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Welwyn Garden City
Author: Ethel Joy Wragg
Published: 1967 by Regency Press Ltd.
Format: Hardback 8¾" by 5½" with 124 pages
Ethel Joy Wragg
Founder and first Principal, Sherrardswood School, Herts. (1928-35).
Sometime member Executive Committee Home and School Council of Great Britain.
Warden of Barnado Helpers' League for Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Wales and Monmouthshire. (1939-46).
Head of History Department West Kirby County Grammar School for Girls. (1948-57).
Deputy to second Mondcivitan Parliament. (1963-8).
(The above information is from inside rear dusk jacket flap)
Ethel died on 4th May 1976 age 84 (according to Grahame Godsmark in his 1978 book, Sherrardswood 1928-1978).
Death: Ethel Joy Wragg 1976, 2nd qtr, Scarborough registration district,
date of birth: 10th Oct 1891 (from the GRO).
The book begins with childhood experiences. These include seeing fairies in the garden and a gnome dancing in the bedroom. Ethel tells of a frightening experience of having her adenoids removed without anaesthetic. Later, when in a different house, she remembers a group of "heavenly beings came through the wall opposite the foot of the bed ... began to weave lovely harmonies as if they were a great choir. They came on summer evenings while it was still light." She learnt the piano which became a means of expression for her. She recalls an experience at the age of seventeen when walking along the village street ".. felt myself enveloped in golden light, bright as sunshine and so dazzling that it blotted out the landscape from my sight and a voice out of the air spoke loudly and clearly to me." She does not reveal what the voice said. This is the first of several instances of hearing voices which she describes in the book. She believed the message was "of general import for it is given to each man and woman in the world at a time that is right for each person. It is best that everyone should wait to receive the message that is specially meant for them."
Ethel describes a disastrous music examination taken after matriculation. She was so nervous when asked to play a scale that she could not see. She failed the examination. Again later she could not speak, when taking a viva voce examination in French, due to fear. In her early twenties she describes an experience, while sitting by an open window, "...suddenly, my spirit was caught up and raised high above the earth. I myself ceased to exist as a separate entity and was absorbed, as it were, into the Godhead Itself..." She thought she had glimpsed what happens to the human soul at the end of life on earth - to become part of God Himself.
Ethel describes her first teaching post as junior mistress at the Municipal Secondary School of Royal Leamington Spa, where she remained for 4 years, first as music teacher then history in which she was trained. In 1917 she had pleurisy and was operated on for a tubercular gland in the neck, after which she became temporarily blind. While at the school she assisted the Girl Guide leader and learnt campcraft. She recalls a psychic experience in the form of a vivid dream in which she saw her parents and sister very frightened go down into the cellar. On speaking to her mother later, she learned that there had been a Zeppelin raid and that details in her dream matched what had actually happened.
The year 1920-21 was spent teaching in Brackley Grammar School for Girls teaching history, geography, art and music. It was a new and very small school. Ethel started a guide company while there, and learned to play the flute.
In September 1921 Ethel went to Bilston Girls' High School in the Black Country, where she remained until 1927. The school took boys and girls up to age 10, girls only at senior level. Staff accommodation was difficult, and Ethel and 2 other younger female teachers, Rimes and Kear, were allotted a council house at 17 Hughes Road, which they named "The Hostel", and where they had a maid. Musical evenings were held in the house. Ethel taught history at the school, and played flute in the school orchestra when required. She produced plays and also wrote poetry for the children some of which is reproduced in the book. "It was during this period that I made a special vow, always to seek the good in other people, especially young people who were so often thoughtlessly described as 'hopeless' by their teachers." She also began making sketches of people's characters in the form of abstract colour patterns.
