comment was that those seeing the exhibited work could not believe that they had been done by children.
Robin Tanner left Ivy Lane Elementary School in 1935 to become an inspector of schools himself, and the requests for exhibited art and needlework dried up almost immediately. A new art master took over, but there is no further mention of decorative needlework being combined with art teaching. Instead, Marion’s speciality at the school became Physical Training – the older name for PE – and she attended various courses to improve the instruction for the pupils.
Towards the tail end of 1940, with Chippenham’s schools already overcrowded and waves of evacuees swelling pupil numbers still further, education in the town was reorganised. The three highest forms from all the town’s elementary schools formed a new temporary senior school, based in a building that Chippenham’s grammar school had recently vacated, and Marion’s teaching job moved to this new school. Here she remained a PT specialist, while still providing class-based general education for the 11-14-year-olds still in the elementary system.
The school drew children from across the town, some of them travelling a great distance to attend, which meant that the traditional dinner interval where children went home for a hot meal was more difficult. Until the second world war every child went home for lunch, and were given up to an hour and a half to achieve this, but rationing of food meant that collective ways to eat were becoming more popular as nicer meals were achievable if everyone’s share was amalgamated. The temporary senior school established their own canteen to provide hot meals for the children, with their own cook and Marion as the staff member in charge of the venture.
The blitz on Bath of 27/28 April 1942 meant that the gas supply to the surrounding area was cut off – including Chippenham. Marion worked with the cook, Mrs Whittle, and a troop of New Zealand soldiers that were also stationed at the temporary senior school building at that point in the war, to ensure that every child had a hot meal that day. This involved cooking in pots over camp fires.
The Butler Education Act of 1944 formalised Chippenham’s Temporary Senior School into a mixed Secondary Modern School. This also gradually moved the education format from class-based general teaching to separate subject specialisms – and Marion, as a senior assistant mistress, was still the PT specialist for the school. The marriage bar for women teachers was also lifted that year, meaning that Marion and her colleagues could marry and keep their jobs. However, at 42 she may have felt that marriage was not an option open to her. Nonetheless, it was Marion who was nominated to attend courses on how to deliver sex education to her pupils.
The school split in 1956, with the boys remaining in the old grammar school building and the Girls’ Secondary Modern School moving to new premises at Hardenhuish. Marion went to teach in this new girls’ school, as the most senior assistant mistress (today’s equivalent to a Deputy Headteacher). By this stage her specialism was English.
Here she remained as a prominent member of staff for another eight years, until retirement in 1964. When she left the school had a special assembly for her, and she was presented with a record player and record case. The staff also had a party for her in the school library.
She died at the tail end of the 1970s, having lived with her widowed sister in a sizable house, and left a great deal of money. She is buried in Chippenham’s St Paul’s churchyard, alongside her parents and one of her brothers.
The image accompanying this post is by Hannah Hill.
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