‘Miss Cooper’ was the first headmistress of Heaton Secondary School for Girls and, as she stayed in post for 17 years, until her retirement in 1944, she was a big influence on a generation of Heaton girls, including social campaigner and politician Elsie Tu, who followed her from Benwell School for Girls to Heaton and wrote about her in her autobiography.
Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews has already researched the first head of Heaton Secondary School for Boys, Frederic Richard Barnes, and Miss Cooper’s successor at the girls’ school, ‘Doc’ Henstock so he recently set about discovering what he could find out about Miss Cooper and her time at Heaton Secondary School for Girls.
Winifred Muriel Cooper was born in Ipswich on 3 November 1882. Her father, Thomas Embling Cooper, was a career soldier and, at the time of the 188 census, was a sergeant major with the 1st Suffolk Rifles.
By 1891, Thomas was lodging in Derby with a young police constable, John Beckett, and John’s wife, Hannah. We know quite a lot about Thomas because, when he died in 1916, ‘The Derby Evening Telegraph’, published an extensive obituary. He had become a stalwart of the local community while working in Derby for the NSPCC, but his military record was also considered noteworthy. He had fought in Crimea and ‘met Florence Nightingale many times’. Later, he went to Malta where he converted to Catholicism and went on to serve in India at the time of the mutiny.
The whole Cooper family soon moved to the east midlands. By 1901, Thomas and his wife, Emma, had 4 children. Eighteen year old, Winifred Muriel, the second born, was already described as a school teacher. By 1911, she had moved away from the family home and, aged 29, was appointed headmistress of Seafield Convent Grammar School in Crosby near Liverpool.
Winifred remained in post until the summer of 1917 when an opportunity arose in Newcastle: the former Benwell School Girls’ Department had become a school in its own right and the the school logbook entry for 3 September reads:
‘Miss W Cooper M.A. Lond commenced duties here as Head Mistress of the Girls’ Department, which has now become a separate school from the Boys’.’
By the time of the 1921 census, Winifred was boarding on Collingwood Terrace in Jesmond, The head of the household was Caroline Davies, who was described as doing social work and home duties. Also living at the property was Lily Blades, a ‘general domestic servant’. Later, Winifred moved to Tynemouth where her mother joined her up until her death in 1936.
It was at Benwell that one of Heaton Secondary School’s most illustrious graduates, Elsie Hume (later Elliott and Tu) first encountered Miss Cooper.
Elsie wrote that, as a child of poor parents, she had encountered a lot of snobbery at West Jesmond Primary School but she found none at Benwell Secondary Girls School, which she graduated to in 1924. This must have been in part, at least, due to the example of the school leadership. And yet, Elsie didn’t speak highly of her head teacher, who she described as ‘a fiery and rather incompetent person, or so it seemed to us’. Elsie described a number of ‘tongue lashings’ she received in the head’s office but ‘perhaps the thing that most turned me from Miss Cooper was the advice she gave me when I was leaving school.
“Your fault” she said “is that you are too quiet…. Why don’t you put all your goods in the shop window” ’.
Whatever she thought of the comment, the timid school girl did eventually learn to be more assertive as many people who knew her in Hong Kong have testified.
Elsie’s memories, written around half a century after the events described, might have been influenced by her teenage emotions and may not be entirely reliable. For example, she claimed that Miss Cooper ‘had very little real knowledge but had concentrated all her studies on the history of the city of Florence (possibly she felt gratified to study about her namesake – her name was Florence)’. But we know this not to be true. Miss Cooper’s first names were ‘Winifred Muriel’. Was Elsie getting her mixed up with Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who presented a history prize which Elsie won?
Despite her sometimes negative views, nevertheless Elsie wrote how much she still treasured the reference she received from Miss Cooper.
We don’t have a lot more information about Miss Cooper’s time at Benwell but there was some press coverage of her speech at the annual prize giving ceremony in 1926 when she spoke about the dangers of too much pocket money.
‘Pocket money can be an excellent training,’ she said, ‘if a definite amount is given regularly and the girls are required to provide themselves with certain things. But you give them such sums that they gain little experience of the real value of money and you can hardly be surprised if they are somewhat extravagant or foolish when they grow up’.