In 1922 Ethel organised a novel girl's camp at Stratford as part of Scholars Week in which performances of Shakepeare's plays were put on for school parties. This was repeated in the three following years when increasing number attended. In 1926, Ethel applied for and was granted an English Speaking Union scholarship to spend a summer holiday in the U.S.A. She arrived in New York on 4th July 1926 exactly 150 years after the Declaration of Independence. The following day she arrived at Chautauqua [which is a cultural resort for education, religion, arts and recreation, but primarily for religious conferences]. While there she visited Wahmeda Lodge where she "...rediscovered the reality of Spirit and obtained a fuller understanding of what the brotherhood of man is." This came from listening to Mabel Powers (known as Yeh Sen Noh Wehs) who had spent many months with the "Red Americans" as Ethel describes the native Americans. Ethel says that for the first time she recounted her experience of 1909 (when she was surrounded by light and heard a voice while walking along a street). "Then came a moment of great happiness as I seemed to emerge from a dark chrysalis of doubt into light ... I was made ready for a fearless step into the new world of spirit, which was eventually to turn me away from a safe and humdrum career to the happiest and most worthwhile adventure of my life." She spent 6 weeks at Chautauqua ending with a visit to Niagara Falls, and then toured some Eastern cities including Chicago, Washington, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In the schools she visited she noticed over and over again that "... the boys and girls were encouraged to discover their own talents and use them in service to the school community." She also noted that constant reference was made by American educationists to pioneer schools in England.
In Ethel's last year at Bilston, the Headmistress introduced the Dalton Plan [which was a system invented by Helen Parkhurst, and first trialed at Dalton High School, Massachusetts, to tailor each student's program to his or her needs, interests and abilities; to promote both independence and dependability; to enhance the student's social skills and sense of responsibility toward others]. Ethel thought this was being done without the proper resources and research and was producing too much of a workload for the staff. In December 1926 her father fell ill. A "white lady" appeared to him not visible to anyone else. The following July, Ethel left Bilston. She was suffering from abdominal pain and the family doctor advised the removal of the appendix. A second opinion was sought and in the end she did not have the operation. She met 2 healers, Mr & Mrs R., who had written a book on hydropathy [medical treatment by baths and mineral waters], but also believed people had a strong spiritual force which aided cure if God was relied on for guidance. She went to Perthshire to visit them. While she was there came news by telegram of her father's decline. By the time she arrived home he had died, but also her younger sister was in a coma overcome by strain. Ethel heard a clear voice out of the air which said "Call her back with love". She mentally called to her sister to come back and with that her sister opened her eyes.
Ethel decided to visit some "New Era" schools before returning to work, and from a list provided by the New Education Fellowship [an organisation founded by a small group of progressive educationists and liberal thinkers of the Theosophical Society whose central focus was on child-centred education, social reform through education, democracy, world citizenship, international understanding and the promulgation of world peace; Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation with nirvana were prominent] Ethel chose 6 schools within easy reach of London and obtained permission to visit them. They were The Garden School, Great Missenden; The Hall School, Weybridge; Frensham Heights, near Farnham; King Alfred School, W11; St Christopher School, Letchworth; and The Glade Garden School, Bromley. She also saw demonstrations of Eurhythmics [a method of improving musical performance through movement, invented by Swiss educationist, Emile Jacques Dalcroze], and dancing and art-work at the Margaret Morris School of Dance. Whilst at 2 of the schools (Letchworth and Bromley) she had noticed an atmosphere of "light" which she thought was related to Theosophy [a theological/philosophical movement founded in 1875 in New York by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, and William Judge, with prime emphasis on brotherhood, tolerance and freedom of thought to dissolve the barriers which separate people]. She visited the Birmingham Theosophical Lodge and found the atmosphere peaceful and friendly.
Ethel wrote to the Glade Garden School in Bromley, and asked if she could have pottery-making lessons in the Christmas holiday. Whilst there she found that there was a vacancy for a part-time teacher for a small group of eleven-year-olds. She was accepted on the basis of payment by residence with full board. On her first night there "...I seemed to become free from my body, which I could see asleep on the bed, while I floated round the room near the ceiling and experienced a great deal of happiness". In the school, life was as though in a large friendly family. The boys and girls were aged between five and twelve. A modified Dalton Plan was in use. The crafts workshop was in a Nissen hut.
