All posts by Christine Chapman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo inside is presumably of Miss Spencer and Charlie.

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

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

Room 6 continuing to fascinate folk on Heritage Open Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Prospectus for Church High at Alnwick Castle.

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

Programme for 2004 Alumnae Alnwick visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCHS 2002 Old Girls Newsletter article.

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

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

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

Magazine clips reproduced courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives.

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

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


Demolition of Central Newcastle High School, with thanks to Andy and Tony (Brothers in Arms)

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.

After the Foundation stone had been removed for posterity.

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.

The first demolition machine arrived onsite on March 6th.

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.

‘Since then, at an uncertain hour/That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.’ (ST Coleridge) Andy Held, Machine Operator on the job (above), kindly offered to do a bit of ‘office tormenting’ for me (below).

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.’

My two new friends: English Andy Held and Scottish Tony Rae, ‘Brothers in Arms.’

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.

The void under the building and some last vestiges of purple.

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.

Demolition Manager, Dave Hamilton, onsite.

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.

A huge hydraulic excavator seemingly parked mid back lane.

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.

Eslington Terrace properties now have a unobstructed view.

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.

Who’d have thought that old wood could smell so strong?

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.

The Eslington Terrace balcony continued to provide an ideal viewpoint for the diminishing building. Even when shooting into the early evening sun in the later stages, the results were often more dramatic than I could ever have hoped for.

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.

Many thanks to the resident for the viewpoint.

No more words.  The pictures Tony & I took now tell the whole story.