‘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.
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.
Can You Help?
If you know more about Winifred Cooper, Mary Graham or Edna Grice or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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
We have written in the past about the opening of the school that was recently renamed Jesmond Park Academy. We mentioned that the first head teacher of Heaton Secondary School for Girls was a Miss W M Cooper and that of the neighbouring boys’ school a Mr F R Barnes.
Frederic Richard Barnes didn’t retire until thirty years later and so Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews decided to find out what he could about a man who was an influence on a generation of local boys.
Frederic Barnes was born in 1890, the first son of Richard, a carpenter, and Mary, who had both been born and brought up in Salford, Lancashire, where the family still lived. By 1911, Richard had become a ‘manual instructor’ for Salford Education Committee and Frederic, who had recently graduated from Manchester University with a First Class Honours Degree was a ‘student teacher’. His younger brother, James, was a ‘Civil Service student’.
In 1915, Barnes married Alice Gertrude Holt, an ‘elementary school teacher’, who grew up very close to Frederic’s childhood home in Salford. His first teaching job too was in Salford.
After the war, Barnes was appointed to a teaching post in Coventry before moving back to the north-west to take up the post of headmaster of Barrow in Furness Secondary School for Boys, Lancashire.
Ten years later a prestigious opportunity arose in Newcastle with the building of the Heaton Secondary Schools, which, it has been said, had been designed to resemble an Oxbridge college. The state of the art schools were officially opened to a great fanfare on 18 September 1928 by Viscount Grey, the former foreign secretary, and, just three weeks later, the head teachers, F R Barnes and W M Cooper, were presented to King George V and Queen Mary when the royal couple visited the new school on the day that they opened the Tyne Bridge.
On becoming headmaster of Heaton Secondary School for Boys, Frederic Barnes and his wife and two children, Frederic Cyril and Gertrude, went to live at ‘Bowness’, 55 Jesmond Park West, a newly built semi-detached house overlooking the school and its playing fields. At that time the entrance to the boys school was on Jesmond Park West so Barnes had a very short walk to work. A newspaper article at the time said that F R Barnes named the house ‘Bowness’ because his children had enjoyed excursions to the village on Lake Windermere, close to Barrow in Furness.
One of the concerns we know Barnes had in the early years of his headship was the inadequate amount of sleep that Heaton boys were enjoying. At the school speech day in December 1934, he presented the results of a sleep census, commenting on the ‘alarmingly’ inadequate amount of sleep that many of his charges got each night. Some things don’t change! The research revealed that 74 boys aged 13 years old and younger went to bed at 9:30pm, 79 at 10:00pm and 28 at 10:30pm.
Youth unemployment was another worry. The school’s opening in 1928 had coincided with the start of decline in the heavy industries so important to the north-east’s economy. By 1934, the situation had worsened. Barnes expressed a hope that ‘after negotiations’ more school leavers ‘would obtain a prompt start in industry’. He also appealed to parents not to restrict their sons’ choice of profession or rule out the ‘adventurous careers’. No examples of exactly what he meant by this have been recorded. The armed forces, perhaps?
On the date of the 1939 Register of England and Wales, a snapshot of the civilian population which was used during the war to produce identity cards, issue ration books and administer conscription, Frederic and Alice Barnes were back in the north-west with their daughter, Gertrude. The family was staying with 35 year old ‘householder’ , Dorothy I Field in Whitehaven, Cumberland. Perhaps they were on holiday? But the register was taken on 29 September during school term. In fact, the whole of Heaton Secondary School for Boys, including many of the teachers, had been evacuated by train to Whitehaven in the very early days of the the second world war.
There are a number of vivid accounts of pupils’ experiences in the public domain, including that of Colin Kirkby, who some 56 years later, remembered being given a carrier bag containing a gas mask, an identity card, a tin of corned beef and a tin of condensed milk, then being taken to Newcastle’s cattle market and then the station to be put on a train to Cumberland. Once they were in Whitehaven, he had to sit in a school hall ‘with thousands of other children from Newcastle’ waiting to be chosen by a local host. ‘I and a few others were left till last, and I think it was because we were the scruffiest.’ Luckily, he went to live with ‘a kindly old couple’.‘I moved from a house in Newcastle with no electricity and a toilet in the back yard to a house with everything. It even had a garden.’