Ethel attended the local Theosophical Lodge, and heard Annie Besant give her last address in London before going to Madras for the last time. [Annie Besant had joined the National Secular Society in 1874 forming a close relationship with Charles Bradlaugh, and had joined the Fabian Society in 1889. She became interested in Theosophy in the 1890s and became a leader of the Theosophical Society.] Ethel gives the following as the declared objects of the Theosophical Society: 1. To form a nucleus of the Universal brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour. 2. To encourage the Study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science. 3. To investigate unexplained Laws of Nature, and the powers latent in man. Although sympathetic, Ethel did not join the Society.
"As the months went by, I was building up in my own mind a conception of the kind of school I wanted to see developed and I wrote an article embodying my ideas. I was moved to send it to the editor of The Sunday School Chronicle. He accepted it and it appeared in the issue of ninth of August 1928. It was about The Happy School, which I had discovered during my educational pilgrimage. The happiness in the school was sensed on entering. As one would expect, it was run on modern lines. The children were given opportunities to express themselves through activities natural to them. They were free from the strain of living in an adult atmosphere. The laws of health were carefully observed. A pleasant environment was provided and a quiet vigilance on the part of those in charge resulted in the fulfilment of the children’s needs as they arose. But I discovered that these things were not in themselves the cause of the happiness that I sensed. The Happy School is not different from other modern schools exteriorly. Indeed I had visited others richer in resources, better organised externally, more pleasantly situated, yet lacking the peculiar quality of Happiness I felt at The Happy School. It was only after experiencing the life of the school, that I recognised a deep inner force at work behind and beyond external organisation."
In June 1828, the school's owners, Miss Backett and Miss Grimshaw, invited Ethel to join them on a camping holiday in Holland. Their first campsite was at Huizen. One evening while watching the sun set, the stillness was broken by a clear voice which said "Start a new school in a new place". She looked round and realised that her 2 friends had not heard the voice. "I now think that what the intuitive mind perceives may be interpreted by the ordinary waking mind as sound, so that the individual can become conscious of it with ordinary consciousness, whereas in fact there were no sound vibrations at all, otherwise other people would have heard them too. But, at that time, I had no theories about the phenomenon. I felt that all I had to do was to listen and obey. ... Some people who use the intuitive faculty have a vision instead of a voice, as did the poet Blake, because, perhaps, some people understand more clearly through vision than through hearing. "
Ethel began to think how she could carry out the bidding of the voice. She had realised that the Glade Garden School was not paying its way, because Miss Backett never had the heart to refuse a pupil even if the full fees could not be afforded by the parents. She was constantly depending on friends and relations to rescue her financially. Ethel wanted a school with boys and girls from ages five to eighteen. Would Miss Backett and Miss Grimshaw combine with her to start a new school ? Ethel asked them if they would, and to her surprise they readily agreed to sell their existing school and join with her in establishing another. "Thus our Rubicon was crossed."
There was one more week of the holiday which they spent at Ommen at an international camp where J. Krishnamurti was to speak on a new way of living. Two booklets were provided to take home called Life the Goal and Let Understanding be the Law.
"We returned to Bromley and began to make plans for the new school. Miss Backett entrusted the matter of the sale of her school to a scholastic agency. Meanwhile we spent many hours discussing how and where we would start the new school. We chose Welwyn Garden City for the place. It was a new town still only at the beginning of its development. Miss Backett had associations with several people there who knew the town well. We were able to meet them and talk over our project with them. We thought we should try to estimate what the chances of our success might be in that particular community. Having obtained the names and addresses of a number of parents of young children, we drafted a letter, stating briefly our intention to start an independent co-educational school in Welwyn Garden City and inviting these parents to meet us at the Friends’ Meeting House. About forty people came...
...we were not able to take up our residence in Welwyn Garden City until the 25th of September, 1928, when the furniture was removed to 13, Elmwood, W.G.C.
After a hard day’s work on the part of Miss Grimshaw, myself and Maud, our domestic helper, the house was ready to receive the two boarding pupils who arrived with Miss Backett on September 26th. Our third boarder arrived on September 27th and we decided to start school with our three pupils on Friday, 28th September, a date which has been kept ever since as the school birthday."
