‘I see Queen Mab hath been with you!’

Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, thinks the queen of the fairies, the great dream weaver, is behind all of those infatuations at first sight.

Fyling Hall, would you believe, has its very own Queen Mab, the great soul who made the dream possible.  More often than not a private school’s history goes way back into the mists of time but this educational establishment is still well shy of its centenary and there is, indeed, a living link to its foundation. Mrs. White, as sharp and sprightly a nonagenarian as you are ever likely to have the good fortune to encounter, is the daughter of the single individual you owe most to, the veritable Queen Mab.

Mrs. White has kindly agreed to be interviewed to share some cherished memories of her own life and of the school where she was Head Mistress for forty years.  First, however, it might be rewarding to set the scene.  We will recognise Queen Mab’s spirit around almost every corner if we have dipped into the splendid little book (not so small at 194 pages) As It Was In The Beginning, chanced upon recently at the Christmas Fayre. Skilfully edited by a former headmaster, John Woolley, it consists of extracts from Mrs. White’s memoirs, into which in chronological order have been spatchcocked the intriguing reminiscences of teachers and former pupils.

One of the insertions, for example, is taken from the extended narrative of Peter Gross who came as a Jewish refugee from Austria at the outbreak of the 1939-45 War and fell in love with the place. He suffered the ignominy of internship as an enemy alien, on the Isle of Man, just as he was finding his feet, eventually returning as a prize-winning pupil, later a teacher here from 1945 to 1950 and from 1979 to 1982. Another of our sources is Mr. Woolley, himself, who redacts from his own compelling autobiography Cars Looked Peculiar, published in 2010. His close association with the school began in 1946, as a pupil, and endured until 1992 when he retired as headmaster. So many of the names we encounter kept coming back, sent their own children here, forged links that survive them.

From these and many other viewpoints, some adding verisimilitude to others, others giving yet new insights, it’s possible to build up a well-rounded picture of the founder and her school.  Until her death, in 1962, the name on everyone’s lips, affectionately, respectfully, reverentially almost, is Mab Bradley. We see her arriving in 1933 with her husband, Dr. Bill Bradley, a retired headmaster – and somehow with very few resources getting her school off the ground. She had chosen its site well, with its magnificent view over one of the most beautiful parts of the English coast. That was a good beginning.

Far from the elfin spirit of Mercutio’s imagination, we find a formidable powerhouse of a lady, not tall of stature but an intellectual colossus, capable of teaching just about any subject.  She had won a scholarship to Oxford and taken a First in Modern Languages, which in itself, bearing in mind women were not permitted to graduate from that university until 1920, makes her the rarest type of female in her day.  She must have been one in a million, to put it in perspective.

This inestimable book gives us a feeling of the place and, indeed, of a period dominated by austerity, blighted by war but in which the human spirit never burned brighter and people did astonishing things. We first encounter Mrs. Bradley in her walkabouts, keeping a vigilant eye on things, taking an interest in everything and everybody.  On the terrace she would always have been accompanied by her dogs, in the early days a delightful black and white cocker spaniel, Dinah – coincidentally, a name popularised at the time by the song recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and others. At nine o’clock, we would have found her getting the day off to a brisk start with assembly in the Barn, before a blazing fire in winter, with the doors flung open in summer to let the sunshine in for her pupils’ well-being.  Always she put that first.

These occasions were the most memorable, all agree.  She played the piano, leading her school through the hymn, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, instructing them first with a homily before entertaining with a literary reading. At different periods she seems to have favoured Dickens, The Pilgrim’s Progress and, above all, Gerard Manley Hopkins. That poet’s hymn to nature, Pied Beauty, seems to have been a particular favourite.  Every day for nigh on thirty years she took these assemblies, never failed or devolved the task to others.

‘A born teacher’, as the famous Whitby-born novelist Storm Jameson recognised, she would inspire her pupils, not least in her own subjects, French and Latin.  Her self-penned Rhyming History, an extensive mnemonic in verse, spanning the period 55 B.C. to her present day, still informs, delights and improves, her three watchwords. One couplet taken from the 450 or so lines has a certain poignancy, written as it was in 1936: ‘We still have not learnt that War does not pay // But we hope to avoid it for many a long day.’ So many of her pupils went on to achieve high eminence in the professions and various walks of life and to recall her inspiration.

As an administrator, a facilitator, someone who made things possible, got things done, she appears to have been without equal.  She recruited staff wherever she could, inspired them no less than she inspired her pupils, made them better teachers.  Not all of them were that academically qualified but she was more interested in their power to impart knowledge than in their paper scrolls. She got on board another of Yorkshire’s finest novelists, the great Leo Walmsley – as a woodwork teacher! When two inspectors arrived, she instantly won them over and packed them off to the classroom – not to inspect but to teach! They enjoyed it so much, they recommended not only in report but by sending their own relatives to the school.

She could not have done all this without having the ‘happy and humorous outlook on life’ that the keen-eyed Walmsley detected.  She taught good manners, self-discipline; she eschewed advertising, considering it vulgar and much preferring word of mouth. She was a figure of authority without being in any way authoritarian and she was prepared to make do and mend, extemporising and often acting on impulse.  If we find her occasionally being served meals in bed, it was not through sloth but having driven herself to the brink of exhaustion – and while she ate, she typed.  She was her own secretary, typist, dogsbody.  Being a Classicist she might have described herself as a factotum, but she was very far from being a pedant, by all accounts. One correspondent referred to the suspicion of her having left-wing tendencies. These appear, overall, to have been more humanitarian than socialist per se, and there are numerous examples of her having opened her arms and her doors to the poor and needy.

You knew when she was coming, her presence heralded by the ‘staccato noise of her shoes’, as she bustled about ‘not quite running’. As she did so, she exuded a kindly authority. Something of an eccentric herself, she tolerated other people’s eccentricities, smiled at them, overlooked what she could not smile at.  But she noticed everything, could tell at a glance if a pupil was about to go down with something.

When the War broke out, fearing for her pupils’ safety, she temporarily decamped to the Lake District, lock, stock and barrel – only to return after the conflict with renewed vigour.  It was a different place, shorn of its Italianate railings and its beech woods, all gone to the war effort. Now in changing times something of a moderniser, she expanded her preparatory school so that instead of merely readying pupils for the common entrance exam that would admit to the public schools, she would take seniors through to university. She set about uniting ‘an unlikely band of highly talented but disparate characters into a teaching force,’ as Mrs. White succinctly puts it.

Mabel Bradley, a native of Staffordshire, had begun her career at a time, after the Great War, when married women were bizarrely not allowed to teach, and her first school had consisted of but four boys. She worked tirelessly until her death in 1962, aged sixty-seven, by which time the school as it is today had taken shape.  Most of the endearing aspects of the Fyling Hall you know, its family spirit, its unforced friendliness, its quest for personal enlightenment and self-fulfilment, were engendered by this formidable lady – your very own Queen Mab.

Andrew Liddle