"that very hot July day "
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July 1900 was very hot. Hay-making had been actively carried on during the past three or four weeks in Bruton churchyard and, for the first time within living memory. a very fine rick had been made there. One particularly fine day a group of public-spirited local people were meeting to choose the first Head Mistress for the new school they were building.
Arriving at Cole Station on the Somerset and Dorset Railway, one of several applicants for the post, Edith Radford, had her first sight of the still unfinished school. She was only 31 years old, brought up in a town. William Knight, headmaster of the recently opened Sexey's Trade School in Bruton (1889), and one of the interviewing panel, had sent three of his children, Ethel, Arthur and Edgar, to Cole Station to meet her. She would have worn a long skirt after the fashion of the day. Bustles and corsets were out in 1900, and the skirt was continuing its relentless rise past the ankle, while the Rational Dress League was calling for women to abandon dresses - for knickerbockers; but Miss Radford clearly had no use for such trends. (An early pupil who had trodden on the train of Miss Radford's skirt received a quick reprimand: "You'll never make a lady if you don't look where you're going.") Her hair was probably drawn back severely, with a centre parting. Perhaps she wore a high frilly collar such as we see in a 1909 photo.
As she took the short walk with the Knight children, and possibly with some of the other candidates also, she had little thought, as she confessed later, that the choice would fall on her. She was not, however, coming to interview as a complete unknown.
Early in that year Henry Hobhouse, at one of the many meetings he attended on County business, had bumped into an old friend, the Reverend Doctor Thomas Scott Holmes, Chancellor of Wells Cathedral, and had told him that a school was being built and equipped on Sunny Hill. "We still have to find a Headmistress," he confessed. "It is giving the Governors some anxiety." Chancellor Holmes immediately replied, "The Governors need not be troubled about that. I know someone very suitable." And the name he had suggested was Miss Radford.
Edith was always keenly aware of world events, and commented decisively upon them. As she looked forward to her interview, she might have prepared comments on some recent developments. It was an exciting time. Since the 1870s everything had been in question, opinions, institutions, and conventions. Queen Victoria was still on the throne, but a number of socialist organisations had been emerging in the past 20 years. In February of 1900 trade unionists and socialists had founded a committee under Ramsay MacDonald to work for the election of Labour M. Ps. Of more particular interest to women, Millicent Fawcett's National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was three years old.
Much else had filled the papers that year. The Prince of Wales had survived an attempt on his life in Belgium in April. In May, Parliament had raised the minimum age at which boys could work in coal mines from 12 to 13 years. The first long-distant bus service was being advertised: London to Leeds in 2 days. Central Railway "Tuppenny Tube" opened in London, connecting Shepherd's Bush with Bank. The first jug of Coca Cola had arrived in Britain. [The Independent, 4.1.98]
Abroad, the Boxer Uprising, a violent movement by the Chinese people beginning in 1898 to rid their country of foreigners and foreign influences, was nearing its climax. But the event which had probably excited Edith Radford most, as it had everyone else, had happened a few weeks before the interview. The South African War, also known as the Boer War, had begun the previous year, involving nearly 450,000 British soldiers. After some months of Boer victories they had besieged Mafeking. When British troops under Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts relieved the beleaguered garrison in May, the nation went wild. A new word entered the language, "to maffick", 'to rejoice with hysterical boisterousness, from the scenes in the streets of London on the news of the relief of the town,' as Chambers Dictionary puts it.
The Knight children were delighted by the way this town-bred lady appreciated the Somerset scenery and surroundings. As they came up from the station, they approached the site of the old Sunny Hill Inn and the children told her, "This hill is called Sunny Hill." She said "What a nice name." That scrap of conversation may have settled the official name of the School for the next 60 years, and its unofficial name for a century.
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Edith may have wondered what kind of woman the founders were seeking to set the course of the new school. One role model, Dorothea Beale, was still alive and active, aged 69, as the principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she had been in charge since 1858, and the subject of a well known rhyme:
Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid's darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.
(Anon, about 1884; Miss Buss was principal of the North London Collegiate School.)
Miss Beale gave evidence in 1865 to the Endowed Schools Inquiry Commission and gave immense impetus to girls' education. She founded St Hilda's College, Cheltenham, the first English training college for secondary women teachers, in 1885, and St Hilda's Hall in Oxford in 1893, to give teachers in training the benefit of a year at Oxford (Cambridge already had Girton College, founded in 1869 and Newnham College in 1871.). There was already a Headmistresses' Association, of which Miss Beale had recently been President. Edith Radford might have studied a book called Work and Play in Girls' Schools, which Miss Beale and others had written recently in 1898.
