Ely High School 1905-1972 - Miss Bertha Tilly MA, PhD
Headmistress 1936-66

The Times,
Wednesday January 29th 1936

(Northern Division of Cambridgeshire)

A HEAD MISTRESS is REQUIRED for the above-named School (number of pupils approximately 290), to commence duties at the beginning of the Summer Term, 1936. Candidates must be honours graduates of some University in the United Kingdom or have passed equivalent university examinations and must have had good experience in a secondary school. The commencing salary is £500 per annum, increasing after two years' service, by annual increments of £20, to a maximum of £600 per annum.
Forms of application, which must be returned duly completed so that they reach the undersigned on or before 17th February 1936, and further particulars may be obtained on receipt of a stamped addressed foolscap envelope from
EJP OSBORNE MA, Director of Education,
Education Department, County Hall, March.

The Times
June 16th, 1936

Miss Bertha Tilly, an assistant mistress at Sutton Coldfield High School for Girls, has been appointed Headmistress of Ely High School for Girls.

In the 1967 Ely High School magazine Miss EM Moody, who succeeded Miss Tilly, wrote:

I am very happy to pay personal tribute to Dr. Bertha Tilly, who was for thirty years Headmistress of Ely High School. It is her generous personality, kindness and wisdom which have impressed me most in the short time I have known her. From the moment of my appointment as her successor Dr. Tilly spared no effort to initiate me in the ways and traditions of her School, and did her utmost to make my first months here run smoothly.

As it is an impossible task for a headmistress of a mere six months' experience to do justice to one who has for so long held this responsible position, I have asked Miss Defew, who was Deputy Headmistress for many years to give us her account of her long friendship with Dr. Tilly:

Miss D. G. Defew, Deputy Head for many years, wrote:

My first personal contact with Miss Tilly was early in 1936, just after her interview with the Governors. I can still picture her, tall, slim, and rather shy, standing outside the Library, and hear her saying, very quietly and gently, "I'm afraid I'm your new Headmistress."

During the long association begun that day I was to learn that quietness and gentleness, reinforced by firmness and determination, were permanent and important qualities in her personality.

Without any first-hand knowledge of it Miss Tilly had already been attracted to Ely by what she had read, and came here ready to find it a pleasant home. Soon she had a deep love for our historic little city with its mighty cathedral. Her beauty-loving nature delighted in the changing fenland sky and the wide, flat spaces of our fenland fields. A little more slowly, but no less surely, she came to know and value the sturdy strength of the fenland character: "The salt of the earth," I have heard her say.

Soon she had settled into the ordinary routine of the school, and felt at home in the quiet background of Ely and the surrounding country. Then, in 1939, the outbreak of war brought to us, as to everyone, a cataclysmic disruption of our way of life, in which many urgent new problems had to be faced, and something approaching normal life had still to be lived.

To us there was little danger: our problems, for the community and schools, were those of a safe area receiving schoolchildren evacuated from the dangers of London. Much adjustment, planning, careful time-tabling and tact were required. In our case the goodwill, friendliness and skill of both the resident and the visiting Headmistresses achieved a satisfactory modus vivendi, in which our friendly relations were maintained throughout.

Other lesser crises arose after the war years, all with their special problems: running a school of increasing numbers in two buildings; obtaining desperately needed extra accommodation by the only possible expedient of erecting new classrooms just inside the Chapel Street fence, thus contracting still further an already small playground; having the inevitable tension of a General Inspection increased by the partial burning of one classroom and burst pipes in several others immediately before; the exciting prospect of a new school actually materialising; the removal itself; the official opening of the new buildings by H.R.H. the Duchess of Gloucester.

Whatever their nature all these crises made their own special demands, created their own problems. Miss Tilly brought to bear on all of them her power of concentration, her attention to detail, and her considerable organising ability. They were met and passed successfully with such apparent ease that no one was upset. No one was upset .... because the Headmistress always "played down" the upsetting elements in such crises, keeping the actual long and heavy work to the seclusion of her study, or to the Lodge, reducing the impact on the school to the minimum.

This was her way of working, quietly, unobtrusively, not allowing the work itself, or its effect on her, to affect the smooth running of ordinary day-to-day living. The normally recurrent times of extra activity - the beginning and end of school term and school year; interviews of all kinds, with leavers, with prospective staff, with some 11+ candidates; the making of the timetable - were met in such a way that the school in general was probably quite unconscious of the Head's extra busy-ness.

Many Old Girls will remember the thoroughness with which she considered the question of their careers, and how generously she gave time and thought to their welfare, sometimes long after they had left school. She had a voluminous correspondence from Old Girls, and I doubt whether any one of their letters went unanswered.

