The Founders of St Mary’s

Ellinor Gabriel

When John Duncan was looking for support as he planned a church school for girls in Calne, one of those he went to was Ellinor Gabriel. She lived in Horsebrook House on the south side of the Green not far from the church.

Ellinor Martha Gabriel and her twin brother Charles were born in 1821 to John Gabriel, a solicitor, and his wife, Eliza. They were a wealthy family with 10 children. Four of their children died when young, two others died in middle age. The four remaining offspring were the twins, and two sisters. Ellinor and her sisters, Frances and Maria, lived together into old age.

The Gabriel sisters were committed members of the Anglican community in Calne and used their considerable wealth and their time, to the benefit of the town. It was Ellinor who bought the first schoolhouse for St Mary’s on the opposite side of the Green from Horsebrook House. At its opening in 1873 she became the superintendent of the school, managing the day-to-day finances, enrolling the pupils and ensuring a high standard of teaching.

Ellinor Gabriel was described by an early Headmistress, Miss Jones, as having ‘invariable kindness’, and there is a story of her reprimanding a music teacher who had rapped the knuckles of a child. One of the early pupils, Alice Frayling, remembered her office as being a small room in the schoolhouse, ‘very sparsely furnished with a desk and two office stools’. Alice’s sister, Laura, was godchild to Miss Gabriel and when very small would accompany her to the office while she did the accounts. There is a scrap book in the St Mary’s archive which belonged to Ellinor Gabriel. The cuttings she saved give an insight into her wide interests and the national and local issues which concerned, informed or amused her.

For six years Ellinor Gabriel managed the school and met a recurring annual deficit, but in 1879 she felt she could no longer continue. She was replaced by Penelope Murray. Miss Gabriel however, remained a generous supporter of St Mary’s. She bought further properties for the school and in 1887 set up the Frances Gabriel scholarships in memory of her older sister. Canon Duncan officiated at the funeral of Ellinor Gabriel in 1900. Three days after her death, on the day of her funeral, her twin brother Charles died in his home in Bath. The local paper reflected on the loss to the town of Miss Gabriel, saying, ‘especially amongst the poor she will be greatly missed’.

John Duncan recognised the great debt he owed Ellinor Gabriel and their fellow founder, Penelope Murray. At a St Mary’s speech day, he said of them, ‘To the money they have given must be added the thought, the care, the anxiety, the watchfulness, the love, the work they have lavished on it. They are of immeasurable value.’

The next blog will look at Penelope Murray’s place in St Mary’s history.