Edith D’s story

For much of the 20th century, school head teachers were supposed to be formidable and particularly scary, so a visit to them or even just an interaction should have put the fear of God into a pupil. However, Miss (Edith) Denne, who was the first head of Chippenham’s Girls High School in 1956, still has a reputation among women of the town for being particularly fierce and terrifying. The school buildings have now been incorporated into the town’s Hardenhuish School, but the girls’ school she founded fully came to an end in 1976.

Miss Denne May 1950 picture

Edith in 1950

Like any scary teacher though, Edith was in fact only human – although that fact often does not occur to pupils – and had a life before and outside the school she presided over. She gained a science degree at a time when women attending university was still very rare, and science was still considered mostly a boy’s subject. She even at one point joined a convent. And had taught at various other schools before appearing in Chippenham.

Edith Cassia was the first child of her father’s second family, born in 1906 in a village just outside Canterbury. She was followed four years later by her brother William. Her father had previously been married to a woman named Harriet, and Edith and William had older half-siblings – Esther, Amelia and Percy – who appeared not to live with them while growing up by virtue of being much older. Harriet had died in 1903, and Edith’s father (a bricklayer employed by Canterbury cathedral) married her mother Emma in 1905. Both were from Kent, born and bred.

Edith, who was perhaps known to her parents as Cassia, was educated at Simon Langton Girls Grammar School in Canterbury, being bright enough to pass the entrance requirements and rise to the top of the school. This school still exists, although the buildings Edith would have attended were destroyed in the Second World War. Her father died in 1917, when he was 60 and Edith was around 11, and as such would have been too old to fight in the First World War. Edith, once she had finished school then went on to the University of London, and gained a BSc in the sciences in the early 1920s. She took her mother with her.

Chippenham Girls High School appeared not to keep a record of their staff’s careers before joining the school – this was often more common to long-established grammar schools – so it is impossible to trace Edith’s full career before she arrived in Chippenham. However, a newspaper articles reporting her headship of a previous school have given some clues to where she taught and lived.

She began her teaching career in 1928 after completing her degree. Going in to teaching was often the choice of bright young women coming out of university at this time, as it enabled learning to continue and gave the chance to impart what you’d learned so far to young minds. A degree was not required to become a teacher, particularly for women, but it did mark out women as committed and ambitious. There was also a marriage bar for female teachers at this time, meaning that if Edith had married she would have not been able to keep her job. However, that does not have been a consideration for Edith. This bar was removed for the London school boards in 1935, but not for the rest of the country until 1944.

Whether it was her first teaching job or not, by the late 1930s Edith was on the staff of Dame Alice Owen’s School in Islington. She was living with her mother Emma in Hendon for much of that decade, so it’s possible that her first teaching jobs were closer to there. By 1939 she was established as very much a part of Dame Alice Owen’s as the biology mistress.

DAOS girls school

The original Dame Alice Owens Girls’ School, which Edith taught at

At the outset of the Second World War, the school moved as one to Kettering in Northamptonshire, taking all the teachers and evacuating the students. Edith initially lived in Kettering, in digs alongside the school secretary Rita. Her mother went to Harpenden in Hertfordshire instead, so they were separated, at least initially. About a year later the boys part of the school moved to Bedford, where it remained for the rest of the war, but the girls stayed in Kettering – alongside various other evacuated schools from London, including St Aloysius’ Covent School, two Catholic primary schools and Clark’s Secretarial College.

One of her pupils, Veronica Pinckard, remembered an incident involving Edith during these years.

“On our way to school one lovely, hot sunny day, my friends and I were enjoying an ice-cream cone when we spotted Miss Denne, our biology mistress. They threw theirs in the gutter, but I was a thrifty little soul and hated waste. Putting it in my pocket was a messy idea and hiding it behind my back seemed childish, so I brazened it out. Miss Denne was furious. ‘Eating in the street – in uniform – without gloves, Veronica is very low class. You shall not make a mockery of Dame Alice Owen’s. You will report to the headmistress immediately.’ She confiscated my blaze and straw hat, which was pointless as I was wearing the very distinctive saxe blue dress with the school emblem emblazoned on the breast pocket. Everyone in town knew which school we belonged to.

Miss Bozman, the headmistress, scolded me rather gently, told me to be more circumspect, reminded me to wear gloves at all times and not to eat ice cream in public. It was unladylike, and I must always uphold the traditions of our illustrious school. Then with my promise to do just that, she gave me back my blazer and hat.”

(Veronica Pinckard, A Damn Fine Growth, published 2012)

Veronica, perhaps understandably given this incident, had no love for Edith, describing her as “mean”, and as someone who delighted in dissecting insects and frogs as part of her biology lessons.

This episode shows the respect for ladylike qualities, and class boundaries, that were expected of young women at the time, and that had been bred and enforced into women like Edith. Teachers considered it their moral duty to enforce these morals into their charges, and were rarely off duty. Eating in the street was seen as vulgar, and uncouth, much as being improperly dressed without a hat and gloves, and was part of a peculiarly British sense of morals, and all about outward appearances.

The original Dame Alice Owen’s School girls’ buildings were bombed in 1940, so the school did not return until 1945. Edith went back to London with them, and her classrooms were now temporary huts on the former school site. She rose to become their senior science mistress, and lived in Finsbury with her friend Rita.

