Temporary home for girls

This picture shows the old Scarborough Girls High School which was at the bottom of Westbourne Grove. Picture courtesy Max Payne collection.
This picture shows the old Scarborough Girls High School which was at the bottom of Westbourne Grove. Picture courtesy Max Payne collection.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Having been summarily expelled from Westwood in 1922, the 150 girls of the Muni had to go up the Valley to make-shift accommodation at Westlands on Westbourne Grove, formerly a much smaller girls’ private boarding school vacated after the bombardment of 1914.

The Mercury of April 1922 complained strongly against this move to a “totally unsuitable building” which would cost the ratepayer £1,830 a year.

Westlands was said to be only a temporary home for the girls and their teachers, but they were not found a permanent, satisfactory place at Sandybed by the North Riding authority until 1939.

Given the prejudices and swingeing economies of the post-war 1920s, such blatant discrimination against the schooling of adolescent females was not surprising. Yet in our time, when the established Protestant church still cannot allow women to become bishops and Catholics exclude them entirely from the priesthood, it is well to remember where we were 90 years ago.

The Suffragettes had won only a minimal victory: in 1918, whereas all men were given the parliamentary vote at 21, women did not qualify for it until they were 30. Even after 1928, when women were enfranchised at 21, those in employment were paid on average only half the wages and salaries of men. Women outnumbered men in the civil service, teaching and nursing, but in education and medicine generally discrimination against them was the norm. To achieve her career ambitions, a woman usually had to forego marriage and motherhood. All the professions were overwhelmingly male-dominated.

In 1918 Fisher’s Education Act had raised the school-leaving age from 12 to 14, still two years short of the time when the School Certificate was taken. Secondly, though elementary classes had always been mixed and now were free, high schools like Scarborough’s continued to charge fees for the majority until they were finally abolished in 1944. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, the 11-plus exam was not first taken until 1945. So given the restricted employment and professional career opportunities for girls, parents were not encouraged to pay fees for at least another two years for their daughters.

The official opening ceremony of the Girls’ High School was held in December 1922. It took place in the Victoria Hall of Holy Trinity church because Westlands lacked a room big enough to contain the senior girls, their parents and teachers. The principal address was given by Mr Turnbull, chairman of the North Riding education committee. After describing Westlands as “homely”, he then told the audience clumsily what he thought were “the two objects of secondary education”.

“First, to enable the clever child to set his (sic) foot on the educational staircase, and get such development of his (sic) powers that he (sic) could fulfil the highest destiny in the state that his (sic) brain was capable of dealing with, and second, to raise all children to a level of sweet reasonableness.”(!)

The following day, Dr BS Phillipps, mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, addressed 200 girls in the school’s small gymnasium, in terms that were more grammatical and appropriate, but no less uninspiring. She told them that unless they intended to teach she did not recommend a university education and even teaching posts were scarce for ladies. The only encouragement she was able to offer was that girls could increase their limited career prospects by specialising in “uncommon subjects” such as Oriental languages! The girls should not be thinking of preparing themselves for a money-making employment but “value knowledge for its own stake...as a means of civilising the world”. Was she unaware of the achievements of former Municipal school girls such as Storm Jameson?

Miss Glauert, the headmistress, put further gloss on this pessimistic message. In the first issue of the school magazine, she declared that the results of the public exams were “highly satisfactory”. Of the 30 entrants for the School Certificate, 27 had passed, the best proportion in the North Riding. And one girl had passed the Higher School Certificate! She hoped that more parents would see the wisdom of keeping their daughters at school beyond the age of 16, since it was only from them on, their physical development matured, that girls could give full expression to their intellect.

Miss Glauert seemed to be saying here something similar to what Professor Maudsley had written uncontroversially in The Fortnightly Review in 1874. Females had to choose between an academic or professional career and full, healthy womanhood, that is marriage, motherhood and family.

These were not just the words of a blue-stocking spinster or an ivory-tower intellectual: they were enshrined in law and practice. Only after the Butler Education Act of 1944 were female teachers in local-authority schools not required to choose between the classroom and the marriage altar. A photograph of the Girls’ High School staff 
taken in 1945 shows 17 ladies who included the school secretary and a part-time piano teacher; all were unmarried and there was no male present.

The Girls’ High School, first in their cramped quarters at Westlands, then from 1939 at Sandybed, had only three headmistresses in more than 50 years. Miss E Glauert lasted for 23 years. A graduate of the elite Cambridge ladies’ college, Girton, this “regal, austere lady” was the new school’s principal architect. It was Miss Glauert who chose “Per Ardua Ad Astra” (Through strenuous efforts to the Stars) as the school’s motto, though the Royal Flying Corps had already adopted it as theirs in 1913. No doubt having to overcome the obstacles and difficulties of living in Westlands was the main thought in her mind.