10 November 2000
It is now 46 years since I left Commonweal, but occasionally I still get asked which school I went to. I’m always very proud to say Commonweal. I sometimes say that the name is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, meaning the common good – and I usually say that it is the best school I’ve come across.
I’m sure you all agree that Commonweal is special, and I want to talk about what I think makes it so special. One reason is that it was founded by two very remarkable ladies, Miss Margery Bray and Miss Elsie Bourne, who shared high ideals and who found a way of passing on these ideals within the school.
In 1937, on the occasion of the school’s 21st birthday celebrations, Miss Bray, the Headmistress, summarised the ideals which had been in place from the very earliest days of the school. She said:-
“it was the ideal of infinite duty of each to all – that serving of one another – that Miss Bourne and I longed to see as one of the corner stones of Commonweal”
Talking of the founding of the school she said:-
“We have always subsisted here on faith, and on adventure backed by faith.”
To Miss Bray, the spirit of adventure was one of the essential ingredients of life. Many of you will know that her sense of adventure and of service showed themselves early in her life. At the time the first world war broke out in 1914, Margery Bray was 20 years old. She wanted to serve in the war by nursing wounded soldiers in the front line. Because she was too young to join the British Red Cross, she joined the Belgium Red Cross. Even then there were difficulties, because young women were not then allowed to nurse in the front line. Undaunted, she and some other young women disguised themselves as wounded soldiers and were transported by ambulance to the front line. Once there Margery was found to be very useful because she could speak fluent French and could therefore understand the surgeons – so she was soon helping in the operating theatres. While she was there, her fiancé, who was an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and brought to the same hospital. He later died there.
You can imagine how hard and harrowing the work must have been, but there was a lighter side too. I particularly like the story about Margery at the time the Belgium hospital was being evacuated because the Germans were closing in. Margery was being very busy and helpful and, when she saw a man standing idle in one of the wards, she asked him to help with the stretcher cases. It wasn’t until afterwards that she was told that she had been giving instructions to Albert, the King of the Belgium’s. After a time, Margery developed a serious infection in one of her arms, and her general health deteriorated so that she had to return home. In 1915, she was approached by William Webb, the planner and builder of the local Webb Estate, who asked her if she would start a school for girls; and so it was that Commonweal came into being in 1916.
Over the years, there were other adventures. During the Second World War, the school buildings were requisitioned by the army who moved in 1940 for a period of five years. Margery Bray took the school to Devon for two years during this period, and the girls joined the efforts of the land army and learned to milk cows, look after goats and grow vegetables – all very useful.
All this was before I started at the school, which was probably soon after the end of the second world war (not the first world war!). My friends and I knew nothing about Miss Bray’s heroism during the first world war or about the school’s evacuation to Devon. I didn’t hear about these until some time after I had left school.
I remember Miss Bray as a formidable lady who had no difficulty in keeping us under control – which probably took a bit of doing. She had a great influence on us. Each morning we sat cross-legged on the floor for prayers, which were usually taken by Miss Bray.
Sometimes we had other meetings there if she wanted to talk to us about something special. And Miss Bray knew about any individual problems we had, and we were invited to discuss these with her in the study, which is still used by the present Principal. I very well remember the butterflies, in my tummy when I was standing outside the study, waiting to have one of these talks, or to have my term report discussed. When I was small, in the days when a day at school seemed like a year, I went through a phase of being very homesick. Miss Bray asked to see me about this and I remember her telling me that, on one occasion when she was small, she had been leaving school far earlier than she should when she met her headmistress, who said, “Hello Margery, aren’t you going the wrong way?” – and it helped me to remember these words if I felt like going home in the middle of the day.
Later I grew to be very happy at Commonweal – we worked hard but we also had great fun – and I’m so glad to feel the same happy feeling at the school today. I’m sure it’s true that we can only do our best if we enjoy what we’re doing, and that having fun helps to balance hard work.
I was talking earlier about the high ideals within the school, which were in place right from the time the school was founded, and which are still in place today. How did the school’s founders, Margery Bray and Elsie Bourne, manage to pass on these ideals in a way which made them seem interesting, worthwhile and relevant? One of the ways was to make three important appointments at a very early stage in the history of the school. Almost everyone here would be able to tell me that these were the three patrons – they were:-
* Hereward the Wake, who held out so bravely against the Norman invaders in the 11th century, and who gives the school its emblem of the Wake Knot;
* Edward 1st, who gives the school its motto “Keep Troth” – referring not just to truthfulness but to faithfulness and to loyalty as well;
* and finally King Alfred the Great was appointed as the school’s Chief Patron.
If we find it strange that an Anglo-Saxon king, who lived over a thousand years ago, was appointed as Chief Patron to a girls’ school, we need to remember that, in late Victorian times, when Miss Bray was growing up, King Alfred was a popular national hero, and was seen, not just as the founder of the English nation, but as the founder of the British Empire as well:-
• a picture of King Alfred was incorporated into the new Houses of Parliament when they were rebuilt after a fire in the mid-1800s;
• a little later, when the Law Courts were being built, three statues were placed at its entrance – Christ in the middle with King Solomon on one side and King Alfred on the other (and my daughter, who works near the Law Courts, has assured me that they are all still there);
• and Victoria and Albert posed for a statue in which they were shown wearing Anglo-Saxon clothes such as were worn in King Alfred’s time.
