When St Mary’s School opened its door for the first time on a January day in 1873, there were nine girls waiting to begin, three of whom were boarders. These were daughters of members of the congregation of the parish church of St Mary’s in Calne, whose families were the local tradespeople and farmers of the area. That day, standing beside the headmistress, Miss Richardson, was the Rev John Duncan whose concern for the education of girls such as these, had moved him to set up the school.
John Duncan, a Scotsman, had taken up the position of vicar in Calne in 1865. To get his venture up and running he had gained the support of members of the congregation, among them, Ellinor Gabriel and Penelope Murray. With their help he was able to establish the school in a prominent house on The Green. These three Founders of St Mary’s had ambitions that the school would provide the pupils with a broad education following Anglican principals.
To maintain high standards, John Duncan set the girls regular examinations. Before long external examiners took on the role and indeed their reports confirm the quality of the teaching. Beside their academic work, including French and German, the pupils were studying art and music, dancing and drama. Early documents suggest the strong spirit of a shared community. There were tea parties and Shakespeare performances, games on the recreation ground and tennis on a borrowed field. Speech day at the end of the autumn term was a time for celebration with dancing late into the evening. One pupil described them as “happy days”.
Numbers gradually increased but each year there was a shortfall in the income, the deficit being made up at first by Miss Gabriel and later by Mrs Murray. Ellinor Gabriel had taken on the role of superintendent when the school opened, but in 1879 handed over the management to Penelope Murray. She continued until her retirement in 1896, maintaining a close friendship with St Mary’s until her death in 1910. Despite the financial concerns, by the turn of the century the foundation of a well-respected school had been laid, and with an increase in numbers during the First World War, particularly boarders, St Mary’s was in a strong position to widen its appeal.
For a detailed history of the School please click here.
Top Image shows the first School House in the centre of the picture.