Secondary schools for girls were clearly not a new idea. Readers of nineteenth century novels may recall Charlotte Brontë's heroine in 'The Professor' teaching in such a school in Belgium, and Trollope's Grace Crawley helping at the Miss Prettymans' school in 'Silverbridge'. In real life, Haberdashers' Aske's School, an old foundation for boys, had made provision in 1875 for girls to be educated separately on its Hoxton site. [Encarta] The 1881 census shows a Weston-super-Mare school run by a woman of 63 and her niece, helped by two teachers and four servants, at which there were just nine girl boarders. At a different level, Roedean School was founded in 1885 by three sisters: Dorothy, Penelope, and Millicent Lawrence. They had three aims: "to give physical education [its] due place in every girl's life"; training for "independence and self-reliance"; and "sound and careful intellectual training." [Encarta] Nearer to Somerset, Colston's and Redlands in Bristol, and the Godolphin School in Salisbury, were well established.
What the new Headmistress was being asked to do was perhaps pioneering work of a different kind. Sunny Hill was to be a school for local girls, set in the depths of the countryside, and yet providing a first class education, at least comparable to that available to their brothers. There were indeed local primary schools for both girls and boys, and a couple of years before Miss Radford was born, a college prospectus set out the teachers they required:
Undoubtedly goodness and piety are prime qualifications for a schoolmistress, but they are not the only ones. A schoolmistress must be strong in health, pleasant in her manners, fond of children, sufficiently well-informed, and apt to convey her information in simple and attractive language. It should also be borne in mind that, as country children are generally more dull of comprehension than those who dwell in towns, it needs clearness of head, with patience and tact, to teach them. (1865 College of St. Matthias prospectus, quoted in Jane Miller: School for Women, Virago 1996 p.17-18 )
Sunny Hill was to bridge the wide division between the privileged few and the deprived many. One writer put the situation (with boys chiefly in mind) like this: "The minority, destined to become potential leaders, attended the élite secondary schools: the English "public" schools (such as Harrow, Eton, and Rugby), the French lycees, or the German Gymnasien. The majority, destined to become followers, either went from elementary schooling to vocational training or dropped out of school to go to work." (Compton's Encyclopedia)
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The group that Edith faced at her interview consisted of the Governing Body; it was a formidable one. There sat the father of her young companions on the walk, the first Headmaster of Sexey's Trade School, old boy of King's School, Bruton, 33 year old William Albert Knight. That school had been founded by the Trustees of Hugh Sexey (1559-1619), a local boy who had worked himself from stable boy to Auditor at the King's Treasury; the new school was to be supported, though not to the same extent, by the same Trustees. William Knight was a tall, spare figure with dark hair and moustache, and blue-grey eyes that struck one of his pupils as penetrating, another as 'not piercing' but 'calm, reflective and compelling.' His initials W A K led to the nickname 'Wakker', and he had a strong sense of humour, often carefully disguised, so that a boy noted that 'he kept his thoughts to himself. You felt that you could not lie to him.'
Edith was probably introduced to Mr F. Whitelock from Castle Cary, whose daughter Caroline was to be a pupil of the new school, and to four men from Bruton itself: Mr F. E. Stroud, a Town Councillor, Roland T. A. Hughes Esq., a solicitor of great courtesy and charm, who was at that time rehearsing the Bruton Choral Society to sing Mendelssohn's 'Elijah'; Thomas Oatley Bennett Esq., a County Councillor, chairman of the Town Council and generous supporter of the town, whose wife had provided the School with its site, and Mr J. Golledge of Grove House [check], another "prospective parent" of the school, who acted as Secretary. Margaret Hobhouse was the only woman present. She clearly took the greatest interest in every detail connected with the education of girls and the management of the School, and Edith felt she would be always sure of a patient hearing for any matter she might wish to discuss with her. Her husband, Henry, was Chairman and obviously the leader.
Henry Hobhouse, still only in his mid forties and father of three girls and three boys, their ages ranging from 7 to 19, was a country squire living in Hadspen House, and a nephew of Baron Hobhouse. He had been educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he gained first class honours in the Classics (Literae Humaniores) in 1875 at the age of 21. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, and became a county magistrate when only 26. A pioneer in local government theory, before he was 30 he had written, with Sir Robert Wright, "An Outline of Local Government and Local Taxation." He was elected the Liberal Member of Parliament for East Somerset in 1885, becoming Liberal Unionist the following year. In 1902 he would be a Privy Councillor, and two years after that he would begin a 20 year reign as Chairman of Somerset County Council. He was especially interested in agriculture, and, more to the present purpose, in education. When he was only 34 he had started the processes that led to the foundation of the Sexey's Schools at Blackford and Bruton. On his death in 1937, the school magazine wrote:
As Member of Parliament, as Chairman of the Somerset County Council, as Pro-Chancellor of Bristol University, as Recorder of Wells, as Chairman of the County Councils Association, as an Ecclesiastical Commissioner, as a member of the National Assembly of the Church of England, and as member, and generally Chairman, of many other Boards and Committees, he had scope for his great gifts and wide knowledge; and he used his powers and energies for the welfare and good government of the community in general and for Somerset in particular.
