The strange case of Eleanor Doorly

Tom Barney came across this story while using the Twickenham Local Higher Education Committee minutes while researching another Twickenham school, he took notes on it because it seemed to make a nice compact narrative.

Miss Eleanor Doorly had been Headmistress of the Twickenham County School for Girls for six years when the Board of Education inspectors inspected her school in mid-June 1921.  Mr Duckworth, the senior inspector, gave an oral report to the Committee for Higher Education in Twickenham (the school’s governing body) which the latter, meeting on 17 June, found “very satisfactory”.  Miss Doorly, Mr Duckworth said, was “an extremely capable organiser, a person of broad views and very high ideals of her duties [who had] the respect and confidence of her staff.” “The School”, he went on, “seemed to put first and foremost the training in citizenship and was doing very valuable work in this direction… the Governors might feel proud of the School…The relations between pupils and staff seemed to be all that could be desired.  The girls were frank and well-behaved and very ready to ask questions.”  Miss Doorly herself reported to the same meeting of the committee  some twenty places obtained by girls at university or training college, visits to the theatre and concerts, a mock election, the progress of the school’s National Savings scheme and a number of charitable projects – the stuff of very many grammar schools of the day.

When the committee next met on 14 October, Miss Doorly reported on that term’s new intake – less good, she thought, than previous years’ – and, on the other hand, improved results in the General School Certificate and a pass in the London Higher Certificate, the first time the school had entered a candidate.  There is a dramatic irony to this routine report.  For even as the committee were receiving it they had on the table an item of correspondence which was to be Miss Doorly’s undoing, at least as far as Twickenham was concerned.

On 10 October 1921 Miss A. Fradelle-Pratt, District Secretary of the Girl Guides for Twickenham, Teddington and Hampton, wrote to the Twickenham Local Higher Education Committee as follows:

I feel it my absolute duty to report to you the very unorthodox training of the Head Mistress of the Twickenham County School Miss Doorly – I called on her last week as District Secretary of the Baden Powell Girl Guides to explain the movement to her hoping she would feel how much good it would do the girls to have a Company started in her school… & after telling her the three solemn Promises we all have to make –

1st To honour God & the King

2nd To help others at all times

3rd To obey the Guide Law –

Miss Doorly said – “What is the Guide Law?[”]

Miss Fradelle-Pratt at this point handed Miss Doorly a paper with the tenets of the law printed on it.  These tenets she reproduces in her letter, and gives very heavy underscoring to No. 7, “A Guide obeys orders”.

“Miss Doorly,” went on Miss Fradelle-Pratt:

Made the very greatest objection to the teaching of obedience & said she did not permit of it being taught in the school – & therefore with her objection also of a uniform the idea of the Girl Guide Company could not be thought of – I have written to tell Miss Doorly I am writing on this subject to you & I shall be willing to meet her if you wish, at your meeting on Friday.

The Governors recorded that they questioned Miss Doorly on the points raised by Miss Fradelle-Pratt, asking her whether in fact she taught obedience in the school, and loyalty to the King.  They resolved to further consider her answers (which are not recorded) at an adjourned meeting on 21 October.

The meeting on 21 October appears not to have been specially convened to discuss this matter: other, more mundane subjects were raised as well.  And it is unclear what took place when Miss Doorly’s replies of the previous week were dealt with – the minutes merely record laconically that these replies were not satisfactory and that, in the opinion of the Governors, it was not in the best interests of the school that it should continue to be in Miss Doorly’s charge.  By eleven votes to four the committee resolved

that the Clerk to the Governors be instructed unofficially to ask the Headmistress to tender her resignation and further that if within seven days her resignation be not received the Chairman should arrange to call a Special Meeting of the Governors to consider the matter.

An amendment, that the Headmistress should be allowed to explain her replies further, was defeated.

Now the troops began to enter the field.  Some twenty-five members of the school staff, which may well have been the school’s entire complement at the time, wrote to Miss Doorly on 26 October offering their support.  They had clearly not been informed officially of any trouble, for they noted simply that it was “said in the town” that Miss Doorly had been called upon to resign.  “We do not know what can be the reason, but we are quite sure it cannot be anything in connection with the government, organisation or control of the school.  We hope that it is but a passing cloud and that our harmonious relations may continue for many years to come.”  They added that this expression of feeling was “unanimous and spontaneous”.

