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A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Margaret Corbett - Preston school headmistress
Margaret Corbett (nee Edgar) exercised a significant influence on the development of Preston’s children in the first half of the twentieth century as she was head mistress of Preston School during two stints: 1913 - 1922 and 1938 - 1945. She was also prominent in local Women’s Institute activities, being one of the founder members of the Preston and Langley branch.
Margaret Edgar was born on 29 September 1885 in the industrial Lancashire town of Warrington, which sits on a bank of the River Mersey. Her father, Peter Edgar, was a solicitors’ clerk and grocer. The 1901 census revealed her future career path as she was described as a ‘pupil teacher’. Then, in the early months of 1910, when Margaret was twenty-five, both of her parents died in quick succession:
The devotion of both of Margaret’s parents to their Christian faith is clear, and her mother’s interest in teaching and her father’s organ playing should also be noted. Earlier, in 1906, Margaret achieved the joint highest prize in all subjects at Warrington Training College, excelling in enclid (ie maths), literature, geography and history. The 1911 census recorded Margaret as visiting her older brother, Charles Edgar, who was a journalist living at Chelsea. She was now a qualified teacher and apparently accompanied by another elementary school teacher, Ernest Oliver Corbett (who evidently preferred to be known as Oliver). Ernest was born in early 1886 at Orford, Lancs and had graduated from the University of London in 1909 with a BSc.
It transpired that Margaret and Ernest attended St Anns School, Warrington in 1901 and local Technical Institute and Pupil Teacher classes in 1903, attaining prizes in the same subjects:
Margaret and Ernest married at St Anns, Warrington on 21 August 1911. On 7 July 1913, Margaret began her first term of office as Head Mistress of Preston School, proudly writing in the Log Book:
Margaret was headmistress for the next nine years, overseeing the education of all those passing through Preston School during the turbulence of World War 1 and its aftermath. The first school report following her appointment, in 1914, noted that ‘despite disadvantageous circumstances…the result of the examination was distinctly good and reflects much credit on the staff’. In March 1915, she dealt with the intake of nine Belgian refugee children and in 1917 found the time to deal with my eleven-year-old father:
Then, on 1 March 1918, Margaret noted that she had been given a grant of absence for a month or two. The reason quickly became obvious when the birth of her son, Oliver Robert Corbett, was recorded on 21 March 1918. This is an apt moment to digress from school matters, to home affairs. In the spring of 1919, Margaret and Ernest were living at Crunnells Green (in one of two newly-built semi-detached cottages on the south-eastern side, shown below) with Ernest and Ethel Payne as their immediate neighbours. By the autumn of 1920, the Corbetts had taken over the whole cottage and Ernest had already begun to farm poultry (maybe as early as 1919). This advertisement was placed in October 1920:
However, in August of that year, it appears that he left this job because a new assistant was appointed and Ernest was thanked for his ‘excellent services’. He had earlier clashed with the new appointee on the subject of teachers’ salaries. In the meantime, Margaret had expressed her interest in the Women’s Institute. Mrs Maybrick, in her Scrapbook noted, ‘The Preston and Langley Institute was formed at an open meeting in the Preston Club Room on January 3rd 1919. At the first monthly meeting, on January 8th, thirty seven members were enrolled, of these, three are still members in 1953, Mrs. Worthington, Mrs. H. Peters and Mrs. (Margaret) Corbett.’ After her son, Oliver’s, birth, Margaret resumed work later than anticipated on 5 June 1918. Then, on 25 July, she granted my father time away from school (these details are included because they illustrate and confirm her interaction with all the children in her care):
Since around September 1917, Ernest had been assistant overseer and clerk to St Ippollitts’ Parish Council. The following announcement was made in April 1919:
The ‘flu pandemic hit the area in November 1918:
On 30 April 1919, Margaret wrote:
She was back in school on 7 September 1919, but was then frequently absent from school due to illness. This was a hectic time in Margaret’s life juggling her work as head mistress, WI activities, a newly-born baby and a large back-yard of chickens (it was also later revealed that her husband was suffering from TB). It emerged that Margaret had given birth to a second son, Peter Edgar Corbett, on 19 June 1920 which was a further drain on her energies. In addition to this load, another potential complication was arrival at Preston of her brother in-law and his family and his taking over a business with which he had little if any experience. These circumstances created a perfect storm of stress for her. In July 1921, she was ‘ordered away by her doctor for two months for complete rest and change’. The census found Margaret and Peter living with her sister Jane Ellen and her husband, farmer Reuben Higham at Grappenhall, near Warrington. In December 1921, it was reported that she had gone to St Bartholomew’s (in London) ‘for treatment as a result of heavy strain and over pressure’. The Log Book entry, 2 June 1922:
