The five years I spent at the Sacred Heart, despite my unhappiness, were ones where I learnt a lot. Not all of it was good but there were some inspirational teachers, in particular Miss Elizabeth Hamilton who taught Latin and Greek. Originally I had been put in the “Domestic Science” stream but I wanted to learn science and my parents’ appeal on my behalf resulted in a somewhat ungracious response from Mother Davidson but I was nonetheless transferred and able to do Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
Compared to today’s school syllabus we had a very heavy academic load. English language and Literature were taught as two different subjects as were the three sciences. We also had History, Geography, Mathematics, Art, Domestic Science, Religious Studies, Music and French as core subjects. The higher stream, into which I had been put, also studied Latin from second year and German was an after school option as were the RADA and LAMDA examinations and studying a musical instrument.
This last was not an option for me as my appearances in the ordinary music lessons rapidly convinced Mr Buckley, the music teacher, that I had neither ear nor aptitude for anything musical and my only contribution was to put everyone else off because of my inability to carry a tune. Consequently I was offloaded onto Miss Hamilton for the forty minutes when music classes took place. The only time I was allowed to be in the music room was when the form was learning Schubert’s Erl-King. I was entranced by the eeriness of the music and pleaded to be allowed to stay and listen.
Other times with Miss Hamilton were very pleasant. She was a quietly spoken woman from Northern Ireland who had had a previous academic career as a university lecturer in Classics. She was very happy to supervise me as long as what I was doing was quiet and loosely connected with Latin. I remember one time spending the whole session drawing a horse (something I did frequently much to the wrath of other teachers) and labelling its “points” with their Latin names. Miss Hamilton admitted that I had even taught her something she didn’t know.
As a result of our enforced proximity we came to know each other as well as a teacher and her pupil could and discovered we were both ailurophiles, a word she delighted in teaching me! As I have written previously, my family have all been cat lovers and Miss Hamilton also came from a similar background.
The cat who was my companion all through my school years, Bobby, was a beautifully marked tabby and white cat who I entered in the “domestic” section at the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cat show at the Royal Horticultural Hall although I believe it is now held at Olympia. For me it was a great adventure as my parents would pay for a taxi each way from Golborne Road to Vincent Square S.W.1 as it would have been too difficult to carry Bobby in his cage all the way. One year he was champion senior domestic shorthair and by chance Miss Hamilton was at the show as the presentations were given out. In Bobby’s case an engraved silver cup. To celebrate our success she took me for afternoon tea at what seemed, and probably was, a very posh tea rooms with waitress service and tiered plates of crustless sandwiches, scones and dainties.
It was Miss Hamilton also who, the year the school went to Oberammergau but I was not allowed because Mother Davidson deemed I was unsuitable, brought me back from Austria a little carved wooden horse which I kept for many years until one of my dogs knocked it off the shelf and used it as a teething ring.
Miss Hamilton lived off Kensington Church Street, in a bijou little flat around the back of St. Mary Abbot’s church and on a couple of occasions invited me to partake of tea with her. What we talked of I cannot now recall but I suspect cats and other animals featured prominently.
I knew she had written her autobiography “A River full of Stars” and managed to obtain it though the library after I left school. It was a gentle narrative of life as a child in Northern Ireland at the turn of the C20th and detailed her conversion to Catholicism. It was only when I read her obituary, sent to me by my friend Elizabeth when I was living in New Zealand, that I realised what a truly remarkable woman she was. As well as having had a career as Classics lecturer and writing her autobiography she had also written several books on the mysticism of St Teresa of Avila, Charles de Foucauld and Cardinal Suenens.
She inspired in me a life long love of learning and an appreciation of dead languages and their influence on English. I will always be grateful to a lovely woman who recognised my unhappiness and was kind and gentle to me.