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.

Griselda C’s story

Daughter of a baronet, Griselda was a considerable part of the movement to collect and preserve British folk music, spearheaded by Cecil Sharp. While the women who are mostly remembered tend to be the collectors themselves – Lucy Broadwood, Maud Karpeles, Mary Neal, Kate Lee – as their work is filed in libraries and is therefore still visible, rather than those who gave more physical support. Griselda, as headmistress and founder of her own private school, was able to give space to early English Folk Dance Society and Folk Song Society activities and summer schools, and supported the movement and the songs and dances’ preservation that way. She was a believer in giving the knowledge and information that had been collected back to the people and sections of society that might have become detached from whence it came, and worked at a grassroots level to encourage everyone to know and experience folk songs and dances from the British Isles.

Cecil sharp sign

Griselda never really knew her mother, a daughter of East India Company civil servant Sir Thomas Metcalfe who died when she was two after giving birth to her youngest brother. She was second youngest in a family of 13 siblings – although her sister Pamela died at the age of 2 – and had two sisters who lived and nine brothers. Her eldest siblings had been born in Bengal, where her colonel father had been stationed, but the family returned to England in the early 1860s. They first lived at various different army bases, but by the time Griselda arrived in the later years of that decade they had been established in Herefordshire for many years.

As upper-class Victorian children, Griselda and her siblings had domestic servants, a nursemaid, and a governess at home until they reached the age of nine or so. Thereafter, they were sent away to school. The family’s boys appear to have gone to a school run by a vicar in Ashbocking, Suffolk, while the girls went to West Grinstead Lodge at Belstead, also in Suffolk.

It was here, while at school with her older sister Finetta, that Griselda would have learnt of her father’s death in 1882, at around the age of 12. The barony went to her older brother Guy, who at this point was out in India serving in the army, while it seems likely that Griselda continued at school, later moving to further study at Westfield College in Hampstead which was a women-only institution founded in 1882. Some of her brothers also went out to India with the army, while others took up professions in the church.

On leaving school, Griselda went to live with her brother Francis, who later became a reverend, but in the early part of his career he held a position of assistant second clerk in library of the British Museum. Her eldest sister Annie also lived with them, as did her youngest brother George. Neither Annie nor Griselda had to work, and the household had a servant, so it was likely that they were still comfortably off.

In 1894 Griselda married Dudley, who was both the son of a Lord and a prominent (if understated) member of the Royal Asiatic Society. An authority on the Malay language, he had spent considerable time in the Far East before marriage, and was also appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and published papers in both society’s journals. He was 20 years her senior.

They had three children together. A son, named Dudley, arrived a year after the marriage. Another son, Ambrose, followed four years later but sadly only lived for two weeks. And a daughter, also named Griselda, was born in 1901.

They settled in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, at around the time Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lived in the town, and employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a lady’s nurse – which implies that Griselda’s health could be on the delicate side.

In 1906 they turned their residence into a private school for girls, with Griselda as headmistress. The fact that it was a private school meant that she, as a married woman, was able to hold the position and teach her pupils – had the school been run by a local education board she would have been subject to the marriage bar on female teachers.

The school was called Belstead House, named for the location of her former school, and was for girls “of breeding and means”. When the school began there were only seven pupils, but by the 1911 census this had grown to 17, and numbers continued to expand over the next decade. In 1911 there was one other teacher in addition to Griselda, and a full complement of domestic staff to look after the family and the pupils, who ranged in age from 11 to 16.

belstead house school

In 1911, her husband Dudley took a tumble from a pony and trap and broke his shoulder bone, which festered. and he died a week later. Griselda maintained the school, and together with her two children and house full of staff, continued to run it as a success. The reputation of the school was extremely good, and it attracted interest from many families who could afford the fees.

They took on adjoining premises to accommodate more pupils, building a gymnasium and a chapel, and even a domestic science laboratory – the subject during this period looked more at the actual science and technology of food and domestic chores, rather than teaching girls how to do them, and was a route into science for many young women.

Her son Dudley, who was educated elsewhere, went to fight in the first world war, and was able to come home afterwards. He married in 1926. Her daughter Griselda was educated at her mother’s school and went on to become an actress.

Griselda senior’s link to the British folk revival came through her friendship with Cecil Sharp himself. Her later obituary reports that she was a strong believer in the educational value of folk songs and dances, which aligned with Sharp’s own views. She incorporated folk songs and dances in the curriculum she taught at the school, encouraging those best at the art forms to go out into the communities just outside Aldeburgh to help local girls and young women form folk music groups and companies of their own. She was awarded one of the first two gold badges (the highest accolade) by the English Folk Dance Society – which later incorporated with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to form EFDSS – in 1922. The other recipient was Lady Mary Trefusis, who is commemorated with a hall named after her in London’s Cecil Sharp House, but no real mention of Griselda is evident on those premises today and even her gold badge names her as “Mrs Dudley Hervey” rather than using her own first name.

