In the 1920s, Miss Marguerite Hoe (also known as Mrs Margery Matthews), a trained elocution teacher, set up a small school for 5 to 8 year olds in her house at 90 Croxted Road. She dispensed Victorian governess education to twelve children who sat at tables in front of a large coal fire in the front room. With her piercing green eyes and strongly modulated voice, combined with eccentric 1920s dresses, long chains of beads and plaited earphones hairdo, she apparently exerted an iron control over both pupils and parents.
A former pupil from the 1950s has never forgotten the morning rituals – “Miss Hoe at the door to greet the children with Mrs Robertson, dressed in formal maid’s uniform including white starched cap, always smiling, never speaking and always there to hand out milk and mop up accidents (use of the outside lavatory was not encouraged and normally we would wait cross legged until we got home). After the Register came the morning catechism – we quickly learnt to smile and blithely fib – “Hot Water” (we raised our hands – yes we had all drunk half a pint of hot water before breakfast, a 19th century form of colonic irrigation which our parents in private forbade, preferring us to eat porridge, but told us to pretend that we had taken) – “Beds” (yes we had stripped and made our own beds) – “Dusting” (oh yes we had dusted our rooms before school) -“Handkerchiefs” (we waved them, they were often needed). “Reports” - this was bad news – parents had to write a behaviour report every Sunday evening in a little Blue Notebook; this was handed over fearfully to Miss Hoe on Monday morning and she would write a response report to take home the next day. No school report in my subsequent education could aspire to such awfulness! My father used to make some of it up to fill the space. Another pupil who was there in the early 1940s remembers it as a black book and still has his copy to prove it - perhaps the colour changed in the 50s.
After the introductory morning rites the children would move to the drawing room where Miss Hoe’s forceful piano playing led them in “There is a Green Hill Far Away” and other such hymns, then a quick prayer for the needy and it was back to the schoolroom for sums. “We learnt every table from pounds and ounces to rods and perches. We learnt all our multiplication tables backwards before the age of six. We did long division that stretched the entire length of a page. With nib pens we were taught complex decorative copperplate handwriting that a Dickensian clerk would have yearned over, and above all we learnt poetry, not Shakespeare or Milton but fey rhymes about pixies and hedgehogs” Another pupil even remembers one after nearly 75 years:
“The Sponge is not as you suppose a funny kind of weed but an animal like you and me.”
“The whimsical aura included the garden where we sat in summer – either in Chatterbox Corner (old logs) or under Friar Tuck (an elderly pear tree), every bush or plant named as a fairy character. Comically the train to Victoria (including the Golden Arrow) steamed past every twenty minutes – we were disciplined to freeze solemnly in motionless silence until the train had gone and then continue as if nothing had happened.”
Miss Hoe was devoted to A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh. When Milne became ill she took the head girl (aged seven), and her dutiful mother, to Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly to assemble a present for him. She insisted that the Food Hall break up boxed sets of little honey pots to extract only the blue pots because that was her and A A Milne’s favourite colour. The manager was called and “Miss Hoe in full ‘Hoe-flow’ proclaimed her mission, the manager quailed and twelve blue pots, one from each Little Twelve pupil, were repacked and sent to a doubtless bemused A. A. Milne- he wrote a very heartfelt thank you letter.”
A parent whose daughter went to the school just before it closed in the mid-sixties also remembers it fondly: “I heard about the little school and visited it, and Miss Hoe, in August 1965, liking the idea of a gentle introduction to the wider world of mass education. Our daughter, then aged four and a half, joined it in September, and enjoyed it. The weekly “reports” were still a feature and we parents quickly learned to make such reports positive in nature yet credible. Lessons included memorising tables of numbers and spelling which our daughter has found were useful in later life! Sad to say, Miss Hoe was not free of favouritism––there was one little girl who was particularly targeted for fidgeting. As our daughter was one of the youngest, she may have been a bit of a pet.”
In February 1966, Miss Hoe fell ill with influenza – though she had a locum who kept the school going. She sent out a letter to say that unfortunately, the school would have to close down, due to the state of her health although she must have recovered enough to give a final Christmas party for her pupils in December 1966.
Today’s Ofsted would probably have been horrified by the discipline and astonished by the educational achievement.