Reflecting on Things Ephemeral in Lockdown: Church High Jubilee History (2)

Lockdown.  The Oxford English Dictionary have just named it as one of the ‘words of the year’.  No real surprise there, I guess.  It wasn’t a situation I’d ever imagined finding myself in, nor you, I’m sure.  Before this strangest of years, the word most commonly brought to mind the forceful backlash after disorder and unrest in a prison.  Yet here we are, in November 2020, there again for a second time.  For everyone of us, I’d have thought, the Coronavirus Pandemic has been a huge test of our character and faith.  Being confined to a single environment for any extended period of time can certainly take its toll on one, both physically and mentally – particularly if one’s home offers more constraints than affordances.  Life is rarely a level playing field, is it?  At least I had a bit of outside space – a back patio garden.  I hope you did too.  The only plus for me was the hope that the first Lockdown would provide the perfect opportunity to reflect and recommence writing, but, of course, the blog posts never materialised.  Until now.  Interesting it has taken talk of more than one vaccine on the horizon for some words finally to start to flow.

My Lockdown outside space, shared with Atticus and Ziggy.

To tell the truth, I didn’t even end up sitting outside that much either.  This IS strange, because the leafy, green environment I’ve created in the back yard of my mid-terrace house is very restful.  Being surrounded by greenery is really important to me.  I don’t seem able to thrive without it.    The writer Thomas Hardy well understood our link to our surroundings, referring to his tales set in Wessex as ‘Novels of Character and Environment’.  Later in his autobiography he asserted his strong belief that: ‘an object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature. Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand’.  Hardy would have understood me thinking of Miss Gurney every time I walked up the shallowly-grooved stone steps to the main entrance of Church High – even after the building became NHSG.  How many times must Miss Gurney’s feet have moved over the surface of the stone in the 35 years of her reign as Head Mistress?  And her ‘hand’ was clearly visible on the School right up to closure.

Six years into her headship, Miss Gurney stands on the front steps in 1907, discreetly behind her Governors (above) and (below) in 1935, near the end of her tenure, she stands at the forefront with Deaconess Siddall, backed only by women.

Miss Gurney, of course, features very strongly in Church High’s 1935 Jubilee History, with copious mentions throughout the text as well as a five page long account of her headship.  She was the Head in position at the time of the School’s Jubilee year, although only a year later she would be required to retire owing to ill health.  Just how much L. Mary Gurney meant to Church High staff and girls, both past and present, is clearly evident thanks to an unexpected paper inclusion in another history I ended up buying online via eBay.  I really have been spookily lucky in the items that have come my way.  I have no idea who owned this particular book, as there is no name inscribed within.  Somehow it has a more workmanlike feel to it than the copy containing the treasured press cutting.  A bit grubby too, suggesting greater usage and frequent handling.  And the clear imprint of a cup ring over the title? More a practical item, perhaps?

Some believe the battering of books improves their flavour.

In fact, I think it’s highly likely that, at the start of its life, this copy of the history resided in the School Office, or at least belonged to a member of staff.  Or the School Secretary perhaps.  Why?  Because inside it I found an old, browning sheet of A4 paper, precisely folded into three as if bound for a business envelope.  Once opened up, text clearly produced on an old type-writer was revealed, in purplish ink, though very possibly now faded and once dark blue.  The typed text showed evidence of having been carefully edited by hand in black ink and a handwritten footnote makes it clear this was written copy destined for ‘The Evening Chronicle’ on February 6th 1936.  This is clearly Church High’s press release on Miss Gurney’s retirement.  How amazing it found its way into my hands.  What were the odds of that?  ‘HEADMISTRESS LEAVING’ was the headline. ‘Newcastle Schools (sic) Sorrow at Her Departure’.  If the copy was corrected by Miss Gurney herself, as the distinctive, elegant handwriting suggests it actually was, then she missed the omitted apostrophe.  Easily done!

What price this little piece of Church High ephemera?

