Aileen F’s story

A school-marm has a particular historical resonance, and immediately conjures a vision of an older unmarried woman with a sour expression and a mortar board – but women of this tradition were often regarded as some of the very best and most beloved teachers, and this reputation could sometimes be traded upon to build an extensive career.

One of the very first Oxford female graduates, early 20th century teacher Aileen was regarded as “formidable” and taught at various British and American institutions, then went on to found her own British-style Catholic boarding school in the eastern United States – complete with British values, cold dormitories and chilblains.

She came from an Irish background – her father came from Waterford and her mother from Dublin – but her father’s employment as a railway clerk and then an accountant seems to indicate that their emigration to the London area was not directly from the labouring class in search of better work. Both parents arrived in Britain at some point before 1891, and while her father went straight into clerical work, her mother appears to have taught at a convent school in Edinburgh before they married.

Aileen was the middle child of five – two older brothers and one younger survived childhood, but her younger sister did not – and was born at the very tail end of the 19th century. With a family home in Woolwich, all the children were well educated. From the ages of nine to 18, Aileen was boarding at St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine foundation at Princethorpe, near Rugby in Warwickshire. The building here now forms part of the modern Princethorpe school. The mother superior at the institution was French, while the nuns came from all over the globe – Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, India, and even Mexico. Aileen was one of 41 students being educated here in 1911, in a large community of nuns, and it may be that becoming a nun was her original plan.

Miss-Farrell

Aileen at her teacher’s desk

However, her obvious intelligence led to further study. She joined the University of Oxford Society of Home Students in 1917 to further her studies. Although women were allowed to study at the university, due to their gender they were not allowed to be admitted to the university – in other words be given their degree – until 1921. Trinity College Dublin, which – as the whole of Ireland was part of the UK until this era – was considered on a par with Oxford and Cambridge admitted women to their degrees from 1904, but Cambridge did not follow suit until 1947. Aileen was housed at St Frideswide’s, a large hostel at Cherwell Edge, run by the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus along with many other young Catholic women. Aileen would have gone to Oxford expecting to just follow a course of lectures, but reforms in 1920 meant that she would qualify for her degree in English Language and Literature and be given it – and she received it, one of the first women to do so, in 1921. The Society of Home Students became St Anne’s College at Oxford in 1942.

As one of the first Oxford women graduates, this status opened doors for Aileen. While one of her older brothers went to work in China in 1919, having served in the navy in the First World War, was awarded Master of Foreign-Going Steamships in 1923, she got her first teaching job at Hays School, at Shaftesbury in Wiltshire, in 1921. After this, Aileen took up a teaching position in the United States and relocated there in 1923.

Arriving in New York in early autumn of that year, she became part of the staff of Marymount College in Tarrytown, located up the Hudson River about 25 miles north of the main city. This was founded as a boarding school by Mother Marie Joseph Butler in 1907, and educated Catholic girls. Aileen was 25, unmarried – as was required for a female teacher at that time – and her well-educated convent background would have been seen as an asset to the school. She remained at Marymount until the summer of 1925, when she returned home.

She arrived back in America the following autumn, and took up a teaching position at Foxcroft School in Virginia. This prestigious boarding and day school educated girls from well-connected families, and took pupils from the ages of around 13 to 18, preparing them for college. Aileen worked alongside founding headteacher Charlotte Haxall Noland, and the school famously educated Wallis Simpson.

She appears to have come home every summer, but in 1928 she stayed in the UK rather than heading back to America. She gained a position at the County School, a grammar school a world away from the boarding schools she’d previously worked in, in the Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon. This school, where she taught English to 11-18 year olds, had many more male teachers than she would previously have worked with, and rather than being an exclusive boarding school for those who could afford it instead educated those children of the town who had passed an exam for entrance. The school later became Fitzmaurice Grammar School.

