Dare to dream
Celebrating 125 years of Catholic education at Ursuline High Wimbledon
By Sister Una McCreesh OSU, Headteacher 1968-75
The story began in 1892 when four Ursuline sisters and two boarders left Upton, Forest Gate for a small house in Delamere Road, Wimbledon. It was Upton’s first Foundation, 30 years after their arrival in the country.
The Local community welcomed the sisters warmly and the school flourished, soon out growing it original premises. Within two years it had transferred to Claremont in the Downs, where today, very much enlarged it still thrives.
This year the school proudly celebrates 125 years of outstanding contribution to the education of girls, with a backward glance of gratitude for all that has been and a clear vision of all that can be. The theme throughout the celebrations has been Extraordinary Women, those that have been, those of today and those of tomorrow.
As part of that celebration Baroness Margaret McDonagh of Mitcham invited a group of people associated with the school to The River Room in the House of Lords from 6 – 8pm on January 26th. She certainly fitted the role of ‘extraordinary woman’, as general secretary of the Labour Party from 1998 – 2001, an entrepreneurial businesswoman of distinction and a lively and engaging communicator.
The reception was on the fourth floor of the Lords Tower, today fortunately approachable by lift. There were about 80 in the party representing the many facets of Ursuline High, education, community, clergy, governors, friends, staff past and present and Ursulines, as well as a good student representation from years 7-13.
Baroness Margaret by her welcome quickly put us all at ease and there was a general air of excitement and privilege at being there, especially when she presented a gift to specific people, of House of Lords Wine. The evening gave ample space for mingling, as we sipped wine, ate canapés, met new and familiar faces and caught up on the ever-changing world of education.
There were short but informative talks from key speakers associated with the school today. The year 12 choir entertained us with gospel music, the head and deputy head girl gave a well-researched speech on the present rating of women, clearly indicating they were well prepared to carry the mantle of tomorrow’s extraordinary women. Two year seven pupils who gave the vote of thanks were quite evidently not going to be left behind!
It was a pleasant and new experience for all of us. Baroness Margaret asked any who would like to see round the House of Lords to join her party. Although many had been on “official tours” before, this was certainly a tour like no other and was an unforgettable highlight to a very enjoyable evening.
With Margaret at the front and her PA bringing up the rear to make sure no one got lost or bored, we were taken on a personalised tour of a place someone knew and loved well. Key pictures were pointed out here, serious building problems there, and we were introduced in passing to many who were still working at 8pm as they went about their normal business, be they security, technicians, secretaries or parliamentarians. We were shown the arcane system of recording the Lords ‘Content and Not Content’ votes and the room where to this day a guard from the Palace is imprisoned as hostage at each state opening of Parliament to underscore the supremacy of Parliament where, even today, the Queen enters only with its say so.
Many of the places we went to (the House of Commons, Westminster Hall, the undercroft Chapel, the riverside view) had been seen before but never with this involvement. Sister Kathleen was invited to be Prime Minister for Question Time and we saw evidence that behind the bullish performances on TV there is nervous anxiety. The lower right hand corner of the dispatch box is completely worn away by nervous hands clutching its security! In Westminster Hall we stood on the exact spot where Thomas More was condemned. In the beautifully restored chapel, we saw the altar where MPs may be married and the font where their children can be baptised.
Our tour ended on a dramatic but particularly appropriate note for this celebration of 125 years of education for women. With difficulty, we managed to group ourselves on a narrow staircase near the chapel, then one at a time we entered a small broom cupboard adjacent to read a commemorative plaque on the back of the door placed there in 1990 by Tony Benn as a tribute to the courage and tenacity of women. It records that Emily Wilding Davison suffragette spent the night of April 2nd 1911 there in cramped and frozen conditions so that she could legitimately list her place of residence as the House of Commons on the census form!
The tour ended our memorable meeting well beyond our designated 8pm. I am very grateful to Baroness McDonagh for making us so welcome and for enabling us to see those who govern us as hardworking and purposeful people, many still occupied at 9pm with a sense of belonging and ease in the mother of all parliaments.