This formidable person may have explained to Edith Radford the background to the school's foundation.
It had all begun when Henry Hobhouse had sprained his ankle in 1898. He was a Governor of Sexey's Trade School, and the Headmaster, William Knight, had come to visit him in Hadspen House. The schoolmaster in Mr Knight could not resist a weak pun about Mr Hobhouse 'hobbling about,' but Henry did not seem to be in the best of tempers. When, however, William Knight spoke of his three daughters, Ethel, Edith and Maud, and of his concern for their education, he forgot all about the sprained ankle. He rose and said 'Ah! I was just going to come down and see you. Don't you think we ought to have a girls' school here?' So the idea was born. Mr Knight told him that neighbours like Mr. Golledge also wanted a good secondary school for their daughters. Sexey's School could provide the pattern. Mr Knight at his own interview in 1889 had offered to start that school with only his wife and himself as teachers, and boarding accommodation for about 50, and since then the school had grown steadily. Mrs. Hobhouse was brought into the discussion, and it became clear that the first step was to gauge the strength of local support for the project. Perhaps Miss Radford had heard about the public meeting held in Sexey's School on Saturday October 15th 1898, at which, so the report stated, it was unanimously resolved: "That in the opinion of this meeting a demand exists for a middle-class Girls' School of a public character in this neighbourhood."
(Miss Chappell, by the way, read this in 1959 when preparations for the Diamond Jubilee were sending people to research the School's origins. She found what follows most interesting because it indicated the breadth of the founders' vision.)
"It would obviously be an advantage for the school to receive recognition and aid from public authorities, and to be eligible for this, it is necessary that it should be established on a public footing and not worked for private profit. It is therefore suggested that the requisite funds be provided by a Limited Liability Company, and that the interest shall not exceed a fixed maximum rate of, say 4 per cent per annum. The capital required will be at least a sum of £3,000. It was announced at the above meeting that more than half the required capital had been promised, in sums of not less than £50."
(As Miss Chappell was busy in 1959 with new buildings, she was in a good position to comment: "The capital expenditure [£3,000] compared with what we need today, even for our gym and classrooms, is fantastic.") The document approved by the 1898 public meeting concluded:
"The curriculum of the school will, it is hoped, correspond to that of the Sexey's Trade School for Boys, with any modifications which may be desirable for girls, and provision will be made for a fair proportion of boarders. If you are willing to take shares in such a company, when formed, you are requested to fill up the enclosed form and return it to W. A. Knight, Sexey's Trade School, Bruton, at your earliest convenience.
(Signed) Henry Hobhouse, T. O. Bennett, F. Whitelock,R. B. Drewett, Wm. A. Knight."
Had Miss Radford seen the prospectus that had been issued in April 1899 by the Bruton Girls' School Company Limited, advertising the School and inviting new investors. It would be "a thoroughly efficient middle-class School for Girls, (both day pupils and boarders,) giving a modern education"?
We can imagine Miss Radford reading the prospectus, perhaps as she sat with others in an anteroom before the interview:
The Bruton Girls' School Company Limited
REGISTERED UNDER THE COMPANIES' ACTS
H. HOBHOUSE, Esq., M.P., HADSPEN HOUSE, CASTLE CARY (CHAIRMAN)
T.O. BENNETT, Esq., C.C., TOLBURY, BRUTON
MRS. HOBHOUSE, HADSPEN HOUSE.
R.T.A. HUGHES, Esq., M.A., BRUTON
MR. W.A.KNIGHT, HEAD MASTER OF SEXEY'S TRADE SCHOOL, BRUTON
MR. F.E. STROUD, BRUTON
MR. F. WHITELOCK, CASTLE CARY.
Secretary : Mr. J. Golledge
Offices : High Street, Bruton
This Company has been formed to establish in South-East Somerset a thoroughly efficient middle-class School for Girls, (both day pupils and boarders,) giving a modern education corresponding as far as possible to that given at the very successful Sexey's Trade School for Boys in the same neighbourhood.* In the absence of endowments a sum of £2,600 has been raised by private subscription, but an additional sum of at least £400 is still required.
Each subscriber of £25 will be allotted one £5 Ordinary Share and one Debenture of £20. As the School is to be conducted on a public footing and not for private profit, and is to be qualified to receive aid from the public authorities, no interest will be payable on the share capital. The Debentures will bear £5 per cent interest accruing from the date of the opening of the School Buildings; but this interest will be only payable if in the opinion of the Directors the accounts for the year justify such payment.
