Miss Mary’s memory box gives a window to the history of Marlesford
PUBLISHED: 11:26 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:14 17 October 2016
If he had a real life Tardis, Steve Russell would like to set the dial for the between-the-war years and drop into a Suffolk village school.
There, he’d love to meet Miss Mary Symonds.The girl from Framlingham grew up to be a teacher – headmistress, at the age of just 22 or thereabouts, at a village school a few miles north-east of Wickham Market.
Her head looks to have been turned once or twice by vacancies elsewhere in Suffolk, for in July, 1933, she applied to go on the “promotion list”, but she never left. Perhaps she was overlooked, or perhaps nothing was available that topped Marlesford. Miss Mary was there until she retired in the summer of 1954, when she would have been about 60.
Over her 38 years as principal, this lady, clearly wedded to her profession and the children who came into her care, would have shaped a couple of generations.
Wouldn’t you want to sit down with her, over a cup of tea, and talk about her own childhood, the challenge of running a village school at such a young age, what happened during the Second World War, and how education had changed?
What’s really frustrating is that we know a little but not enough! We’re teased by a box whose lid opens on the past – offering a fascinating glimpse of rural Suffolk life fewer and fewer of us can remember.
The Victorian building, constructed in the shadow of Marlesford Hall in 1891 as Marlesford Public Elementary School, has long been a private home. I wonder what happened to Miss Mary when she said goodbye in July, 1954, and began a life outside the classroom.
It was only last month that the enthusiasts who run Wickham Market Area Archive Centre from a set of portable buildings behind the village hall took delivery of a gift.
The box of pictures and documents were passed on by Mary Symonds’s niece, offered because Marlesford is one of the 26 parishes between Winston and Sutton on which the archive holds material.
Perhaps they’d sat for years in an attic and had to go because of an enforced clear-out. We don’t know the precise circumstances, but we know the deposit is pure gold.
The documents include the teacher’s service book, covering the years 1925 to 1954, and even character references. There’s ephemera from Mary’s training days, including pages of handwriting practice that involved writing out the same sentence time and again. And then there are the photographs – upwards of 40, ranging from 1904 and including a fascinating set taken on July 22, 1918, of Marlesford pupils dressed in costume. Some of the children, posing in an extensive garden (the nearby hall?), sport fairy wings. Perhaps it’s an end-of-year production. It has the look of A Midsummer Night’s Dream about it.
“The most significant part is three sets of school photos of the pupils,” says Ray Whitehand, custodian of the archive centre and author of a number of books on local history, including one about Suffolk’s parish workhouses.
“Some 40-plus photos are of the two classes of pupils for each year. Frustratingly, nothing has been written on the reverse. Even the year is missing. One of the pupils, Ken Boatwright (who was born in 1921), is identified on six of the images, suggesting years circa 1926-31.”
The archive would be thrilled if anyone recognising children or adults in the photographs, or being able to help with identification in any way, got in touch.
Wouldn’t it be fun to discover more about the children actually named on some of those photographs from the summer of 1918, such as “fairies” Lily Mattin, then aged 12, and sister Laura, just four.
They’ve already had a little bit of help. A woman has identified her mother as one of the youngsters, for instance. And Ray’s own brother-in-law, who went to school in the 1940s, remembers Miss Mary being there.
The aforementioned Ken Boatwright happens to be Ray’s uncle. Ray and his sister have managed to follow him through a series of six or seven photographs, “but we’ve argued when we’ve tried to place them in order of age!” he laughs.
It’s astonishing to think of Mary Symonds – born in rural Framlingham in 1894 – going off to train at college just south of the Thames at Stockwell, near Brixton. (It’s possible that 1904 Framlingham photograph is there because Mary is herself one of the children.) She was in London for two years from 1913 – the lead-up to, and early part of, the First World War.
She’d return to her home county and, one can imagine, would not have been forgotten by the hundreds of children she taught, into the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
I’d love to be able to hear her full story and thoughts, I tell Ray. He picks up one of the old photographs. “The nearest I can do… there she is!”
There she is, part of that costumed play-like gathering – long white dress (presumably) and long hair, and still in her mid 20s. She must have had a strong character and bags of energy to run a village school.
Before training in south London, Mary was a pupil teacher for a couple of years, finishing her apprenticeship at the end of July, 1913.
After leaving Stockwell she spent less than a month as an assistant supply teacher at Peasenhall school in the summer of 1915 and then, it seems, was acting head at Westhorpe, north of Stowmarket, for a couple of months or so that autumn.
November brought a move to Earl Soham, near Framlingham, as a permanent assistant. Not that permanent, for on May 1, 1916, Mary became the head teacher at Marlesford. Interesting career ladder a century ago!
Alongside the school material is other fascinating stuff. There’s a Second World War-era national identity card, for instance.
There’s also a little book that says it’s of army origins – it has January 23, 1922, written on the first page – but, essentially, it’s a DIY recipe book. Mary has used it to collate more than 50 cookery ideas gleaned from here, there and everywhere.
“Some of them are handwritten; sometimes she’s cut a little bit out of the paper and put in. Fascinating,” says Ray. “Rusks and all manner of things: iced orange sponge, Daily Mail orange jelly, elderberry syrup, mustard pickle and marrow jam…”
The job application forms are interesting – for schools at Leiston and Earl Soham – as are the character references.
The rector of Marlesford wrote one in 1940 to the East Suffok County Education Committee. He’d known Mary for more than four years and said he “soon discovered what a good moral and religious influence” she was on her charges.
“She is a thoroughly competent teacher, keeping herself in touch with new methods and changing circumstances, and, with a full sense of the importance of her work, in training character.”
Mary’s organising skills shone when she incorporated into the Marlesford school pupils evacuated from Essex… “and showed great tact in dealing with the teacher who came with the Ilford children”.
The rector felt certain Miss Symonds was “fully capable of tackling a much more responsible job than her present one, and that whatever responsibility may be entrusted to her, she will rise to it with courage and efficiency”.
There were more kind words from East Suffolk’s chief education officer after Mary retired.
Sending his personal thanks and appreciation for the willing help she gave, Leslie Missen wrote: “I do hope that it may be possible for you to help in a part-time capacity, and if I hear of any particular children who need home teaching, or any odd day’s supply teaching, I will certainly get in touch with you.”
So this box is a goldmine, then, for what it shows us? “Oh yes.” Ray has no doubt. “You can’t use the word ‘complete’, but it’s the next best thing. It is a real treasure trove, to have this much on one school through such a long period of time. This is a better collection than we’ve actually got for Wickham school! We’ve got plenty of odds and ends that people have given us, but not a set like this.”
The midday meal
For some years the midday meal at the school was cooked and eaten in the servants’ hall of nearby Marlesford Hall, rented to the authority by the owner.
An inspector said in 1953 that other arrangements were being worked on, but, in the meantime, cooking and preparation “are entirely satisfactory and about 25-30 of the children stay to dinner and take an active part in the serving. There is no waste”.
Do you recognise anyone?
Some of the photographs will be on show at the Wickham Market Area Archive Centre’s AGM on October 28. Organisers plan a small display of about 50 or so pictures of local schools, including Wickham Market national and secondary schools, Parham, Blaxhall, Bredfield and Campsea Ashe. The AGM is in the back room of Wickham Market Village Hall. Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Members and non-members are welcome and there will be some refreshments.
If you have information to pass on about the photographs, contact Ray via email or visit the archive centre. It’s open on Tuesdays from 2pm to 4pm and Thursdays from 10.30am to 12.30pm. For an appointment, phone 01728 746241 or visit their website
Oh – and the archive would also welcome new volunteers to help run it!