The last years of the 19th century at St Mary’s

In the first 15 years of its existence, St Mary’s had four Headmistresses. However, in 1888, a more settled period began with the arrival of Florence Dyas. She and her deputy, Frances Little, together ran day-to-day life at the school for the next 23 years. As pupil numbers increased, three adjacent houses were added to the school, giving more room for additional boarders. Some younger boys also began attending.

Within the archives we have a list of the pupils’ names. They were the daughters and sons of well-recognised families in Calne: cloth-makers and grocers, stationers and solicitors, bakers, butchers and farmers. One, Lizzie Buckeridge, kept a diary of her later school days and from this we see that school life was interwoven with the daily life of the community. The children had to manage the death of siblings and fellow pupils, frequent restrictions during epidemics of smallpox, mumps or flu. They had cold beds at night, and sat through long sermons in church on Sundays.

However, they were also part of the carefree life of many children at that time. Lizzie tells how, with friends Amy and Florrie, she went out one day on a tricycle. She goes on, ‘A man tied it to his cart, and we went along beautifully to Whetham’. On October 30th, 1891, Lizzie writes:
My tenth brother was born at half past six this morning, All Hallows Eve. When Lucy Baily was eating her supper, she came across a large and corpulent beetle which had been baked in the bread. We did not want any supper after for fear of another being there.

We see from the diary that school days were a mix of work and relaxation, reprimands and fun. Lizzie talks of the pressure of piano lessons and impending exams; of a walk with Miss Little to collect berries and rushes to decorate the oratory for harvest festival. We hear that after her friend Amy ran out into the street with Lil’s hat, she had to write out 400 times, ‘A turbulent and disobedient child is an offence to all’. One evening was marked by the jollity of apple-pie beds and sewn-up nightdress sleeves.
Lizzie is backwards and forwards between home and school. She often writes of going home for supper or to stay the night. She spends one Saturday painting the cupboard doors of the school dining room for Miss Dyas. Another day she goes shopping with Miss Little.

The Church year framed these children’s school days. Morning and afternoon prayers were recited in a tiny school oratory. Scripture lessons from Canon Duncan, and litany classes from Mrs Murray, were part of their week. The festivals and saints’ days were celebrated with the community. In 1889, Bishop Wordsworth visited the town for a confirmation service and afterwards joined the St Mary’s pupils in their school. Subsequently, one of the new dormitories was named after him, a tradition which has worked its way down the years within St Mary’s.

Florence Dyas was a warm and caring Headmistress who had the girls to tea; took them on bike rides accompanying them on her tricycle; and read to them in the evenings. The next blog will look at her life and career.

Image – St Mary’s pupils in the 1890’s