I have never seen the actual newspaper article as it was published, but, for anyone connected with Church High who only knows Miss Gurney as a name, this press release provides a little insight into her intellectual standing at a time when women still had to fight to make their mark in addition to her integral importance to the School:

‘The news that Miss L.M. Gurney, headmistress of the Newcastle Church High School, intends to retire from the post she has held for 34 years has come as a great shock to the school.  Teachers and pupils alike are sorry to lose her, and Miss Gurney has received a joint letter from the girls of one Form in which they express their “very real sorrow” at her retirement and their appreciation of all she has done for the welfare of the individual pupils.

‘One who has been closely associated with Miss Gurney in her work at the school said, “Miss Gurney is not only head, but heart and soul as well, of the school.  Her loving and lovable personality pervades everything, so that work is carried out in that harmonious trust which produces quiet strength of purpose.  Her assistants are entrusted with genuine responsibility and she has devoted herself wholeheartedly to the welfare of each individual pupil”.

‘Miss Gurney is the eldest daughter of the late H.P. Gurney, Principal of Armstrong College from 1894 to 1904.  She was the first woman appointed to the Council of Armstrong College, a position which she still holds.  She is an M.A. of Trinity College, Dublin, and Bachelor of Science of Armstrong College, Durham.

‘Educated at Notting Hill School in London, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, and was the first of all England in the Cambridge Senior Local Examination in 1890.  It was after teaching at the North London Collegiate School for seven years as Mathematics Mistress that she received her present post.’

Miss Gurney being presented with a spray of white carnations from the School on her retirement in 1936 (Photo c. Tyne & Wear Archives) and in the official photograph commissioned to mark her departure and published in the School magazine (below).

Miss Gurney has long been a hero of mine.  My respect and fondness for her – and undying admiration for the way she dedicated her life to educating her girls as individuals and shaping Church High in her own image – continues to grow the more I learn about her.  In future posts and website articles I hope to shed a little more light on Miss Mary Gurney’s career as an educationalist and her life as a whole.  Very few people are likely to be aware that her contribution to education in the 1930s was considered so great that she appears as one of the 60,000 biographies that make up The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  That is quite some achievement.  And Jenny Moore’s fascinating biography of the Gurney Girls, ’45 Feet of Daughters’ (a work of creative non-fiction written from the perspective of their mother, Louisa) does a wonderful job of bringing to life this remarkable family.  In a Postscript to her narrative (p.129), Jenny, who is Miss Gurney’s niece and came North to see Church High for herself while she was researching her book, records that Mary’s ‘school still treasures memories of her time with them and in 1947 they opened a house in her memory called Gurney House’.  No. 4 Tankerville Terrace may no longer have been part of the Church High property portfolio on Tankerville Terrace when the school became known as Newcastle High School for Girls again in 2014, having been sold in the late 1990s when the new Art and Home Economics Block was built, but Miss Gurney’s legacy still lives on.

Omnia Vincit Veritas: Miss Gurney and Church High Girls hoist the School Flag as part of the 1935 Jubilee Celebrations.


When A Book Isn’t Just A ‘Book’: Newcastle Church High Jubilee History (1)

I asked Google for the definition of book today.  The answers varied: ‘a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers’ said its Dictionary; ‘a written text that can be published in printed or electronic form’ replied the slightly more up-to-date Cambridge English Dictionary.  The Collins English Dictionary told me that ‘book’, a countable noun no less, is ‘a number of pieces of paper, usually with words printed on them, which are fastened together and fixed inside a cover of stronger paper or cardboard. Books contain information, stories, or poetry’.  I quite liked this one.  Especially the bit about the stronger paper or cardboard.  Detail is important and a book held in the hand is a tangible thing.  True.  Old books bound in leather feel good.  They also have an amazing smell.

Newcastle High School 1886 Bickers Prize Binding in maroon leather and gilt.

But can a book’s contents ever really be bound?  Ah, there’s the rub.  And the reason for writing this post.  When is a book not just a book?  Partly it’s an intellectual thing.  It takes Wikipedia to remind us a book is also ‘an intellectual object, prototypically a composition of such great length that it takes a considerable investment of time to compose and a still considerable, though not so extensive, investment of time to read’.  Yes, much can be invested in books.  The way a book’s content works on the mind of a reader.  Triggers memory, thoughts, feelings.  A book reads differently in the hands of the folk who hold it.  Or held it.  But what is passed on of them via it, interests me most.

