Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Nott Sisters - British poets and schoolteachers

Mary Telfair Nott 1858 - 1947
Jane Protheroe Nott 1859 - 1944
Martha Lucy Nott 1873 - 1946

Phil Dawes - a local historian and researcher - has been extremely supportive of this commemorative project.  Phil very kindly sent me this article about the three Nott sisters, one of whom - Jane Prothero Nott - is mentioned in Catherine W. Reilly's "English Poetry of the First World War A Bibliography" (published by St. Martin's Press, New York, 1978 - p. 239).  Many thanks indeed Phil.

Three spinster sisters, all teachers, set up a private school in Bristol in 1893. They called it Felixstowe Girls School. The school expanded and moved to new premises several times, always keeping the same name. Mary Telfair Nott was the eldest and the other two were Jane Protheroe Nott and Martha Lucy Nott.  Martha Lucy called herself 'Marlu' even on the 1911 census when she was joint-Head, which explains why she was difficult to track down.  The father of the family, Robert Nott, started work as a Railway Cashier who worked his way up to the senior position of Railway Accountant.

In 1871 and 1881 the family was living at 29 Portland Square, St. Paul, Bristol. The parents were Robert and Emma Nott and they had six children: William, Emma, Mary, Jane, Robert and Thomas. A nephew was also living with them in 1881 and one servant was in residence.  Thomas Nott died in 1879 when he was sixteen.  Martha Lucy was the seventh and final child born in 1873. She must have come as a great surprise to her parents, being born 10 years after the 'last' child, Thomas.  Her mother Emma Nott nee Protheroe was about 44 years old when Marlu was born.  

The Nott girls had a Governess when young so were home-educated initially. Jane later attended Bristol School of Science and Arts where she won, among other things, a geometry prize. Marlu attended Redland High School and she won prizes in English, French and Arithmetic.  In 1891 the family was living at 51 Apsley Road, Clifton. William and Emma had left home by this time. Emma had married Ivie Mackie Dunlop, a local businessman and wine merchant.  Mary, Jane, Robert and Martha were still living with their parents. There were two live-in servants.

After leaving school, Martha Lucy started work as a music teacher and by 1893 the three unmarried Nott sisters were all teaching and they combined resources and started their own school. Their parents were living with them and one could speculate that father Robert did the accounts and mother Emma helped with the domestic arrangements.  Martha Lucy passed a Cambridge Higher Local Examination in 1895. By 1901 the school premises were at 6, Downside Road. A young governess/teacher had been employed and there were three servants living-in. At that time there were only 8 boarders. The school expanded and moved to new premises in Upper Belgrave Road, Clifton. In 1911, by which time both parents had died, there were 41 boarders including several children born in India to expat families. There were four additional teachers, three of whom were of French origin, so we can safely assume that French language and culture were important subjects.

In addition to teaching, Martha Lucy and Jane P. Nott were both published writers. Marlu usually published under the name M. L. Nott but it appears that her pen name, used sometimes, was Mary Lancaster Nott. 

In 1908, thanks to a Royal visit and tour of Bristol we find out the school motto. A reporter went round town recording the residents' efforts at decoration and he noted the school's motto in floral work which was the surprisingly whimsical: 'Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace'. No doubt all the sisters had approved this motto but it was probably Marlu's idea. In the same year she published a series of tracts with equally whimsical titles including: 'With the Dagger and the Flowers', ‘Our earthly strongest power', ‘The Roses were too weak the Battle to win'.  

All this ‘whimsy’ must have been intended to stimulate the girls' creativity and it probably reflects the spiritual side of the Arts and Crafts Movement which Jane would undoubtedly have met at Art School. We can see from photos of the period (kindly supplied by Anthony Richards) that the school was elegantly furnished and that the girls looked happy, well-fed and well-dressed.  Evidence shows that the girls followed a liberal curriculum which included French, Music, Drama, Gardening, Horse-riding, Swimming, Hockey and Tennis. The Nott sisters couldn't afford to be slack on standards in English and Mathematics, as there were many rival private schools in the area and competition for pupils was fierce.

Pre-World War I Bristol was a hot bed of the suffrage movement with several branches operating there, including all-male groups.  Numerous 'stunts' were carried out and there was some vandalism by both pro- and anti-suffrage supporters.  One wonders what line the Nott sisters took with their young charges but it seems very likely that women’s rights would have been discussed if not overtly supported by the establishment.   

The school continued to operate in WWI but it must have been a difficult time with food shortages and men away fighting including the relatives of some of the girls. The Nott sisters' own two surviving brothers would have been too old to fight. There were also blackouts to contend with as the armaments factories around Bristol were thought likely to be at risk from Zeppelin bombing raids.

In 1914 Miss Mary Nott produced her own adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  Martha Lucy, writing as M. L. Nott undertook some war time 'good works'. She wrote the music for a children's song in 1914 and she wrote a short piece called 'Peace! Justice! Liberty!’  She was the editor of two war time anthologies. The first was a book to raise money for war horses entitled ‘The Fund for Wounded Horses at the Front’. She collaborated with Sir Henry Newbolt on this project and other contributors included such eminent persons as G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling and Harold Begbie. The war horse book had its cover sketched by a New Zealand soldier, Private W. F. Bell, and a copy was sent to the mayor of his home town Dunedin.  It is likely that the Nott sisters had met Private Bell and noted his artistic talents during visits to one of several local war hospitals.

The second anthology was a collaboration in aid of ‘Comforts for Soldiers’. The school girls would certainly have been encouraged to do knitting and sewing for the soldiers – it was an almost universal activity at the time. The older Nott sisters probably had a good grounding in sewing as their grandmother had been a dressmaker and had helped to look after them when they were children.

Jane Prothero Nott had a poem published in 1917 in the “Poetry Review” Vol. 8, alongside the work of better known poets Teresa Hooley and Eleanor Norton. After the war Jane continued writing and she also contributed to the ‘Winter Talks’ programmes at the Central Library.  She published 'A Little Book of Verse' (Erskine Macdonald, London, 1921) and had poems included in 'The New Spirit in Verse', in 1922.  In 1925 Jane was one of only a handful of British writers to have a poem accepted for an Edgar Allen Poe competition in New York.  Two of her poems: 'In Saxon England' and 'At Paddington' were included in the County Series of Contemporary Poetry, 1927.  

In 1930 the Nott sisters retired and the school was taken over by a progressive establishment which had originally started life as a Plymouth Brethren school. It continued as a school until 1940 when the front of the Felixstowe school building suffered bomb damage and was declared unsafe.  Teachers and pupils moved out and ended up in Newport for the duration of the war.

The Nott sisters’ final move was to ‘Penleigh’, 47, Canynge Road, where they lived together until their deaths which took place over the period of 1944 to 1947. They all left wills and, as they had no children of their own, the beneficiaries probably included each other and their two nieces, daughters of their older sister Emma Dunlop. Jane died in November 1944 aged 85 and her estate included the sum of £13,458 gross.  Martha Lucy died in February 1946 and her solicitor’s press notice, requesting any claims against the estate, described her as: 'known as Marlu'.  

Mary was the last to die - in March 1947.  She left the then large sum of £27,607 gross. The house, which had central heating, maids’ quarters and a large garden, was sold off. Her effects were auctioned in May 1947. In addition to the usual furniture and ornaments there were several violins, a harmonium and a 1934 sixteen horse power Morris Saloon. It would appear that Miss Mary Nott was still in the driving seat until she was 88.

Phil Dawes. Updated December 2015 with additions and photos provide by Anthony Richards.