13. Portrait of Edith Marcia Matthews

Edith Matthews
Edith Matthews

The lithograph by Ethel Gabain was commissioned by St Mary’s on Miss Matthews’ retirement as Headmistress of St Mary's in 1945. Ethel Leoutine Gabain (1883 – 1950) was the daughter of a French father and Scottish mother. She lived for over twenty years in France but boarded at Wycombe Abbey School. Her artistic talent was encouraged and she later studied at The Slade and the Central School of Arts and Crafts where she learnt the art of lithography. Wycombe Abbey commissioned Ethel Gabain to do a portrait of their headmistress and it seems likely that it was through connections in the educational world that St Mary’s also commissioned her.

Edith Marcia Matthews was one of a family of ten. Her father was a clergyman and headmaster and she had been brought up in the surroundings of Wellington College and Leeds Grammar School. She was head girl at the Godolphin School in Salisbury when it was under the influential leadership of Miss Douglas. On leaving school Marcia read history at Newnham. She had some years teaching at St Margaret’s School Bushey where a previous pupil of St Mary’s, Julian Boys, was headmistress.  Miss Matthews arrived at St Mary’s in 1915 where in addition to running the school she taught English, History and Divinity. At her first Founders’ Day she expanded on her educational philosophy of allowing each girl to have time away from academic work to learn new skills, follow their interests and broaden their horizons. The timetable was changed to give more time for games, walks, gardening and carpentry. The last of these she considered a great discipline for developing accuracy in all areas of work.

Miss Matthews with her Staff
Miss Matthews with her Staff in 1925

It fell to Marcia Matthews to guide the school through two world wars. During these years St Mary’s acquired new land and accommodation and pupil numbers increased around four fold. The girls were kept well informed of world affairs and built up regular contacts in the local community. Miss Matthews felt strongly the importance of the pupils knowing and coming to love their cultural heritage. She did all she could to bring literature, drama and music into their lives. A Shakespeare competition was started as were various music competitions, and a choral society and orchestral groups flourished. A literary and debating society was initiated and whole weeks throughout the school were set for one topic to be covered such as a Greek week, a French week and a Housing and Town Planning week. Marcia Matthews was well connected in both the educational and the Anglican world and brought many visitors into St Mary’s to lecture and perform. Above all was the encouragement to read.

Miss Matthews retired at the end of the summer term of 1945 and died soon after. She had been a great educationalist and was a remarkable woman who exercised a strong influence over all those who came to know her. One commented, “Much might be learnt from her method, its elasticity, its adventure, its stress on the Greek values of the individual’s ceaseless search for truth with beauty and goodness.” She had a spiritual integrity and practised what she preached inspiring respect and loyalty. One of her pupils said, “She wanted us to store up happiness and contentment and laughter and joi de vivre and sanity to stand us in good stead in any emergency in the future”.