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.
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.
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, 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, which Aileen’s school took over in 1939
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, 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.
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.