I never intended to document the demolition of the Central High building, the world having moved on from there a good while ago. In the end, it really just boiled down to the fact there was a story there still to be told and a well-placed narrator still willing to tell it. Me. Just as I had passed Central every morning on my way to Church High, I still passed by it each day. Any change to the façade, I saw it. And I had to pass by on my way home each night after work, anyway.
My interest has always been in preserving the Church High history, but it was hard to pass by each day with a realisation dawning that, if I didn’t do something, a piece of Newcastle’s history was going to vanish without trace. No-one at work was bothered at all. In the end, it was me who talked to Tolent’s Tony Davidson to ensure the Foundation Stone and a couple of pieces of the Sixth Form Library woodwork were moved up to Tankerville Terrace. And if I hadn’t done this, then the Victorian time capsule they found concealed in a small cavity beneath the stone would never have been discovered. Other than this hole left in the brickwork, from Eskdale Terrace there was little evidence for a very long time that work had begun. But Tony had told me the machines were being delivered to the back of the building so, from that point on, my walk to Jesmond Metro at the end of each day was via the back lane instead of Eskdale Terrace.
When I saw the first machine had arrived on site, my curiosity got the better of me, of course. Once the thread of a narrative begins to develop, it’s hard, as a writer, to resist the urge to follow it through. I like people and I am endlessly fascinated about the jobs that they do. So, just as a chance conversation with Nick White at the gates of Westward House in 2015 had led me to Peter the Gateman, my initial conversation with Tony Davidson would lead me to meet Andy, which eventually brought me to Dave, via yet another Tony. As Miranda exclaimed in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in it!’ And timing is everything, of course. Had I not arrived at the back of the building to take photos of the first day’s demolition just at the end of tea-break, I would never have met Andy Held, who turned out to be the Machine Operator of the ’20 tonner’. Like the Ancient Mariner, I had my tale to tell and, when I’d told him it, he kindly started up the machine so I could get shots of my Eskdale office being destroyed.
The following day, I saw Andy again as he was joined by a friend of his, Tony. All I knew at this point was that the pair were ‘Brothers in Arms’ – or, as Tony would later put it, ‘brothers by another mother.’
On Day 3 of the demolition. the work had advanced to the School Hall (which put up a bit of resistance before it finally succumbed) and Tony told me of a huge water-filled void they had uncovered. Right in the very centre of the Hall. To show me, he took some photos on his mobile phone and offered to send them to me at work. As had happened previously with the Waites team on Tankerville, Tony would continue to take photos for me for the length of the job.
I would later learn that the main demolition team working onsite were all Tony’s guys. His company, Rae Demolition Ltd, which is based in Falkirk, regularly acts as a sub-contractor for O’Briens. The actual Demolition Manager was Dave Hamilton, whom I met one day. He explained the ‘plan of attack’ for dismantling the building. If you were facing the back, it was modern offices and School Hall to the left first, followed by a similar modern extension to the right. They would then go ‘in through the middle’ (taking out the Sixth Form Library building which linked the main building to the ugly modern Science wing) before flattening the Science Block. From this point, the Main Building would topple, end-on, from south to north.
On March 22nd, they told me the ‘Big’ Machine was due to arrive and on my way to the Metro that night, I literally had to squeeze past a huge excavator seemingly parked in the middle of the lane. It seemed a bit strange, but allowed me to see its huge bucket up close.
Unless the situation changed, Andy indicated this was his bed for the night. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. A car belonging to a tenant living on Eslington Terrace turned out to be blocking the way. As turned out to be the case with Tankerville work, my visits often seemed to coincide with some interesting and critical events. Later on in the process when I was taking a photo of the widening space, a man stopped to talk. We both commented on how much less oppressive it felt in the lane now the building was nearly down. It turned out that he was renting one of the properties that had faced onto the back of the school. He was also the owner of that car.
What we also passed comment on was the unbelievably powerful smell of old wood. For as you walked along the back lane now, all that was left of the building was high piles of timber framework.
