From The Archives: The First Ma

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In recognition of ‘Women’s History Month’, Gay Sturt, Dragon Archivist, looks back to the summer of 1914: The moment when the first Ma was introduced to the Dragon School staff.

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The First Ma
Gay Sturt, Dragon Archivist

Summer 1914

Sitting on the steps going down to Polzeath beach was a lady, with a wide-brimmed hat sketching the view below: Children were racing into the sea, the waves causing them to shriek. Picnic baskets set on the sand, a little further away one or two fathers were playing with a ball. However, she is concentrating on the sea and the cliffs over the estuary. The vast sands were hardly a quarter full. As yet, this part of Cornwall was little known.

A lone man appeared at the top of the steps and slowly made his way down to where Mrs Flora Sturt was sketching. He doffed his sea-captain cap, pulled out a printed form from his pocket and sat on the higher step. Eventually, he spoke.

“Tom Higginson sent this; I’ve just collected it from the post office. I am disappointed that he has decided to go off on this jaunt. He says he will be back by Christmas. I cannot see that happening. What am I to do? He only came in 1911.”

Skipper sat, thinking for a while.

“But you will be too busy to take it on, three children and a house to run, let alone looking after your husband … But then you would only need to teach from 11 am till lunch then 2-3 pm. We would give you an allowance for paper and so on.”

Finally, Flora laid down the water-colour brush, and asked,

“Are you offering me a job? Which classes would it involve? The baby School or …”

Skipper replied,

“No baby School, only the seniors. I know you will be the only lady on the teaching staff, but I think you could manage them. You will be in the newish Art room just above my office, and they will not be too difficult as they will know I can hear them.”

Sadly, the young Tom Higginson did not return from France. He became a Captain in the 6th Light Shropshire Light Infantry. Tom died on 2 September 1915, near Laventie. He made his mark on the singing in School; the introduction of Gilbert & Sullivan was also one of his innovations, carried on for many years. In Summer 1912, he had joined Skipper on the Blue Dragon voyage to Norway and was “an altogether delightful companion” — high praise indeed.

Flora carried on her routine and instituted new events, outside of the formal classes. These helped many understand her methods: The outdoor sketching classes and the after-tea classes for those who chose to attend, were popular events. The “Society of the R.A’s” was when work was posted on the walls with praise attached. All these resulted in her glowing appraisal by the Inspector from the Board of education in 1930, who found little fault.

Perhaps the most influence was felt by the pupils for example, John Betjeman. An absolute dislike of any sports by him meant many afternoons were spent instead with Ma Sturt in the Ashmolean, where much was absorbed, and he continued to draw all his life.

Forward to the Draconian of Easter 1947: the death of Flora Sturt on 28th February was regretted by many. She died just two months after her husband; they had celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary only two years before. She taught at the Dragon for 25 years. Her innovative teaching spurred on many Dragons to look again in detail at architecture, a pot or simply, the sky.

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Gay Sturt, Dragon Archivist
One of Flora’s six grandchildren

*Pictured within the featured image in the gallery below:
On the same row as Flora: Reggie Carr-White, Pug Wallace, Gilbert Vasall and Joc Lynam in the striped Oxford blazer (sat next to Flora).
The gentleman sat on the floor with his legs crossed is ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson.