Site map
The Books
A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Margaret Corbett - Preston school headmistress
Margaret Corbett (nee Edgar) exercised a significant influence on the development of Preston’s children in the first half of the twentieth century as she was head mistress of Preston School during two stints: 1913 - 1922 and 1938 -1945. She was also prominent in local Women’s Institute activities, being one of the founder members of the Preston and Langley branch.
Margaret Edgar was born on 29 September 1885 in the industrial Lancashire town of Warrington, which sits on a bank of the River Mersey. Her father, Peter Edgar, was a solicitors’ clerk and grocer. The 1901 census revealed her future career path as she was described as a ‘pupil teacher’. Then, in the early months of 1910, when Margaret was twenty-five, both of her parents died in quick succession:
The devotion of both of Margaret’s parents to their Christian faith is clear, and her mother’s interest in teaching and her father’s organ playing should also be noted. Earlier, in 1906, Margaret achieved the joint highest prize in all subjects at Warrington Training College, excelling in enclid (ie maths), literature, geography and history. The 1911 census recorded Margaret as visiting her older brother, Charles Edgar, who was a journalist living at Chelsea. She was now a qualified teacher and apparently accompanied by another elementary school teacher, Ernest Oliver Corbett (who evidently preferred to be known as Oliver):
It transpired that Margaret and Ernest attended St Annes School, Warrington in 1901 and local Technical Institute and Pupil Teacher classes in 1903, attaining prizes in the same subjects:
Margaret and Ernest married at St Anns, Warrington on 21 August 1911. On 7 July 1913, Margaret began her first term of office as Head Mistress of Preston School, proudly writing in the School Log Book:
Margaret was headmistress for the next nine years, overseeing the education of all those passing through Preston School during the turbulence of World War 1 and its aftermath. The first school report following her appointment, in 1914, noted that ‘despite disadvantageous circumstances…the result of the examination was distinctly good and reflects much credit on the staff’. In March 1915, she dealt with the intake of nine Belgian refugee children and in 1917 found the time to deal with my eleven-year-old father:
Then, on 1 March 1918, Margaret noted that she had been given a grant of absence for a month or two. The reason quickly became obvious when the birth of her son, Oliver Robert Corbett, was recorded on 21 March 1918. This is an apt moment to digress from school matters, to home affairs. In the spring of 1919, Margaret and Ernest were living at Crunnells Green (in one of two newly-built semi-detached cottages on the south-eastern side, shown below) with Ernest and Ethel Payne as their immediate neighbours. By the autumn of 1920, the Corbetts had taken over the whole cottage and Ernest had already begun to farm poultry (maybe as early as 1919). This advertisement was placed in October 1920:
However, in August of that year, it appears that he left this job because a new assistant was appointed and Ernest was thanked for his ‘excellent services’. He had earlier clashed with the new appointee on the subject of teachers’ salaries. In the meantime, Margaret had expressed her interest in the Women’s Institute. Mrs Maybrick, in her Scrapbook noted, ‘The Preston and Langley Institute was formed at an open meeting in the Preston Club Room on January 3rd 1919. At the first monthly meeting, on January 8th, thirty seven members were enrolled, of these, three are still members in 1953, Mrs. Worthington, Mrs. H. Peters and Mrs. (Margaret) Corbett.’ After her son, Oliver’s, birth, Margaret resumed work later than anticipated on 5 June 1918. Then, on 25 July, she granted my father time away from school (these details are included because they illustrate and confirm her interaction with all the children in her care):
Since around September 1917, Ernest had been assistant overseer and clerk to St Ippollitts’ Parish Council. The following announcement was made in April 1919:
The ‘flu pandemic hit the area in November 1918:
On 30 April 1919, Margaret wrote:
She was back in school on 7 September 1919, but was then frequently absent from school due to illness. This was a hectic time in Margaret’s life juggling her work as head mistress, WI activities, a newly-born baby and a large back-yard of chickens (it was also later revealed that her husband was suffering from TB). It emerged that Margaret had given birth to a second son, Peter Edgar Corbett, on 19 June 1920 which was a further drain on her energies. In addition to this load, another potential complication was arrival at Preston of her brother in-law and his family and his taking over a business with which he had little if any experience. These circumstances created a perfect storm of stress for her. In July 1921, she was ‘ordered away by her doctor for two months for complete rest and change’. The census found Margaret and Peter living with her sister Jane Ellen and her husband, farmer Reuben Higham at Grappenhall, near Warrington. In December 1921, it was reported that she had gone to St Bartholomew’s (in London) ‘for treatment as a result of heavy strain and over pressure’. The Log Book entry, 2 June 1922:
In August 1922 it was revealed that, ‘(Mrs Corbett’s) health gives no hope of her being able to resume her duties..(she had been) so capable and faithful a head mistress’. Inevitably, on 12 September 1922, a new head mistress, Miss Deed was appointed. The electoral registers show Ernest and Margaret at Crunnells Green Cottage without a break from the spring of 1919 until the autumn of 1924 and Robert and Florence Corbett residing at one of the new bungalows built by Douglas Vickers at School Lane between the springs of 1921 and 1922. One somewhat odd fact is that in the 1921 census Ernest is shown as living at Crunnells Green with his son, Oliver, and having a servant, May Jenkins (18, daughter of Ernest and Lizzie Jenkins and my first cousin once removed). Perhaps she was to help with his son, Oliver - or maybe, Ernest was ill. What is certain is that both Corbett brothers had given up poultry farming by the end of 1923 - Robert returned to Warrington at the end of March 1922 and Margaret accepted a new position as head mistress of Gravenhurst School, Beds (shown below) in April 1923. The last note of Ernest’s occupying Crunnells Green Cottage was in the electoral register of the autumn of 1924.