My aim had always been to create a time-lapse montage of the disappearing building, but how I was going to manage this wasn’t at all clear. The Central building was huge and the back lane low. A vantage point was what was needed and, suddenly, the fire-escapes at the back of Eslington Terrace began to look most enticing. I found one that did the job and had availed myself of its prospect a number of times before I met up with its owner on his way to his rubbish bin. Permission granted, I felt much better. And it offered a perfect view.
For those interested in details, the image below is a close-up of the gable-end of house with the balcony. The fire-escape is to the extreme left and the low brick wall mid-image is my viewing point.
No more words. The pictures Tony & I took now tell the whole story.
There is no mention of him at all in the Centenary Book and only two brief references on Page 16 of the Jubilee Book, but anyone who has been shaped by Newcastle Church High School – whether aware of it or not – owes a debt of thanks to a Mr Benjamin Chapman Browne. By all accounts, he was one of Nature’s true gentlemen and in 1887 was knighted by Queen Victoria in her Jubilee year, but, despite meriting an online obituary in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, he is a shadowy figure today. Even in Newcastle where he served two terms as Lord Mayor, in 1885 – 1886 and 1886 – 1887. However, without his initiative, experience and practical support, Newcastle High/Church High might never have been founded.
A mechanical engineer by trade, B C Browne became a Magistrate in 1877 and was elected to the Newcastle upon Tyne Town Council in 1879. We know from the Introduction of ‘Selected Papers on Social and Economic Questions by Benjamin Chapman Browne, Knight’, edited the year after his death by his daughters E.M.B and H.M.B., that ‘he threw himself warmly into municipal work’ for ‘he greatly enjoyed coming into contact with all classes of the community, and the welfare of his adopted town was very dear to him.’ No doubt inheriting his philanthropic nature from his mother’s great-uncle, Granville Sharp
(the man who carried the test-case which finally forced the historic decision that made slavery illegal on British soil), Browne – by then having taken over the engine works of Messrs. R and W Hawthorn – ‘interested himself actively in the original founding of the Durham College of Science (later Newcastle University) feeling how important it was that the young men and boys of an industrial district should have within their reach opportunities of high-class scientific education.’
As an enlightened man and the father of four daughters, it should surprise nobody that B C Browne was also actively involved in creating access to high-quality High School education for the young women and girls of Newcastle at this time. And as ‘a faithful and devoted son of the Church of England’, it is also no surprise that the organisation he looked to in order to provide such an opportunity was The Church Schools Company, as opposed to the G.P.D.S.T. Formed in 1883, by the end of 1884 Company High Schools for girls had already been established in Durham and Sunderland. And, from the Church High Centenary Book, we know that as early as 28th February 1884 the Company ‘was considering the desirability of establishing a high school at Newcastle.’ Possessing no capital itself, Company policy was to found schools only where the demand was supported by a willingness to take Shares in the Company, thus forming a sort of guarantee. The approach from Newcastle intimating ‘sufficient financial backing would be forthcoming’ had come via a letter from B C Browne to Dean’s Yard, the Westminster offices of the Church Schools’ Company in the building adjacent to Westminster Abbey.
It is unlikely the letter itself has survived, but we know from Vol. 1 of the Company Minutes that on June 5th 1884 ‘Canon Holland read extracts from the Report on Newcastle’ and that ‘the Report of the Local Committee was accepted with the following amendments: That Canon Holland and Canon Cromwell be appointed a Sub Committee to complete the negotiations for carrying out the school at Newcastle on terms which shall not exceed the proposal’s contained in Mr B C Browne’s letter!’ As he then was, Councillor Browne was clearly acting as Chairman of the Local Committee (a body of guarantors) which had been created in Newcastle in order to establish a C.S.Co. girls’ school there. The other 11 members, half of whom were women, were: Mrs Catherine Pennefather (wife of the Vicar of Jesmond); Mrs Emily Wilberforce (wife of the Bishop of Newcastle); Mrs W D Cruddas (wife of William Donaldson Cruddas, industrialist, of Haughton Castle, at this time Director of W G Armstrong & Co); Mrs J Spencer (wife of John Spencer, owner and director of J Spencer & Sons’ Newburn Steelworks); Mrs W Boyd (wife of William Boyd, engineer and Managing Director of the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co) and Miss Hewison, formerly Headmistress of the Jesmond Road School, who acted as the Local Secretary. In addition to the new school’s Patron, Dr Ernest Wilberforce, Bishop of Newcastle, a further five men representing a cross-section of the most eminent citizens of Newcastle and Northumberland at the time made up the Committee: Canon Arthur T Lloyd, Vicar of Newcastle and the Bishop’s right-hand-man at St Nicholas’ Cathedral; George Hans Hamilton, Archdeacon of Northumberland; Councillor Thomas G Gibson, a businessman and the present Lord Mayor of Newcastle; Mr Charles B P Bosanquet, JP, of Rock Hall, Alnwick; and Mr E A Hedley, most likely co-owner of colliers Hedley & Bell, a descendant of William Hedley of Newburn.
