Ely High School 1905-1972
Miss Tilly's recollections 1936-1966

from the Ely High School magazine, 1965-66

My dear Girls and Old Girls,

Now that I have seen the School's history unfolding during the past thirty years, I am wondering if you all know how it first began. It happened in this way.

A small committee of important Ely citizens, including the Dean of Ely, with this purpose in mind, meeting together in what was then the Deanery, but is now the Bishop's House, resolved that a High School for Girls should be started in Ely. This was put into effect on May 18th, 1905 when forty-two pupils attended for the first day of the School's life.

The buildings which had been acquired were the old Fenland Offices in St. Mary's Street. These had previously been the headquarters of the Bedford Level Corporation, and were known as Bedford House. In consequence the School was named at first Bedford House School. This name is still sometimes to be found in old text books and School records. As far as I know it ceased to be used sometime in the thirties.

These premises were old, unsuitable and soon much too small. The School continued there, however, with the addition of various wooden huts until 1957.

The first Headmistress was Miss EE Fletcher, BA who remained here until her retirement in 1929. Due to her untiring devotion and determination the School became established, and prospered. When she died in 1944 the Old Girls presented to the School in her memory the oak lectern which is used for Prayers. It was made especially for us by Messrs Rattee & Kett of Cambridge. All who knew Miss Fletcher remember her with gratitude and lasting affection.

She was followed by Miss M Verini, MA, who left us after seven years to become Headmistress of Loughton High School, and afterwards, Principal of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. just a year and almost to the day before I came to Ely in 1936, a wonderful experience was mine which I should like to share with you.

A friend lent me a book called "In a Minster Garden": it proved to be about Ely and was written by Dean Stubbs. I do not think that any other book has ever made a deeper impression or has ever left me with such lasting pleasure. I loved the descriptions of the Cathedral, the fens and waterways and their history, to such a degree that I felt that Ely belonged in some inexplicable way to me and I to Ely. Before then Ely had only been a name to me. Now for thirty years I have worked and lived in this lovely place. Ely has satisfied my love of old historic places, of the countryside and of country life. They have been very happy years indeed, due to the friendship and kindness of fenland people. I came among you all as a stranger, but have never from the start felt like a stranger and now I have the joy and warmth of many friendships.

I shall not weary you now with an account of the many difficulties connected with the School buildings in St. Mary's Street, but only pause to tell you that at my first Prize Giving in 1936 I made an appeal for new buildings and described them as a "dream of a future delight". This dream did come true, but not until 1957. The School was much smaller than now when I first came; there were about 220 girls in the Main School, and about thirty children in the Preparatory Department. In those days we had pupils from the age of five, among them little boys; quite a number of important business men and others in Ely are among our Old Boys. One of them, Arnold Richardson, has become a well-known organist. The Arthur Tyndall prize is called after another who was killed in the First World War. The "Preparatory" was in the charge of Miss Winifred Pater who died last year.

After three years, 1936-39, there came the outbreak of the Second World War and evacuation. Few of you will know what that word implies, but to Ely and our School it meant an upheaval and a new experience. To avoid the dangers of bombing from the air, whole schools were moved out of danger areas to safer places. One day several hundred school children came from the East End of London to find temporary homes in Ely. The school which joined ours was the Central Foundation School from Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street Station. We quickly made friends, and shared our premises. We had lessons in the morning and they in the afternoon. The Headmistress, Miss D. Menzies, B.Sc. lived in the Lodge with me. Very soon they acquired Archer House in the Market Square, for additional space.

They stayed with us for four years, and when they went, our school had increased in numbers so much that we were glad to keep on Archer House for some of our classes. Then in 1946 prefabricated huts were built in the School garden to ease our overcrowding, and Archer House passed into the hands of the National Farmers' Union. In 1944, the Education Act was passed which caused the Preparatory Department gradually to close down. It was finally shut in 1949 when Miss Pater retired.