The intention was to develop the school into a senior high school with a preparatory section, and the name chosen for it was The High School. There was no secondary school as yet in the town. A few weeks later they were informed by "the city fathers", that their school was unlikely to survive once a state secondary school was established, and that it would not be permitted to continue in a house for very long.
Soon after this, the site on the corner of Digswell Road and Sherrardspark Road was chosen for a school building and it was leased for a temporary peppercorn rent. H. T. B. Barnard was appointed architect.
"It became the function of the ‘new’ independent school to put the theories of the new psychologists to the test in specially organised environments. People sincerely interested in education were now watching what was going on especially in the new co-educational schools. Gradually a conviction was growing that schools ought to incorporate not only splendid organisation but that they should be organised on an understanding of the child itself and its needs.
There should be a curriculum as liberal as life and children should have some voice in the selection of their activities. That it was possible to combine good organisation with opportunities for free development was being demonstrated.
But life demands that young people should be able to pass tests. Ability to pass tests pre-supposes training. Training is impossible without discipline. Therefore the ‘new’ school must have discipline."
By the end of the first term 14 boys and girls had been enrolled for the spring term. There was the question of finance for the architect fees and the start of building work. A sympathetic bank manager was approached. Then Miss Grimshaw's mother died, and her inheritance was used as security for a loan from the bank. In April 1929 construction of the building was begun by Fred Palmer. Summer term began with 33 pupils. Mr W. C. Watson was appointed Vice-principal (under Ethel) and to teach English. His wife was to teach the piano. A room at the Friends' Meeting House was rented. A Parents Association was form with Mr E. H. Toulmin convenor.
"The summer term ended, the children went home and the house was quiet and, as if in reaction to the sudden end of tension, I became completely deaf, and for some days lived in a completely silent world."
The first part of the new building was ready. "...On September 26th, 1929, about sixty excited boys and girls arrived to take their places in the school..."
"Two principles, among others, upon which we concentrated were firstly, to give the child opportunities in school to act for himself, to take responsibility for himself and his actions and thereby incidentally start on the life-long process of discovering himself. To achieve this aim experience had shown that one must also pay attention to a second principle, that of avoiding over-organisation, and so we had constantly to be on the alert to discover what kind of things should be organised and to what extent."
The school began its second year with six full-time staff. The majority of the children were under twelve, but there were three over fourteen and one over sixteen, who would be the nucleus for the seniors. "One anxiety began to emerge towards the end of the year, concerning Mr Watson’s health. As one of the parents had approached me privately about this very matter, we had regretfully to decide, after consulting with his wife, that the best thing to do was to ask him to resign. He consented to this and the chairman of the Parents’ Association announced it at the next meeting."
In the summer of 1930, Ethel and Miss Grimshaw joined a Camping Club trip to Oberammergau to watch the Passion Play. This visit allowed Ethel to keep a vow made 10 years before when she was working with the Guides at Leamington.
In November 1930, Ethel was called for jury service at Hertford Assizes. On the first day she only observed, and when she removed her hat because it was unbearably hot, a constable poked her and told her to put it back on. In those days women were required to wear a hat in church or in a court. "On the second day of the assizes, I found myself complete with hat, in the jury’s box-like pew and we were being sworn in. When it came to my turn, I remembered it was allowable to ‘affirm,’ so I upheld this right."
In 1931, the building was extended after two adjoining plots of land were acquired, and an initial planning refusal reversed by small changes to the plan. The new building included a science block and five new classrooms. There are several pages in which Ethel describes (anonymously) how children with specific difficulties had been helped at the school. The services of the child guidance clinic had been useful.