Newcastle’s High School for Girls was formally opened on Wednesday, 21st January 1885 with a church service. Afterwards, a meeting was held in the School where Canon Francis Holland spoke for the Church Schools Company followed by Councillor Browne who explained the financial position to those present. The initial idea had been that ‘two hundred shares of £5 each in the Company would have to be taken up in Newcastle’ for the School to be viable, but ‘later it was found that four hundred shares, or £2,000, would be necessary’. B C Browne explained that ‘Mr Cruddas had expressed himself willing to take up any which were left’ (Jubilee Book, p.17). The great industrial families of West Newcastle were a close-knit community. ‘Based in Benwell and the West End, close proximity brought further friendship, neighbourhood ties and intermarriage’ (The Making of a Ruling Class, p.38) and many of the men were members of gentlemen’s clubs, such as the Northern Counties Club on Hood St. This concentration of economic power brought with it great wealth. W.D. Cruddas could afford to do this. At his death, his estate was valued at £1,042,000.
But for a man such as B C Browne, in his prime at 45, with a busy public life and happy family circle, this was not a business exercise. Always interested in the young and a lover of original thought, his interest in learning was such that he was asked to deliver a lecture on ‘Education from an Employer’s Point of View’ to The Teachers’ Association at the College of Physical Science in 1896. In this lecture, which was later published by his daughters in his Selected Papers, he speaks of the ‘art of learning’ and ‘training the child’s mind.’ Ultimately a respected figure on the national stage with regard to labour issues, B C Browne’s views on management must surely have had an impact on the type of school Newcastle High/Church High would become, where the girls were allowed a voice and were valued as individuals. ‘It always seems to me’, he said, ‘in managing any large number of people to individualise as much, and to generalize as little, as possible …. It is disheartening for children, and even for grown-up people, to feel that their individuality is not recognised, that they are lost in a multitude, and that nobody thinks of their special trials and troubles. What a master or mistress can do in this way is of incalculable value, and I believe this is the way interest is not only made but used to the best advantage afterwards ….. Be it yours to make the best of every boy and of every girl that is placed in your charge, and if you cannot show them how to raise their position, at all events you can brighten their lives, making them good, useful, happy men and women in every relation of life …. And it must be remembered that the value of a school career is not to be measured by the amount of information that a boy or girl has got during the years that were spent at school, but rather by the amount of desire and power that they have acquired to accumulate knowledge by their own efforts in after life.’ That sounds very like Church High to me.
It has been a real pleasure for me to research the life of this wise, remarkable man and to share what I learned with others. We should take real pride in the School’s connection with a person of such high standing in our region and on the national stage too. There is no record of how long B C Browne served as Chairman of the Local Committee or kept up a connection with the School. However, since he would soon be elected Mayor of Newcastle, we must assume that he was soon contributing to public life on a much larger scale. We do know that by early 1887 the Tankerville Terrace site had been obtained for the promised, purpose-built school, though. As the rented plot was St Mary Magdalene Hospital land, use of which was managed by Newcastle Corporation, it is probably safe to assume B C Browne played a part here, by then in his second term as Mayor. A mortgage agreement with William Temple to build residential properties on another area of Magdalene Hospital land dated March 18th 1887 certainly shows by the mayoral signature and Corporation Seal on the reverse that B C Browne signed off the contract.
