Skip to content ↓

Pillars of the Establishment

This term we celebrate the appointment of a new Head at King’s High, Dr Stephen Burley. Like Acting Head Mrs Caroline Renton before him, Dr Burley is not new to the school. But, these two apart, there have not been any other internal appointments to the role of Head. All others came from different schools, and three of them (Miss Doorly, Miss Leahy and Mrs Surber) had already held headships elsewhere. One of them, Miss Edghill, was a career headmistress and went on to two other headships after leaving King’s High. 

Although not our first Head Master, an honour which belongs to Mr Nicholson, Dr Burley is our first Head to hold a doctorate. All others have had Bachelor’s and / or Master’s degrees except the first Head, Miss Fisher. When Miss Fisher was appointed in 1879, very few institutions gave degrees to women. In fact second Head Miss Lea and her successor Miss Edghill had to have their Cambridge degrees ratified Ad Eundem by the Universities of Dublin and London respectively because Cambridge did not allow women to graduate until the 1940s, and Dublin and London did. Miss Fisher had earned a Cambridge Teacher’s Certificate however, which was a forerunner of a modern degree with QTS (qualified teacher status). 

Like Miss Gardner, Miss Hare and Mr Nicholson before him, Dr Burley is an Oxonian. Also, like Miss Doorly, Miss Leahy and Mrs Renton before him, Dr Burley is also a graduate of the University of London. Four others, Miss Fisher, Miss Lea, Miss Edghill and Miss Wiseman, held Cambridge qualifications. Only three Heads, Mrs Anderson (Keele), Mrs Surber (Exeter) and Mrs Renton (Leicester) attended institutions other than Oxford, Cambridge or London. 

Dr Burley is our fourth married Head to be appointed to the role. Until about fifty years ago, female Heads of the school were not expected to be married. Indeed, many of the professions open to women in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, such as teaching and the civil service, would insist that a woman should resign from her post upon marriage. Few professions in those days had maternity provision, and even up until the 1970s, female teachers at King’s High had to resign if pregnant. In 1922 and 1947, two female Heads, Miss Gardner and Miss Wiseman, offered their resignation to the governors so they could marry, although the governors allowed both of them to serve a term’s notice in their married incarnations of Mrs Moberly and Mrs Gunn respectively. An earlier Head, Miss Lea, left in December 1913 and was married the following month; having married a much older man when in her forties, she was later widowed, but only then did she return to teaching. Mrs Gunn did the same thing after she was widowed in the 1960s.  

Two Heads, Miss Edghill (Gibraltar) and Miss Doorly (Jamaica) were born overseas, but both came to England in childhood, Miss Edghill as a baby and Miss Doorly aged 7. Only one, Miss Doorly, grew up locally, in Leamington, where she attended Leamington High School, then walking distance from her house; this school has now moved site, is known as the Kingsley School and is now part of the Foundation. One wonders why Miss Doorly didn’t go to King’s High which, by 1891 the year Miss Doorly turned 11, was accepting girls from outside the borough of Warwick. Perhaps her aunt and guardian wanted her to stay nearby.  

If we discount our overseas-born Heads, and if we take Warwick as the dividing line between north and south, slightly more Heads (six) have been from the north compared to five southerners. There has been one Yorkshirewoman (Miss Gardner from Bradford) and one Lancastrian (Miss Lea from Manchester). Dr Burley, who hails from the North East, is our most northerly Head to date.  

There is a great disparity between the Arts and Sciences among the degree disciplines of the King’s High Headship. We cannot know the nature of our first Head Miss Fisher’s qualification since her Cambridge Teacher’s Certificate did not specify a subject. However, in 142 years, we have only had one Head with a Science degree. This was Miss Lea, who read Mathematics at Cambridge and took her final examinations in 1890. Among the Arts graduates heading King’s High have been four Historians (Miss Gardner, Miss Doorly, Miss Hare and Mrs Anderson), three Classicists (Miss Edghill, Miss Wiseman and Miss Leahy) and three graduates of English (Miss Doorly, Mrs Anderson and Dr Burley). Two Heads have had degrees encompassing more than one discipline, with Mrs Anderson’s degree being in English and History and Dr Burley’s doctorate being in English with elements of religion, philosophy and politics. Miss Doorly’s degree was dual honours in English and French, but she later took a Master’s degree in History.     