In March 1940, the ‘Evening Chronicle’ ran an article, headlined ‘Boys’ Comic Opera – hosts entertained at Whitehaven’. It reported that, members of the Heaton Secondary Boys School Dramatic Society had given two performances of ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ to crowded audiences in the Whitehaven Secondary School premises, one for those who had been looking after the boys during their time in West Cumberland; the second for the remainder of the school and staff.
F R Barnes introduced the members of the society and gave details of the school’s achievements, including that the boys had won the Whitehaven and District Schools’ Association Football League Championship, with their captain, Cunnell, scoring an average of a goal a match. Like his successor, Harry Askew, Barnes was a very keen sportsman and in particular, a footballer.
In his foreword to issue 32 (summer 1944) of the boys’ school magazine, Frederic lamented that a whole generation had had their education disrupted during the war years. He felt that the revival of the school magazine was one more sign of pre-war normality returning, writing that for five years the achievements of the school’s scholars and athletes had gone unsung.
The 20 page issue give us a feel for the time: the school notes section concentrates on the ‘Old Boys who gave their lives in the cause of freedom’, along with those reported missing and those in prisoner of war camps. The list takes up almost 2 pages.
There were also reports of Literary and Debating Society events (A Miss Mary Robson and a Mr Simpson from the People’s Theatre had given an informal lecture at one meeting); the activities of the Historical Society; achievements in cricket, football and athletics. There were poems and stories about war, the evacuation to Whitehaven and hiking in the Lake District. The editor regretted that, because of the paper shortage, caused by the war, not all contributions could be printed.
The final page has two additions to the killed and missing and also mentions eight former pupils, who had been decorated for bravery. On the copy we have, ticks have been pencilled against two of the names: Arthur Cowie DFM and Arthur Scott DFC. Perhaps they were known to William Hedley, the original owner of the magazine. Colin Kirkby left school that year and joined the Navy, perhaps one of the ‘adventurous careers’ that F R Barnes had urged parents not to rule out ten years earlier.
Barnes retired in 1958, after a 30 year tenure as Headmaster of Heaton Secondary School for Boys which, by this time, was known as Heaton Grammar School.
It was reported in the ‘Newcastle Journal’ on Wednesday 12 March 1958 that the school’s Musical and Dramatic Society were going to perform ‘The Mikado’ by Gilbert and Sullivan as a tribute to him. The choice was Barnes’ as it was his favourite opera and it was the first work ever to be performed by the society ten years earlier.
The account stated that Barnes had been the inspiration and encouragement behind everything the society had ever done and that everyone – the 50 boys in the cast and chorus, as well as the masters producing and managing it, were determined to make this ‘Mikado’ a show Mr Barnes would long remember. A team of pupils under the supervision of Mr Waldron, the woodwork teacher, and Mr Loughton, the scenic artist, had built all the sets.
At his retirement at the end of the summer term, former pupils presented Barnes with a television set, a gramophone and a book. Alumnus, Newcastle solicitor Brian Cato, presented the gifts and spoke with gratitude of Mr Barnes who, he said, had inspired generations of school boys and shaped their future lives.
But Frederic Barnes wasn’t quite finished. In December 1958, it was reported that he was ‘coming out of retirement’ to put the case against comprehensive schools in Newcastle. He had accepted an invitation from Robert William Elliott, the Conservative MP for North Newcastle (later Baron Elliott of Morpeth), to speak at a public meeting at the Connaught Hall. It was emphasised that his speech would not be party political but ‘solely a headmaster’s view of the Newcastle Socialists’ plan’. Barnes had previously said that he was not opposed to experiment in education but he was utterly opposed to the scheme for comprehensive education proposed by Newcastle Education Committee.
Frederic Richard Barnes died at the age of 73, on 3 December 1963.
At the time he was living at 7 Swalwell Close, Prudhoe. His wife Alice outlived him by nine years. The family grave is in Jesmond Old cemetery.