Miss Doorly herself had an audience with the Secretary to the Middlesex Education Committee, B. S. (later Sir Benjamin) Gott.  Following this she wrote to Gott on 8 November: “While I am not conscious of any reason why I should be required to give up my work as Head Mistress of the School, and whilst I feel that there is some considerable misunderstanding as to the answers I gave at the Governors’ meeting to questions unexpectedly put to me, I am quite prepared to acquiesce in the Governors’ wishes”.  She asked Gott to note that she was prepared to resign her position at the end of the school year, that is in July 1922.  “I think I can fairly claim,” she went on, “that during the time I have been Head Mistress of the School, my work has met with a considerable measure of success.  My whole interests have been directed to promote the best interests of the pupils.”  She ended by saying that she was applying for other posts “and I have no doubt that if I am appointed to another post the Governors will be willing to release me.”

There was indeed some urgency to this last point.  Grace Farmer, President of the Association of Head Mistresses, wrote to the clerk to the Governors on 10 November pointing out the “very serious position in which [Miss Doorly] will be placed if she is required to resign before she has obtained another appointment”; that she had undertaken to find another post as soon as possible and that she had “influential support” which should enable this.  “If she is left for a period without salary, she loses a year’s pension according to a recent decision of the Board of Education”, a situation which Association “would regard as a very serious matter into which enquiry ought to be made.”

On 11 November Winifred Cocks, the second mistress, wrote on behalf of the staff to the Chairman of the Governors, saying that they were taking “this exceptional step” because “this appears to us to be a crisis in the history of the School.”

It is a great shock to us that a headmistress, whose school is so successful and where the children’s conduct is so good, can be asked to resign.

Rumours have reached us, and if what were said about Miss Doorly were true, it would mean that the staff had connived at disloyalty.  Miss Doorly teaches loyalty to the British Constitution of which King George V is the honoured head.  I have heard her teach this again and again, and I have worked here for over four years.

With regard to obedience, on whatever ethical theory our teaching is based, the children of the Twickenham County School have to do what they are told and they do give willing obedience.  Everybody who comes to the school comments on its good behaviour.  May not we and our headmistress be judged by our results?

But at a special meeting of the Governors held the same day as Miss Cocks’s letter, though there was some questioning of the accuracy of the minutes of the previous meeting, this was ruled out of order.  It was then resolved, by thirteen votes to four, that Miss Doorly’s resignation be accepted.

The Governors next met on 9 December.  At this meeting correspondence was submitted from the parents of more than 200 pupils regretting Miss Doorly’s resignation and hoping that her services could somehow be retained.  These were noted, and what appears to have been a bare acknowledgment directed to be sent in reply. On the other hand a member, Dr Leeson, submitted complaints from some parents about the methods allegedly used to get pupils to sign a petition calling for Miss Doorly’s retention.  The matter was adjourned to a special meeting, at which the parents concerned could be interviewed, as could any members of staff “relative to the points raised” by Dr Leeson.  The meeting received a Headmistress’s report from Miss Doorly as usual on such matters as examination results, sports results, charitable fundraising and the date of speech day.

The special meeting took place on 20 December.  The clerk to the Governors, Mr Lethbridge, submitted a report which he had the previous day supplied to Gott.  This recounted that, as Dr Leeson had stated on 9 December, two parents, Mr Brown and Mr Mills, had complained of the methods said to have been used to get pupils of the school to sign a petition the Governors “asking them to induce Miss Doorly to withdraw her resignation”.  Mr Brown had complained to Dr Leeson that another parent, Mr Tranter, had sent copies of the petition to all parents to sign; Mr Brown’s complaint was that his address had somehow been obtained for this purpose, rather than that signatures were being sought from the girls.  He objected to his name being raised at the meeting and despite invited to do so did not attend, not wishing to do anything which might imperil his daughter’s future at the school.  Mr Mills also refused to attend, fearing his business might be injured.

Both Mr Brown and Mr Mills had claimed to Mr Lethbridge  that the Head Girl of the school had called a meeting of form presidents.  The latter had then reported to their forms who then, in the presence of a mistress, indicated their support for the proposed petition by a show of hands.  Although it had been intended that the Head Girl should then submit a written petition to the Governors asking them to request Miss Doorly to reconsider her resignation, nothing further appears to have been done in the matter.