Fitz Aerial view

The County School, later Fitzmaurice Grammar, in Bradford on Avon

However, it seems this position did not suit her well. She wrote a letter of resignation in June 1929, saying that she had been offered another very good position in the United States, and “owing to family reasons I do not feel justified in refusing”. Exactly what her family situation was at this time is open to suggestion – both older brothers were happily settled in professions, her younger brother was also working as a school teacher, and her parents both appear healthy – but leave she did.

Exactly what the teaching position Aileen was offered in the US to tempt her back is unclear. The founder of Marymount College had founded a connected girls day school in Manhattan in 1926, so it is possible that a job here was offered, but it equally could have been any other school in the eastern US.

In 1930, with around ten years of teaching behind her, she established her own boarding school in the US. Foxhollow School was founded at Rhinebeck in Dutchess County in New York State, another part of the Hudson River Valley, but north of Tarrytown. The house she acquired had previously belonged to Tracy Dows, the son of a successful Manhattan grain merchant, who had commissioned the building in 1910 from architect Harrie T Lindeberg. The family had fallen on hard times during the Wall Street Crash, and Aileen was able to purchase the estate for her school.

Foxhollow farm

Foxhollow Farm, the original home of Aileen’s school

Foxhollow School was a college preparatory school, so catered for girls in the final four years of American schooling. Aileen was known as a proper Brit, with values, accent and manners to match – which probably helped cement the exclusive and top-quality nature that went with the reputation of British-style boarding schools.

British schools, especially private (also called “public”) schools with boarding facilities, have always held an enviable international reputation as the best places to educate children. Elite families around the globe, especially those from countries in the former British empire, would package up their children on a ship and send them to school with a tuck box, and only see them again during the holidays. As did many British parents too. For (literary) examples of this phenomena see books by Angela Brazil, Charles Hamilton, or Enid Blyton.

A by-product of the esteem these schools were held in was that teachers associated with the British grammar and public school tradition could usually find themselves held in high renown if they took a position in a foreign school, and even values that we would today frown upon could be upheld if they came from the British Boarding School tradition. For example, Aileen’s pupils apparently complained of chilblains from the coldness of their dormitories, but were told that this was to be expected of a school of this character, and to buck up and suffer in silence as girls had done for decades previously.

When the first Jewish refugees from the Nazis started to arrive in the US in 1933, Aileen felt it was her moral duty to help them. She offered refugees temporary jobs at her school until they could find something better. She reportedly despised Nazis.

In 1939 Aileen chose to move her school from New York state to Massachusetts, but kept the original name – so Foxhollow School was resident at Holmwood, the former estate of the Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt family in Lennox. This was a much bigger property, with 47 rooms, so shows that the school was doing well and expanding. Vandebilt, who had died on the Lusitania in 1915, never actually lived in the house. His widow, Margaret, had bought it after his death, had it remodelled, and had lived there with two subsequent husbands.

Holmwood-Foxhollow1

Holmwood, which Aileen’s school took over in 1939

margaret emerson

Margaret Emerson, widow of Alfred Gwynne Vandebilt

As the school had continued to expand, Aileen looked at other nearby properties to take over, particularly as some of the classrooms and a stable suffered some fire damage in late 1941. Adjoining Holmwood was The Mount, which had originally belonged to writer Edith Wharton, which Aileen was able to buy for a reasonable price, and boarded girls in their junior and senior years of the high school system in the servants’ sleeping quarters in the attic and the first floor bedrooms. A chemistry lab was established in The Mount’s kitchen, and four older girls shared the room that had previously been Wharton’s bedroom – even with her original decorated panels in situ. On Sundays, senior girls were allowed to sit and read quietly in what had been Wharton’s private library.

The mount

The Mount, former home of Edith Wharton

The school also had extensive stables, based in the original buildings at The Mount estate. Riding was seen as an important part of school life at Foxhollow.

