Sunday, 3 November 2013

People from the Past 8: Joan Bannister (1909-1991)

Much-loved Budleigh Salterton teacher Joan Bannister in her eighties, with one of her pupils in the Linhay classroom at Fairlynch

Joan Bannister must surely hold the record as Budleigh Salterton’s longest-serving teacher. She finally retired at the age of 82, having taught in the town since 1931 when she moved from London with her parents. 

From her earliest years, she had always wanted to teach young children.  “As a child in my parents' home, I used to arrange my dolls on the staircase and pretend they were my class,” she recalled.

She herself was educated at Badminton School, Gloucestershire, pictured above. The school was noted at the time for its progressive ideas under the headship of Beatrice May Baker (1876-1973).

Above: Beatrice May Baker, headmistress of Badminton School, flanked by, left, Miss Webb-Johnson and Miss Rendall, with Major. The photo, captioned 'The Powers', is from the late 1930s or early 1940s. Miss Webb-Johnson and Miss Rendall were described as Miss Baker's "staunch allies and supporters." They formed, it was said, "a formidable team." Three of the Houses at Badminton School are named after them. Image courtesy of Cristobel Thomas,
Hon Archivist Old Badmintonians

A lifelong spinster, ‘BMB’ as she was known, ran her school on autocratic lines but she was
far from conventional, being a committed socialist, pacifist, feminist and vegetarian. A passionate supporter of the League of Nations she was keen to welcome foreign pupils: the school became a haven for German Jewish refugee girls in the pre-World War Two days.


Maria Montessori, photographed in 1913

Joan Bannister’s own career in education 
began in 1928 when she went to London to attend a Montessori training course for intending nursery teachers. The writings of the Italian Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952) had been translated into English in 1912 and had held her first training course in Britain in September 1919. It had proved wildly popular: 2,000 aspiring nursery teachers had applied for places limited to 250. Montessori training courses took place in this country every other year, and the first AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) centre was set up in Hampstead in 1929.   

The liberal influence of Badminton must surely have played a part in her choice: the method pioneered by the Italian  of educating young children in a way that stresses the 
development of a child's own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play, was controversial and regarded with suspicion by many educationists.  But it clearly appealed to the young Miss Bannister. “I went to schools all over London to learn and observe,” she recalled. “Dr Montessori spoke to us only in Italian and everything had to be translated!” And Maria Montessori’s view that “Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the 
work of education” must have appealed to  ‘BMB.’  

In January 1931, her training finished, she took a post for two terms at Ingleside House - now Ingleside Court - in Upper West Terrace, Budleigh. It was mainly a girls' boarding school, but it also had a small mixed kindergarten where she taught.  This school closed when Miss Fradd, the principal, moved to Tiverton.

“Later that year, in September, someone suggested that I should take a room at the Church Institute - where Green Mews now stands - and start my own school,” she said. 

She began with seven or eight young children but with the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 the numbers increased to about 26 pupils. “Many of them had come to Budleigh Salterton to stay with aunts and grannies until war was over,” she explained.  

At one stage during the war Joan Bannister and her pupils spent a term at her parents’ home, ‘Broomleas’ in Victoria Place, but they returned to the Church Institute in January 1940, remaining there until 1979 when the building was demolished and replaced by flats.

Another temporary move came when for a few months the school took over Braemoray House seen here in the leafy surroundings of Ting Tong, a few miles west of Budleigh.

Joan Bannister’s close association with Fairlynch came when she moved her school with its 15 pupils to the Linhay in September 1979.  The building had been developed as a Conservation Room next to the Museum; it had been used as a museum shop during the summer but had proved to be financially unsatisfactory.

For twelve years Fairlynch and the school enjoyed each other’s company. Priscilla Hull, as Chairman of the Museum, reported to the Friends of Fairlynch in January 1980 that the school “had been of great assistance financially.” And there were even pleasanter aspects of the relationship.
“We will always remember hearing the children playing outside the Linhay during their break - a lovely , gentle, twittering noise - and being invited to hear the children sing Christmas carols,” wrote Museum co-founder and now President Joy Gawne. But by 1991 storage had become a problem at Fairlynch and Joan Bannister’s school at the Linhay had to close in June of that year.


Film starlet Belinda Lee was a former kindergarten pupil of Joan Bannister

Among her former pupils Joan Bannister remembered teaching the film actress Belinda Lee whose parents ran the Rosemullion  Hotel, and the musician Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, seen above.

“When Richard was decorated by the Queen for his services to music I wrote to congratulate  him and very kindly he replied and recalled his former schooldays  with me,” she recalled. Many of the future award-winning composer’s kindergarten recollections remained vivid for him, including his memory of Belinda Lee “who had a toy accordion of which I was extremely jealous” as he amusingly wrote in 2011, a year before his death.

Many others whom she taught kept in touch with Joan Bannister. Every Christmas she received what she described as “a splendid  hamper” from a grateful former pupil.

Such was her commitment to teaching that she spoke of carrying on giving lessons at her home  'Eryl Mor' in Victoria Place, but it was not to be. She died that October. Her funeral in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton, was attended by many of her pupils who, as one parent wrote in a 1980 tribute to celebrate her half-century in education,  had “shared the distinction of having been taught by a remarkable lady with an exceptional talent for teaching and securing the total devotion of young children.” To her devotees, he continued, “can be added the parents also who have over the 50 years relied on Miss Bannister’s integrity and affection for the children charged to her care.” 

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