The New Century at St Mary’s

There was great optimism and excitement when St Mary’s moved to its present site in 1908. At the opening ceremony in October that year, the girls were dressed in their best white dresses and hats. A service in the new oratory, speeches, prize-giving and tea in the front garden were attended by the Bishop of Salisbury, Lady Lansdowne and many local dignitaries. Following a period of financial anxiety, St Mary’s looked ahead to more settled times.

It had been an uncertain few years. After a girls’ department was opened at the County School in Calne in 1903, the number of day girls at St Mary’s began to drop. The County School had greater resources and any girl planning to become a primary school teacher was obliged to be at that school. The only option for St Mary’s, still at this time situated on the Green, was to focus on the boarding side and draw pupils from a wider area.

As numbers grew, limited space became a pressing issue. In 1905, Mrs Murray had deposited £500 in the bank as the nucleus of a building fund, and the school held a small endowment and its properties on the Green.  The Governors began to look for a new property and, after exploring several options, were offered Lansdowne Villa, a family home now used by the Housemistress of School House. A substantial extension was begun in the spring of 1908 and in the Autumn Term the girls moved in. The grounds initially amounted to a tennis court on the lawn behind the house, but after a couple of years the school acquired land below, where another court was laid out.

The pupils now settled into the routines of school life in their new classrooms and dormitories. But it wasn’t all time at their desks. They went to outside lectures and concerts, and sports fixtures against other schools. They had tea parties, hay-making parties, croquet parties and bike rides, dancing, picnics and fund-raising bazaars. They visited the town hall to, ‘watch pictures on a cinematograph’. They had been there when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra made a royal visit to Calne in 1907 and had joined the crowds to see water sports on the river, processions, maypole dancing, illuminations, and a bonfire. They then also celebrated the coronation of George V in 1911. Magazines from that time suggest a busy, happy community.

The Headmistress, Florence Dyas, saw St Mary’s through these years. Penelope Murray had praised her ‘great gifts as a teacher, her enthusiasm and her power of sympathy in which pupils are turned into lifelong friends’. It was therefore a sad day when she announced her resignation in 1911. Miss Dyas had been responsible for all aspects of the day-to-day running of St Mary’s: overseeing and engaging in the education and welfare of the children while managing the finances. The Governors clearly felt this was too much of a responsibility and arranged to take over the financial side themselves, and to employ a Housekeeper/Matron. Florence Dyas was unhappy with the changes and, despite a petition to the Governors by over 70 signatories, she left St Mary’s after 23 years of service. Her place was filled by Rachael Donaldson, an Oxford graduate with a strong educational philosophy.

Image – The Newly acquired house – School House in 1908