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.
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.
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?
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!
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 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.