It has been suggested by a number of nonagenarian alumni, that Raymond Barnes, the well known school outfitter of 92 Grey Street, was a brother of Frederic Barnes but our research has found no family relationship between the pair.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group, with additional material by Chris Jackson. Thank you to William Brian Hedley of Heaton History Group for sharing the contents of his father, William’s, copy of ‘The Heatonian’; to Friends of Jesmond Old Cemetery for help with locating the Barnes family grave and to Ralph Fleeting, a Heaton Grammar School ‘Old Boy’ for his memories.
She was awarded the prestigious pan-Asian honour, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, for ‘Outstanding Contribution in Government Service’ in 1976, one of the very few non-Asians to have been honoured in this way; in 1977, she received a CBE in Britain for her work against corruption; she was voted the most popular politician in Hong Kong in 1994 and, in 1997, was presented with Hong Kong’s highest honour, the Grand Bauhinia Medal in the first year it was awarded.
She campaigned tirelessly against corruption wherever she encountered it and worked with and for the under-privileged for more than five decades. Hong Kong’s three most senior politicians were pall bearers at her funeral and yet, in Newcastle, the city of her birth, and even in Heaton and High Heaton, where she lived and went to school within living memory, hardly anyone recognises her name or her face.
Elsie Hume was the second child of John and Florence Hume. In 1911, John and Florence, both aged 25 and married for just over a year, were living with John’s two brothers and two sisters at 12 Sutton Street, Walkergate (across Shields Road from where Lidl is now). John had been orphaned aged 11 and his older sister, Janet, brought up her siblings. At this time, John described himself as a grocer’s assistant and he and his young wife already had a young baby girl, Ethel.
Elsie was born in the house just over two years later on 2 June 1913 but said she had no memory of it because very shortly afterwards, ‘Auntie Janet’ and the extended family moved to 29 Chillingham Road. ‘All my earliest memories centre on that gloomy flat, where for about seven years we occupied the front room.’ Janet Hume lived in the flat until it was demolished in 1975.
By the time Elsie was born, her father was working as a tram conductor but the following year, he, like so many of his generation, joined the army. Elsie said that, until she was five years old, she knew nothing of him except his name. But John Hume’s experiences during this period, during which he was gassed, had a profound effect upon him and indirectly upon Elsie. He developed an intense dislike of war and a compassion for all humans. Elsie said that, in turn, her left-leaning world-view was influenced by him. She recalled much later that when her father was encouraging her to make the most of her opportunities at school, it was not for the advantages that would give her in terms of her own career but rather he emphasised the many more ways to serve the poor that would be open to her. She enjoyed discussing and arguing about politics with her father and brother from an early age and said that her father’s ambition for her was to become an MP and fight for workers’ rights.
The family moved many times when Elsie was young and she attended several different schools including North View School in Heaton, Walkergate and Welbeck Road and, less happily, West Jesmond. Here she felt she was looked down on by both teachers and other pupils because she lived in the poor neighbourhood of Shieldfield at the time. In future years, she remembered how she had felt and said this influenced her behaviour towards others.
On the whole though, Elsie loved learning and was offered a place at Benwell Secondary School, where she spent three years, before her family became the first tenants of 8 Holystone Crescent on the newly built High Heaton council estate and she transferred to the recently opened Heaton Secondary Schools.
Elsie was able to shine there and was in the first cohort to matriculate, obtaining the best results in the school, along with a special history prize. This was a prize fittingly donated by Heaton social campaigner, Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell.
‘The programme for the school opening ceremony had announced that ‘Mrs Harrison Bell has very kindly endowed a history prize in memory of her husband, the late Mr J N Bell, who was elected in 1922 Member of Parliament for the east division of the city. The prize will be awarded in the boys’ and the girls’ school in alternate years.’
Elsie also loved sport. She won ‘school colours in gymnastics, sports, lacrosse, rounders and netball’ and wrote in her autobiography about how her father, brother and herself were ‘mad about football’, and how all her life she was a passionate supporter of Newcastle United.
