My mother was born in 1895 in Staffordshire, the eldest of a family of five. They were not poor, but certainly not rich. My grandparents were challenging thinkers and great fun. The dinner table was alive with jostling ideas and laughter.
Mab went to Oxford as a scholar, and got a First. Armed with a starry testimonial from her tutor, containing the charming observation that ‘she lacks any capacity for being dull’, she was appointed to Sir William Turner’s school at Coatham and, in 1921, as Headmistress of Whitby County School, now Whitby Community College. She was 26. The Headmaster was a confirmed bachelor of 56 – a tall, slim and elegantly devout Roman Catholic, perfectly content with his life and his library. But she married him anyway. She did most things on impulse and it was probably unwise, but there was certainly much affection, wit and mutual respect.
Married women, however, were not allowed to hold teaching appointments. Thus it was that, dining with friends in London, my mother described herself as unoccupied. One of the guests asked her to teach her small son, then another. And so the school began. I think my mother taught them every subject.
Mrs B. taught herself, particularly French and English and occasionally, when hard pressed by staff shortages, gave us wildly eccentric but effective lessons in maths.
Christine Pegler, nee Ludlow, pupil, 1934-38
Word spread swiftly around Whitby. My parents bought Fyling in 1933, by which time the school was some 40 boys, and no-one had ever failed Common Entrance. Somebody told me years later that it was dangerous to come down the drive in Mab’s time because you found yourself teaching history or Swahili for a term. She involved everyone – swiftly, gaily and unavoidably.
In the staff room, when Mab was there, long intellectual discussions ensued on art, literature and politics and I realised how ignorant I was. It was the time of the Spanish Civil War and she and Dr Bradley took opposing sides. He, being Catholic, was a strong supporter of Franco. She, professing left-wing views – although I was doubtful whether she really held them – supported the other side. Discussions got very heated. If I appeared to agree with Mab, Dr B. used to invite me into his sanctuary, the lounge, to express his views in a more peaceful atmosphere.
Ben Pegler, teacher, 1930’s
During the Second World War, the school was requisitioned. We were packed into a bus with dogs, maids, some blankets and a picnic lunch and evacuated to Inglewood Bank, near Penrith. It all seemed a great adventure. I remember my father waving us off from the bottom of the drive, just like a day trip. I never saw him alive again.
It is the silence, the unearthly silence of the place, and the wreck and ruin of my old age dreams and visions. How rapidly our human toil is wiped out by Nature. The lawns have the mange, walls are mouldy (outside, I mean), sheep have eaten hundreds of cabbages, the woods are closing in on me and everything is overgrown and blowsy… Mab is working herself to death (at Inglewood) and I have ‘a heart’. Oh, Lord! Oh, Adolf! What have you done to us?
Letter from Dr Bradley to a friend, August 1940
Inglewood Bank, the school’s wartime home in Cumberland, was a large mock-baronial house. In my mother’s morning assemblies we were exposed to Jane Austen, Dickens, Chaucer and all makes and sizes of poetry and literature – we waited for the next morning’s instalment rather as viewers now wait for Brookside or ghastly Neighbours.
Educational officialdom entered our lives in the shapes of Miss Ellicott and Dr Brown, H.M. Inspectors, who arrived rather muddy, having got lost en route. They were not expected, but my mother was pleased. She was short of teachers and they were pressed into service. We got Miss Ellicott. I was about 12, and we were ‘doing’ Hamlet. She asked us what we considered the salient characteristic of Gertrude, the Queen. John Hunter, an owlish boy with pronounced teeth, fixed her with a piercing stare and answered: ‘lust’. I think he went on to govern the Gilbert and Ellis Islands.
Fyling suffered during the war. Windows and doors were broken, Italian wrought-iron railings torn up, beech woods felled. The lawns were hay-fields and my father’s beloved rose garden a wilderness. But the house still stood and the view remained. So, when the war ended, back came Mab, with far too many pupils, and somehow made it work.
I don’t know how she did it – run the school on her own, do the books, teach, and with no secretaries, or anything like that. You just knew everything revolved round her.
David Watson, pupil, 1955-59
Her sheer commitment and personality cloaked many material deficiencies. She never saved any money, believing it simply to be a commodity, like sugar. Keeping a whole lot of sugar was pointless, it was better made into jam or given to someone who hadn’t any. Similarly, she put money to work, educating children for nothing if necessary, buying books (‘authors have to live’) and helping a great many people.
Fees were variable, according to people’s ability to pay. She operated a system of barter. Parents were paying in hay, eggs, chickens or flower bulbs – it was a much more interesting way to trade. Her accountant, dear Mr O’Reilly, told me he spent sleepless nights over her finances until he realised she knew more about the management of money than he did. She simply did not see any point in storing it, only in balancing it.
Mab had that wonderful gift of instilling confidence into the most frightened rabbit by extolling its virtues, ignoring its weaknesses and treating it as her equal.
Ben Pegler, teacher, 1930’s
Mrs B decided I was ‘gifted’ for English on the basis of my unfortunate ability to learn any piece of poetry or prose overnight. I didn’t deserve the commendation, but it was the first time in my life I had been praised at school. I went on from there.
John Woolley, pupil 1945-50, later Headmaster
My mother was not a planner. ‘Seize the moment,’ she used to say. She lived life on the wing, using whatever was to hand and enlisting talents people did not suspect they had – all with a lightness of touch that made life and learning fun.
She died, very suddenly, in December 1962, dictating reports in her last conscious moments.
This was her dream, to educate children without preconceived notions of intelligence, class, economics or parentage. She succeeded admirably. We received the type of education that really counts in the end, and that is an education in learning to live with and respect each other, regardless of background or aspirations.
Graham Gibbs, pupil, 1957-61
Abridged from Fyling Tales, with additional material