Dr. Tilly's achievement as Headmistress is due as much to what she was as to what she did. Her great scholarship and deep love of learning; her delight in beauty; her thoroughness and grasp of detail; her attentive care for the girls, have all played their part in the life of the school, in the raising of its academic and artistic standards, and in the lives of individual girls.

If Ely has been a happy home, and its setting an aesthetic delight to her, she has brought to the service of Ely great qualities of mind and character.
DG Defew.

Dr Bertha Tilly, Headmistress 1936-1966

Bertha Tilly was appointed Headmistress in 1936 and held this post until her retirement in 1966. Ely had been known to her only because of the fame of the Cathedral and the fact that she had been loaned a book called To a Minster Garden by Dean Stubbs who of course had played such an important role in the foundation of Ely High School, and who was the first Chairman of Governors.

Miss Tilly was delighted with her home in the Lodge which she described as "a delightful Georgian fenland house with the local characteristics - the old pump, a back-house and even a brick oven. There was also a garden planted with many old fashioned and precious plants such as red peonies, butchers broom, tradescantia, wisteria, lavender, and rosemary by the front door as well as the fig garden, a fine bay tree and the old gnarled mulberry tree spreading itself over the lawn."

However the buildings gave her a feeling of depression: they were cramped, inconvenient and in many parts, makeshift and thus began her quest for new buildings which she once lamented as "the dream of a future delight". Three years into her Headship came the Second World War with the cataclysmic disruption of our way of life; crises made their own special demands, created their own problems. Miss Tilly brought to bear on all of them her power of concentration, her attention to detail, and her considerable organising ability. These qualities were very much in evidence when the pupils and staff of the Central Foundation School were evacuated to share the Bedford House site with the pupils already there.

In the years following the Allied Victory the evacuees went back to London and life at school returned a semblance of normality so much so that in 1949 Miss Tilly was able to spend a sabbatical year in Italy to do some study and research, leaving the school in the capable hands of Miss Defew.

Miss Tilly, a gifted scholar had a personal motto "nothing is too good for Ely High School" and that most certainly included the pupils; many Old Girls will remember the thoroughness with which she considered the question of their careers, and how generously she gave time and thought to their welfare, sometimes long after they had left school. She encouraged every girl to do their best in whatever career they had chosen, to use their talents to best advantage and realise their potential. She wanted only the best for us all.

Miss Tilly was gentle, quiet and kind but had an iron resolve where the school and its pupils were concerned. She loved Ely, a place so full of history and tradition, so rooted in the soil and was to write "through the years I have learned to love and shall never cease to love, the fenland people, for their sincerity, the genuineness and freedom from sophistication, for their healthy outlook, their robustness of mind and body and common sense in addition to their country ways. I am proud to have watched over the development and progress of some three thousand girls, many of them are the daughters of girls I knew in my early years at Ely High School...... you are the salt of the earth."
from the Centenary Celebration booklet

from the July 1949 Ely High School magazine

The British School at Rome,
Valle Guilia,
Rome, Italy.
June 22nd.

My dear girls and old girls,

I am sending my greetings to you all from the sunny land of Italy. How true that is! In this glorious month of June we have clear, bright sunshine all day and every day. It is hot of course, but a deliciously cool breeze blows in the evening. I wish there were space to tell you something of the wonderful things there are to be seen in Rome — so many that you could scarcely see them all in a life-time. The ruins of the Roman forum are in the very heart of the City, and beside them the ruined palaces of the Emperors on the Palatine Hill; not far away is the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, the Colosseum. Then there are museums of prehistoric, Etruscan, Greek and Roman remains, there are Art Galleries, and there are about two hundred churches, and many great palaces. I wish you could see the fountains of Rome, and the flowers. Nearly every square has a fountain with flowing water, and many streets are lined with flowering trees. Now the oleander trees are in full bloom, covered with white, pale pink, or rose-coloured flowers: earlier in the spring there were Judas trees and Acacias.

I have spent a great deal of time visiting ancient places outside Rome: these travels have taken me right up into the mountains, into the very heart of the Appennines where the scenery was magnificent, and also down to the sea, where I have rejoiced to look at the blue Mediterranean. During a visit to Naples, I visited Capri — it is only two hours’ sail away. The island is quite as lovely as people say. You see great cliffs falling sheer into the sea, which is as blue as any jewel; you see little white villas everywhere, and you can smell the scent of flowers. Then there is the small square in the centre of the town which was perhaps there when the Phoenicians first discovered the island.

Just recently I have been staying for a few days in a little town called Atina which is situated in the mountains to the north of Naples. It is so remote that many old-fashioned customs remain, and some women of the town still wear the special costume of the district. On market day most of the peasants were wearing costume in bright colours, beautiful greens, reds, and gold. It was a most colourful sight. I wish there were space to tell you much more, but on my return I shall hope, not only to give you some accounts of my travels, but also to show some of my photo­ graphs of which I have taken several hundreds.