In 1950, fancying a change, Edith took on her first school headship. She moved to become the third headmistress of the girls’ part of the Silver Jubilee Schools in Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk. The schools, established in 1935 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of George V having the British throne, were at this stage part of the Secondary Modern schools that had been created in the tripartite system in 1944, providing a general extended secondary education and training for pupils not expected to go on to higher education. In the early days of these schools, the provision was continuing the elementary school style education that had flourished since the 19th century, but gradually more ideas were added to the curriculum and in some towns the main employers would have an influence on the skills the children learnt.

Here, under Edith’s jurisdiction, the sexes were kept strictly separate at the school, with a white dividing line in the playground. In addition to further English, Maths, Science, Scripture and some humanities subjects, the girls studied commercial, secretarial and nursing courses. Domestic science, often the backbone of girls’ education at the time, was also heavy in the curriculum, which would have encompassed food technology and techniques, textiles, and other home economics skills.

Edith Denne prefects 1953

Edith (left) with prefects at the Silver Jubilee School in 1953/4

Four years later, having been well respected in the town as the head mistress of the school, Edith decided on a full career change. She left the world of schools behind, resigning her head teacher position, and planned to enter a convent.

At this stage, in 1954, she was 48 and at the top of her profession – and may have felt that the life of a nun was right for her in terms of both spiritual and career fulfilment. She would also have long gone past the age where most women of the time expected to marry, even though she could now do so and keep her job. Or this may have been a long cherished ambition for her. Whatever her reasoning, she handed over her Bury St Edmunds school over to the next head teacher Edith Crocker, and prepared to take holy orders.

Exactly what happened next is not known, but Edith did not last more than two years in the convent. Whether being a nun was not what she expected it to be, or she missed teaching too much, she returned to teaching in 1956. She took on the position of head teacher at the brand new girl’s high school – another secondary modern establishment – in Chippenham, a market town in Wiltshire.

Chippenham Girls High School was opened 10 September 1956, by education secretary and Chippenham MP Sir David Eccles and his wife Sybil, taking the girls away from the mixed secondary modern which had operated out of the old grammar school site on Cocklebury Road since the Chippenham Temporary Senior School was formed in November 1940.

Sir David Eccles, MP for Chippenham, and his wife Sybil. Both signed the school log book.

The new building was close to the buildings that the grammar school had moved to in 1939, and had been purpose-built for their use. Four years of schooling were offered at the time, from 11 until the school leaving age, which was then around 14, so at the end of what was is now called Year 10. There were 486 girls on the roll at the beginning of the school, with 22 teaching staff and a school secretary. They offered English, maths, science, music, history, and a LOT of domestic science. With a nod towards the surrounding area, the school also offered rural subjects. They supported some girls who had already started work towards their GCE – but the ambition of Edith and her school was to further improve the depth of the education offered to the girls of the town. The staff wanted to aim for the University of Cambridge courses, not the Associated Board syllabus that they had been working to before, and one of the first subjects discussed at staff meetings was the provision of advanced courses (beyond the GCE examinations) in Secondary Modern Schools.

Hardenhuish staff Sept 1956

This came to fruition quickly – two years after the school’s founding, in 1958, there were over 600 girls on the roll, and the school offered a Fifth Form and even had a lower Sixth Form. And by 1959 there was a full opportunity for girls to study either for GCE, general subjects, or practical courses, and they were streamed accordingly. Shortly after this commercial subjects were added to the senior school provision.

In terms of school life, Edith’s log book regularly records sports matches against other local secondary modern schools – those in Melksham, Malmesbury and Calne most often – and athletics tournaments, with educational trips and visits from speakers intended to inspire the pupils. For example, a representative of Simplicity Dress Patterns (clothes making was an important skill when very little came ready-made) visited in October 1958, and the school held a fashion show to demonstrate the skills they’d learned, and in 1966 they hosted Flying Officer PL Sturgess of the WRAF to talk to the girls about opportunities in the armed forces. And in July 1959 the BBC radio discussion programme “It’s My Opinion” was broadcast from the school hall. Some pupils remember that when the neighbouring boys’ school opened across the field at what is today Sheldon School, Edith altered the start and finish times of the school to discourage her girls from spending time with the boys on the way to and from school.

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The buildings used for Chippenham Girls’ High School

Edith remained at the school until the summer of 1966, having presided over some initial discussions about integrating secondary education in the town a couple of years earlier, although this did not take place for several more years. She’d had a period of ill health just after Christmas in 1966, and had lost her mother the previous year, so at the age of 60 took retirement. There was a presentation made for her in that July, with guests served tea in the library afterwards.

She returned to the school at least once more, to talk about its history at a celebration event in 1975, alongside second head teacher Miss Wilkins.

Edith spent her last years by the sea, on the south coast of England at Worthing in Sussex, and died there in 1991, aged 85.

One thought on “Edith D’s story

  1. I wonder if she had a health issue that drove her to the convent? That would be a good way of disguising anything that might have been controversial at the time (such as mental health or a pregnancy, though at 48 I should think the latter was unlikely) And, when I was at my village school in the 1970s we still had a playground division of boys and girls, enforced by our very cruel headmistress, until she retired and we had a new head arrive. He took the school cane out on his first day, snapped it in two saying ‘we won’t be having any more of that’ and immediately won us all over!

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