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Pupils riding at Foxhollow

Aileen herself has been described as “formidable”, “charmingly British”, “strict and proper” and a “grande dame”. She was an established presence in local town life, and – despite living in America for most of her life – never gave up her British citizenship. She had a limousine and a chauffeur, and would send them to the airport to pick up visitors – including her younger brother when he came over to visit her.

The school girls were allowed to have dances with neighbouring boys’ schools, to socialise the pupils and teach them how dance. At one of these Aileen is supposed to have leaned over to a male chaperone from The Berkshire School, and asked him “can you tell me, is the word “fuck” still in common usage?”.

The school gradually lost a number of pupils as the image of British boarding school education faded, and eventually closed in 1976. Aileen had retired as headteacher in 1970, and had placed the school buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Holmwood building was then used as an inn, and has now been converted into apartments. The Mount has been restored to the glory days of Edith Wharton’s era, and is now a visitor centre dedicated to her life and work.

Aileen had never married. Neither had two of her brothers. One brother did, but there do not appear to have been any children. She continued to live in Lenox, Massachusetts, until her death in 1981 in her early 80s. She left no survivors, but a considerable legacy.

Maysie’s story

Maysie was born Edith May, but was perhaps best known as “Mrs Pender Chalmers”.

Flying, society life, and an expertise in electrical engineering were defining factors in Maysie’s life, but all this appears to have ended due to society stigma around divorce in the 1930s.

Maysie was very much a twentieth century woman, growing up with the century and all of its developments. She was born in the 1890s, in North Wales, the only child of a doctor and his wife. The family were practising Quakers, and attended meeting in St Helens. Her mother, who was Liverpudlian, had family and friends in the city who Maysie spent time with, and she was educated at The Queens School in Chester, probably boarding there. In an era where the majority of people left school in their early teens, Maysie continued to study until she was at least 17.

After her father’s death in 1912, she appears to have relocated to London – this may have been to continue studies, or a move with her mother into society having inherited a reasonable amount to live on. She became an actress, with the Louis Waller Players, and toured with his company around the country to good reviews. In 1915 she was featured as a beautiful woman on a series of cigarette cards.

maysie burlingham

Cigarette card photo of Maysie, April 1915

Although obviously bright and educated, she nonetheless fulfilled the good match that society dictated for women of her background at the time. She married a Brazillian-born British engineer, John, who had been working in electrics in the mines of Brazil but had come back to the UK on the outbreak of war in 1914. She had previously been engaged to his brother, but on meeting John – more often known as Bill – this fell apart. The brother married someone else. Bill signed up for the Royal Engineers, and he and Maysie tied to the knot in London in the summer of 1915. Maysie became Mrs Pender Chalmers. She wanted to continue acting, and indeed did so for a time, but Bill disapproved and she ended this part of her career.

Maysie Tatler April 1915

While her new husband was sent to France on active service, Maysie appears to have spent the duration of the First World War at his family’s residence in Lyme Regis, Dorset. The house overlooks the sea, and while its unknown entirely how she spent this time its certain she had a beautiful view during these years. There was a baby who apparently lived for a day, and a subsequent miscarriage, but no further children. Maysie may well also have been furthering her studies – the changing culture around women working during the war years meant that many were able to get a start in the workplace and challenge long-held views. Electrical engineering in particular, as a new and far less established field with no male-dominated hierarchy, offered opportunities for women. She took a correspondence course in engineering at some point during these years.

Indeed, it’s as an electrical engineer that Maysie first comes to the fore as Mrs Pender Chalmers. She and Bill – who practised as an engineer in Lyme Regis when he returned to civilian life, but also continued some work in Brazil, taking her with him on at least one occasion – moved to London over the course of the 1920s. He established a practice at College Street, and Maysie’s name was associated at that address, so she probably worked in practice with him.