Before I close, I should like to tell you how grateful I am to Miss Defew for having undertaken my duties during my absence. It is only the fact that we were able to have Miss Defew as acting Headmistress that made my sabbatical year possible. We shall all be very, very, sorry to lose her but feel glad that she is going on to more important work. Miss Defew has had most wonderful help, I know, from Miss Haynes who has acted as second Mistress, and Miss Whitmee, our Secretary.

I am looking forward to seeing you all again, and to knowing last year’s new girls. I hope too that any Old Girls who are passing will not hesitate to call and see me again.

With love to you all,
Yours affectionately,

from the July 1953 Ely High School magazine

The [Old Girls'] Re-union was held at the High School on Saturday, 19th July, 1952. The Annual Meeting was presided over by Miss Defew in the unavoidable absence of Miss Tilly owing to the sudden death of her mother. A letter of sympathy was sent to Miss Tilly.

from School Photo 1938

from School Photo 1954

from School Photo 1956

from School Photo 1959

from School Photo 1963

from the Ely Standard, 1st May 1980

TILLY - On 25th April, Bertha (Betty) MA, PhD, in her eightieth year. For thirty years Headmistress of the High School for Girls, Ely.

Beloved sister of Tom, and Rosemary and Harold Popplestone, dear aunt of John. Cremation at Cambridge on Tuesday 6th May at 1pm cut flowers only if desired to H Williams, Victoria Park, Cambridge. Memorial service arrangements to be announced later.

from the Ely Standard, 17 July 1980

Memorial Service

About 150 old girls from the former Ely High School for Girls, former colleagues and friends of Dr Bertha Tilly attended a memorial service in Ely Cathedral on Saturday for her life and work.

Dr Tilly was headmistress of the school from 1936 to 1966.

The service was conducted by the Dean of Ely, the Very Rev Michael Carey, and members of the congregation met for coffee in Bedford House, where the school was first housed before it was moved to Downham Road.

A Service of Thanksgiving for Bertha Tilly, Saturday, July 12th, 1980, Ely Cathedral

Miss Bertha Tilly

Administrative/Biographical history: Bertha Tilly: Educated at Bedford College London, (BA 1924, MA 1932, PhD 1940); later Headmistress Ely High School for Girls; died 1980.

Publications: (ed) Virgil's Aeneid Book IX, London, G Bell (Alpha Classics), 1938; Vergil's Latium, Oxford, Blackwell, 1947 [represents in a revised form together with some additions, a thesis approved for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of London in 1940]; The Story of Camilla from Aeneid Books VII and XI, Cambridge, 1956; Virgil's Aeneid Book V, London, University Tutorial Press, (Palatine Classics) 1966; Virgil's Aeneid Book IV, London, University Tutorial Press, (Palatine Classics) 1968; Varro the Farmer, A Selection from the Res Rusticae, London, 1973.

A sting in the tail from Miss Tilly

"It is a pity to have spoilt a good record by breaking bounds on the last day"

A letter from Miss Tilly

source: Jackie Sotheran (Bidwell)

14/11/19 Christine Fuller writes about an interesting new side to Miss Tilly: A lady recently made contact via our website. Her grandmother had suddenly passed away a few months ago at the age of 91. She was fond of telling stories of her history "as all grandparents do". In one of them, she mentioned a lady that she met after the war in Aquila (AQ, Abruzzo, IT) in the centre of Italy, where she lived for a while.

She mentioned that this lady was an English teacher and that she was "super interested" in monuments and archaeological evidence.  As this teacher spoke great Italian, grandmother guided her at different locations that she wanted to explore. Her grandma and the teacher became great friends and they corresponded for years and years until the 1960s when contact was lost. She always remembered her as the "English teacher friend".

After the grandmother's death the family found a lots of letters and postcards from a lady called Bertha. After searching the Internet they came across our EHS website. "We all are sure that the English teacher that visited our country is Ms. Bertha Tilly."  Would we be interested in receiving the letters?

It was a friendship that obviously meant very much to both ladies. As Miss Tilly was a very private person I spoke to other Old Girls about what response to make. We all felt that we should invite the lady's family to keep the letters.  Otherwise it would be an intrusion into the privacy of our late Head Teacher. None of us would  wish for our private letters to be open to public scrutiny. And the correspondence was in Italian, not English. The letters rightly belong in Italy where Miss Tilly was known to the lady's family whereas she was a figure of authority to us that is how we must respect her memory.

Miss Tilly's recollections 1936-1966

With thanks to Chris Jakes of the Cambridgeshire Collection for his help with this page.
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page created 17 Oct 10: updated 14 Nov 19: 28 Jan 21