In August 1922 it was revealed that, ‘(Mrs Corbett’s) health gives no hope of her being able to resume her duties..(she had been) so capable and faithful a head mistress’. Inevitably, on 12 September 1922, a new head mistress, Miss Deed was appointed. The electoral registers show Ernest and Margaret at Crunnells Green Cottage without a break from the spring of 1919 until the autumn of 1924 and Robert and Florence Corbett residing at one of the new bungalows built by Douglas Vickers at School Lane between the springs of 1921 and 1922. One somewhat odd fact is that in the 1921 census Ernest is shown as living at Crunnells Green with his son, Oliver, and having a servant, May Jenkins (18, daughter of Ernest and Lizzie Jenkins and my first cousin once removed). Perhaps she was to help with his son, Oliver - or maybe, Ernest was ill. What is certain is that both Corbett brothers had given up poultry farming by the end of 1923 - Robert returned to Warrington at the end of March 1922 and Margaret accepted a new position as head mistress of Gravenhurst School, Beds (shown below) in April 1923. The last note of Ernest’s occupying Crunnells Green Cottage was in the electoral register of the autumn of 1924.
There are several newspaper references to Margaret at Gravenhurst: her school activity, her WI involvement, playing the organ at village funerals and her work on the Rural District Council. So when she left, to return to Preston in the summer of 1938, she was remembered for her community work with affection:
Entry in Preston School Log Book, 20 October 1938:
There was just enough time for her to re-acquaint herself with Preston school and her pupils before the fragile world peace was shattered once again. Margaret wrote in the Log Book on 4 September 1939 (with perhaps a feeling of deja vu), ‘School should have re-opened today but war having begun, I have closed school until further orders’. On 9 September, a shift system was introduced at the school to instruct both local children and evacuees who had already been sent to Preston and who were living at Princess Helena College. Then, on 29 November, there was a note that she was going into hospital for an operation. She returned to her school duties on 5 February 1940. On 20 May 1940, there was a major change at Preston School. Margaret noted that some of the senior pupils had gone to Hitchin and that ‘the school thus becomes a junior school’.
Her address was given as 15 Stevenage Road, Hitchin in 1939, having her youngest son for company.
Life at school continued to adapt to the war-time situation. Margaret took pupils to local places of historical interest such as Minsden Chapel and Bunyan’s Dell and Cottage, Wain Wood. She also attended occasional WI conventions and conferences. A school report found it to be ‘..a very pleasant school to visit..the infants being cared for with affection…(and) a very genial response from juniors’. WW2 ended in the summer of 1945. Margaret’s tenure at Preston School ended shortly afterwards. Apart from a recent visit to an optician, there had been no hint that she would step down, but resign she did (aged sixty) on 14 December 1945:
Right, Margaret’s home at 15 Stevenage Road which is close to the roundabout that links Preston and Gosmore to Hitchin. Margaret died on15 April 1956 at 10 Winwick Road, Warrington, which in 1939 had been the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Fanny and Reuben Higham - though Reuben died in early 1954.
Though now retired, Margaret continued with her support of the Women’s Institute, but ill health forced he to relinquish her position of Group Leader in February 1954.
February 1954
May 1954
May 1953
Margaret made an immediate impact on the performance of her new school. In 1925, a school report stated, “This school, which had greatly deteriorated before the present Head Teacher came, is making very good progress. There is now a pleasing tone, and the teaching is thorough.” Ernest then died on 1 May 1926 at Gravenhurst. That he made a will suggests that his demise was not unexpected.
The circumstances of his death confirmed the suggestions in this article (which was written before its receipt). Ernest died from phthisis pulmonalis (TB) from which he had suffered for sixteen years, or from 1910, which was before he married Margaret.. His occupation was given as ‘poultry farmer’ (which may have been a reference to his past work). His sister, Ada L Tutt, informed the registrar. With hindsight, it was perhaps an unwise move for someone with phthisis pulmonalis and its associated respiratory problems to become involved with keeping hens. There would have been bacteria, fungi, spores, toxins and allergens in the farm’s organic and inorganic dust, odorous compounds from hen droppings, feed, skin and feathers. As a result, respiratory disease is common in poultry farmers. Ernest was dead within a few years of quitting the farm.