In January 1930, however, a shocking event took place in the family home, which was witnessed by 16 year old Elsie. Elsie’s brother in law, Leslie Aynsley, who had been living with the Humes since he married her older sister, Ethel, just a couple of months previously, attacked his young wife with a hammer one breakfast time and when John, her father, tried to intervene, he too was struck. It was Elsie who was next on the scene and summoned help. Aynsley said that he didn’t know what had come over him. Ten days later both Ethel and her father were still in hospital with severe head injuries.
At Aynsley’s trial, much was made in the press of the fact that the trial judge was Mrs Helena Normanton. She was the first women to take advantage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and join an institution of the legal profession and the second woman to be called to the bar. As such, even in the circumstances in which they came face to face, she might have been another inspiration to young Elsie, who gave evidence to the court that Aynsley looked ‘old and grey’.
Ethel Hume refused to testify against her husband and, under Normanton’s guidance, the jury sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment with the proviso that if he became insane during his time in jail, he could be removed to a lunatic asylum. Most of the press coverage, however, centred upon the judge’s appearance and novelty value, something that is alluded to in a recent biography of her.
The Humes continued to live at 8 Holystone Crescent for at least three years after this traumatic event but then moved to various other addresses in Heaton, including, from 1935-37, 64 Balmoral Terrace; 1938, 20 Cheltenham Terrace and, from 1939, 26 Balmoral Terrace.
But Elsie was now ready to spread her wings,
She left school with a treasured testimonial from Miss Cooper, headmistress of Heaton Secondary Schools’ girls’ school, which read:
‘Elsie Hume was always an exceptionally high-principled and conscientious student and was also a very keen athlete. She was Captain of the First Lacrosse and First Rounders Teams, and School Sports Captain in 1932. Elsie was always most public-spirited and energetic.’
Elsie* wrote later that she was inclined to join the civil service so that she could immediately start to earn money and to repay her family for the sacrifices they had made. Miss Cooper had other ideas and had not only decided she was university material but had persuaded Elsie’s parents too. Elsie went to Durham University’s Armstrong College (later Newcastle University), which she walked to every day from Heaton. She studied English and history and trained to be a teacher not, she later said, because she had a burning ambition to work in education but because she believed it was the only profession open to a girl from a poor background like hers, without the means to pay for further study.
It was at university that Elsie, to the surprise and even disappointment of her family, became a ‘born again Christian’ and then joined the Plymouth Brethren. She became clear about her future: she would teach for a few years to pay back her parents and those who had given her an education, then she would become a missionary and ‘spread my new-found happiness to others’.
Despite having to take a year off her studies when she nearly died following an operation for a gynaecological condition which eventually meant that she couldn’t have children, Elsie graduated in 1937 (and was in 1976 to be awarded an honorary doctorate in Civil Law jointly by the universities of Durham and Newcastle).
She had to look beyond Newcastle for a job teaching English and history and found one in an elementary school in Halifax, taking her away from home for the first time. She returned to Newcastle when war broke out.
Back home in Heaton, Elsie found a job teaching in Prudhoe and, when not working, she volunteered in civil defence. Her autobiography contains an emotional account of 25-26 April 1941 when 46 people were killed when high explosive devices and a parachute bomb exploded in the area of Heaton around Guildford Place and Cheltenham Terrace. The house (20 Cheltenham Terrace) where the Humes had lived only a couple of years before was badly damaged by the first bomb and two people who lived there were seriously injured.
Less than two weeks before, it had been announced in the newspapers that Elsie had successfully completed a certificate in home nursing and on this night, her newly acquired skills were used to the full. She helped a man who has been hurt by flying debris ‘His head had been split open on one side and his eyes were filled with pieces of glass’ and was about to walk him home.
Elsie spoke of meeting two brothers, fellow air raid wardens. They warned her and the injured man to return to an underground shelter as they believed more bombs would fall. The lenses had been blown out of the glasses of one of the brothers and they told her that their home had been hit. She later discovered that both of them were killed by a second bomb. They were almost certainly the Shaw brothers, Thomas and William, whose story has already been written about on this website by Ian Clough. Elsie also recalled the panic at a nearby dance hall (the one above the Co-op?) where her sister was caught in a stampede down the stairs, after the lights had gone out and the premises had been filled with soot and dust.