‘Old books tell you stories about their use. You can see where fingerprints touched the pages as they held the book open. You can see how long they lingered on each page.’

My younger brother, John, studied English at University too.  The bonus for him was he could use my books, just as I’d done with some of Dad’s texts.  The down side for me was he’d write notes in them.  Quel horreur!  Evidence of someone else’s thoughts in MY books.  Yet now, when I buy old books online, this is what intrigues me most.  A name, date.  A dedication, quotation or a prize bookplate.  They all provide a hint of who may have owned the book before me.  Even loved it perhaps.  So much so they had even kept things safe inside it.  I first learned that books could hold such treasure from a copy of Rupert Brooke’s Poems bought at Keelrow Books many moons ago.

Photo inside is presumably of Miss Spencer and Charlie.

So when is a Church High Jubilee Book not just another copy of the Jubilee Book?   If you’ve read ‘Walkabout’, a staple text of the Lower Fourth reading curriculum when I started teaching at Church High, you may recall the children’s search for food in the Outback. And discovering yams in particular. James Vance Marshall describes yams as an upside down plant, ‘one of nature’s paradoxes: a leaf and flower-bearing liana whose foliage grew entirely underground’. The image of the Bush Boy tugging at vines to unearth large tuber-like protuberances just below the surface has always stuck with me. These days, it serves as useful metaphor for the way online searches have led me link after link to unearth one NCHS archival gem after another.  Which brings me to my Jubilee Books, all four of them, and the key question, “When is an eBay purchase not just another copy of the same book?”  The answer has proved to be “When, like a mini time capsule, its covers have cocooned otherwise ephemeral things.”

I got my first copy of the Jubilee Book from School at merger time, desperate even then to ensure Church High was not forgotten.  If you were lucky enough to have attended the final Old Girls Dinner, you will know that Sarah Timney turned Room 6 into a veritable treasure trove of every kind of item possible related to the Church High School brand that she’d come across in the building clear out.  Then and on Heritage Open Day, it had the atmosphere of a very special Jumble Sale: smiles, shrieks and fast-filling-up carrier bags.

Room 6 continuing to fascinate folk on Heritage Open Day.

Clearly excess stock by 1936, that very first Jubilee History, which I remember reading from cover to cover in one evening sitting, also contained a piece of NCHS social history.  On yellowing paper, a compliments slip reducing the price to 1/6d: ‘Miss Gurney sends this copy of the Jubilee Book with her compliments, believing that members of the School will wish to possess this record of the School’s history.’ 

And so it began.  I have no explanation for the fact that the three further purchases I made online over time all contained a gem.  It was almost like every once in a while I felt drawn to have a quick surf and browse.  A book was there waiting.  Surely I should leave it for somebody else? (I thought).  Why do you need another one? (I was repeatedly told, eyes rolling and eyebrows raised in exasperation.)  And when the book arrived in the post: ‘voila!’  Clearly meant to be.  The piece of treasure trove I want to share with you in this post wasn’t a surprise though.  ‘1935 School history with newspaper cutting’ the description said.  On that occasion, it was more a case of fingers crossed, could it actually be …?  In Tyne and Wear Archives, there is a copy of a 1950s Newcastle Journal feature article on Church High.  I liked so much I had it photocopied.  A very poorly done copy, it has to be said, because the article was too big to fit onto one piece of A4.  As there won’t have been that many press pieces on the School, the odds were good, admittedly.  But delight was huge when it was ‘It’.

Thank you M. Dawe of ‘Tavistock House’ for loving your school so much that you safely kept a clipping from a newspaper you bought and read in 1954 inside the School history you had had since 1948.