Deeper reading has allowed more cross-referencing and, the more I have thought about it, the girls of Newcastle were very lucky indeed that their desire for education was championed by Mr B C Browne. He really was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. An independent school is a business at the bottom line, of course, and Benjamin Browne was undoubtedly one of the most successful and experienced businessmen in Newcastle in the late 1880s. But his connections and affiliations were religious too, which is the all important ingredient for a school with the ethos Church High had. Via his marriage to Annie Atkinson, BC Browne became part of the ‘landed gentry’ in Newcastle, which meant here a connection to coal. But industrial takeovers are expensive things and BC Browne has gone on record with regard to the support given to his companies by bankers, which in real terms in Newcastle at this time meant John William Pease and Thomas Hodgkin, partners in the Barnet, Hodgkin and Pease Bank: ‘I was entirely made by the bank.’ When it was decided in 1882 that Non-Conformist Newcastle needed a Bishop to raise the profile of the Church of England in the North and Gladstone appointed Ernest Wilberforce to the See, it was John Pease who offered Benwell Towers as the bishop’s official residence. As B C Browne’s family home ‘Westacres’ was also in Benwell, he and the Bishop became close neighbours and, over time, good friends too. Indeed, when Bishop Wilberforce held his first Diocesan Conference on September 25th 1885, he was supported on the platform by a body of leading laymen including two Dukes of Northumberland, the Earl of Tankerville, the Lord Mayor T G Gibson as well as Councillor B C Browne (The Life of Bishop Ernest Roland Wilberforce, p. 134-5). The platform party also contained Mr C P Bosanquet. As he, T G Gibson and B C Browne were all on the inaugural Local Committee of Newcastle High School for Girls (Church High), it is really no surprise the Bishop became its Patron. For as Ernest Wilberforce’s biographer makes clear, ‘no layman in the diocese could have better opportunity of estimating the Bishop and his work than Sir Benjamin Browne, a very prominent figure among the Churchmen of Newcastle from the formation of the See down to the present day ’ (Ibid. p. 168). It’s always all about connections.
B C Browne’s daughters noted that his two years as Mayor of Newcastle, although busy and tiring, ‘were years of great interest to him. A Royal Agricultural Show in the first year and an exhibition in the second, both held at Newcastle, brought him much extra work but also much pleasure.’ The former was visited by the Prince of Wales and the latter was opened by the Duke of Cambridge, both sons of Queen Victoria. The exhibition they refer to was the Royal Jubilee Exhibition which opened on May 14th and was held in Bull Park extending onto the Town Moor. Its full title was the Royal Mining Engineering Jubilee Exhibition and it was intended to be held in 1886 but it was decided to defer the event to associate it with the Queen Victoria Jubilee Year celebrations of 1887. The exhibition was split into 4 main courts containing exhibits from local industries, including Armstrong’s great guns. There were also gardens, a theatre, art galleries, a photographic section and even a replica of the old Tyne Bridge, built in 1250 AD, which had been partially destroyed by flood of 1771. Over 2 million visitors saw the exhibition, although only the Exhibition Park bandstand remains of this exhibition today.
1887 was certainly a very busy and productive year indeed for Benjamin Chapman Browne. It’s amazing he found the time to locate the best available site for the new purpose-built High School for Girls on top of his civic duties as Mayor and hosting such a huge public exhibition in Newcastle. The best was yet to come, however. For, in the words of his daughters, ‘it was after his strenuous work in connection with the Newcastle Exhibition that Sir Benjamin received the honour of knighthood at the hands of Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight [her favourite residence], in June of her jubilee year.’
