My remarkable aunts

Black and white photo of a group of girls with an athletic shield, 1920.
Girls’ athletic shield, 1920. Florence Rourke, one of Vivienne Griffiths’ remarkable aunts, was a teacher at Michael Faraday School in Walworth (family collection)

I have always maintained the importance of aunts”, wrote Jane Austen to her niece in 1815. I had two remarkable aunts who were important in my life in very different ways.

Florence Rourke, dedicated teacher

My great aunt, Florence Rourke, was a primary teacher for over 40 years, part of a strong tradition of teaching on my father’s side which goes back three generations. When I was still in my pram, she taught my older sister to read and write (at the age of four) and inspired a love of poetry by reading her poems like Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’. I remember her as a lovely old lady who would always have interesting games and activities for my sister and me to enjoy at ‘Miss Brown’s School’, as she called it, when we visited her. After she died, the family inherited a suitcase full of her books and teaching materials, and we gradually pieced together the importance of what she had achieved.

Black and white photo of Florence Rourke and staff of Ilderton Road School, c.1930
Florence Rourke (third on right in front row) and staff of Ilderton Road School, c.1930 family collection)

Florence trained at the Home and Colonial training college in London, gaining her teaching certificate with high marks in 1899. From there, she went on to teach at Michael Faraday School in Walworth. Old photographs show drama and dance events that she helped to organise. In the 1920s Florence became headteacher of Ilderton Road School in Bermondsey and worked there for over 20 years. She inspired great loyalty in her teachers, who kept in touch for many years after her retirement. It is clear from some of her old lesson plans that she used imaginative approaches to teaching which were ahead of their time. She also organised school trips to the seaside at a time when children in poorer parts of London rarely left the city. We have her record of a visit to Broadstairs in 1926; pupils were asked to bring a spare pair of underwear and stout shoes.

Black and white photo of Florence Rourke, 1920
Florence Rourke, 1920 (family collection)

Aunty Wadda, as we called her, was a lovely, warm person and taught us a lot as children, even though we only knew her in old age. She was a modest and non-judgmental woman who never married (married women were not employed as teachers) but dedicated her life to teaching – a great role model to emulate. Perhaps not surprisingly, I followed in her footsteps when I became a teacher myself years later.

Kay Williams, an alternative pioneer

As a small child, I regarded my Aunty Kay with a mixture of awe, admiration and curiosity. First impressions were of a statuesque woman, rather forbidding in appearance and manner. She and my uncle (my mother’s brother) had no children, but almost always owned a dog and cats, on whom they doted. Living in the next road from us in Wimbledon, I spent quite a bit of time at their house.

Black and white photo of Kay Williams in a deckchair at the beach, with dog Jenny looking out from under the chair.
A rare photo of Kay Williams and dog Jenny (family collection)

There were many things that set Kay apart from what was regarded as conventional in 1950s Britain. The most obvious difference was that she and my uncle were vegetarian, which was still regarded as ‘cranky’ at that time. Unlike my own home, which had a regular timetable of meat dishes, Kay’s house was meat-free and always seemed more exotic. If you went round for tea, you would be served lapsang souchong in delicate cups with Japanese designs. There was always the smell of freshly baked wholemeal bread and, if you were lucky, you would be offered a slice straight out of the Aga, spread with honey or homemade jam. Although not a direct reason for my becoming vegetarian at the age of 20, Kay was certainly an inspiration for my choice.

Kay also introduced me to Margaret Morris movement. Margaret Morris was a pupil of Isadora Duncan, and her style of movement, created in 1910, consisted of a mix of eurythmics, free dance and positions based on Greek statues, all done barefooted. Kay was very advanced in the MMM, as it was known, and wore a crimson tunic – homemade of course – to denote that she was at the highest level. Most other girls my age (seven or eight) were learning ballet. My sister and I followed our aunt’s example instead: we started MMM classes and went to MMM summer schools, where we danced outside among the thistles. I was very proud to be involved with this ‘modern’ dancing, and it started an interest in contemporary dance which has lasted until today.

Three barefoot women in dance outfits, leaping in the air with arms outstretched.
Margaret Morris movement (RBKC library via Pinterest)

Later on, Kay became a fervent follower of Krishnamurti, a philosophical teacher who had been brought to England from India by Annie Besant. By this time I was in my late teens, and I accompanied Kay and my uncle on several occasions to hear Krishnamurti speak at the international school he established in Brockwood Park. Hearing him talk was a memorable experience, which I think indirectly led to my lifelong practice of yoga, and these outings were an important part of my growing independence. Similarly, my sister went to a Young Theosophists camping holiday because of Kay’s interest in theosophy. With hindsight, Kay had a profound influence on my life in several ways, even though she was not what you would call a typical aunt.

I owe both of my remarkable aunts a great deal and feel very lucky to have known them.

This is the second article in our series to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March. The series includes reports on women’s issues, personal stories, thought pieces and more. Look out for a new article every day over the coming days.

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