In 1946, the year in which the war ended, Miss BR Baird, BA retired. She had been on the staff for some thirty years, and Senior Mistress for many of these. All Old Girls who knew her think of her with love, regard and affection.

The next year, 1947, brings quite a different scene to my mind. It was the year of the great floods after a winter of exceptionally heavy snow. The Preparatory Department was handed over to the military authorities who were in charge of the flood operations. Instead of small boys coming in and out there were officers in uniform, a colonel who wore an eyeglass and even a German prisoner. One Sunday the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester toured the flooded areas and then ate a picnic lunch in the Military Headquarters in one of the classrooms. I was asked to serve tea to the Duchess. This Royal visit had an important sequel as you will see later on.

The next most important year in the School's history was 1954, marked with a few drainpipes. These do not sound impressive, but they were placed on the Downham Road site to show that the building of the new school had begun. The next year was that of our Golden Jubilee. In 1955 the School was fifty years old and it was an occasion to celebrate. A special service was held in the Cathedral for the School parents, Old Girls and friends: our distinguished preacher was the then Bishop of Peterborough, himself formerly a distinguished Headmaster.

A lunch was held for Old Girls in the School Gymnasium which had been beautifully decorated by members of the staff with golden-yellow flowers. In this year our Athletic Sports were first held and have continued annually on a date as near to the date of the opening of the School as possible (May 18th). We were greatly encouraged at this time - new buildings were becoming a reality and the future was bright. Indeed we were already using the playing fields on the site for games and dinner-hour recreation. Until then we had had the use of the Paradise Field.

The end of July 1957 saw the great removal which was named "Operation Shopping Bag". Every girl was asked to bring a carrier of some sort in which to convey books or small apparatus, with the result that on that Monday an extraordinary procession went up and down the Downham Road from the old buildings to the new. It was wonderful to discover what a large amount a large number of people can carry in small instalments. Within a week the removal was complete, everything had been put in place; and all was ready for the beginning of the new term in the coming September.

With the old premises left behind, the School was now housed in new buildings full of light, air and sunshine surrounded by open fields, hedgerows and wide views on every side. An old windmill on the hill, cows grazing, growing crops and a sweep of country road were all there to gaze at. That dream of mine, "of a future delight" had come true, after twenty-one years!

Then in October of the same year, on the 21st, came the sequel to 1947. Our new buildings were opened officially by HRH the Duchess of Gloucester. She planted a tree on the grass plot in the front of the west wing, and signed the visitors' book which had been presented by the Old Girls' Association. Hers was the first signature. We were very proud to be the first institution in the Isle to be opened by Royalty. So we settled down in our new School, and at once we noticed improvements in both work and achievements.

That was nearly nine years ago now. The buildings have allowed extensions of various kinds in most subjects, and especially noticeable in Art, (we have a Pottery Room as well as a Studio), Music, (we now have a School Choir, two orchestras, and instrumental lessons), Science (both Chemistry and Physics can be taken at A level), Games (our Hockey teams are winning most of their matches), and lastly but perhaps most important of all, our Library could not be bettered for Sixth Form Study. More girls than ever now stay on after sixteen, with the result that the Sixth Form now numbers about sixty: thirty years ago it numbered thirteen! Life has progressed pleasantly enough in our new surroundings. We were very sorry when Miss Defew's retirement came in 1964 after her long years of devotion and service to the School. Miss Haynes also retired in December 1965.

These are only some of the many scenes and memories which come to my mind over the stretch of thirty years spent among you. I want to tell you how glad I am that it is here, in Ely, that I was called to work. All of you, whether present or Old Girls are dear to me and I have loved you: in a sense I think that you are mine. My great hope is that you will carry always with you the ideals and principles which we have learnt together, and have found to be good and true. Remember that once a pupil at Ely High School, you can never cease to be a member of it, and that nothing can take that from you. Keep your pride in your School, and keep too the friendships you have formed here. Friends are among the most precious things in life. You are friends to each other and you are one and all, my friends and I hold you dear in friendship.
Yours affectionately,

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