The Royal Exhibition and his knighthood must surely have been two of the high points of a life well-lived for B C Browne, who would go on to become a Deputy-Lieutenant of Northumberland and in 1905 act as a member of the special committee of the Home Office to enquire into the working of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The girls’ school he helped found does not even appear as a footnote in any of his biographical information, but I would like to think he would have been amazed to see the fruits of his labour there 129 years later. And, hopefully, also very proud of those who continued his efforts too. Even in retirement he continued to work, only resigning his office of Chairman at Hawthorn Leslie a few months before his death. For the last months of his life, he suffered from growing heart-trouble, and after ten days of acute illness, in the early hours of Thursday, March 1st, 1917, his daughters record their much-loved father, Mr Valiant-for-Truth, ‘passed through the valley of the shadow into the fuller light and joy beyond.’ God rest his soul.
This area of the School’s history only came together over time from just the briefest of occasional references and who knows whether I would have pursued them so curiously had B C and I not had the name of Chapman in common. I don’t think we’re related at all, Benjamin Browne hailing from Gloucestershire originally, but it just goes to show that, as F.M. ended her piece in the Jubilee Book, history is ‘at best a thing of shreds and patches, woven from memories …. strengthened where possible by recorded fact.’ You just have to care.
‘It ain’t over until the fat lady sings’. An interesting proverb. I mean, who’d have thought that four years further on, almost exactly to the day, I would be donning hard hat and reflective jacket yet again? Wikipedia defines this phrase as alluding to the fact one should not presume to know the outcome of an event which is still in progress. More specifically, when a situation is (or appears to be) nearing its conclusion, it cautions us against assuming the current state of an event is irreversible or that it is clear how or when an event will end.
Positive as I am, even I must admit that in September 2016 when we moved back into Tankerville, never mind way back in July 2014 when its doors were closed, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the Central High building would be reduced to rubble within five years. But that will indeed be the case. And very soon.
The Eskdale gates now look very, very different from the way they did when they were used to launch the NHSG brand back in 2013.
“Life is flux”, said the philosopher Heraclitus. “The way up and the way down are one and the same. Living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are the same.” He meant that these things are the ‘same’ because they are all subject to change, arising from one change only to vanish into another. All things, constantly, are in flux. So should we be surprised that a school only built on Eskdale Terrace because the Tankerville building was ‘not for sale’, a hundred and thirty years later finds itself ‘on the way down’ again? Yes, the only constant in life is change. And things inside are certainly looking different now.
My guide was Tolent Construction’s Site Manager, Tony Davison, who I had met that day on my way to work, up a step ladder in the middle of taking down the Shepherd Offshore sign affixed to the NHSG sign poles. I’d started talking to him to ask about the demolition schedule, aware NHSG were hoping to reclaim the building’s foundation stone and perhaps a bit of the Sixth Form Library too. It turned out the time-scale was tight. Tony told me the window for having a last look inside the building was only a couple of days. At that point, I had no intention – and no wish – to go back into Eskdale myself, but, having passed on the information at NHSG, I found myself free just before lunch and phoning the number on the business card Tony had just given me. The quickest way forward is always to do it oneself. And I was feeling the ‘pull’ of the blog once more. So that’s how I came to be in a hard hat again, one last time.
Not all empty buildings feel the same, of course, and it won’t come as a surprise to hear that my mood on January 25th 2019 was very different to when I saw the state of the Tankerville interiors when I finally got back inside. Although it was a shock to see Church High stripped back to the brickwork, it was also fascinating to see bits of the Victorian structure re-emerging. With Tolent only just taking possession of Eskdale, inside should have looked largely the same – minus furniture. But Tankerville hadn’t stood empty without site checks for 2 and a half years. In the interim, Eskdale had had visitors.
Tolent’s strip-out work would clearly not be taking as long as planned. As I could see all around me, Tony told me the building had been infiltrated for months by scavengers looking for scrap metal. In some places, such as the flight of stairs I had to use every day while working there to get to the Head of Year Office, metal items such as radiators had been left lying ready to take away next time.
You may know that these days all the wiring is installed in the ceilings in modern builds. But, in Eskdale, all the valuable cabling was long gone and the cheaper CAT5 cables littered the floors. In places, it brought to mind wading through a mass of blue spaghetti.
