I’m so sorry to have to pass this news on to you all so soon after the first contact about Jill’s health, but I got a call from Imogen today.
Sadly, Jill passed away – very peacefully, I understand, with Imogen and Imogen’s brother at her bedside – at around 1.30 pm on Sunday afternoon. She had enjoyed having the cards she received on Friday and Saturday read out to her, so she knew folk were thinking of her. It’s just a shame the majority of people’s cards will arrive too late. I’m sure Imogen will take great solace from your memories of Jill when this week’s cards are passed on to her by the hospice though.
The main thing, however, is that Jill is now at peace and no longer in any pain or discomfort. I believe the funeral is likely to be live streamed so please watch this space for details when I get them.
Love and God Bless to you all. This has all happened very quickly.
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:
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 suffragecomes 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.