Elsie said that the impact of that night would never leave her and she spoke scathingly about politicians who approved the bombing of foreign parts and the killing of innocent people when they ‘have never known what it’s like to be on the receiving end’.
Later in the war, Elsie took up a post at Todd’s Nook School and then accompanied Newcastle schoolchildren who had been evacuated to Great Corby in Cumberland, a period of her early life which she remembered with great affection.
During this time, Elsie received a surprise marriage proposal from Bill Elliott, one of the Plymouth Brethren she had known in Halifax. He told her that he intended to go to China as a missionary, something he knew she was interested in. Elsie had grave doubts about his fundamentalist religious beliefs and rejected his offer. Two years later, he repeated it, telling her that he would become more liberal and, this time, Elsie, despite knowing that she was not in love with him, accepted his proposal. The couple were married in 1945, after which they lived and worked in Hull.
She soon realised that she had made a mistake. She found that, simply because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to take part in decision making or have an independent life outside work and she was restricted to friendships with those of the same faith and attitudes.
Nevertheless, in December 1947, the couple set off by boat to Shanghai and then travelled on to Nanchang in Jiangxi province where they were to stay for three years. Elsie soon became disillusioned with the racist and colonialist attitudes she believed the Christian groups in China exhibited but she enjoyed learning Mandarin and became interested in the country and its people.
However, when war broke out in Korea, the political situation in China became tense and missionaries were advised to leave. Elsie and Bill travelled to Hong Kong with the intention of moving on to Borneo. They found temporary accommodation in a small village near the airport called Kai Tek New Village, where their closest neighbours were refugees from Swatow (Shantou, China) living in a squatter village. She saw the many privations suffered by the people there, with skilled women working twelve hours a day doing embroidery for a pittance and their sick, ill-fed children packing matches or biscuits to enable their families to survive.
She and Bill set up a home clinic, using Elsie’s smattering of Chinese and the basic first aid she’d learnt as an air raid warden in Heaton. She, Bill and a Chinese colleague, Andrew Tu, also set up a school but Elsie was becoming unhappier still in her marriage and disillusioned with missionary life, which she now described as ‘arrogant racism’. She left the church and, when she returned to Hong Kong after a short break in Britain, her husband did not go back with her.
Elsie rented rooms in another squatter area while running a school for deprived children. At this time, she lived a extremely frugal lifestyle, taking on private teaching to subsidise the school while living in a small hut on the school site, spending and even eating as little as possible to enable the school to survive. It was during this time that she began to encounter corruption among the British police force and government and noted how British residents were treated much more favourably than the Chinese, particularly poor Chinese, and she began to help them in their dealings with the authorities.
In 1963, by which time Elsie and Andrew Tu had opened another three non-profit making schools at a time when there was still no universal free education in Hong Kong, Elsie was approached by the Reform Club, a quasi-political party loosely aligned with the British Liberal party, to stand for election to the Urban Council. It campaigned for a more democratic and just system of colonial government, causes close to her heart. This was a time when only rate-payers, property owners and certain professionals had the right to vote and, even then, they had a vote only for the Urban Council, which had comparatively few powers. The Legislative Council, the law-making body ‘offered no elected seats and was dominated by British officials and rich businessmen’. Elsie was elected to the council, fulfilling at the age of 51 her father’s ambition for her to become a politician.
Although the position on the council did not come with a salary, Elsie gave up her paid teaching. She continued to work at the school she ran with Andrew Tu by organising her timetable around the demands of the council and accepting only the bare minimum salary she needed to survive. It was only in the 1970s when councillors started to receive an allowance and government-subsidised free education was made available to all, that Elsie began to live more comfortably.
After her first term representing the Reform Club, Elsie successfully stood as an independent for 32 years. She fought the widespread corruption by pointing it out wherever she encountered it, to the departments concerned, the governor, the British government or the press. She later recalled how she wrote her first letter to a newspaper on the subject of free trade while still at school in Heaton. Her first letter to the ‘Guardian’, during her early days in Hong Kong, was about the long hours worked by Chinese people in Hong Kong. It was referred to by a British MP in the House of Commons, although he named the writer as Mr Elliott, and led to new employment legislation on the island. Elsie’s campaigning is also credited with the eventual establishment in Hong Kong of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1976.