So why was I so delighted to possess a copy of this article?  Because the writer, Harry Thompson, clearly understood the School so well.  ‘The Struggle for an ideal is the heritage of Church High’.  How true.  And what a heritage that still is.  His feature summarises the School’s history as ‘that seeming anachronism of the modern age, an independent school’.  He quickly distinguishes ‘independent’ from ‘public’ and proceeds to put his finger on what then – and continued to – make Church High so special, the self-sacrifices people made for the sake of a school they valued and loved, whether pupils, parents or staff:  ‘It is part of the precious heritage of the school today that so many of its pioneers had to struggle for an ideal’, he goes on to say.  He also understood the shaping hands and unimpeachable character of the School’s Head Mistresses, some for whom this was their life work: ‘The headmistress tradition, which can stamp a school with character or render it devoid of personality, was established in the classic mould, and has never been diverted from that high standard. … First there was Miss Ackerley, intensely dignified, then Miss Siddall, strict and just and sympathetic.  Then for 34 years, there was Miss Gurney, who was the architect of the school as it is today, so intimately identified with every circumstance of each day that, even now, when she has been gone from the place some 20 years, the evidence of her work is plain for all to see.’ 

The first three Headmistresses celebrating the School’s Jubilee together in 1935: Miss Ackerley, Miss Siddall & Miss Gurney.

Because of its independent nature, the School’s success was always reliant on the dedication, goodwill and professionalism of its staff.  If you worked at Church High, right up until its administrative end in 2014, you rolled up your sleeves, supported your colleagues and got on with the job in hand.  Always.  The School’s good name was all.  To his credit, Mr Thompson picked up on this too, back then in 1954.  He notes, ‘So the school went on, parents, pupils, teachers, governors, working together.  It was their school.  It was their business to make it supremely worthwhile.  So today the reputation of the Church High School is enviably high, where, from nursery school to Sixth Form, there is trust and skill and happiness.’  He got it so right.  And we all miss it a lot.

The article can be read in full screen if you click on the image below.


Church High’s 135th Birthday Post: Alnwick Castle Days Remembered

There can be surely no more fitting subject for my 135th blog post about The Newcastle Church High School and its fascinating history than a new entry to mark the School’s 135th birthday: 21st January.  Today is that day.  And Church High is still with us, albeit now only embedded in the baseline legacy of Newcastle High School for Girls.  I haven’t forgotten it.  And won’t ever.  Nor, I am sure, have/will you.  And what a history our great School has.  Plenty to celebrate there.

I find it’s always worth keeping an eye on eBay if you love history.  In recent years, I’ve stumbled across one or two real NCHS gems on it.  Eagle eyes are often necessary.  However, even with good eyesight, if I hadn’t already been aware of the existence of postcards of Alnwick such as the example at the head of this post, I’d easily have mistaken it for a generic example of an aerial castle view (as above).  As always, the devil is in the detail: the text proclaims this is not Alnwick Castle, but Newcastle Church High School, Alnwick Castle.

Prospectus for Church High at Alnwick Castle.

It is a proud part of Church High’s history, that for the duration of the Second World War, Alnwick Castle WAS Church High School after the whole school was evacuated there on the invitation of the Duchess of Northumberland.  Always a fact worthy of celebration. Although there has been an Alumnae visit to Alnwick Garden in the last 20 years (to mark the addition of a bench on which a memorial dedication to Church High Evacuees had been carved), the last full reunion for NCHS evacuee Old Girls was in 1985, Centenary year.  However, in the Spring of this year, the evacuation of the School to Alnwick Castle is going to be celebrated in grand style on May 7th.

Programme for 2004 Alumnae Alnwick visit.

I first came into contact with Gemma McGuirk, one of the Castle’s archivists, a year and a half ago when I was looking for more detailed documentation on the School’s time at Alnwick.  I felt sure the Castle itself was the best place to start here and I wasn’t wrong.  Gemma compiled a Research Report for me, which I shared with NHSG.  Thanks to her, I learned the Girls and Staff had used the long underground Kitchen Tunnel as an air-raid shelter.  Thanks to me, the Castle now have a copy of the Centenary Book in their archive.  Because of this connection, Gemma emailed me unexpectedly last week to ask for my help.  The Castle wanted to contact as many Old Girls who had been evacuated to Alnwick as possible before May.  I immediately passed this information on to Amy Rodway, who manages the Church High Alumnae Facebook page for NHSG, and Rachel Gill, our archivist at Tyne & Wear Archives.  Castle Opening at Alnwick had requested permission to use the famous ‘girls on the castle walls’ image in press releases.  The first articles highlighting the Castle’s search for Evacuees to contact them appeared in The Northumberland Gazette and The Northern Echo on January 19th .