The Governors resolved to inform the Senior Mistress that they strongly objected “to any meeting being held in the school either of mistresses or of pupils, with reference to the resignation of Miss Doorly”.  The Senior Mistress, Miss Cocks, was then questioned in person as to how the petition was introduced into the school, whether and how pupils subscribed to it, whether staff were present at the voting by the Form Councils, what Form Councils generally discussed and whether staff knew of this, whether any staff had adversely criticised pupils who did not support the petition, who circularised the school’s old girls to make a petition and how parents’ names and addresses were obtained.  Miss Cocks’s replies are not recorded; they were, however, thought satisfactory.  Once Miss Cocks had withdrawn the meeting resolved:

1) That the Form Councils should only discuss matters of which the Head Mistress has had previous notice, and that in no case should matters dealing with the management and organisation of the School be discussed by the Form Councils.

2) That the Head Mistress be informed that the names and addresses of parents should not be supplied to anyone without the consent of the Governors.

On 8 February 1922 Miss Doorly informed Gott that she had accepted a post as Headmistress of the King’s High School for Girls, Warwick, from May 1922, and requested him to ask the Governors at Twickenham to release her from her post there from the end of that term.  The Governors were informed officially of this at their meeting of 10 February, though it seems they had known informally for several weeks.  They agreed to release her as requested.  When Miss Doorly’s new post had been reported to the County Higher Education Committee a day or two before, that committee had instructed Gott to suggest to the Governors at Twickenham that, in view of the short time remaining before the start of the next term, Miss Doorly’s successor, whoever she proved to be, should not take up her post until the start of the new school year in September 1922, and that temporary arrangements should be made for the summer term.  The Governors agreed that the new Headmistress should begin her post in September and that Miss Cocks should be acting Headmistress for the summer term.  They put in motion the machinery for appointing the new head.

The Governors, at this same meeting on 10 February, also received their last Headmistress’s report from Miss Doorly.  It was curt, beginning: “Since your last meeting little has occurred of interest to you.”  She might well have been reflecting at length on the sort of thing which did seem to interest her Governors.

A curious minor chapter of the story then took place when a special meeting of the Governors was called on 21 March.  The Chairman regretted the short notice of the meeting (which was sparsely attended) but said that he had received information that protests would be taking place at the school prizegiving, scheduled for the following day, against the way Miss Doorly had been required to resign.  The guest speaker was to be Miss Farmer, Headmistress of Putney County Secondary School, who as we have seen had in her capacity of President of the Association of Head Mistresses written in Miss Doorly’s support four months before.  In a letter to the Governors Miss Doorly said that Miss Farmer “had no intention of introducing controversial matter into her address to the pupils”.  The Chairman said that if anyone made a protest at the prizegiving and was not amenable to his ruling he would leave the chair and declare the proceedings over.  The other Governors agreed that those of them at the ceremony would then retire with him.  There is no record that anything untoward did happen or was ever really intended to.

In the late spring of 1922 the Middlesex Education Committee announced the appointment of Dr Isabel Soar, then Senior Science Mistress at the Godolphin and Latymer School, Hammersmith, as the new Headmistress of the Twickenham County School from September that year.  On taking up her appointment Dr Soar, who herself later became the subject of a cause célèbre in Twickenham and beyond, asked for and got permission to attend the Governors’ meetings, which she was surprised to find had not existed until then.  Before Dr Soar’s arrival the term under an acting head seems to have proceeded without further ructions, although on 14 July the Governors agreed to allow the egregious Miss Fradelle-Pratt to hire the school gymnasium one night a week in term time for the following eight months.  At the same meeting the Governors unanimously thanked Miss Cocks for her additional work as acting Headmistress.

Miss Doorly’s headship in Warwick seems to have been uneventful as far as public affairs were concerned, although no doubt many girls, grateful to her for their education, would not have thought their contact with her uneventful.  In 1939 the Library Association awarded Eleanor Doorly the Carnegie medal for her children’s biography of Marie Curie.  But as the second world war progressed her health began to fail; in 1944 she retired to Dartmouth.  She died, still only in late middle age, in 1950.  When in 2007 the Carnegie medal celebrated its seventieth anniversary her biography, The radium woman, was briefly remembered, along with the other medal winners of the award’s history.

By Tom Barney, © Tom Barney 2011


  • Minutes of the Twickenham Local Higher Education Committee, the school’s governing body at the time; LMA, ref.  MCC/EO/03/002/004
  • Chosen for children: an account of the books which have been awarded the Library Association Carnegie Medal, 1936-1957 (Library Association 1957) and from the medal’s seventieth anniversary website.