Florence Margarette Dyas arrived as Headmistress of St Mary’s in 1888. She was known for her gentle kindness and was much loved by those pupils under her care. Her personality was perhaps shaped by an early responsibility for her younger siblings.
Florence was the oldest child of Jacob and Sarah Dyas. Jacob, from Meath in Ireland, was a surgeon in the Royal Navy, and the family lived near his base at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth. Florence was born in 1861, followed six years later by her brother Sedley and then four more children within five years. The youngest was only two when their father died at sea. Sarah died the following year in 1878. At 17, Florence at this time would have completed her schooling. Somehow decisions were made as to the care of her siblings. Sedley was sent to the Royal Naval School near Deptford, and the four youngest went into the care of Eliza Griggs, an assistant schoolmistress, in Plymouth.
It is not known where Florence was for the next couple of years but as a 20-year old, she was living at Abbott’s Bromley School in Staffordshire. She may have moved to the school as a pupil-teacher but the 1881 census enters her as a student. St Mary’s archives show that she studied for a certificate in Education and German as a distance learning student on a course run by St Andrews University. This had been set up in 1877 to provide a degree level qualification for women when the possibility of a university place was restricted. On completion of the course, Florence went abroad and taught in Germany for four years and for a further two in Belgium. By 1888 she had returned to take up the headship of St Mary’s.
The position of Headmistress at Calne was probably offered to Florence through connections she had built up in Abbott’s Bromley in Staffordshire. The Rev Douglas Murray, son of Penelope Murray, was vicar of Blithfield, a village close by.
Florence Dyas’s concern for her younger sisters was likely supported by the kindness of the St Mary’s founders.
Newspaper articles record that Evelyn Dyas was one of those from the school who gained a senior award in the 1889 Cambridge Local Examinations when she was 18, an achievement which would have helped a future career. It may be that she was the same Evelyn Dyas, a teacher, who emigrated the following year to New York.
Muriel Dyas, known as Lallie, was one of three St Mary’s pupils to be given a Frances Gabriel scholarship in 1891. She seems to have emigrated to Melbourne as she sent flowers from there when Florence died in 1938.
A third sister, Mabel, benefited from the Staffordshire connections as she became a governess in the area and then married a local architect, Henry Beck. It was he who designed the extension to School House in 1907.
After leaving St Mary’s in 1911, Florence Dyas moved to Chipping Sodbury where she set up a private school, St Elizabeth’s. She continued to run the school until 1937, when she had to give up owing to ill health following a motor accident. She died the following year. Among those attending her funeral was St Mary’s Headmistress, Miss Matthews, and several of Florence Dyas’s former St Mary’s pupils.
Image – Florence Dyas in 1890s