There are several newspaper references to Margaret at Gravenhurst: her school activity, her WI involvement, playing the organ at village funerals and her work on the Rural District Council. So when she left, to return to Preston in the summer of 1938, she was remembered for her community work with affection:
Entry in Preston School Log Book, 20 October 1938:
There was just enough time for her to re-acquaint herself with Preston school and her pupils before the fragile world peace was shattered once again. Margaret wrote in the Log Book on 4 September 1939 (with perhaps a feeling of deja vu), ‘School should have re-opened today but war having begun, I have closed school until further orders’. On 9 September, a shift system was introduced at the school to instruct both local children and evacuees who had already been sent to Preston and who were living at Princess Helena College. Then, on 29 November, there was a note that she was going into hospital for an operation. She returned to her school duties on 5 February 1940. On 20 May 1940, there was a major change at Preston School. Margaret noted that some of the senior pupils had gone to Hitchin and that ‘the school thus becomes a junior school’.
Her address was given as 15 Stevenage Road, Hitchin in 1939, having her youngest son for company.
Life at school continued to adapt to the war-time situation. Margaret took pupils to local places of historical interest such as Minsden Chapel and Bunyan’s Dell and Cottage, Wain Wood. She also attended occasional WI conventions and conferences. A school report found it to be ‘..a very pleasant school to visit..the infants being cared for with affection…(and) a very genial response from juniors’. WW2 ended in the summer of 1945. Margaret’s tenure at Preston School ended shortly afterwards. Apart from a recent visit to an optician, there had been no hint that she would step down, but resign she did (aged sixty) on 14 December 1945:
Right, Margaret’s home at 15 Stevenage Road which is close to the roundabout that links Preston and Gosmore to Hitchin. Margaret died at 10 Winwick Road, Warrington, which in 1939 had been the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Fanny and Reuben Higham.
Though now retired, Margaret continued with her support of the Women’s Institute, but ill health forced he to relinquish her position of Group Leader in February 1954.
February 1954
May 1954
May 1953
Margaret made an immediate impact on the performance of her new school. In 1925, a school report stated, “This school, which had greatly deteriorated before the present Head Teacher came, is making very good progress. There is now a pleasing tone, and the teaching is thorough.” Ernest then died on 1 May 1926 at Gravenhurst. That he made a will suggests that his demise was not unexpected.
The circumstances of his death confirmed the suggestions in this article (which was written before its receipt). Ernest died from phthisis pulmonalis (TB) from which he had suffered for sixteen years, or from 1910, which was before he married Margaret.. His occupation was given as ‘poultry farmer’ (which may have been a reference to his past work). His sister, Ada L Tutt, informed the registrar. With hindsight, it was perhaps an unwise move for someone with phthisis pulmonalis and its associated respiratory problems to become involved with keeping hens. There would have been bacteria, fungi, spores, toxins and allergens in the farm’s organic and inorganic dust, odorous compounds from hen droppings, feed, skin and feathers. As a result, respiratory disease is common in poultry farmers. Ernest was dead within a few years of quitting the farm.
(I am grateful to Michael Oxley for allowing me to use his photograph of Margaret’s grave at Warrington Cemetery)
The mistresses and pupils of Preston School circa 1917. Margaret Corbett is standing with Rose Barker behind her in the entrance to the school.