The first mention of Maysie as an engineer in her own right is in 1931, when The Vote publication – the newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League – summarised the most recent issue of The Woman Engineer, and identifies her as a director of Electric Super-Service Co. Ltd. That issue of The Woman Engineer, the mouthpiece of the Women’s Engineering Society, had an article written by Maysie herself that focussed on women’s role in the technical side of aviation. Bill had got his Royal Aero Club Aviator certificate in 1928, and while she didn’t appear to be a pilot herself at this stage (there’s no parallel certificate for her, so she probably navigated) she had taken a short course on Maintenance of Aircraft at the London Aeroplane Club and was advocating women to achieve the Ground Engineer’s License.

“Only four women in the whole of the British Isles today hold the much coveted Ground Engineer’s License, and it may fairly be said that they owe their success entirely to their own individual efforts and the courage which has carried them over the obstacles which beset the path of the pioneer.

“Miss Amy Johnson was the first to lead the way in this new sphere, and it is thanks to her splendid achievement that ‘the powers that be’ realised that women are a force to be reckoned with.

“It is said that success which is hardly won in all the sweeter, and doubtless this is true, but there are probably many women who, though possessing valuable qualities, including the thoroughness and conscientiousness which are essential in a ground engineer, may yet lack the pioneering spirit necessary to carry them over the obstacles the others have had to surmount.”

Maysie and John Pender Chalmers 1932

Through the establishment of the Aeronautical Section of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1929 it was hoped that the demand for women’s training could be co-ordinated and addressed. Maysie’s article outlines the training and skills that female ground engineers could expect, offering encouragement to prospective candidates. It does not directly say whether Maysie was one of the four women that held the license at the time, but by implication it is likely that she was. She ends with a rallying cry against the economic background at the time:

“Any who have been connected with Aviation for any length of time realise that it must become the great industry of the future and that if we have the foresight to seize our opportunity it should be to our country what the motor trade has been to America. With our widespread Empire we have greater need for Aviation than any other country of the world.”

In terms of flying, Maysie accompanied Bill twice during the King’s Cup cross-country air race, in 1929 and 1930, and in 1928 they had joined a company of 21 aircraft flying to Vienna and back. In May of 1930, when she and Bill had three weeks’ holiday between them, they planned and undertook a flight to Baghdad and back, which provided Maysie with the subject of many talks in subsequent years. Her talk to the Minerva Club in 1931 faithfully recorded many details.

“They planned a tour to Baghdad and back, which in the ordinary way would take three months. They set out in May in a Moth aeroplane to cover 7,000 miles.

De Havilland Moth Coupe

“After leaving England aeroplanes have to follow corridors in and out of countries, and the pilot has to report at the first aerodrome he reaches in each country. There is always risk attached to crossing the sea in an ordinary aeroplane; there is a system across the Channel of checking in and out. If you are checked out at Lympne and not checked in at Calais at a stated time a lifeboat should be dispatched to make a search.

“They flew by way of Brussels, Cologne and Stuttgart to the Rhine. Here they enjoyed an aerial view of the beautiful river scenery which, with the Rhine castles on the hills, gave the impression of a fairy story country. The journey from Munich to Vienna, Mrs Pender Chalmers described as the most beautiful piece of flying scenery in the world. They enjoyed dodging the clouds over the mountains which was rather like playing a game. Vienna they found very peaceful. There were practically no motor cars in the streets and everywhere they saw signs of poverty.

“When you travel by air, geography lives,” said the speaker. They next flew across the Danube to Budapest, where they met the first touch of Byzantine architecture. The next stage to Belgrade, across a dull flat plain for hundreds of miles, proved a dull flight. The Danube had overflowed its banks and the isolated villages gave a picture of desolation. From Belgrade they followed the Danube for 700 miles and crossed the Iron Gates into Roumania. From Bucharest they went to the Black Sea, where they found the coast intensely interesting. Contrary to its name, the Black Sea was very blue and glittering in the sunlight.

