‘I was the Headmistress of Abbot’s Hill from September, 1939 to July 1944’. So begins the opening page of a loosely bound document I found in a cupboard in my office on my first day as Head of this extraordinary school. The document reads rather like my favourite ‘Mallory Towers’ stories (are you watching those on the BBC at the moment – they are really very good) with tales of illicit night time rule-breaking, girls dodging the strafing of low-flying German fighter planes up the lawn (what would Mr Rance think!) and walking miles through the lanes from St Albans Abbey in the black-out darkness.
I hope to share more of the recollections found in this wonderful document with you in time. I mention it here though for a reason. Sitting in my office on that quiet, still day in December, little could I have known of what lay ahead. The calm before the storm, I think you could call it. And storms there were.
The first arrived in the form of a phone call on Day 6 of this term. The Inspectors – all eleven of them – strode around our corridors and tested, checked and questioned pupils and staff. I have written and spoken previously about our collective pride at the ISI results but I will mention it one more time now. To emerge as Outstanding in all areas in our Nursery setting, Excellent in all areas in Prep and Senior – both the highest gradings possible – and fully compliant in all our statutory requirements really is a superb achievement for all. It is also, as I said at the time, a fitting tribute to the hard work and dedication of Mrs Thomas; she was delighted to hear the news of the result.
Further storms whirled around us as the term progressed at pace. However, I confess the unique and unprecedented pace of the past few weeks means much of it has become something of a blur not only for those of us in school but no doubt for you too. Planning in earnest for the inevitable arrival of Covid-19 began at least 4 weeks ago. Quietly, and without causing alarm, we tested systems, moved resources online, checked passwords and online subscriptions, made sure the school leadership could navigate video-conferencing (let’s just say it was an experience to start with) and, most importantly, tried our hardest not to disrupt normal life for the pupils. Indeed, we clung onto it for as long as we could.
There is sadness at what will not be; the Prep show, national and international day and residential trips for many year groups, DofE Expeditions and, of course, GCSE exams all tumbled one by one. May I thank you for understanding that we would not have made any of these decisions had we any other choice. The pace of change has been alarming. It was in the midst of the race to prepare for our new life online that I recalled the war-time booklet. I opened it at the front one evening and could not believe the words I read. I would like to quote them here in shortened form. The Headmistress, Mrs Elisabeth Gordon, was sent from the Francis Holland School in London to assume this vacant position. Here she describes her arrival just after war was declared:
‘…together we set to work on organising the Black Out, a formidable task for a newcomer…Gradually, the necessary tasks somehow got done….Every subject in the curriculum was covered…and not surprisingly excellent progress was made….I was extremely fortunate in that the Matron, and the senior teachers…unsurpassable in their own spheres,…came to help me….so in my youth and inexperience I was not without the wise advice I needed.
…woven into [the] pattern of a thriving, successful school were dark and sombre threads. There can have been very few of us who were not in constant anxiety…[but] very few of the girls ever openly showed any sign of fear [during air raids]…One sunny afternoon…I heard the dreaded silence as the engine of a flying bomb cut out…the bomb fell very near the school…after the first shock the girls calmly brushed the fallen plaster and broken glass from their desks and went on writing.
Looking back on it all now, I marvel that we not only came through unscathed but managed to be happy. There was a ‘we few, we happy few’ spirit to unite us. We were one, big family rather than an Institution and I still regularly hear from…my girls…who look back with great affection to Abbot’s Hill in war time.’
I suspect I don’t need to spell out the parallels that leapt off the page at me. At the time, Abbot’s Hill had a motto: ‘Vi et Virtute’ – through strength and valour. In time, we too will rise and brush off the fallen plaster and broken glass. We will reunite in person not just via Zoom (other online conferencing facilities are available). We – and I confess here an unwavering love of The Greatest Showman – will come back home. I cannot wait.
After all, Easter and the spring should be a time of new beginnings. I am sure many of you have, like me, been taking advantage of the quiet early morning streets to get out of the house – perhaps with family in tow. In the stillness there is a great pleasure in what we see and hear. Walking by the canal this morning with my daughters, we stopped to take pictures of daffodils and blossoms. I was explaining about the Japanese tradition of Hanami or cherry blossom viewing. The celebrations held as the blossom emerges signal the great appreciation Japan has of the natural world and its capacity to regenerate and remind us that all will be well.
As we look back at the array of activities that celebrate individuals at Abbot’s Hill, it is clear that all will be well. This is a school that is rightfully confident but certainly not arrogant; authentic, happy and content young people shine out from the photographs below and my thanks go the staff involved in supporting these and the many, many other enriching and extraordinary opportunities we cannot quite fit into this publication.
May I end by wishing you good health. I wish that you are able to stay safe and find comfort in the time together. To those in our community whose work takes them to the very heart of this pandemic, words are not sufficient but such as they are, we thank you.
Through strength and valour. That is the Abbot’s Hill way.
Please do read our recent end of term e-newsletter, linked here.
With very best wishes