SOS for NCHS to Rally Round One of Our Very Best, Miss Jill Mortiboys

Sorry to be the bearer of what I know will be very sad news for a lot of people who remember Jill so fondly as a colleague and teacher. Last Friday Jill asked her niece, Imogen, to  ring me to let me know she had been admitted to a hospice in Ipswich after a brief spell in hospital where she was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

I have been in contact with Jill by letters and the odd telephone call since she moved down to East Anglia on retiring as Head of English at Church High, which has allowed me to continue to bathe in the sunshine, positivity and joyous fun being in Jill’s company endowed.  But she needs us to return some of this her way now, please.  Big time.  When someone is so far away – and so poorly – one is able to do so very little to help.  But, like me, I’m sure many of you will find it in your hearts to swiftly share with Jill how much she meant to us all.

I will let Imogen know that I’ve written this post and I’m sure she will try to share with Jill, when she visits, any comments left on this blog.  But Imogen is travelling from Birmingham each time, the Mortiboys’ home patch, and will already have a lot on her own plate right now.  By their very nature, hospices are set up to ensure the days before someone’s passing are the happiest they can be for them and their family/friends, so I’m including the address below for card sending.

Let’s make sure Jill knows just how much she gave to so many of us.

Jill can be contacted with your love and good wishes via the staff at:

St Elizabeth Hospice,

565, Foxhall Road,



Church High Links To Women’s Suffrage & Girls’ Education Pioneers 1- Miss Buss & Dr Sophie Bryant

It’s hard to believe that just over four years have passed since I first began work on this post on 6th February 2018, a hundred years to the day from the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act.  The media coverage of the Centenary of women gaining the vote brought Church High and its intellectual ethos to mind, in particular the 2000 Millennium tagline – ‘Giving Every Girl a Voice’.  At the time,  I wondered how many people would be aware that the shaping spirit of Newcastle High/Church High School – which went on to mould countless girls in its likeness – had indirect links to  the Suffrage movement and, via Miss Gurney’s headship, direct links to key pioneers of educating girls and Higher Education for Women?

Suffrage is a strange word, isn’t it?  Most people will know of the ‘Suffragettes’ but, until this important Centenary, I wasn’t aware there were also ‘Suffragists’, nor of the distinction between these two types of activists.  Despite being an English teacher, I realised I had only a vague grasp of the word’s root, mistakenly believing it to be connected to suffering for one’s beliefs.  If you’ve always known that suffragism refers to the belief that the right to vote should be extended to women, please forgive my ignorance.  I now know that the word suffrage comes from the Latin suffragium, meaning ‘vote’, ‘political support’ and ‘the right to vote’.  The term Suffragist, in turn, refers to a member (male or female) of the Suffrage Movement who advocates a woman’s right to vote, generally by non-violent means.  Later on, militant members more violently active in the ‘Cause’ were first referred to as being Suffragettes in a Daily Mail article of 1906.

Popular suffrage postcard from 1908.

For these individuals, the fight for the right to vote in political elections was the most fundamental way of gaining a ‘voice’ for women – a thing women of today can often take for granted.  It’s hard to imagine the level of frustration educated, professional women must have felt being with-held a say in their country’s political process on the premise that, being female, they lacked the intelligence, seriousness of mind and faculty of discernment to register an opinion on worldly matters.  Because they weren’t men.

Propaganda postcard produced by the suffrage movement.

In time, as the Cause progressed, this more militant approach to fighting for Women’s Suffrage led to the formation in 1903 of the Women’s Social and Political Union by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst.

‘Votes for Women’ Newsletter, 1908.

From 1908, those who supported the suffrage campaign were able to show their allegiance more visibly when the WSPU adopted the now widely-recognisable suffragette colours of purple, white and green: purple stood for Dignity, white for Purity and green for Hope.  The architect of the suffragettes’ key visual strategy was Sylvia Pankhurst, who was a prize-winning student at Manchester School of Art.  When the WSPU was planning its biggest ever rally in Hyde Park 0n June 21st 1908, Sylvia was asked to design the event.  Her brief was to devise a visual concept that was both recognisable and accessible to all, whatever their financial means.  Her solution was colour-coding.   The actual colours were chosen by her friend and fellow activist, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and were subsequently applied to all WSPU activities – on banners, flags, posters, sashes, rosettes, badges, tickets, souvenir brooches and even on hatpins.  Discreet support could even be offered via gemstones in jewellery.

