19 May 2020
When I was doing my first Chapel of this unusual term, I said it was one of my personal priorities for us to use the current crisis as a learning opportunity, as it touches on so many aspects of life: if it fires our interest in history, biology, statistics, government, media & communication and so much more, we will emerge from it in a better position to deal with future challenges, whether pandemics or the other emergencies, as well as the issues we were already facing – the impact of climate and environmental change being perhaps the most pressing example.
One of the first steps I took on the journey to learn from the crisis was, with the help of our excellent archivist Elizabeth Christie, to look back at the School’s own memory bank and in particular the periodic news sheets that have been issued for much of our history. Our archive contains a wealth of fascinating insight into the events that really touched life in Calne, and how the whole community dealt with them. Obviously none of the events was quite the same as the current crisis and the social and educational contexts were different but I find it really helps my sense of perspective to look back at the experience of our predecessors.
We will share more of what is to be learned from the archives and, I hope, the memories of CGA members over the weeks to come. The experience of World War II of course looms large and we will come back to that. But first, I found myself particularly taken by what Elizabeth unearthed about previous pandemics and outbreaks of disease. As she wrote to me:
“The School did not suffer from the great influenza outbreak of 1918 but in the years before universal immunisation, outbreaks of infectious illnesses were regular events. The School managed them by converting dormitories and bringing in extra nursing staff. The most memorable of these was the 1931 Great Contagion or ‘Measley Term’ as it was called, when staff were sick with ‘flu and girls with measles”.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the School was not much affected by what we tend to think of as being the major pandemic of the past – the so-called Spanish flu epidemic that began in 1918, just as World War I was coming to an end. It’s easy to picture that as having been tackled in the same way as we’re experiencing today. I was also fascinated to be reminded when researching this piece of these prophetic words in an article from The Independent dated October 2005: “The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 claimed the lives of between 20 and 40 million people around the world, at least three times the number killed in the Great War. More died in a single year than were killed in the four years of the Black Death from 1347-51. Today, as the world prepares for the next influenza pandemic which England’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, says is now inevitable, there are clues from the earlier catastrophe that demonstrate what we may face”. There’s a lot for us all to mull over there, and history will no doubt show how successful those preparations have been…
Looking back at the School’s archive material for 1931, however, one gets the sense that neither the girls or staff of the day were easily overwhelmed – despite the ongoing Great Depression. The annual news sheet for the year ended July 1931 includes a lovely account of ‘The Measley Term’ split between ‘A Victim’s point of view’ and ‘A Survivor’s point of view’.
“This has been quite the most abnormal term I have ever spent at school”, says the Victim. “When the measle germ really started to get going one was never quite certain what was going to happen next. Strange, white-capped figures flitted about the passages; the singing in Chapel grew daily fainter; daily, almost hourly, one’s temperature was taken, and agonies of suspense were endured…” But, on the other hand: “I think the chief characteristic of the measle period…was that of luxury. At first we did absolutely nothing for ourselves. While the rest of the School and the Staff toiled below in pantry and form-room, we merely lay and were brought things… And the finishing touch to this height of comfort was breakfast in bed”.
The Survivor’s account starts particularly perceptive: “In years to come the remembrance of the Spring Term 1931 cannot fail to rank high with the memories of the happiest of our days at school. There is always a satisfactory stir when school routine is upset even for one day”. But it is also particularly moving: “But the happiness which resulted from the ‘measle term’ was not only due to the novelty of everything but to the remarkable atmosphere which is only felt in crises such as this. This atmosphere was inevitable, as everyone was doing their bit to replace the domestic staff who were so largely depleted by influenza… Future generations will doubtless be incredulous when told how Miss Matthews took Chapel in an apron, and slept in a Music Room…and how form-rooms and dormitories alike were turned into wards… Measles was, from the non-measle point of view at any rate, an entirely successful time…”.
We’re very lucky that we can do so much today to keep ourselves as safe as possible while still keeping the community together. It’s fascinating to think, though, that when we take part in Calne Connected we’re responding to challenges and adapting our approach to school life just as the pupils and staff were doing 90 years ago – and with equal resilience and success, I’m sure!
If you want to learn more about the history of St Mary’s Calne generally, ‘Consider the Lilies’ by Elizabeth Christie is available from the School Shop at St Mary’s.
Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne