Eulogy For Elaine Dunford
Elaine at twenty-one
My first memory of Mrs Elaine Dunford, Headmistress of Central Foundation School for Girls in Spital Sq, was in 1963. Somehow – miraculously even – I had passed my 11 Plus in Maths but failed in English, yet nonetheless she invited me for interview.
It was a Grammar School and I had set my heart on going there, but my failure to pass part of the exam had put my acceptance in jeopardy. My mother was definitely against me attending the school since I was a nervous child and she was concerned that all that education would “worry your brain,” as she put it.
Yet, on a warm summer’s day, she and I were ushered into the school and the Headmistress’s Office. Neither mum nor I were prepared for the person we met. To date, teachers had been stuffy and sometimes scruffy, and definitely not anything like the beautiful elegant creature who welcomed us into her sanctum.
Due to my mother’s resistance, the interview did not go well. Finally, Elaine asked her to wait outside whilst she and I had a ‘private’ word. She didn’t quiz me on my English but on my hopes and aspirations for my future. She was funny, softly-spoken and I sensed she was kind too. When, some fifty-two years later, she passed away on 12th July 2015 – I felt strangely bereft.
She had not been a constant presence in my life, indeed I never saw her after I left school in 1970. Yet as I thought about my reaction, I realised that it was not Elaine herself but the way she had helped me see the world and my place in it that had been a constant. I was not alone in my feelings, as revealed by the comments on our Central Foundation School Old Girls’ Facebook page and I began to wonder where this woman, who had touched so many lives, came from.
She had been born Elaine Prevett in 1929 and attended the Fulneck Moravian School in Leeds before studying English at University College, London. This was at a time when university places were automatically given by preference to men who had missed out on education due to the First World War. Elaine was one of only two women in the intake that year. She came to our school as a student teacher and, by 1955, was the Head of the English Department. In 1961, aged thirty-one, she became the youngest headmistress in London and possibly in the entire country.
The school was small by today’s standards, at any one time there were only around four hundred and eighty of us. The intake was predominantly from the East End, with a few girls from out of London, and one third of pupils were Jewish.
Elaine once told me that we were both exhilarating and terrifying to teach, as we were all so clever that she never knew what questions we would ask. She ran a tight ship of staff and somehow managed to navigate the difficult task of maintaining harmony between older teachers and the trendy young ones of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ generation.
She was progressive in a quiet non-confrontational manner. She was a Humanist and our assemblies were not the dry-as-dust events suffered by our friends at other schools. It was not that God was never mentioned but presented in a different manner. She read us C S Lewis’ Perelandra, plus The Diary of Anne Frank, also Ruth First, and a host of other writing. At the heart of these readings always lay a moral message of fairness and caring for others.
As a teacher, Elaine was mesmeric and she insisted on teaching every class at least once a year, despite a heavy work load as Headmistress. She made Shakespeare sing in a way I have seldom encountered since.
Elaine also instigated sex education at Central Foundation School and when she overheard a group of girls, who after they been through the course were still unsure of how the ‘seed’ got to the ‘egg,’ she ushered them into the nearest empty room. Fifteen minutes later, they emerged having learnt what copulation was in no uncertain terms.
I had the privilege of being Head Girl and so I got to know another Elaine, distinct from the awesome creature wearing her gown who swept along the school corridors at speed – a more relaxed but, nonetheless, impressive character.
Some aspects of her marriage were not going well and on occasion she was upset by this. She knew I would never relay anything outside her office and that understanding went both ways. It was during the year that I began to grow up, I confronted by own limitations and she gave me the tools to overcome them. Although she never forgave me for spending the Head Girl’s prize money on a pair of boots and a handbag, rather than books.
For my part, I never told anyone until much later of the time we both had a cold and were required to sing or speak at the Christmas Service in our church of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate. Her suggestion of a snifter of brandy to loosen up the vocal chords got a little out of hand – for me at least. We survived though, and I sang Once in Royal David’s City with what I hope was aplomb.
Since Elaine’s death, stories of a more personal nature have emerged. If pupil’s family situation was particularly difficult or violent, she would had them come to live with her for periods of time. She also personally supported the families of girls who were having emotional or financial problems. Her friendships with some pupils extended long after they had left school and some were still in contact at the time of her death.
I suspect we shall never see her like again and I would like to close this eulogy with these extracts from letters that I read at her funeral. It was put together by Elspeth Parris from recollections by pupils through the years.
“In person, your elegance and poise gave us an example that we could aspire to and the intellect you imparted to us allowed us to move forward in the world in a way many of us could never have imagined.”
“You were caring when we were in trouble and, in a world which often seemed to have an attitude that children were by nature ‘bad’ and needed that ‘badness’ worked or even beaten out of them, you believed that children were basically good. It was that caring, above all else, that has given you such a firm and important place in all our hearts.”
“In a world that, for most of us, had at least some dark places, you, as teacher, as Headmistress, but above all, simply as yourself, were a beacon of light. And for that, we thank you with all our hearts.”
Elaine ended her days in Rye where she had moved with her second husband Colin Robertson. It was a love match sadly cut short by his premature death. We understand Elaine’s death at eighty-six years old from Alzheimer’s disease was peaceful. Her coffin was a woven basketwork casket festooned with lilies. Just as she had been in her life, it was elegant and apposite.
Elaine as a young woman
Elaine’s marriage to Steven Dunford
Elaine Dunford (1929-2015)
Central Foundation School for Girls, Spital Sq
A London memorial service for Elaine Dunford (Robertson) is being organised by her former pupils on October 17th - any enquiries regarding this may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Bishopsgate Institute is collecting a digital archive of memorabilia from Central Foundation School for Girls. If you have photographs, reports, magazines or any other material that the Institute can copy for the archive, please contact archivist email@example.com
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