EFDSS-gold-badge

In addition, she also invited Cecil Sharp’s Summer Festival School to make use of the school buildings as their headquarters when the venture outgrew previous accommodation at Cheltenham College. This – the last summer school that Sharp ran himself – took place in 1923. Several hundred people attended, working on dances and songs, and Sharp gave lectures. Griselda kept a scrap book, containing photographs, programmes and correspondence about the event, which is now held by the University of California.

The revival and preservation spirit was so deeply embedded in the school’s philosophy that when Romanian pianist and composer Béla Bartók was invited to give a concert to the pupils in December 1923, he found that the girls were completely capable of learning and following Romanian folk dances without much bother.

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In addition to the emphasis on the folk arts, Griselda’s school also focused on French, and actively prepared girls for university education. She was also keen to promote good living and bodily welfare to her pupils, which included establishing a “clean milk” dairy for the school’s use, and worked on matters of faith and spirituality across the whole school. She was local deputy commissioner for the girl guides too, and worked with young people across the Aldeburgh community as well as her pupils.

In the later 1920s, however, she was in poor health. She died at the school in 1929, in her early 60s, of heart failure. Her elder sister Finetta, who had married and spent considerable time in India, then came to run the school in her stead for a few years, maintaining the values that had been established and sustained under Griselda. The school building is now a holiday home for Aldeburgh’s thriving tourist trade.

Griselda hervey pic

*****

A footnote should give more history of her daughter Griselda, who went on to be an actress as Grizelda Hervey. She appeared on stage in Ireland in 1923, and newspapers report her role as the Spirit of Kent in a pageant of 1931. Much of her renowned work was broadcast on the radio – for example the BBC broadcast a play called Congo Landing by Horton Giddy in 1935, which was an account of the adventures of Lady Susan (Grizelda) and Captain Smith (Stewart Rome) in the Cape Town Air Race. She was also in the cast of the first broadcast of the Forsyth Saga in 1945, when the BBC Home Service put on A Man of Property with Grizelda as Irene.

Griselda 2

She also appeared in extremely early live broadcast television plays on the BBC. Two of these were The Royal Family of Broadway, and The Circle, both from 1939. Television at this time was broadcast live to anyone who had a set, and no recordings of these plays were ever kept. Later television work included one episode of The Wednesday Play in 1966. She also appears to have consistently worked in theatres.

In September of 1957 she married Clarence Napier Bruce, third baron Aberdare of Duffryn. In early October that year the couple were in Yugoslavia to attend a meeting of the International Olympic Committee at Sofia, and planned to drive home through the country as their honeymoon. Their car fell over a precipice near Risan, into water. Clarence drowned, leaving Grizelda a widow after being married for just one month, and she herself was injured in the fall. To the end of her days – she died in Hull in 1980 – she was styled Baroness Aberdare of Duffryn.

Ethel B’s story

It is relatively well known that English universities would admit women to study during the late 1800s, but would not award them their degrees or admit them to the university. Newham College in Cambridge is a good example. Founded in 1871 as the second women’s college at the University of Cambridge, and amalgamated into the university in 1880, women could sit university examinations from 1881 and their results were recorded in lists separate from the men. Various attempts were made to persuade authorities to give women their full degrees and privileges rather than just a certificate, one in 1887, another in 1897, and a further attempt during the first world war. Oxford – which had similar rules, capitulated in 1920 but it took until 1948 for the change to happen at Cambridge.

In contrast, the situation in Ireland was different. The Royal University of Ireland Act 1879 allowed women to take university degrees on the same basis as men. However, Trinity College Dublin – also known as Dublin University – which was seen as a sister institution to Oxford and Cambridge in the pre-split British Isles, was still a sticking point. They might have been comparatively late in admitting women to study in that it took until 1904, but unlike the English schools women were allowed their degrees from the get go. So much so that women who had gained their degrees at Oxford and Cambridge but had been denied their award on the basis of their gender could travel to Trinity to be awarded it. These women were known as the steamboat ladies, and the arrangement continued until 1907.

It was against that background that Ethel studied at Trinity College, entering around 1908 at the age of 18, one of the first groups of women to do so – but had had involvement with the college earlier via her later schooling – which took place at Alexandra School and College, a Protestant foundation intent on furthering women’s education that offered an equivalent education to that afforded to boys at the time, with a grounding in maths, philosophy, history and the classics. Lecturers at Trinity College would also provide tutoring for girls at Alexandra, and the two schools enjoyed close links.

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She’d been born in Ballycastle, in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, the daughter of a Church of Ireland Reverend who had also studied at Trinity College. She was the fourth of six children – four girls, two boys – and led an extremely musical upbringing. Her father was a renowned authority on church music, one of her sisters studied at the Royal College of Organists, and another was a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music who specialised in putting contemporary lyrics to old Irish airs. The girls of the family were educated by governesses at home in Ballycastle for the most part, but Ethel went off to Dublin to board at Alexandra College at about the age of 14.

In 1908 she moved to study at Dublin University, based at Trinity College, where – interspersed with some secondary school teaching (presumably to fund her studies) she achieved a BA (Hons) degree in French and English in 1912.

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In the years between women being admitted to universities to further their studies and the growth in women’s employment of various types during the First World War, teaching in schools was the best possible place for educated women to continue learning and flex their grey matter. The only trouble was that the marriage bar was in place for women teachers – so at the point when Ethel entered the profession if she found a relationship she would have to give up her learning and research. The idea that women went to university just to find a husband seems to have originated in this era, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case for Ethel.

As it was, she began working for her Master of Arts while simultaneously taking on a teaching position at the County School (later Fitzmaurice Grammar) in the picturesque Wiltshire town Bradford-on-Avon. She started work here in 1915, and was awarded her MA at Christmas in 1916, which is proudly remarked upon in their staff register. Most female teachers in this era did not hold degrees, let alone post-graduate ones. Some were even uncertified, and had learnt their skill on the job starting as a pupil teacher, whereas others had undergone some training at teacher training colleges. Ethel would therefore have been a rare and prized member of the school’s female staff.

This school had been going for nearly 20 years at this point, under a male headteacher. Many of the teaching staff were female, however, as was fairly usual in schools of the time. This school was mixed gender, and selective based on ability, as during the pre-1944 grammar and elementary system many schools were. Here Ethel taught French and History, in conjunction with stalwart school deputy head Julia Blake. Both are given as languages and literature specialists in the town’s trade directory for 1915.

Fitz Aerial view

Both brothers fought in the war. The elder rose to a high rank, whereas the younger was badly injured in 1917 and became a senior classical music master at a school in Mauritius. Both musician sisters appear not to have married, since that choice would have meant giving up their playing by the rules of society of the day. Her mother died in 1919, just after the war ended, and her father followed her in 1921.

This appears to have instigated a change for Ethel. She left Bradford on Avon in the September of 1921 to become French mistress in the next town over at Trowbridge Girls High School. This was a single sex, fee paying school – not necessarily a step up for her, but a different position in a slightly bigger town. She appears to have been here until around 1926.

trowbridge girls high

In the mid-1920s she chose to follow her faith and became a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) at their base in Cawnpore (now Kanpur), India. Now called United Society Partners in the Gospel, the organisation was a high church group based in the teachings of the Church of England – not too far away from the Church of Ireland organisation that Ethel was brought up within. Here she was given a head teacher position, as head of the SPG School of the Epiphany, working with elementary school-aged girls.

Although the position in India fulfilled her desire to bring the Bible and its teachings to a different part of the world, her school position here did not particularly suit her as she was teaching to a much younger age group and found this frustrating. While there she was offered the secretaryship of the local YMCA, various jobs at the Indian girl guiding headquarters, a position at one of the biggest women’s colleges in India, and even the position of headmistress at one of the most prominent girls’ schools in North India. She refused all these, remaining loyal to the SPG mission, but hoped that the society might help her find a better post within their ranks.

A keen member of the girl guiding organisation, she asked mission if they would lend her to be a guide trainer for three years with the United Provinces Educational Department while she remained at Kanpur, but this was not allowed and she stayed with the Epiphany School and committed to her role as missionary.

At some point between 1929 and 1932, however, she felt she had given enough in Kanpur, and returned to the UK. She lived for a time at a prominently designed youth hostel in London, and in September of 1932 was appointed headmistress of a private girls’ school in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

This school, which again was private and fee-paying, catered for older girls who had already gone through the elementary education system and was particularly renowned for the arts when Ethel took it over, which would have suited her perfectly. She ran the school with a full complement of female staff, and appears to have relished teaching older girls again. The outbreak of war in 1939 shows that she was also an air raid warden as part of her role in the school and the local community.

The school decided to move from Aldeburgh – which was on the coast and probably directly under the flight path of German aircraft from the continent – to a priory in Mountnessing, Essex, in 1940. This would have been a quieter location, with less disturbance from the war, and more rural for protection. It is unclear whether Ethel went with them, however, as records were scarcely kept during the conflict. In 1943 she did step down and took a degree of retirement.

She moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire for the last bit of the war, becoming housemistress for St Helen’s, one of the boarding houses of Cheltenham Ladies College – another prestigious seat of female education. It is unclear whether she took a teaching role at the college in the way that modern housemistresses do, but she had a full time role looking after the pupils assigned to her care and took on a role of district commissioner for the girl guides at the school for the benefit of the girls. As part of this she gave various prominent talks and organised events on the guides behalf. She also worked coaching the choir.

guides 1940s

Around 1953, she left Cheltenham and again headed to the coast – but this time to Devon. She lived in Colyton, on the county’s southern edge, in a church cottage, and spent seven years in retirement. She died there, leaving her money to a nephew – the son of her eldest brother – and Violet, Baroness Merthyr, another prominent girl guiding commissioner.