Evening Chronicle image of the School at Alnwick chosen to advertise the Castle’s VE Day event in May. [T&W Archives]
Gemma also hoped that I could spread the word amongst the Church High online family too and I promised her a blog post.  So, if you are a Church High evacuee yourself or know someone who was evacuated to Alnwick during the war, please get in touch with Daniel Watkins, State Rooms Manager at Alnwick, to join the celebrations.  Gemma told me that: ‘the Castle Opening side of Alnwick are currently planning a special day-long event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Thursday 7th May. They will be planning special activities and school visits, but what they would really love to be able to do is invite as many of the former evacuees as possible to return to the Castle for a special day out. As 2020 also marks 80 years since the first evacuees arrived at the Castle, it’s a doubly significant occasion, and they would provide afternoon teas and do as much as they can to make it special for them. It would also be wonderful to give today’s schools the opportunity to hear first-hand what it was like to be evacuated to a castle’.  Thanks to photographs from The Daily Mail in 1940, we know there was snow on the ground when the first evacuees arrived at the Castle.

The first day of Church High School at Alnwick Castle in 1940. [The Daily Mail]
Despite the frosty arrival, all the accounts of the Alnwick Years I have read describe the School adapting well to its new home.  Dr Yates, the Headmistress who took Church High to Alnwick and whom I had the great fortune to hear speak at my first Prizegiving as a newly-qualified teacher in 1985, may have written about staff fears of little ones slipping on the snow-covered battlements, but there are plenty of photographs showing sunnier times as below:

I am really looking forward to the day already, not least of all because May 7th is my birthday!  What better way to celebrate one’s birthday than amongst ‘family’ and like-minded people?  I hope to meet as many of you who can make it up to Alnwick too, work permitting, because this has the makings of a wonderful – and high profile – celebration of all that was great about Church High School and the type of person it produced.  Who knows?  I might even get to meet Janet, the NCHS evacuee who bought the postcard I bought online for one shilling and six pence in the School Shop at the Castle.  If this card did reach home, it must have been in an envelope, as she completely filled the back with all of her news.  I will think of Janet as we visit Percy Tower during our special tour of the Castle in May.  She sounds fun.  But that ‘Gulliver’s Travels’?  Frankly, very weird!

To find out more about the VE Celebration/CH Reunion at Alnwick, contact Daniel Watkins, state rooms manager at Alnwick Castle on 01665 511114 or email

High Times Relaunched: Welcome to the NCHS Online ‘Curiosity Cabinet’

The intention was always for the High Times blog eventually to become a collecting place for stories of Church High’s history and the people who studied or worked in the old school building.  But, as with the Ancient Mariner telling his tale, this could only be done once the record of the changes to the Tankerville site was complete.  What I didn’t expect was that it would take so long for it to happen.  My apologies.  A lot has happened in the intervening time since my June 6th post about the demolition of the old Central High building.  I’ve left NHSG.  My Dad has had a stroke.  But my voice is back now.

My Parting Gift from NHSG: a framed print of the Tankerville site’s GPS co-ordinates.

There has been plenty of time this summer to muse on things past and what life throws our way when we are busy making other plans.  Many things have had to be put on hold because of hospital visiting, but I did manage to get to the Edinburgh Book Festival to hear NCHS Old Girl, Nancy Campbell (published writer and printmaker) give a talk about her most recent book, ‘The Library of Ice’ (2018).  It was lovely to see Nancy doing so well at such a prestigious venue and also to be able to meet up with her again after such a long time.  It was a nice feeling for me when she recognised me in the audience and a rather odd one for Nancy as she signed my book ‘To Christine’.

‘Giving Every Girl A Voice’: Church High clearly provided the perfect creative foundation for Nancy Campbell, who I met after her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August.

Meeting Nancy after so long and the fact we greeted each other as if we last connected only yesterday, brought to mind the wise words of writer William Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead.  It’s not even past’.  Something intangible connects us to people from our past, because they are already so closely woven into ourselves and our life story.  Jamaican political activist and orator, Marcus Garvey, was probably musing on a similar notion of shared identity when he wrote that ‘a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’.  It is our Church High roots which bind us all.