The proliferation of purple still had the power to oppress me, despite time passing, but we soon reached the 6th Form Library. Now, as when I worked there, the dark wood of this room felt like an oasis of calm as we opened the door. Amazingly, it was still virtually intact. Modern day thieves aren’t interested in old wood, it seems.
The Sixth Form Library, like its namesake at Church High, has moved position over time, I believe. But, when it hosted the NHSG Brand Launch, it exuded a veneer of historical and cultural permanence.
However, devoid of its books and the re-located Central High stained glass window, the old Library’s dark woodwork was neither as ornate nor as substantial as I’d thought. As I looked around, there was a sense of ‘smoke and mirrors’ evident now, which shocked me.
Between us – myself, Tony and two other members of the Tolent team who’d joined us in the room – we selected a piece of panelling by the window for preservation. As we stood in the centre of the room talking, Tony nodded towards the green ‘pod’ thing in a recess with a quizzical look and told me they’d been finding them all over the building. It brought home to me just how much ‘meaning’ relies on context. One person’s seahorse is someone else’s oddity.
Before I left the building, Tony kindly allowed me time to explore a little further with my camera. We didn’t go far. I just wanted to venture upstairs a little way. To the Main Corridor and Staffroom. The first floor corridors at Tankerville and Eskdale are very similar in design, with both adding atmosphere to their respective schools. In its time, the Eskdale Main Corridor was darkly imposing, but if I hadn’t seen an old photograph I would never had thought that now.
The sole inhabitant of the Staffroom now was an agitated pigeon, which found refuge in the Workroom when we came on the scene.
The Staff Workroom had been well-and-truly plundered for cabling.
Tony told me that, as well as cabling, lead had been stripped from the roof. This was evident at the top of the building, where a pungent smell indicated water had got in. I’d intended to take a last look at the Head of Year Office. But as we stood on that corridor – where the stuffing seemed to have been ripped out of the walls – I knew I didn’t need to go further. Time had moved on and so had I.
As I handed my hard hat back to Tony in his yellow cabin, my mind inevitably wandered back in time to Peter and his cabin at the start of this ‘Tale of Two Schools’. I paused for thought a second time as I walked through the Eskdale gate for the very last time, my eye clocking the O’Briens van pulled up in the back lane to my left. I was still standing – and smiling – but Eskdale’s future was not so bright.
And did my Eskdale ‘Unfinished Business’ have the ultimate effect of laying some of my old ghosts to rest? Yes, in the end, I think it did.
I promised our Archivist, Rachel, at Tyne & Wear Archives that, as soon as I was in a position to do so, I would search for a number of old photographs which School had signed out on temporary loan but for some reason had failed to return. When I learned the Church High Alumnae photographic archive had been returned to Tankerville Terrace from its storage crate at Quicksilver in July, this was the first job on my list. It may be our school archive, but once it was signed over to the care of Tyne & Wear Archives at the Discovery Museum – a branch of The National Archives – in 1985, this is where all catalogued items should always be. Not only are they properly conserved and in very safe hands there, they are also freely accessible to anyone who has a desire to view them. Indeed, this is how gaps in the archival material first came to my attention. I found myself both disappointed and not a little flummoxed when my search request to look at an early catalogued photograph of ‘Miss Dickinson playing the piano in the school hall for drill’ drew a blank.
Once the majority of the photographs were located, I made a scan of each image before returning them to a delighted Rachel. Broadly speaking, they were some of the earliest existing photographic records of Newcastle High School at Tankerville Terrace, most likely signed out for a little exhibition to celebrate the School’s 120th Birthday. Aware that, as a girl, Miss Dickinson had moved with the School from Jesmond Road to Tankerville, I found myself looking just that little bit more closely at what appeared to be the very earliest Form photograph, more out of curiosity than in the hope that I might find her younger self looking out at me from the aged image. In turn, this led me to focus this next post on the second half of Miss Dickinson’s memories, written for the Jubilee Book in 1935.