Elsie held regular surgeries where she tried to help people with their battles against injustice and with all kinds of personal problems. Her brave (particularly because there were close connections between the police and organised crime, the triads) and tireless work on behalf of ordinary people made her increasingly popular. She fought against the exploitation of workers, child labour and for universal suffrage, gay rights, better housing and public transport, along with many other improvements in poor people’s lives.
One of the most famous cases associated with Elsie involved opposition in 1965 to price rises on the Star Ferry on which many working people relied. Via the newspapers, she canvassed public opinion, which was overwhelmingly against the increase both because it broke an agreement between the ferry company and the government and because it came at a time when people were facing particular economic hardship. Protests followed, illegal in Hong Kong at the time, which became known as the ‘Elsie Riots’. A number of young people were arrested for violence and it was alleged that they were acting under Elsie’s instructions, something she vehemently denied. It emerged later in court that the young people had been beaten up by the police and forced to sign statements saying that Elsie had paid them to throw stones. The following year, in the biggest ever turn out ever in the Urban Council elections, Elsie received over 80% of the vote.
Elsie worked with Andrew Tu from her earliest days in Hong Kong. He had arrived there fresh from university in Inner Mongolia, as a young, penniless migrant. They co-founded and ran schools for poor and refugee children and he ran her political campaigns, advised her and taught her Chinese. He also became a Samaritan and a campaigner on green issues and, like Elsie, became well known and respected in Hong Kong.
In 1963, when in London on business with the Samaritans, Andrew travelled to Newcastle to Elsie’s sister’s house to meet the Hume family. Despite the language barrier, they are said to have taken to him immediately and constantly asked why the couple weren’t married. Elsie always replied that they felt no need to but they finally did tie the knot on 13 June 1985, when Elsie was 72 years old.
In her autobiography, Elsie described how, after their marriage, the couple first visited Andrew’s family and friends in Inner Mongolia and then came to Newcastle to stay with her sister, Dorothy, and her husband. She describes visiting Whitley Bay in the fog, eating fish and chips on the prom, walking on the Roman Wall and going to Blanchland and Cragside.
In 1988, aged 76, Elsie was elected by the Urban Council as its representative on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or parliament. One of the successful battles she fought was for Chinese to be accepted as an official language of Hong Kong: she took on government departments which failed to provide Chinese translations and argued that court cases conducted in English disadvantaged local, Chinese speakers. She became increasingly accused by the establishment of being pro-Chinese and anti-British. However, she always claimed not to be connected to any political party and not to be a communist or for or against any country, but to be pro-democracy, pro-justice and anti-corruption: ‘I’m not for China, I’m not for Britain. I’ve always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice’.
She wasn’t defeated in an election until 1995, aged 83. Even after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, she continued to hold the government to account. In 2013, aged 99, she criticised the widening income disparity in Hong Kong, referring to ‘rich men who have no conscience’.
Elsie Tu died on 8 December 2015, aged 102. All three men who had held Hong Kong’s highest office, that of Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa (1997-2005), Donald Tsang (2005-2012) and Leung Chun-Ying ( 2012-2017) were pall-bearers at her funeral. The current incumbent, Carrie Lam, recalls taking part in actions led by Elsie from her university days. She described her as an exemplary champion of social justice, who commanded respect for her valiant words and deeds.
Perhaps the last word on Elsie should come from her obituary writer in the ‘Daily Telegraph’, not a paper known for its empathy with people who threaten the British establishment: ‘In truth, her politics were less coherent, and far less significant, than her burning concern for the poor and her fearlessness in challenging those she accused of exploiting them.’
Not only would her father, John, and old headteacher, Miss Cooper, have been proud, but so too would Helena Normanton, the ground-breaking judge before whom Elsie had given evidence as a teenager, and especially that other renowned Heaton campaigner and social reformer, Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, whose history prize Elsie had been presented with over eighty years before. Like her, Elsie didn’t only study history, she made it.