Great trees grow from strong roots: When is Goodbye not Goodbye? When a past is shared.

On the train home from Edinburgh, I started to read Nancy’s book.  In her Introduction, ‘The Broken Mirror’, I found one of the passages she had read out loud, her first walk around the Upernavik Museum: ‘The morning after my arrival, I walk through the cold museum building, peering into vitrines at the scanty evidence left by earlier visitors.  I admire the ornate lettering engraved on a barometer and the entries in a logbook from one of the whaling ships that looted this coast in the eighteenth century.  The first European explorers named Upernavik the ‘Women’s Island’. No one knows why for sure ….  I almost walk past the tiniest object in the museum, the pride of its collection.  It’s a copy of the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, a piece of soft slate into which a short text was scratched by three Norsemen around eight hundred years ago and left in a cairn on a neighbouring island.  Only the men’s names survive.’ (p. 6-7).  It resonated with me because of my own delving deep into the past history of Church High and the Tankerville building.  It also made me very proud of the education that enabled Nancy to write this way.

Nancy’s recent book, ‘The Library of Ice: Readings From A Cold Climate’ – ‘A wonderful book: Nancy Campbell is a fine storyteller with a rare physical intelligence’.

Nancy was writing specifically about the very remote museum in Greenland where she had taken up the post of artist-in-residence, however, her observations could be true of any museum anywhere.  Historical facts may survive and random artefacts still exist, but without a voice or a story or the memories to link them together, breathe life into them once again, then the past will remain cold, inert.  How much did the image at the start of this post speak to you, I wonder?  Did you recognise it?  Or could you work out what it was?  It is a photograph of the Old Girls’ Display Cabinet in the Waiting Area in Reception at Church High, as it appeared when first created.  Without a personal memory of 2002 or the Alumnae article below, there is no way of knowing now that it displayed Old Girls’ books.

NCHS 2002 Old Girls Newsletter article.

The School’s history has always been an important part of Church High, whether it was being recorded in the Jubilee or Centenary books or re-enacted by the Juniors in their plays.  In my time, both Junior and Senior schools had a glass display case for artefacts in Reception and also a trophy cabinet, but it was only when I read the earliest NHS School Magazines in Tyne & Wear Archives that I realised how far back in School’s lifetime this respect for history – both natural and social – began.  The School once had a Museum.  A very quirky little museum admittedly, but clearly something very important to Miss Gurney’s girls in their quest to share knowledge and to understand the living world around them more thoroughly.  A museum clearly not too unlike that described by English translator, children’s author and poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland: ‘When I was a boy, I took over the shed at the bottom of the garden and displayed fossils and potsherds and coins in it and proudly called it my ‘museum’.  His childhood curiosity about items from the past clearly fuelled later retellings of traditional tales, shaping the way he viewed the world around him.  It seems the same was true for the NHS girls in 1906.

Miss Ram and Miss Edmunds had clearly been passionate in instilling their curiosity about the living world to the Newcastle High School girls because by the next issue of the magazine it is clear that the museum had enlarged greatly from ‘a few stuffed birds and shells’: 

Indeed, by 1914, the museum’s artefacts had grown in such an impressive way that the Governors had kindly provided the School with ‘a glass cupboard with adjustable shelves’ fit to adorn a main corridor.  The same kind of pride of place as the modern day cabinet.

Magazine clips reproduced courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives.

The collective sharing of knowledge was obviously as important then as today and this is the role this blog will now take on.  An accessible voice and resource – an online display cabinet, if you like – to help breathe a little life back into facts, artefacts and Church High persons now fallen into disregard or a disconnect by dusty time.  The English word ‘museum’ derives from the Greek mouseion “place of study, library or museum, school of art or poetry,” originally “a seat or shrine of the Muses”. And ‘to muse’ means, of course, to think on.  If from now on this blog could act as a form of online museum for Newcastle Church High School, then I will feel it is a job well done.  Because, in the beautiful words of the American novelist, Nanette L. Avery, ‘a museum is a place where nothing was lost, just rediscovered’.

Newcastle High School emblem on the old chair rediscovered behind Tankerville House.


Days gone by at Church High on Tankerville Terrace.