(I am grateful to Michael Oxley for allowing me to use his photograph of Margaret’s grave at Warrington Cemetery)
The mistresses and pupils of Preston School circa 1917. Margaret Corbett is standing with Rose Barker behind her in the entrance to the school.
Of Ernest and Margaret’s two sons, Oliver Robert and Peter Edgar Corbett
As both of Ernest and Margaret’s children were ‘Sons of Preston’, having being born in the village, it is relevant to include details of their exceptional lives and achievements. By way of introducing them, in July 1936, there was a news report of ‘Student Successes’ at Bedford School:
Of Oliver Robert Corbett (21 March 1918 - 12 February, 1989)
In September 1939, Oliver was in the household of his soon-to-be in-laws, Walter and Caroline Goldsbrough at 33 Wibbersley Drive, Urmston. Both he and his future wife, (Agnes) Patricia Goldsbrough were students and Oliver had registered for a commission in the Royal Corps of Signals.
Peter related that he had to ‘cycle about 15 to 20 miles to his school and back again when he was in his teens’.
His commission was confirmed in the London Gazette when he was appointed as a Second Lieutenant, Emergency Commission, Royal Signals on 19 October 1939. After the War ended, Oliver continued his association with the Royal Signals as a reservist, gradually moving through the ranks:
In 2006, Oliver received the ERD (Emergency Reserve Decoration) and eventually left the Royal Signals with the rank of full Colonel. During the June Quarter of 1942, he married (Agnes) Patricia/Pat in the Barton RD, which included Urmston:
Oliver studied at Oxford after gaining a scholarship. 1945-48 Reading “Greats” at Christ Church , Oxford 1948-64 Schoolmaster at Manchester Grammar School, teaching Classics 1964-80c Senior Assistant Secretary at the (Northern Universities) Joint Matriculation Board 1980c Retired on medical advice
(Above) Oliver and his mother, Margaret Corbett, in 1950
Oliver in a Manchester Grammar School revue, 1953
Oliver and Agnes had three children, James Oliver, Rosalind and Peter R Corbett (who was born and died in Bangor RD during 1954).
When Margaret Corbett died in 1956, there was a news report that Oliver and Agnes had travelled from Manchester for the Memorial Service at St Martins, Preston, Herts:
Oliver died on 12 February 1989:
Of Peter Edgar Corbett (19 June 1920 - 31 August 1992)
We begin this celebration of Peter’s life with his entry in the 1939 Register. He was then living with his mother at 15 Stevenage Road, Hitchin:
Note that Peter had been awarded a scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford and was described as a ‘university student’. However, because of the outbreak of WW2, his education was put on hold. This was the case with many young men at the time. My first cousin, Lawrence John Mills, had won a scholarship to Birmingham University, but his education path was temporarily interrupted by his contribution to the war effort. This was not necessarily an unfortunate experience. What follows is Peter’s entry in Who’s Who and a news report of his wedding. The main section is an affectionate bio (in italics) from The Independent newspaper which is interspersed with explanatory comments.
