Marian Belcher – Second Head Mistress of Bedford High School
by Linda Ayres
In December 1882, and two months after the sad and sudden death of the first Head Mistress Ada McDowall (nee Benson), the Governors appointed Marian Belcher, portrayed as a ‘comfortable English woman in her lace cap, a burning, and shining light’.
Marian Belcher was born on 12th March 1849, at Great Farringdon, Berkshire. She was one of nine children born to Thomas Belcher, and his wife, Mary Anne. Her father was a grocer and spirit merchant who employed seven servants.
Marian Belcher was educated at Hillersdon House at Barnes, London, before going on to Cheltenham Ladies College. There she went from being a pupil teacher to an Assistant Mistress. In 1876, the College appointed her Vice Principal. She had taught under Dorothea Beale, who was a well-known suffragist, educational reformer, author, and the founder of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
In the book of ‘The Story of Bedford High School,’ by Mary Katherine Westaway, she writes, “I must own that there was rather a dread amongst us on the staff of anybody from Cheltenham, for some of us had known enthusiastic young people who talked of “College” and of Miss Beale without making we understand wherein her real greatness lay. But we were soon to learn, for Miss Belcher brought with her the true large spirit of that wonderful place.”
When Marian Belcher arrived at Bedford High School there were 46 pupils, and from that small beginning it had grown through her enthusiasm. Under her leadership the pupils enjoyed a liberal education. She believed that every girl should study a range of subjects before devoting herself to just one. Teaching was, to her mind, one of the noblest callings. “Not to be taken in hand lightly or unadvisedly in order to earn a living.”
In her need for progress she had taken up the entire building, which was at first shared between the Girls’ High School and Girls’ Modern School. A new Junior School was built and the Big Hall was made larger. The standards were good and a number of girls went to university. Some went on to become headmistresses and many took up missionary work overseas.
In 1898, pupils had risen to 579 and Marian Belcher had become one of the most successful Head Mistresses of any public school in England. Bedford High School stood second only to Cheltenham among the girls’ schools in England.
Marian Belcher was fond of travel and spent long holidays among the Swiss Highlands. It was while she was on her summer holiday that she fell ill. She died on the 15th December 1898.
The announcement signed by her sister, and attached beside the front door at their residence 9 Lansdowne Road, read: –
“Thursday morning. Miss Belcher entered into rest at 5.15 this morning. The passing was peaceful.”
On the day of the funeral the flags on St. Paul’s, as well as St. Peter’s and on the Modern School were at half-mast, as a token of respect, and St Paul’s bell tolled at intervals throughout the morning. At 7.30am, the coffin was taken to St Paul’s Church and placed before the side altar surrounded by lights. The high altar had a black frontal.
The funeral service started at half past two in the afternoon, but by 2 p.m. the church was crowded. Only those who held tickets had access to the main parts and hundreds had to be turned away to avoid too much crowding. The scene was moving in the midst of solemn silence. Pupils of the High School walked slowly to St. Paul’s, accompanied by the teaching staff and by several former mistresses. Two hundred of her old girls gathered from far and near.
When the cortege arrived at the Cemetery gates, it was met by the Guild of Old Pupils all in black, and each wearing white chrysanthemum. They lined either side of the pathway and joined the choir, preceded by the bearer of the processional cross.
A large crowd had gathered at the Cemetery near the chapel, long before the cortege arrived. People lined the route that it passed. The grave was in sight of the grave of Ada McDowall, just to the east of the chapel bordering the open space before the building. Members of the High School staff had lavishly lined the grave with white chrysanthemums, lilies of the valley, violets, moss and ivy leaves. A car stood beside it laden with many wreaths.
The Duchess of Bedford sent a lovely cross bearing the inscription, “In affectionate remembrance, from an old pupil.”
Entered into rest Dec 15, 1898
Aged 49 years
Grave Ref: E.85
In 1901, the first pupil received the Marian Belcher leaving Scholarship founded in her memory.
On Saturday 1st November 1902, (All Saints’ Day), pupils and teachers attended a memorial service in the Lady Chapel of St. Paul’s Church, Bedford, to dedicate the glass window placed in the sanctuary of the Chapel of the Holy Trinity to the memory of Marian Belcher.
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 1898 & 1901
The Story of Bedford High School K.M.Westaway
The Bedfordshire Mercury Friday November 7th 1902
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