‘She combined reverence with jesting, shrewdness with kindness, careful planning with impulsive experiments, broadmindedness with a clear sense of duty, infinite sympathy and understanding with definite values.’ These words, written by a Head Girl from the early 1940s, capture the multifaceted character of her Headmistress, Marcia Matthews. It was in her capable hands that St Mary’s was carried forward through two world wars and the years between.
Edith Marcia Matthews, born in 1883, came from a family of 10. Her father was a clergyman and teacher. After 16 years teaching at Wellington College he moved to head Leeds Grammar School in 1884, when Marcia was one. She was 12 when her mother died. Much of Marcia’s secondary education was at Godolphin School in Salisbury where she became Head Girl. At that time it was under the influential headship of Miss Douglas, who became a friend and mentor to Miss Matthews. A degree in History at Newnham College, Cambridge followed school, and Marcia then taught at St Margaret’s, Bushey for eight years. Her Headmistress there was Julian Boys, who had been a pupil at St Mary’s during Miss Dyas’s time. Miss Matthews arrived at St Mary’s with strong and useful links to senior clergy and many in the educational world.
Marcia Matthews was an educationalist in the truest sense. She held teaching in the highest regard, believing that to educate others was a privilege never to be underestimated. With only three other academic staff at St Mary’s in 1915 she taught English, History and Divinity and clearly her lessons were vivid and memorable. Her teaching of facts was combined with guiding the girls in methods of thinking, of notetaking and of collecting and classifying information. Whether it was through Shakespeare plays, the turns of history or the journeys of St Paul, her lessons came alive. She had a strong faith, and the intellect and oratory skills to impart her philosophy of life in an engaging and life-changing way. One pupil described her as a ‘character builder’.
As necessary as academic learning was in Miss Matthews’ eyes, how the girls were occupied outside school hours was even more important. She wanted them to lead a cultured and varied life, encouraging an appreciation of the arts, current affairs and discourse. She had flowers all around the school and art reproductions on the walls which the girls had to learn about. Valuing the skills needed for carpentry she employed a specialist teacher, and during the 1940s the Sixth Form learnt about engineering by working on a Fiat car. Marcia Matthews delighted in the company of the girls and a place at the high table was valued for the conversation and humour. Life was not dull.
Great organisational skills and an ability to think of the unexpected, led her to spring surprises on the school. Whether it was a day’s holiday for an Oxbridge candidate’s success; a week devoted to one subject, such as Greek week, or a picnic because the sun was shining, there was always something on the horizon. One year she cancelled internal exams and asked the pupils to write books.
Miss Matthews was always interested in the girls’ families and their concerns. She had a deep sensitivity to how people were feeling. On the outbreak of war in 1939, she gathered the whole school in Red Hall after evening chapel and said goodnight to each girl individually, touching them all on the arm. An assiduous letter writer, Marcia kept in touch with all her Old Girls. When she retired in 1945, she had only a year before her death, a huge sadness for many of the hundreds of pupils she had seen through
Image – Marcia Matthews