*We have referred to Elsie by her first name throughout this article to avoid any confusion caused by the three surnames she used at different stages of her life.
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group. Thank you to Tracey Cross, Elsie’s first cousin once removed, for bringing the achievements of Elsie Tu and her connection with Heaton to our attention; to Heidi Schultz, Executive Office Team Leader, Newcastle University for supplying Elsie’s honorary degree citation; to Ruth Sutherland, Northumbria University, for supplying newspaper articles about her.
‘Colonial Hong Kong in the Eyes of Elsie Tu’ / Elsie Tu; Hong Kong Press, 2003
‘Crusade for Justice’ / Elsie Elliott; Henemann Asia, 1981
‘Elsie Elliot Tu, Doctor of Social Sciences honoris causa’, the University of Hong Kong, 1988
‘Elsie Tu, activist – obituary; social campaigner in Hong Kong regarded as a potential troublemaker by the colonial authorities’ in ‘Daily Telegraph’, 15 December 2015
‘Elsie Tu Doctor in Civil Law honorary degree citation’ / Newcastle University, 1996
‘Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women’ / Judith Bourne; Waterside Press, 2017
‘Shouting at the Mountain: a Hong Kong story of love and commitment’ / Andrew and Elsie Tu, 2004
If you know more about Elsie Tu, particularly her Heaton connections, or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing email@example.com
You may be surprised to learn that Heaton Secondary Schools were officially opened by the Right Honourable Grey of Fallodon, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Surprised because a visit some weeks later by the King and Queen is often mistakenly referred to as the opening. Here’s what actually happened!
The schools. which had provision for 500 boys and 500 girls, were erected at a cost of £140,000 and claimed to be the most up to date and best equipped in the country. The opening ceremony on 18 September 1928 was big news and covered in newspapers from Aberdeen and Belfast to Gloucester and beyond.
The original plan, agreed before World War One, had been to build the school on 25 acres of land adjacent to Ravenswood Road but this project had to be shelved due to the war. Afterwards, a price could not be agreed with the landowner. Compulsory purchase was set in motion but eventually the council decided that this would mean unacceptably long delays so a site of equal size opposite the housing estate being built on the other side of Newton Road was negotiated.
The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School
The layout of the school was said to be reminiscent of a Cambridge college with the design of open loggias around a quadrangle.
Heaton Secondary Schools West Gateway
The classrooms were ‘of the open air type, with sliding partitions along the sunny side, the north side being used for science laboratories, gymnasiums etc.’
Heaton Secondary Schools’ ‘open-air classrooms’
There were two schools each with their own hall, dining room, library, labs, a commercial room, staff room and classrooms but the two halls were adjacent and so could be ‘thrown into one to form a great hall 80 feet long by 90 feet wide’. There was a craft room in the boys school and needlework and domestic science rooms in the girls’.
The first head teacher of Heaton Secondary School for Boys as it was first known was Mr F R Barnes, formerly of Barrow in Furness Secondary School for Boys. He started with a staff of 17 graduates and five specialists. Miss W M Cooper, formerly of Benwell Secondary School, had 13 graduates and four specialists working for her in the girls’ school, Heaton High School as it became known.
As for pupils, initially there would be 291 boys and 414 girls, 455 of which would be free scholarship holders. The remaining pupils were fee-paying. At the outset, their parents were charged £8 a year. The programme for the opening event announced that ‘Mrs Harrison Bell has very kindly endowed a history prize in memory of her husband, the late My J N Bell, who was elected in 1922 Member of Parliament for the east division of the city. The prize will be awarded in the boys’ and the girls’ school in alternate years.’
At the ceremony, there were prayers and songs including ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ and Northumbrian folk song ‘The Water of Tyne’ and lots of speeches, not only Viscount Grey’s but also those of numerous local politicians, including the Lord Mayor, and presentations by the architect, H T Wright, and the contractor, Stanley Miller.
Viscount Grey is better known as the politician, Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, the longest tenure ever. He is particularly remembered for the remark he is said to have made as he contemplated the enormity of the imminent World War One: ‘ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.’