The Countess of Tankerville, who was presenting the prizes, backed her up: ‘It is necessary for girls to learn how to spend money wisely. Education, among all the other grand subjects, should give us a practical appreciation of the use of money.’
When Benwell school was deemed unfit for purpose, Winifred Cooper was appointed head of the new Heaton Secondary School for Girls and senior girls, including Elsie Hume transferred with her. It must have been a proud moment when, just a few weeks into her new post, she hosted the king and queen.
Again, information about Miss Cooper during her time at Heaton Secondary School is quite scant. We do know, however, that she had a great interest in films and was an advocate for the part they could play in education. A 1939 article in the ‘Evening Chronicle’ refers to her as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of The Northern Counties Children’s Cinema Council which believed that ‘the influence of picture theatres on the emotional and intellectual development of children, who spend many hours there, is not to be ignored.’ It aimed to encourage the training of film taste and discrimination in children and had set up a conference to get educationalists ‘on board’, with a view to sponsoring a Children’s Film Society.
And we know from surviving copies of the school magazine that Miss Cooper valued cultural input into school life more generally. For example, she arranged for a well known opera singer, Sybil Cropper, to perform at the school and to talk about composition and early music.
There were also a wide range of societies and school trips to widen the girls horizons, perhaps sometimes to Miss Cooper’s regret. The article below was not the only one to appear in the magazine during the 1930s following visits to Germany praising Hitler.
But a few years later, Britain was at war with Germany. Miss Cooper, along with other staff and the majority of the pupils, was evacuated to Kendal. Here she lodged with a retired teacher, Catherine Kitchen. There were two other members of the household, a widow with private means and a young woman who carried out general domestic duties.
Mention is made in the school magazines of two head girls, Mary Graham (1930-31) and Edna Grice (1933-34).It’s interesting to see what some highly rated pupils of Miss Cooper’s era went on to do.
There are several Mary Grahams in the 1939 Register but the most likely candidate is a school science mistress with a BSc, born in 1913 and so an exact contemporary of Elsie Hume. In 1939, she was living with her parents off the West Road. She married Donald G Saunders, Chief Petty Officer, Royal Navy, in 1944 by special licence and she died in 2006, aged 93, near Hastings.
Edna Elizabeth Grice grew up in Byker. Besides becoming head girl, in 1932 she was awarded the Harrison Bell history prize, won by Elsie Hume three years earlier. Edna was presented with it by Dr Ethel Williams, Newcastle’s first female doctor and ‘a sincere friend of the school’.
By 1939, Edna was a school teacher, at that time lodging in Haltwhistle with another teacher, probably having been evacuated there. She may have been a Unitarian, as she appeared in a play, ‘Ladies in Waiting’, performed by the Unity Players at the Durant Hall, Ellison Place, for the Northumberland and Durham War Needs Fund. In 1944, she married William Harding of Cartington Terrace, an accountant and company secretary. For most of their married life, the couple lived at 27 Patterdale Gardens in High Heaton. Edna died in 2004.
Elsie herself gets several mentions in the magazines mainly because of her sporting prowess in netball and lacrosse. She also made humourous poetry contributions.
In summer 1944, before the end of World War 2, Winifred Cooper retired at the age of 61.
There were farewell gatherings where old girls and staff, past and present, offered their good wishes and made presentations ‘to mark their esteem and affection’. The ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported that Miss Cooper would be missed in the educational life of the city and that she had abounding energy and a vital interest in all that is new in the world of education. ‘She leaves behind a tradition of hard work and keen play.’
Winifred Muriel Cooper’s death and funeral in London was reported in the Newcastle press on 17 May 1951. It was said that wreaths had been sent by former members of her staff and the old girls association of the school. It was further stated that charm and human kindliness were part of her character and her outstanding educational work for Newcastle was acknowledged.
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Researched and written by Arthur Andrews of Heaton History Group.
British Newspaper Archive
‘Crusade for Justice: an autobiography’ / Elsie Elliott, 1981
Find My Past
‘Heaton Secondary School for Girls School Magazine’ and other resources relating to Miss Cooper held by Tyne and Wear Archives