The Directors have secured a suitable** site for the School Buildings at Sunny Hill, on the main road, half-a-mile distant from Bruton and three minutes' walk from Cole Station on the Somerset and Dorset Railway. The buildings will be commenced this summer, and will (it is hoped) be ready for occupation in the summer*** of 1900.
Any person willing to subscribe is requested to fill up the enclosed form and return it to the Secretary of the Company. £3 per share is payable on allotment, and £2 on the 1st July 1899. The money subscribed for Debentures will be called up in instalments as required for building expenses.
Dated April 20th, 1899.
N.B. The Memorandum and Articles of Association can be
obtained from the Secretary on application.
A later version of this brochure, with a drawing of the first building by the architect, Arthur J. Pictor, A.R.I.B.A., of Bruton, whose daughter Madge was among the early pupils, was issued when the amount subscribed had reached £3,000, but still asked for an additional £400. By that time the founders' ideas had become a little clearer, as additions to the earlier version show.
* The later version added: "Such an education, practical, good in quality, and moderate in cost, is keenly felt by parents to be a great want in this part of the County, where so few educational advantages are open to girls."
** Second version: "a healthy, elevated and convenient site"
*** By the time of the second version: "Buildings are in course of erection which will afford accommodation for about 70 girls, (including 20 boarders) and which will, it is hoped, be ready for occupation in the summer or autumn, of 1900." The founders had discovered that building completion dates are not always reliable. They also had to deal with a practical problem: "A continuous supply of good water will be laid on from Bruton."
"The curriculum will include the ordinary English subjects, (viz.: Grammar, History, Geography, Handwriting and Composition), French, Arithmetic, Drawing, Needlework and Singing. Cookery, Laundry-work and Science will be taught in well-fitted rooms, specially built and equipped. Great importance will be attached to the Physical Education of the girls by means of exercises, Drill, and organised Games. Instruction will be given, to the older girls at least, in the important subjects of Hygiene and Physiology. Opportunities will be afforded for individual instruction in Instrumental Music.
Well-qualified and experienced Teachers will be appointed, who will be expected to exercise proper supervision over the physical and moral, as well as the intellectual, welfare of the pupils."
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When Miss Radford was asked about her education and experience, she told them of the London private school she attended from age 11 to 16, and the Burton-on-Trent school where she was a pupil teacher for 4 years, before her training at Whitelands College in Chelsea. She gained a first class certificate and after a probationary period in Peterborough, she had taught girls since 1892 in Carmarthen. We can guess at the drift of Edith Radford's other answers to this daunting panel of interviewers, because years later she summed up her aims:
'So far as in me lay, I have striven, beyond and above all else, to give the girls a sense of duty to the community - a true appreciation of beauty in all its many forms - and a desire for some spiritual sanction to give life a meaning and a purpose.'
If Miss Radford put forward aims like these, which are evident in everything she wrote, we can also guess the impression she made on her interviewers. On her retirement, Mr Knight said "I venture to say Miss Radford's success has been due first to her unbounded enthusiasm, which she imparted to everyone who came in contact with her. Another characteristic was her wonderful generosity of effort and time, which she has always been ready to devote not only to the School as a whole, but to individual pupils. She has succeeded in producing what a school should be, and that is a happy family. The happiness of the Staff and teachers, I should not think, can be surpassed anywhere.'
Enthusiasm and the fostering of happiness were two of the qualities that the interviewing panel saw in her, and a member of her staff in later years pointed out others, most necessary in a headmistress: "She was not the type to encourage familiarity at school; in fact, she inspired a very respectful awe, sometimes even terror. But however wrathful she might be at laziness, or impatient of stupidity, she was always human, and would confide in and co-operate with those whom she had previously reviled as cumberers of the earth, and a misfortune to their parents. There was no Olympian detachment about "Raddy." She had strong likes and dislikes, even prejudices, but could always see another person's point of view, and could laugh at herself; she moved with the times."
It would be pleasant to think that she and William Knight discovered on that first day their common love of nature and enthusiasm for botany. Mr Knight often led pupils on botany walks through local lanes and woods and inspired them with his own enthusiasm for all natural things. Before the building of the school began, so he told his grand daughter in later years, Mr Hobhouse and he had stood in the field where it was to be and looked down towards Glastonbury Tor and the setting sun. Miss Radford's similar enthusiasm for nature influenced generations of Sunny Hill girls.
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Of details of the momentous interview we know nothing. We do know that, out of several candidates that very hot July day, the Governors chose Miss Radford and offered her the post on the spot. She immediately accepted. This is how she finished her recollections, as she spoke to the School in 1925:
"I little thought the choice would fall on me, and when the post had been offered to, and accepted by me, and I was once more on Cole Station waiting for my return train, I remember regretting my decision and wondering how long it would be before the Governors regretted it too!"
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