In his speech in Heaton, Viscount Grey, a Liberal, said ‘The ideal system would be one in which the highest, most advanced and most expensive education was devoted solely to the youthful material of the country who were most capable by their abilities to profit from it. We have not reached that point today. A great deal of the highest and most expensive education in the country is given…. to <those> whose parents are able to pay for it… but… every school like that at Heaton is bringing higher education within the reach of those whose parents cannot pay for it. This is an advance towards a better system’.
And tackling another topic which has resonance today, the former tennis champion and keen fisherman and ornithologist spoke about the variety of entertainment available to young people, reminding the audience that in his day, there ‘was no electric light, no motor cars, no telephones, no wireless and no moving pictures’. But he reminded his young audience that the things which interested people most through life were those in which they took some active personal part. ‘Take part in games, rather than be mere spectators’ he urged. ‘It will give you more pleasure than all the other entertainments that come to you without trouble.’
For any locals lucky enough to have one, the whole ceremony was actually broadcast on the wireless from 3:00pm until 4:30pm. Radio station 5NO had been broadcasting from Newcastle since 1922 and its signals could reach up to about 20 miles. With broadcasting still in its infancy, many newspaper listings came with detailed technical instructions on what to do if the signal was lost: radio was still far from being a mass medium but it was catching on fast and those early local listings make fascinating reading. You can view them here.
Just over three weeks later, 23,000 pupils from all over Newcastle were invited to Heaton for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the school before the royal couple went on to open the new Tyne Bridge. And it’s this historic event which many people assume to have been the official opening. It was certainly a momentous occasion – and an excuse for more speeches!
King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928
‘Their majesties will drive round the school grounds where 23,000 children of the city will be assembled and on entering the school hall, the loyal address from the City of Newcastle will be presented by the Lord Mayor. Numerous public representatives will be presented to their Majesties, who will be asked to receive gifts from scholars.’
There were also displays of physical drills and country dancing by pupils.
Every school pupil present was given a commemorative booklet which included a photograph of the new school at the back but which was mainly about the opening of the new bridge.
‘To the boys and girls for whom these words are written, who have just begun their passage on the bridge of life, and who will go to and fro on the bridges of the Tyne, there is the lofty call to carry forward to future generations the progress which has brought them their own proud inheritance.’
A bouquet was said to have been presented to the Queen by the head girl and a book to the King by the head boy.
This made a lifelong impression on pupil Olive Renwick (nee Topping), who was 12 years old at the time, but at the age of 98 recalled;
We were all gathered in the hall and Miss Cooper, the head teacher, told us that the queen would be presented with a “bookie”. What on earth’s a bookie, I wondered. Only later did I realise she meant a bouquet!’
Olive (middle) & friends in Heaton High uniform, late 1920s
Again the event was broadcast on the wireless. A full day’s programming began at 10:50am with the ‘Arrival of the royal party at Heaton Secondary Schools’. And the excitement of arrival of the king and queen’s carriage pulled by four white ponies in front of thousands of handkerchief waving school children (along with hair raising footage of workers on the still incomplete Tyne Bridge) was captured on film by Pathe News.
And it shows a girl presenting a book (rather than ‘a bookie’) to the royal party. A last minute change of plan or an extra for the cameras?
After World War 2, the boys’ schools was renamed Heaton Grammar School and the girls’ Heaton High School. The two schools merged in September 1967 to form Heaton Comprehensive School. In 1983, this school merged with Manor Park School on Benton Road to form Heaton Manor. And in 2004, after the building of the new school on the Jesmond Park site, the Benton Park site closed to make way for housing.
The next instalment of ninety years of school history will have to wait for another day.
Can You Help?
If you have memories or photos of any of the above schools or know more about notable teachers or pupils, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Brian Hedley for a copy of the official opening programme and the family of Olive Renwick for the souvenir of the royal visit. Thank you also to Muriel La Tour (nee Abernethy) for correcting the subsequent names of the schools.
British Newspaper Archives
Heaton Secondary Schools: official opening Sept 18th 1928 programme
Visit of their majesties King George V and Queen Mary, October 1928 (souvenir booklet)