There then follows a strange short chapter of two pages, in which Ethel had to deal with a member of staff referred to as "Mr. Blank". He was a man of military precision, rather rigid in his outlook. At this time Ethel had one of her visions in which, as she walked from the station, she became aware of a sword suspended by a thread above her head. She knew Mr Blank had been visiting the homes of some of the parents, and soon after the sword vision she was called on by a parent who asked about a reduction of fees for her child. Apparently Mr Blank had assured her that he would be able to arrange for such a reduction. Ethel told the parent that there must be some misconception since Mr Blank did not have anything to do with the financial side of running the school. Shortly after this, Mr Blank came to see Ethel and asked her if he could become headmaster of the school, telling her that the parents were behind the proposal. When he realised Ethel was not going to agree he offered to put a large sum of money into the school funds. The meeting lasted for 3 hours. Eventually Mr Blank resigned and left the school.
Mr F. E. Moreton was appointed headmaster. In 1932 a full inspection of the school was carried out by three inspectors from the Matriculation and School Examination Council of the University of London.
Ethel continues in her book with a description of a question and answer session held for parents, and a piece about the merits of script over cursive style of writing as taught to the children.
Near the end of her book, Ethel writes "Then the Voice, absent for a while, called me to look with new eyes on the work I was doing; called me to look into the future to see what could happen to the school and to evaluate the consequences of a decision that I must now make. Filled with uncertainty, I struggled to put myself aside. I went away to be alone and to seek a higher will than my own. In stillness I at last knew that my personal work with the school must now cease. I knew I must bring it deliberately to an end."
In the next five months Ethel planned for her own leaving. Miss Backett had retired in 1934. Ethel put before Miss Grimshaw the future needs of the school as she saw them. There were now 108 pupils. The school needed further extension and the school needed someone with financial resources to do this. After advice from a mysterious man from Norfolk, Ethel advertised the school in the Times Educational Supplement. Among the replies was one from Mr J. B. Annand who visited the school and began negotiations. Mr Moreton was told in confidence so he could seek an alternative headship.
At the end of the summer term Mr Moreton announced his departure. In July, the school was transferred to Mr Annand and a letter sent to parents informing them of the departure of Miss Wragg. A farewell party was held, and an appreciation by Eulalie Heron appeared in the Welwyn Times. In the penultimate chapter, Ethel writes some warm words about Tom Heron whose family was referred to as a "truly Founder Family" of the school.
In the final chapter, she speaks of a dream in which she is at the foot of a steep stairway where a man in a white robe tells her to leave her baggage and mount the stairs to the country you are dreaming of. "We journeyed on, and I was happy to have found the way to the CITY OF LIGHT"
I have been contacted by a lady who knew Ethel Wragg in the 1970s and who was given by her a copy of Ethel's autobiography. This is what she told me about Ethel:
"She was living in Scarborough at the time, with her friend Miss Gabb. They eventually decided to move into a home and put their house up for sale, and my husband and myself put an offer in which was accepted, on the understanding we would wait until they found a home they liked. This turned out to be not that easy with such a strong woman as Miss Wragg. We had many a cup of tea with them (always in bone china cups, and on a tray with a lace tray cloth). I think we waited nearly a year until they finally moved out. I'm afraid my book got lost many years ago, but I've never forgotten her, and how proud she was of the new school she started in Welwyn Garden City.
Miss Gabb was very quiet - definitely the silent partner. The house itself was a small 3 bedrooms semi in Prospect Park in Scarborough. To give some idea of the nature of Miss Wragg, the pipes and fittings for the gas lights were still evident - though capped off - in every room, because Miss Wragg didn't really trust electricity, and felt the gas might be needed again one day. For this reason they only had very low power electric bulbs throughout. We struggled to see the stairs (which had Lino glued on each step) at night when we first moved in, the light was so dim, and when my husband looked at the bulb it was only 20 watt. Apart from an electric light there was no electricity at all in the small kitchen! It had a cork floor, Belfast sink, and a just a kitchen cabinet for storage. Everything was beautifully clean but absolutely more 1920s than 1970s. The only exception was the front living room which Miss Wragg also used as her study and was full of her papers and books.
Miss Gabb and Miss Wragg left Prospect Park to move into the Ravenscliff residential home at Princess Royal Park, Scarborough. They were only there a very short time - a matter of months - before Miss Wragg died."