Penelope Murray was described as ‘a woman of strong character and highly intellectual, of charming manners, united to a gentle dignity. To know her was to love her, to watch the beautiful consistency of her life was an inspiration, to stay with her was a highly-valued privilege’. She had ‘a high sense of duty, a sweetness and amiability, great industry and absolute unselfishness’. As one of the three founders of St Mary’s Mrs Murray was central to ensuring the continuation of the school at a time when its future was uncertain. She became superintendent of St Mary’s in 1879 and paid the annual financial deficit from then until her death in 1910.
Penelope Frances Elizabeth Pemberton Murray was the daughter of Brigadier-General John Austin. Born in Durham in 1830, she married the Rev George Murray, vicar of Southfleet in Kent, the son of the Bishop of Rochester. She was only 24 when her husband died suddenly in 1854 leaving her with three boys and two girls all under six years old. An obituary said of her, ‘She nobly responded to the task thus laid upon her, proving herself to be both father and mother to her children’. Penelope Murray remained in Kent for the following years while her children were young. It was perhaps on her way to visit her father in Bath, that she passed through Calne and heard the church bells. She was said to have been ‘charmed by the chimes’, and in 1868 she moved to Castle House in the town centre. She remained in Calne for many years, becoming a significant member of the community.
It is clear from records in the archives that Mrs Murray was someone in whom Canon John Duncan had complete trust. She was a steady support in his church work and was said to have a ‘deep-rooted and well-instructed faith’. She gave considerable funding to the church where, among other donations, she paid for the reredos. Penelope Murray managed St Mary’s with great efficiency, keeping the first written records of the school which are now an invaluable source of the thinking behind the foundation. They list the details of the headmistresses and staff employed; the accounts; the pupils’ achievements and the school inspection reports. In addition to her administrative role, she taught French and literature. When she later moved to a house on the Melksham Road, Penelope Murray hosted the annual school speech days in her garden. She bought property for the school and set up a building fund which helped finance the move to the current school site.
It is possible to get some feel for Penelope Murray’s ideas from a paper she wrote in 1909 entitled ‘An Educational Experiment’. She states her strong support for the value of a religious-based education and how in the 19th century the local clergy, which had included her husband, had recognised their duty in educating the less-privileged members of society often at their own expense, while the Church authorities had looked on, ‘sometimes with openly expressed disapproval, and always with indifference’. She then goes on to describe the founding of St Mary’s. It is a strong statement from a fearless woman. The vicar of Calne and chairman of St Mary’s governors, Eric Bodington, said that he had ‘never met anyone more consistent in her principles’. In a forthright report to the governors of St Mary’s in 1906, Penelope Murray demonstrated an astute analysis of the financial difficulties the school was facing and the need for radical changes to ensure its survival, including increasing the number of boarders up to 30. She concluded by saying, ‘I have no doubt in being able to get that number in time if we can have accommodation for them’. This led directly to the move to the present site.
In her later years Mrs Murray lived in Bath but continued to visit St Mary’s regularly. She died on her 81st birthday with her children around her: Sir George Murray, a Permanent Secretary to the Treasury who had also been Private Secretary to William Gladstone; Colonel Arthur Murray; the Rev Douglas Murray whose grandson became the 11th Duke of Atholl; and Mrs Alice Duncan and Marion Murray who both taught at St Mary’s alongside their mother.
In a speech at St Mary’s three months before she died, Penelope Murray said the school had been ‘one of the greatest interests of my life and will be such to the day of my death’.