Our joint longest serving Heads have been Miss Doorly (1922 – 1944) and Miss Hare (1948 – 1970) who both ‘reigned’ for 68 terms. One can picture the near-to-retirement Miss Hare adding up her terms in office to make sure she did exactly the same number as Miss Doorly! Miss Doorly, aged 64, was the oldest Head to retire from her post. In order to equal a 22 year reign, Dr Burley will have to serve as Head until 2043, at which point he will still not have equalled Miss Doorly in age. Indeed, Miss Doorly would have stayed longer at the helm had not the school been under Local Authority jurisdiction. The LA decreed that all teaching staff should retire by the age of 65, hence Miss Doorly’s departure at Christmas, a month before her 65th birthday. 

The shortest reigns of our non-acting Heads have been one and three years respectively, owing to Miss Gardner in 1922 and Miss Wiseman in 1947 leaving because of their marriages. Miss Lea left in 1913 to marry, also, but she had already served eighteen years, making her our second longest serving Head.        

Of the Heads who have already gone through the Great Butts Door in the Sky, our longest lived was Miss Leahy, who died aged 90 in 2020, surpassing by two years the age of her near namesake, Miss Lea, who died In 1958. All but one of these deceased Heads had reached the age of 80+; the exception is the long-serving Miss Doorly, who died at the age of 70 in 1950.  

Several of our Heads have been published authors. The first of these was Miss Edghill, whose translation of the Categories of Aristotle has remained in print for ninety years. Fellow Classicist Miss Wiseman had a volume on ancient Greece, with the imaginative title ‘Greece’, published under her married name of G.M. Gunn. Current Head Dr Burley’s work ‘Hazlitt the Dissenter’ is available from all good bookshops. Perhaps the most celebrated author among King’s High Heads is Miss Doorly, who wrote half a dozen factual works for older children on historical themes. Her first work, ‘England in her Days of Peace’, published in 1920, is a very readable children’s social history, slightly socialist in leanings as was Miss Doorly herself. There were sundry volumes on French history and three biographies of French scientists. The last of these was ‘The Radium Woman’, a 1939 biography of Marie Curie, which won the Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book of that year.         

The majority of King’s High’s Heads have been dog lovers. Celebrated King’s High hounds include Miss Doorly’s fearsome German Shepherd, Vlah. His name is the Albanian word for the concept of friendship, something which, according to Miss Doorly’s pupils, her huge scary canine did not always display. Vlah may be seen at the front of the long school photographs from 1929 and 1934.    Many King’s High girls from the 1960s will remember Delta, a black poodle, who would accompany her mistress, Miss Hare, down Red Corridor, sometimes being carried. When Delta had puppies, Miss Hare sold them off to raise money for the school building appeal which saw the conversion of the old gym to the library, and a new gym being built in the playground facing The Butts. Mrs Surber had a French rescue dog named Mattie, and French graduate Mrs Surber would speak to him in French. Mr Nicholson favours Airedale terriers, and at the moment has two, Ptolemy and Erasmus. Two Heads, however, inhabit the feline camp. Miss Wiseman’s white cat, Richard, ran away from home when she left King’s High in 1947, and was replaced by a half brother named Sebastian. Miss Wiseman, by then Mrs Gunn, wrote to her former pupils saying she was sure they would understand the connection between the names Richard and Sebastian. Do any of you know? Dr Burley is now the first Head in 74 years to have a cat. Her name is Olive, and by all accounts she would be able to compete with the scary Vlah from 90 years ago.  He also has a large brood of chickens.    

With the arrival of a brand new Heads’ Gallery outside the school hall, the girls will return to King’s High to see the faces of ten of the people who led the school in the past, looking down at them from their lofty perches.  I’m delighted they have made the journey with us to Banbury Road.