Miss Dickinson first wrote about her long association with the School in an essay entitled ‘Reminiscences’ which was published in the March 1913 edition of the Newcastle High School magazine. It makes fascinating reading and can be read in full on the Heritage website. There are numerous differences to the piece she wrote for the Jubilee Book twenty years later, particularly in relation to her time as a pupil at Jesmond Road. In this essay she very helpfully dates her return to Tankerville Terrace as a young teacher as 1899.
On page 52 of the 1935 Jubilee Book, Miss Dickinson continues the tale: “As I said before, one happy day I came back to my old School as a mistress. The gymnasium, brass locks, glass panels, Wilson’s boy and a green cupboard that I never could draw properly were still there but things had changed a good deal. Instead of 80 girls in the School there were 120, and classes had become Forms and Form I was now little ones.
“The building was smaller [then]; there were no labs, no geography room [the 1927 extension], no dining room … [a further extension in 1935].
“What is now the Botany Lab was then the Art Room – a room furnished with a piano and some chairs. Drawing lessons took place there, music and singing lessons if the hall was very cold, or if the rain was coming in. All the School from Form II upwards had Drawing at the same time then. Form II stayed in its own room, Forms IIIb, IIIa and IVb were in the Hall and IVa and V in the Art Room. This was on a Thursday morning from 11.30 to 1 o’clock. The Mistresses’ Room was where it is now – downstairs – and as you came upstairs from the cloakroom [located then, as the toilets and locker rooms still were even in 2014, at the foot of the South Staircase] and went along the corridor, the rooms were in this order on your right:Form II (under Miss Miller), then Form I and the Kindergarten (under Miss Norman), then Lower IV (under Miss Ram, later Mrs Dilley), then Form III/IIIb together (my Form) [this would have been latter day Rooms 4 & 5 (my own teaching classroom), which I discovered during the restoration process were originally divided by a moveable partition wall], then Upper IV (under Miss Davenport, who was then the Second Mistress), then Form V (under Miss Siddall, the Head Mistress) and then Form VI (at that time, only two girls).
“On the other side of the corridor were a non-descript room where the little ones sometimes played or where an Arithmetic division was taken [in 2014 the room was still being used as a Maths classroom – Room 8] – the hall and the drawing pantry, the room I’ve told you about already.
“Downstairs there were no Form Rooms. If you started at the cloakroom end, on your right there was the Staff room, the Staff Cloakroom, the library, the front door, the Head Mistress’s room, the caretaker’s rooms and the stationery cupboard, the dining room [Small Dining Room] and, on the other side, the kitchen, the gymnasium and the Junior Cloakroom.
“When I came the only game the School played was tennis, but we soon started hockey [Miss Dickinson donated a form hockey cup in 1905 – the first trophy given to the School], first on the Orphanage ground, then on one of the moor intakes. Our first match was against Gateshead High School who beat us 13 – 1 (I think it was). When we started netball some years later, it was a game for Middle School and Juniors and we were the first school in this neighbourhood to play it. Gradually Seniors began to play, all the Secondary Schools took up the game, and for the last two years our first VII has won the County Tournament. Lacrosse and swimming are comparatively recent additions to School sports. [Miss Dickinson remarked in a School magazine that, although cricket had advanced sufficiently for a match to be played in 1905, play often left something to be desired it being ‘by no means an unusual sight to see a fielder taking the opportunity …. of doing a little original research into Botany or Astronomy, or of settling some disputed point with her nearest neighbour ….’ Cricket never became popular with the School.]
“Wartime brought some unusual experiences. Did you know that school might have been taken as a Military Hospital? It was inspected but was too small to be of any use. During the summer holidays of 1914, it was used as a centre of St. John Ambulance work. First Aid and Home Nursing classes were held every day – a sewing party met daily in Form VI and the Senior cloakroom was used as a store for beds, bedding, screens, jugs and basins and anything that might be of use in a hospital. [The year before, Miss Gurney had raised a Women’s Voluntary Aid Detachment for the St. John’s Ambulance Association to serve the county, in addition to the Jesmond Nursing Division. Miss Gurney was the organisations’ Commandant and Lady Superintendent respectively, and Miss Dickinson their Quartermaster and first Nursing Officer (Jubilee Book p.33). For her war service to the City of Newcastle, Miss Gurney was awarded the Tyne Garrison Medal in December 1918.]
