Durham High School- Top of the League Tables

PUBLISHED: 12:01 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:53 20 February 2013

Pupils from Durham Girls School

Pupils from Durham Girls School

Durham High School for Girls celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. North East Life was afforded privileged access to record how school life has changed, while retaining cherished standards WORDS BY JANE MORTON

'Daughters should be educated that they might be fit companions for their husbands,' said the Bishop of Durham. And instead of sparking national outrage for such a seemingly sexist remark, he was applauded by his audience and the Press - but then it was 125 years ago.

His quote appears in the Durham Advertiser's detailed account of a meeting of distinguished clerics, academics and local gentlemen who gathered one December afternoon in 1883 to see if there was sufficient support to establish a school for girls in the city.

The Right Rev Chapman was reported as saying it was 'hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of the subject which came before them that afternoon - the education of the wives and mothers of the next generation.' Female education had taken great strides forward and, he added, 'the good people of Durham were determined not to lag behind.'

'It might not happen that their daughters, like their sons, would be compelled to earn their own livelihoods; still this was an emergency which must occur from time to time and it was an emergency for which everyone ought to be prepared,' recorded the Advertiser.

And so it was that Durham High School began in April, 1884, when the first headmistress, Miss Elizabeth Gray, a kindly-looking lady, welcomed 11 little girls aged between eight and 12 through its doors at 33 Claypath. This year the school - which now has over 600 pupils - celebrates its 125th anniversary and its story offers a fascinating insight in social history.

The present head girl, Jen Baker, and her deputy, Katie Brown, both 17, smile in bemusement at the very thought of studying for the benefit of a future husband. For Jen, an accomplished high-jumper whose ambition is to represent her country at the next Olympics, and Katie, who hopes to become a successful lawyer, the idea of achievement to impress a potential partner is beyond their comprehension.

But 19th century attitudes were different. A copy of the school magazine for 1899 suggests suitable 'work' for young ladies after finishing school would be 'teaching in Sunday School, needlework for Missions or Poor, correspondence with invalid or mission workers or sending flowers or periodicals to hospital or sick.' All admirable but not very ambitious - although the school's educational influence was already firing many students onto greater challenges as the magazine also reported several 'old girls' now working as nurses, teachers, a magazine editor and one - a Geraldine Mitton - having become the author of the racy-sounding book 'The Bachelor Girl in London'.

The cost of sending your daughter to Durham High School in 1884 was three guineas a term for the under nines, four guineas for the nine to 13-year-olds and five guineas for the over 13s. In contrast to today's rates, which range from 1,180 per term for nursery school up to 2,980 per term for senior school, the prices seem a snip but back then they were probably regarded as substantial. Extra subjects such as piano, drawing, solo singing and dancing, all essential accomplishments for a Victorian lady, were charged separately and ranged between two to three guineas a term.

There are no pictures of 33 Claypath - now the site of the Post Office - but the building was cold and damp and within two years the school had moved to 3 South Bailey, a building now known as Haughton Hall, St John's College. There is a photograph of the double classroom at South Bailey, showing earnest Edwardian schoolgirls, their heads bent over their books, surrounded by William Morris style wallpaper and velvet drapes. It's a striking contrast to the cool, clean lines of the light, airy classrooms of the current school at Farewell Hall on South Road, situated just outside the city centre.

By 1912, increasing numbers led to overcrowding and the school moved once more to Leazes House, surrounded by three acres of beautiful gardens. This was home to DHS until 1968 and the former building still holds fond memories for hundreds of former pupils.

Maggie Jackson was a student there from 1954 to 1959, returning as a teacher in 1966. She taught for a total of 33 years at DHS, retiring last year but returning shortly after as a kindergarten teaching assistant. She admits she found it hard to stay away. 'I love it here - I think everyone does,' she said. She has fond memories of Leazes House, a grand, old, stone building. 'The gardens were beautiful. I remember the lovely trees and the grounds ran down to the river, with views over to the cathedral.'

The 60s spelt the end for boarders at DHS too. Until then, the school was a mix of boarders and day girls, with students coming from as far afield as Northumberland and North Yorkshire. But in July 1961, the school magazine announced 'with great regret, for economic and staffing reasons, the Boarding House is closing.'

That brought to an end the Enid Blyton-style antics that former students later revealed for posterity. One recalled: 'We always had a midnight feast the last night of term. It was carefully planned, what we should buy, where to hide the food, where we should have it and at what time. The variety of food consumed was tremendous. Crisps, condensed milk, sardines, cheese spreads, mandarin oranges and cream cakes were washed down with some sweet, synthetic fizzy drink. We must have had cast iron stomachs.' Another said: 'We used to smuggle radios into the dorm and listen to a very muffled "Pick of the Pops" - if we were caught the radio was confiscated which was rather a blow.'

The headmistress who oversaw the move to Farewell Hall was Miss Irene Slater, remembered with affection by former pupils for her constant companion around school, a West Highland terrier, first Hamish, later followed by Andrew. Pupils who were especially good got to take the dog for a walk as a treat. She described the years of uncertainty over the school's future in the 60s as 'a nightmare' until, in 1967, it was announced that the road plans were passed, compensation agreed and funding for the move had been found.

Under the current headmistress, Mrs Ann Templeman, former pupils have been encouraged to send in their stories, photographs and memorabilia for inclusion in a book to mark Durham High School for Girls' 125th anniversary. It's revealed some fascinating and comical finds. Librarian Jacqui Durcan has a cardboard box containing items of vintage school uniform sent in by 'old girls'.

There are stifled giggles from a group of young girls as she pulls a pair of huge, baggy, bottle-green knickers from the box. Made from a thick, heavy material, the unflattering knickers were regulation wear in the 50s and 60s. 'I think the best - the only - thing you could say in their favour was they were warm,' she laughed. She also has a straw boater hat, which the girls used to wear in summer - a rare find as it was a long-standing school tradition that when a girl finished school she threw her boater over Prebends Bridge into the river.'

You can't imagine today's teenagers donning those knickers on pain of death - but although some things have changed, others remain the same. As you walk through the school, the pupils display good manners, holding open doors, and seem genuinely pleasant and happy going about their business. Jacqui Durcan says: 'I started here ten years ago and it's a very happy place.' The appointment of Mrs Templeman in 1988 created further landmarks - she's the first married woman to do the job and the only female ordained minister to be head of an Anglican school.

'For many years women were expected to stop work when they married so I'm the first "Mrs" to be headmistress,' she said. 'Since I started, the school has grown in numbers from 424 to over 600 and we have lots of new buildings - the library, science labs and the Performing Arts Suite.

'Academically, for the last ten years, we've come top of the county. Since league tables began we have always been right at the top.' 'The social profile of the school has changed too.We've managed to get all sorts of funding to enable us to have free places in every year. At least 20 per cent of the senior school pupils have funding, ranging from free places to assisted places.

It's been very exciting to be able to provide opportunities for girls who wouldn't ordinarily be able to come to the High School. 'We're raising aspirations among girls in the North East.' And in that respect, the school's ethos hasn't altered at all.

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