Because of its connection with Hope, green subsequently became a popular colour for girls’ schools’ uniforms around this time.  In Newcastle, although only Church High School retained this colour for their full uniform – beginning with green Tam O’Shanters in 1914 – originally the PE uniform for both Newcastle High and Central Newcastle High School was green.  As you can see below, the very earliest embroidered School badge in the Newcastle High/Church High School Archives actually sports all three suffragette colours.  It will have been introduced in the early years of Miss Gurney’s tenure.

All of the female educational pioneers at that time were actively involved in the Suffrage Movement, although always as Suffragists.  Church High School’s most immediate connection with the leading figures in this field – all passionate pioneers – is through Louisa Mary Gurney, the School’s third Head Mistress – the only one to serve as Head Mistress of both Newcastle High School and Newcastle Church High School.  Before her appointment as Head of Newcastle High School for Girls in 1902, Miss Gurney taught Mathematicss from 1896 to 1902 at the prestigious North London Collegiate School for Girls, under the headship of Mrs Sophie Bryant.  

Sketches which accompanied an article on the North London Collegiate School in ‘The Lady’, 4th June 1891.

Although Cheltenham Ladies College is now the more high profile of the two, N.L.C.S. was THE trail-blazing school for girls’ education in the country at the time, founded by Miss Frances Buss, who, in time, would groom her Irish Deputy Head, Mrs Bryant, as ‘heir apparent’.

Sophie Willock Bryant proceeded to build on Miss Buss’ educational legacy, taking over the role of Head Mistress at N.L.C.S. in 1895.

Front Cover of N.L.C.S. Prospectus early in the century.

The following year, she appointed a young Miss Louisa Mary Gurney to a Science teaching post at N.L.C.S. to specialise in Mathematics.

To work under Sophie Willock Bryant at N.L.C.S., the first woman in the United Kingdom to gain a Doctorate, must have been a truly empowering experience for any young teacher.  By repute, a woman who ‘took an active part in every progressive movement of her time’, the N.C.L.S. staff all spoke glowingly of Sophie Bryant’s character and leadership: ‘The same respect for personality which characterised Mrs Bryant’s dealings with the girls characterised no less her dealings with the staff.  She never tried to impose her personality on others.  Always one felt grateful for the illumination of one’s mind by talk with her.’

Mrs Sophie Willock Bryant (left) and the young Miss Louisa Mary Gurney (right) both, by this time, Head Mistresses.

Despite dying long before women actually received the vote, Miss Buss’s voice is still ‘heard’ through her legacy, an unrelenting call for the education of young ladies.  Nigel Watson’s book ‘And their Works Do Follow Them’ (the illustrated story of the North London Collegiate School) notes that Miss Buss’ death was reported widely in the national newspapers.  Over 2,000 people attended her funeral and the names of her pall-bearers (which included the other female educational pioneers of the time: Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Elizabeth Hughes) ‘reflected her standing in the world of education.’

Nigel Watson’s illuminating book on N.L.C.S.

The voice of Miss Buss’ successor would go on to be heard well beyond education, however.  In 1878, Miss Buss described her as ‘bright, accomplished, energetic and earnest.  She is amiable and loving and above all she has vital force.’  A forthright, open personality who never hid her passionate views on a wide range of subjects, Sophie Bryant ultimately had over 50 written publications to her name, covering the full breadth of her personal and professional passions.

Sophie Bryant’s book on Euclid was a standard school text book at this time.  As a teacher of Mathematics, the young Miss Gurney will have undoubtedly taught with it.