“When they reached Turkey there were many restrictions. They flew through the Bosphorus across the Sea of Marmora and across Turkey to Asia in Konieh. They found the plateau most barren and desolate and not unlike Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The Turkish peasants they found most hospitable. They refused to take tips for their services, and smoked cigarettes with the flyers to show their friendliness. From Konieh they crossed the Taurus Mountains. Amy Johnson had said that crossing the Taurus Mountains and the Timor Sea were her most terrifying experiences. They tried to follow the railway through the pass, but it dived into a tunnel; they had to get under the clouds and fine their way as best they could. At Aleppo they had a delightful experience. An Armenian merchant gave them hospitality, and from a none too clean street, they went through a gate which opened into a fairy palace. They were shown a hiding place four cellars down where their host’s grandfather had taken refuge during a massacre.

“Wherever you go by air people are charming to you,” said the speaker. “You get a feeling of fellowship.”

“From Aleppo they crossed the Syrian desert, a great rocky plain, red and rolling, with nothing else to be seen. It is a deadly place, yet there are tracks made by travellers, both men and women, who have set out on expeditions. They followed the Euphrates to Baghdad and when they arrived they felt that they had flown on the magic carpet. They found the town intensely interesting. The streets were thronged with Jews, Bedouins and Turks, stroking their amber beads. Veiled and unveiled women were to be seen and babies with henna’d hair and nails. White donkeys and camels added to the picturesque appearance of the streets.

“They left Baghdad in the early morning when the sun was just touching the Mosque, the four domes of which are entirely of gold leaf. They flew over Ur of the Chaldees and obtained a fine view from the air of the recent excavations. They continued their flight to Bussora and made this their turning point. On the way back to Baghdad they went to Babylon and saw the pillar that is all that is left of Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace.

“On the return journey over Bulgaria they made a forced landing in a field. Three hundred Turks and Bulgars suddenly appeared and swarmed round their aeroplane. It was Sunday and a feast day. These people had never before seen an aeroplane thought it had been sent by the Saint. Again they received wonderful hospitality.

“Mrs Pender Chalmers considers that flying should do away with national hatreds. Air travellers should serve as ambassadors in the cause of peace. She hoped that members of the Women’s Freedom League would be air-minded and support this effort.”

On top of her working life, Maysie was quite the socialite in London. She is reported to have been at various notable social events, often those hosted by other aviators. She headed up The Forum Club from 1932, and put on events and dinners. Many of her activities promoted women and women’s achievements in various fields.

She became vice chairperson of the Electrical Association for Women, and as such would represent the organisation at various branch meetings around the country, and was also in demand as a speaker. Often her topics included aviation alongside electricity, and at one event she promoted a brown suit that could be heated by electricity to keep an airman or woman warm at altitude without burning their skin.

Business-wise, she branched out from work with her husband and the Electric Super-Service Company and opened a showroom in the West End. This was the only women’s electrical showroom in the area, located in Brompton Road. Members of the Electrical Association for Women would schedule visits. The exhibited products presumably showcased various innovations and new possibilities for electricity for daily life.

However, while her career was in ascendancy, it appears that her marriage was under strain. By 1935, although their business premises and upmarket London address remained the same as they had been for several years, Bill appears to have a new place in Surrey. Whether this is merely another investment or an indication that all was not rosy in a marriage that until now had seemed quite close is open to question. They also appear to have given up their personal plane by this point. She chaired some events for the Women’s Engineering Society, and was praised for her work in aviation in the early days of private flying.

1936 also saw a further career development for Maysie. She was appointed Art Adviser in Lighting by the British Thomson-Houston Company. She is described as an electrical engineer and a specialist in the art of decorative lighting and equipment, who has frequently worked in collaboration with famous artists. Several newspapers at the time remarked on the fact that the role had gone to a woman. The job meant that she travelled the country working with and advising top electrical companies and consumers.

