A fountain is forever
Bessie Mitchell, MBE, foundation headmistress of Cheltenham Girls’High School, 1958-1972.
A fountain that adorns Cheltenham Girls’ High School likewise commemorates a towering giant in the school’s history. Miss Bessie Mitchell, MBE, was one for whom the cliché ‘legend in her own lifetime’ was entirely apt. She was already a well-known, influential and widely respected figure in educational circles at the time of her appointment as the founding principal (she preferred to be called ‘headmistress’) of only the second girls’ high school in Sydney’s northern suburbs (Hornsby GHS was the first, some thirty years earlier).
Bessie Mitchell was born in Enfield in 1906. Her father, George, was a butter merchant and storekeeper who had emigrated to Sydney on a sailing ship. Her mother, Helen Wilding, came to Sydney on the first steamship from Britain (with her sister who died of diphtheria and is buried at the Quarantine Station at North Head).
From the start young Bess was a brilliant student. She walked through the paddocks from her home at Enfield to Burwood Superior Public School, where she did well enough to win a bursary to Sydney Girls’ High School in 1919. Girls were selected by merit for Sydney GHS, then and now the premier girls’ high school in New South Wales. In her final year she won the Fairfax Prize, for the student who topped New South Wales in the Leaving Certificate. She gained the maximum of four first-class honours and two As – she could not have done better. It was the equivalent of a tertiary Entrance Rank of 100 in today’s system.
She studied languages at Sydney University, gaining a rare triple honours degree in French, German and – her favourite – Latin. She slept with Horace under her pillow, she told an interviewer in 1994. She did so well because ‘getting things wrong wasn’t in your nature’.
After teacher training (‘We were naughty. Treated it as a joke’), she was posted to Bathurst High School in 1928. Why did she not proceed to an academic or business career? In more recent times, a lucrative career in business or law would have been hers for the asking, but in the late 1920s, opportunities were much more restricted, even for a brilliant young woman like Bessie. Besides, she felt that teaching was ‘written in my book of life’. From Bathurst she went to Tamworth – ‘a very badly run school ... in those days I was sarcastic. You mustn’t do that as a teacher’.
Appointments to Maitland and Crown Street followed, and Bessie became known as one of the leaders of a group of language teachers pressing for reform of syllabuses which were in a rigid, highly academic straitjacket restricting students’ understanding. ‘We all got quite good jobs as a result.’ Another view was that Bessie Mitchell was ‘like the touch of garlic that made the whole dish work’. What an appropriate way to describe a French teacher!
Her firm, direct control of a class and her pragmatic concentration on outcomes in teaching also made her a fine committee Chair. She was the first woman president of the Secondary Teachers’ Association. She was also president for several years of the Girls’ Secondary Schools Sports Association. ‘It wasn’t because of my interest in sport, but because they needed some-one to run the meeting, otherwise the meeting would get out of hand. They made me a Life Member, and when I left, the man in charge tried to say what I had done, and I really hadn’t done anything, except that I kept the thing going and sane.’
Bessie brought the same self-effacing, no nonsense approach to school administration. She was Deputy Principal of Marrickville GHS and then Sydney GHS before her appointment to Cheltenham as Principal. ‘I was never interested in school administration [but] I had to administer. Administration is something to make the work easier. You have to make administration painless. It doesn’t need to be the be all and all.’ In 1958, the year she commenced Cheltenham GHS, Bessie was one of a very select group of 50 eminent educators invited from around Australia to the Founders’ Convention of the Australian College of Education, destined to become the nation’s leading professional organisation of educators. Her selection as one of the College’s Founders is a mark of the esteem in which she was held. She later became Vice-Chair of the College, and was given the high distinction of appointment to its Fellowship – FACE. She also received the honour of MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire.
In her fifteen years as headmistress (‘I never thought I would eventually become a head’), that esteem grew to legendary status. The very high expectations that Bessie had of herself as student and teacher were imprinted on the life of the school. Another cliché applies: she ran a tight ship. She was good at detail, and would stand at the school gate inspecting the girls as they passed through. Woe betide any girl whose uniform did not meet the headmistress’s expectations. Pat Wallace recalled last November, ‘I held a teaching position at Cheltenham, teaching French, German and Indonesian. Despite many changes … I really always felt the presence of Bessie around the school, still manifested most obviously of course by the colour of the school uniform, referred to by the girls as “musk stick pink” and on which Miss Mitchell, as foundation Principal, had been adamant.’
It was Bessie who began another abiding tradition, the singing of the Alleluia Chorus at the school’s annual Presentation Day, arguably Sydney’s greatest sea of pink gathered together in one place. However, Bessie’s most important impact was the unwavering expectation – demand – that each girl would do her best, because of her belief in her own potential and her determination to achieve it. That legacy has given Cheltenham Girls’ High School a sustained academic excellence not surpassed by any other non-selective school. In practical terms, for fifty years it has given the girls a powerful start in adult life that has helped many to become high achievers.
Bessie Mitchell died, aged 92, in 1998, but her fountain continues to flow – an unfailing spring of fresh water.
References: Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 1998; interview by Tony Ryan, 7 December 1994, for the Australian College of Education, in the Oral History Collection of the National Library of Australia, TRC 3291/0006/0002.