Possessing a strong Christian faith and keen interest in ethics, this brilliant scholar and influential advocate of women’s suffrage, was also an avid cyclist, an intrepid mountaineer who scaled the Matterhorn twice and an ardent supporter of Irish Home Rule, proudly wearing an orange scarf with her navy blue dress at work.

Mrs Bryant (left) climbing the pinnacles of Crih Goch, 1897.

Sophie Bryant always considered herself to be a ‘suffragist’ rather than a ‘suffragette’ and, although she declined to play a key role in the Votes for Women cause owing to her professional commitments, she gave support as an occasional platform speaker at WSPU rallies.

This image of the 1908 National Union of Women’s Suffrage March from ‘The Bystander’ features Lady Frances Balfour, Mrs Henry Fawcett, Miss Emily Davies & Mrs Sophie Bryant. Under the title ‘Suffragism: Prominent Women Engaged (quietly) in Saturday’s Great Demonstration’, they report that the great (peaceful) demonstration in favour of Women’s Suffrage attracted 12,000 women, representing every sphere of women’s activity, marched from the Embankment to a rally at the Albert Hall. You can see from the image below that Emily Davies and Sophie Bryant (right) know each other very well.

As one would expect of a Head Mistress, Mary Gurney was of the same mind as her mentor with regard to the more militant suffrage campaign that was raging around them.  According to the Gurney Family biographer Jenny Moore, Mary believed that ‘there were many other ways to make their point’ (p. 118, ’45 Feet of Daughters’).  The 45 feet of the book’s title is a reference to the fact there were no fewer than nine daughters in Professor Henry Palin Gurney’s household, Louisa Mary being the eldest sibling.  Brita Gurney, three years Mary’s junior, held a very different opinion about Votes for Women.  In 1911, she was arrested with other WSPU members in London for ‘stopping crowds in a park and demanding that they listen to the cause’ – at least according to her family.  The Metropolitan Police Report from Cannon Row Police Station records her crime as ‘committing malicious damage’, however.  She was bailed to appear at Bow Street Magistrates Court two days later, where she was found Guilty and received a prison sentence.  Family documents exist indicating that, as was common amongst suffragettes, Brita went on Hunger Strike.  On March 17th 1912, in case the worst outcome occured, she made a Will on WSPU notepaper.  The Gurneys were gravely concerned, not least because Brita had a weak heart after a history of rheumatic fever.  An ‘influential friend’ – reportedly Christabel Pankhurst, as the family story goes – was approached to intervene on health grounds.  Brita was duly released, gaining her Hunger Strike Medal.  What her no-nonsense elder sister felt about it all is anyone’s guess.

WSPU ‘For Valour’ Hunger Strike Medal presented to Agnes Brita Gurney on her release from Holloway prison in 1912.

Nigel Watson records that Mrs Bryant had no favourites amongst her staff but, on page 44 of his history, he does mention Miss Gurney as one of six of Mrs Bryant’s Assistant Teachers (she did not believe in Heads of Department) who were encouraged by her to apply for headships with great success.  A clear testament to her example.  She took the training of her teachers very seriously, believing she was also teaching her staff to ‘lead’. One member of staff (Eleanor Doorly) recalls that ‘Mrs Bryant would not allow her staff to bask in a happy post. She took to putting advertisement cuttings of vacant head ships on my plate at lunch. At fist I refused to take any notice, but at last her teaching prevailed – that higher responsibility must not be shirked.’

North London Collegiate School motto.

It seems Sophie Bryant and the young Miss Louisa Mary Gurney were travelling a similar trajectory.   Both held degrees in Science with specialism in Mathematics – indeed, Mrs Bryant was the very first woman to take the D.Sc., the highest degree open to men.  Both were daughters of clergymen who held university-level academic positions. Both also had a strong, active Christian faith which in turn informed their teaching and their outlook on life.  Sophie Bryant was  a passionate mountaineer, as was Miss Gurney’s father, the Rev. Professor Henry Palin Gurney. With so much in common already, one can only imagine the impact learning her craft under Mrs Bryant at the start of her educational career must have had on Miss Gurney.  And, having already lost her father to a mountaineering fall in 1904, one can only imagine her feelings during the two week search for Mrs Bryant, presumed lost in the Alps, in 1922.  A tragic end to life.