Perhaps Victoria saw Albert as a national hero, rather like King Alfred, and perhaps Margery Bray thought of her fianc6, who had been killed in action in Belgium, as a King Alfred hero figure too. In 1901, when Margery Bray was only six or seven, the nation commemorated the thousand years since King Alfred’s death. A magnificent bronze statue by Hamo Thorneycroft was erected at the end of the High Street in Winchester. It was unveiled by Lord Rosebery. There were great crowds to watch the unveiling, and it’s good to think that Margery Bray and Elsie Bourne might have been among them. This photograph, and the one that hangs in the hall here, is of this famous statue. You can see that King Alfred is shown as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, but also as a Christian – his sword is held as if it were a cross.
It seems appropriate that a school founded during the middle of a world war should have as Chief Patron a king who had played such a key role when the survival of his country, and the influence of Christianity, were under threat from successive Viking raids. King Alfred not only preserved his kingdom, but he transformed it.
Although today King Alfred is less generally well known, he remains the only English king to be called the Great.
Winston Churchill once described King Alfred quite simply as “the greatest Englishman”.
I believe Margery Bray modelled herself and the organisation of Commonweal on King Alfred:-
• King Alfred revived and promoted education and learning. He said that education was like picking up twigs in a wood. However many twigs we pick up, there are always many more to gather. Margery Bray certainly thought of education very broadly, and believed there was much more to it than just passing examinations, however important these might be. She saw it as a preparation for life and for service;
• King Alfred was a law giver. He issued a new code of law in old English, the language of his people – and he ensured that justices read it and applied it. Margery Bray and Elsie Bourne issued the School Aims and Laws – in 1924 – and these are still in place today;
• King Alfred was a devout Christian and did what he could to promote Christianity. This included personally translating old writings, such as those of Pope Gregory, from Latin to old English. He also kept in regular touch with his bishops. Margery Bray also promoted Christianity as a faith underpinning all the activities of the school. Morning prayers were held each day, and she herself taught scripture in a way which made it come alive. She chose John Bunyan’s great hymn to be the school hymn – which we were singing earlier this evening;
• Lastly, King Alfred, invented the candle clock to help him to divide his time appropriately, and to lead a balanced life – this may be the first known example of the modern concept of time management. Margery Bray believed in a full and varied timetable with time for games and having fun as well as for work. She also allocated time for rest – in the lower forms we kept rugs at school and used to unroll them and lie on them for about 20 minutes after lunch each day.
I’ve spoken very glowingly about Commonweal when I was at school – but there were draw-backs at that time. We were given very little help over choice of career, probably because at that time it was relatively unusual for girls to go into the professions, and I often felt “the odd girl out” because I wanted to do medicine. Although teaching of English literature, in particular, was excellent, there was very little provision for teaching physics and chemistry even at GCSE level. And those of us who wanted to do science at “A” level, had to leave and go somewhere else.
I remember a day when we were having a lesson on elementary physics, that we had a discussion on the siphon principle. I said how I thought water in a large beaker could be transferred to a lower level. The teacher was happy to try this because she didn’t believe my method would work. We (that is – we girls) were all delighted when the experiment resulted in a very large puddle of water on the floor.
When I left, I tried to improve facilities by giving something called a Kipp’s apparatus which was able to produce hydrogen sulphide – the smell of rotten eggs. It now seems a very unfortunate present to be remembered by, but I never heard whether or not the apparatus was used successfully.
Of course, since I left school, things at Commonweal have moved on apace. Science is now one of the school’s major strengths and, as well as science laboratories, computer rooms and this wonderful sports hall have been added; and the study of art and music have also been strengthened.
I believe the future for Commonweal and for all the Lodge Schools will be bright, particularly as the Principal, Miss Pam Maynard, seems to me to be of the same high calibre as Margery Bray. I do want to say how glad I am that the school’s original ideals are still honoured, 38 years after Margery Bray’s retirement.
As far as individuals are concerned, I’m quite sure that, whichever career or type of work they pursue, they will live happy and worthwhile lives it they continue to keep the Commonweal ideals as their own ideals. This will be easier if, as old girls, or Old Knots, they keep in touch with the school and with school friends.
The school hymn talks of us all as pilgrims and we have reached different stages in our pilgrimage. How we journey on will have an effect on our homes, our school, our places of work. To put this more clearly, I would like to quote some words used by Miss Bray in her speech when the school was 21 years old:-
“When a large number of pilgrims with the same aim journey along together, they leave behind them a well-defined track that is bound to affect, for good or for ill, those coming after. It is the characters of ordinary people living at any one time, that determine the trend of thought and action of their period and of the time that comes after”.
As fellow pilgrims, whether as parents, teachers or pupils – let us resolve to support the ideals of Commonweal for the common good.
Dr Rosemary Northfield