“Though we had outgrown the hall for prize-givings, we had to use it in wartime, so blinds (paper ones) had to be fixed to the windows. These blew about considerably when the ventilators were opened. During one prize-giving when the chief guest was speaking, Waterman [School Caretaker at that time] came upstairs to say that two special constables had seen lights shining out of the hall windows and they must be put out. In those days, the Staff spent prize-givings in the corridor so he easily passed on the message to me. The hall was lighted by gas and each bracket had to be turned off separately. I reached the Chairman with some difficulty; he interrupted the speech and said: ‘Will the gentlemen who are sitting on the window side of the room kindly stand on their chairs and put out the lights over their heads? Thank you,’ and the rest of the prize-giving went on in a room which had ‘L’air borgne.’ (Look it up.) [So typical of a Modern Languages teacher to say this, even though, in her time, Miss Dickinson also turned her hand to the teaching of Scripture, History, all English subjects, Mathematics, Singing, Violin and Gymnastics, in addition to coaching Hockey and Netball as well as organising girls’ Swimming. The sign of a true polymath].
“By this time, we had acquired another building – the Junior School and the laboratory were at 5, Henshelwood Terrace [bought by the Governors in 1917. From 1913, Miss Gurney had leased the house as her own home, living there with her sister Nellie. As she did at 16, Otterburn Terrace, Miss Gurney received boarders within her home at Henshelwood too and it was for this address that the first School House Prospectus was produced]. One day the fume cupboard took fire and we had the excitement of having a fire engine at the gates and firemen all over the building. Fortunately, the fire was soon put out.
“The next improvement was having a Lab on the premises ….. [created in 1927 by extending the back of the building out over the playground on pillars; some of the space below it became a Geography room].
” ………….. and the Junior School just across the road in Tankerville House [purchased in 1927], and music rooms instead of pianos in Form rooms.”
In the final paragraph of her 1913 reminiscences, Miss Dickinson confesses that ‘When I came [as a teacher] I made up my mind to stay two years, even if North Country girls were as bad as I had heard they were. I have stayed fourteen [now] and it is quite likely that in the future it will be a Prefect’s duty to wheel me to School in my bath chair!’ And her prediction turned out to be true, if not exactly literally so, for she would stay at Church High as Second Mistress for another 24 years. Known to the girls as ‘Dickie’, Miss Dickinson was loved by all and dedicated her life to School. Dr Williamson, Miss Gurney’s successor, pays her a glowing tribute on page 59 of the Centenary Book : ‘Later in the afternoon [Miss Gurney] took me to tea with the beloved and redoubtable Miss Dickinson. How fortunate I was in having her as Second Mistress for my first year of Headship. Already greatly hampered by lameness, her strength of character was unabated and with her long experience and her mature wisdom she eased me into my job without my knowing it and kept things steady while I found my feet.’
It speaks volumes that the above framed image of Miss Dickinson is the only photograph of a Second Mistress/Deputy Head in the Church High archive, either at School or at The Discovery Museum. Her time spent at Jesmond Road and Tankerville Terrace as pupil, teacher and Second Mistress undoubtedly makes her one of the School’s longest standing servants. Thanks to the 1905 whole school photograph, we are able to compare the graceful, poised figure seated at her desk above with the young Miss Dickinson.
But what of that young girl called Florence who, accompanied by her two sisters, ‘tried three other doors, all of which looked like front doors, before they found the right one’ on her way to Newcastle High School for the very first time and witnessed the foundation stone of the new School being laid ‘in a place rather a long way off anywhere called Tankerville Terrace’? The likelihood of a photograph existing of her are, admittedly, very slim indeed. But there is just a chance that we have one. For looking even closer still at that Elliott & Fry image of the younger children which seemed older than the others, to the left of the group, a serious-looking young girl with long blonde hair wearing a pristine white blouse caught my eye. There is no way I can be sure of this, of course, but the dates do match. How wonderful would it be if this was indeed the young Florence Evelyn Dickinson?