Contemporary Press Death Notices: The Rev. Henry Palin Gurney, The Graphic, Aug 27th 1904 (left) and (right) Dr Sophie Bryant, The Illustrated London News, Aug 26th 1922.

Other notable aspects of Miss Gurney’s tenure at Church High can be traced back to her time at North London Collegiate School too.  The high point of her headship was undoubtedly the Jubilee of 1935, with its published History, which would cement Church High’s ethos and academic reputation as one of the top girls’ schools in the North.  As one of Mrs Bryant’s Assistant Teachers, Mary Gurney will have been involved in North London Collegiate School’s memorable Jubilee of 1900 which culminated in a high profile Jubilee Year Prizegiving attended by the Prince of Wales – King Edward VII from 1901- with his wife, Princess Alexandra, presenting the prizes.

Prize Day, 1900, attended by the Prince & Princess of Wales.

A high-quality, commemorative hardback record of the 1900 Jubilee School Magazines was produced, detailing the establishment of the School and Miss Buss’s huge contribution to its successes to date.  Miss Gurney will have learned a lot from this too, commissioning the publication of a history of the first 50 years of Church High School as part of the 1935 Jubilee celebrations.  The front cover of the N.L.C.S. Jubilee Record features a beautiful line drawing of a small bunch of daffodils, as you can see below.  Despite the Victorian love of flora, this was no random flower.  Miss Buss chose daffodils as the School Flower and each Foundation Day they adorned every classroom.  In a similar emblematic way, Miss Gurney chose the chrysanthemum for Newcastle Church High.  They symbolise friendship and loyalty.

Yellow daffodil emblem on the front of Miss Buss’s biography.

Having joined the teaching staff of Church High in its Centenary Year, I know there is no better way to get to know a School than by being introduced to ‘Voices of the Past’, ingrained in its very fabric.  My interview took place on Thursday May 16th, which was Ascension Day in 1985.  I remember that everything was running late, but I was eventually greeted with a firm, warm handshake by the Head of English, apologising that the assembly speaker had badly over-run owing to the special nature of the day.  This was, of course, the enthusiastic, energetic and enigmatic Jill Mortiboys, that day sporting a smart white blazer, with the sleeves  2/3rds hitched up her arm in topical Don Johnson ‘Miami-Vice’ style!  I liked the feel of this place – a quirky mix of tradition &  individuality – and was ultimately delighted to find myself appointed as one of its staff.  Although I wouldn’t start until the next academic year in September, it being only midway in the School’s Centenary Year, I was cordially invited to drop in for the Centenary Open Day on Saturday July 6th.  I did so, of course, curious yet more-than-a-little apprehensive at the time owing to the interim nature of my connection with the School.  I recall seeing archive photos on the walls of the Main Building, but spent most of my time viewing the English Department display in what was then Room 16 (the ‘Television Room’) in Tankerville House.  And so my love affair with Church High began.  Like many before me, I would grow into myself there and learn I had a ‘voice’.


‘And Their Works Do Follow Them’: The Story of the North London Collegiate School 1850-2000, Nigel Watson, 2000, James James Publishing.

The North London Collegiate School 1850-1950: A Hundred Years of Girls’ Education, Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1950, Oxford University Press.

Frances Mary Buss and her Work for Education, Annie E. Ridley, 1896, Longmans, Green & Co.

Frances Mary Buss Schools’ Jubilee Record, edited by Eleanor M. Hill, B.A. with the co-operation Sophie Bryant, D.Sc., 1900, Swan, Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd, London.

Sophie Bryant, D.Sc., Litt.D. 1850-1922, Private Printing, North London Collegiate School.

45 Feet of Daughters, Jenny Moore, 2011, Orphans Press, Herefordshire.

Colour Decoded, Alice Rawsthorn, May 2018, The Power of Women Issue, Harper’s Bazar.

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.


Days gone by at Church High on Tankerville Terrace.