She also launched the Home Workers Campaign with the Electrical Association for Women that year, which sought to promote electrical products to make women’s home lives easier. At this time, despite being available for decades, many houses did not have a refrigerator and fresh food would have to be brought in every day. Vacuum cleaners were also new. The work of this campaign promoted new, affordable technologies to cut down on grunt work and drudgery for women in the home – both women doing “unpaid domestic duties” and employed domestic servants. Maids could take a course and earn a certificate. While the idea of making women’s domestic lives easier as a goal – rather than getting them out and into the workplace – might appear to be rather unfeminist to today’s palate, back then this would have been enormously emancipating.

Let Electricity kill your wife

Maysie continued to travel the country as part of her work. She was known for being a charming and engaging speaker, and would speak on the need for cheap electricity to make life easier for all, and the psychology of kitchen design and comfort (yellow was a recommended colour, according to a 1937 article). A dinner at the Forum Club was held that year for the British Federation of Business and Professional Women. Maysie’s advice, which again sounds unfeminist to our far-more-enlightened ears, was to go for charm as well as brains. “You can go all around the world successfully if you just smile,” she is quoted as saying.

yellow kitchen

Her appearances on behalf of the EAW continue to the end of May 1937, and then suddenly cease. There is no mention of her after this point in any capacity, whether private or personal. Bill arrives back from a period in Brazil in June 1937, and then the next record to feature either of them is their remarriages. According to people that knew them, Bill had had an affair with his secretary and she had ended up “in the family way”, and things had to be sorted out quickly. Maysie remarried first, just before Christmas 1937, and Bill a short while later in early 1938. For this to have occurred, there must have been a divorce. These were easier to obtain in the late 1930s than they had been at earlier points in history, thanks to two acts in the 1920s, but nonetheless stigma-laden in societal terms. This also occurred around the same time as the abdication of King Edward VIII, over the matter of him wanting to marry an American divorcee. It may have been felt that Maysie’s public roles were too contentious to have been held by a divorcee, or she herself did not wish to continue, but she plays no further obvious role in the cause of women’s engineering or aviation. Indeed, her second wedding certificate – which was witnessed by Caroline Haslett, first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society – has a mere line in her occupation column, indicating that she did not have a recognised career at this time.

Her second husband, Frank, was considerably older than her. He had also been married before, had become a widower, and had two adult children. He was a mechanical engineer by trade who had risen to become chief electrical engineer of the Birmingham Corporation Electricity Supply Department, and it’s probable that Maysie had met him as part of her travelling engineering work. After marrying him in London, she moved to Birmingham and set up home there away from London society. Here, at the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the ARP Women’s Voluntary Service, but does not appear to have worked at that time. The 1939 register merely credits her with “unpaid domestic duties” and makes no mention of her engineering career.

Frank retired from his official role in Birmingham in 1944, and announced his intention to move to Lyme Regis – probably as Maysie had loved living there during her earlier life. They set up home just outside the main town but again close to the sea. Frank appears to have gone out to Germany briefly, to assist with setting up electrical systems in post-war reconstruction, but there is no official mention of whether Maysie went with him or not. Whether it is continuing stigma, or a desire for a quieter life, publicly she appears to have completely disappeared. They both were members of the South West Electricity Board, however.

Frank died in Lyme Regis in 1950, leaving Maysie a widow with a tidy sum to live on. There were no children from either of her marriages, so this money supported her alone with the life she chose. Whether she ever worked again as an engineer has not come to light, but she was known as an engaging public speaker on behalf of the South West Electricity Board, and conducted training for them in marketing and publicity.

Maysies two husbands

Maysie, and both her husbands.

In later life she lived with her first sister-in-law, the woman who had married Bill’s brother, in the Lyme Regis house. They would spend the winters in Portugal together, and then the rest of the year living in England. She would hold large fancy garden parties for the great and the good of the town, and was extremely good at gardening – even keeping it up into old age as her eyesight failed with the help of a faithful housekeeper. She and her sister-in-law became ladies who lunched, going to Exeter once a week to dine at a hotel and go shopping.

She died herself in Lyme Regis in the early 1980s, and is buried next to her second husband and faithful housekeeper in the village of Uplyme, just outside the town.