Right, Peter (standing) and Oliver
“Peter Edgar Corbett, classical scholar and teacher, born Preston Hertfordshire 19 June 1920, Thomas Whitcombe Greene Scholar and Macmillan Student of British School at Athens 1947-49, Assistant Keeper Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities British Museum 1949-61, Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology University College London 1961-82, President Society for Promotion of Hellenic Studies 1980-83, married 1944 Albertha Yates (died 1961; one son, one daughter), 1962 Margery Martin, died London 31 August 1992. PETER CORBETT, Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at University College London from 1961 to 1982, and former President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, was one of the acutest critics of ancient Greek sculpture and painting of his generation, and one of the most influential. The volume of Corbett's published work is small in comparison with his reputation, for he was a perfectionist who could never bear to let an article or a book leave his hands until he was quite satisfied with it. But he was no squirrel; on the contrary, he was vastly generous with his ideas and his hard-won knowledge, and most of his best work had its impact in conversation with colleagues and in lectures - a form of publication at which he was a master, and which, being provisional rather than definitive, did not offend his ideal of perfection. Corbett was born in 1920. From Bedford School he won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. His firsts in Classical Mods and Greats straddled a wartime interlude, first in the Royal Artillery and then for four years in the freer medium of the air. He flew Mosquitoes and used to claim, with more modesty than truth, that the only time he was in danger was when he came within three inches of Rouen Cathedral. In fact the lonely concentration of the RAF pilot made a lasting impression on him, reinforced by his early post-war experience as Macmillan Student at the British School of Athens, when archaeological research had to be pursued in the crossfire of the Greek civil war. Beneath the banter Corbett was deeply serious, conscious always of the winged chariot and the need to use his time. In 1949 Corbett was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, then under the aegis of Bernard Ashmole, whom he was later to succeed (at one remove) at University College. He revered Ashmole, for his unmatched combination of precise scholarship, his artist's eye, and a limpidly clear and stylish gift of communication. It was a lively department: with Reynold Higgins and Donald Strong for colleagues, the intellectual sparks flew. It was also a time when liveliness was needed, when the museum groaned under the weight of its heritage, stored away for the war and now to be brought back on exhibition in a more modern mode than before. The Elgin Marbles took pride of place; and the years of close observation involved in preparing them for the new Duveen Gallery gave Corbett the opportunity, and the inspiration, for his first book, his deceptively modest King Penguin The Sculpture of the Parthenon (1959). It was, a discerning reviewer wrote, 'almost faultless . . . at once lively and scrupulous'. In those years also, Corbett undertook the exhibition and proper labelling of the vast study collection of Greek painted pots, shoulder to shoulder in huge cases upstairs. It was, he told the Director and Principal Librarian, who saw the display as less than trendy even then, a library of Greek mythology; and the frown vanished. The other achievement of this period was the re-composition of the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, in Arcadia, (shown below) which was displayed in a magnificently lit exhibition. This, and his efforts to have the frieze republished, proved to be Corbett's life's work. Not among the greatest of Greek art, a generation later than the Parthenon in date and carved by provincials, the frieze consists of separately composed blocks of random length and with almost no overlaps, representing the two hackneyed subjects of Greeks in combat with Amazons and with Centaurs, and found jumbled upon the ground. The challenge is akin to that of a jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions. More closely than anyone, Corbett had studied the material both in the museum and on site - the latter with his unrelated namesake GUS Corbett - and he was, besides, in total command of the reports and drawings of finders and excavators in the early 19th century. His reconstruction may not be quite right, though it has withstood the determined assaults of younger scholars, even those fortified by the results of excavations made since Corbett's days in Greece. The republication of the frieze, with the detailed reasoning behind his arrangement of it, occupied Corbett's energies to the end of his life. But there were loose ends to be tied, and the work remains unpublished though virtually complete. In 1961 Corbett left the museum for University College London. Bernard Ashmole, who held the Yates Chair from 1929 to 1948, for a decade in plurality with the British Museum Keepership, declared it the research scholar's ultimate sinecure. Corbett found that he loved to teach, and transformed the professor's role, taking a leading part in negotiations to start a new BA degree in Archaeology, hitherto regarded in London as a purely postgraduate preserve. Characteristically, his syllabus was to take four years, not three, in effect combining a full Classics degree with a full course in Archaeology. To teach it, in those expansionist post- Robbins days, he was able to enlarge the staffing of the department from one to two. At the same time, he devoted long hours to postgraduate supervision, which he enjoyed. Corbett served both college and university as Dean of the Arts Faculty, and undertook much else which inevitably kept him from his research - and allowed others to pursue theirs. Convivial, an amusing conversationalist and raconteur, he was always a popular figure in the Common Room; but he never lingered. Corbett married twice. The death, from cancer, of his first wife, Bertha Yates, left him emotionally shattered, and with two young children. In 1962 he married Margery Martin, a distinguished Renaissance scholar, whose sense of a common enterprise restored his strength. Their riverside home in Barnes became a Mecca for archaeologists and art historians, who came to enjoy not only their hospitality but Corbett's encyclopaedic knowledge of fields far beyond the bounds of his own.” He was named President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies from 1980 to 1983 and retired from the University of London in 1982.
On 24 October 1942, a de Haviland DH.98 Mosquito NF Mk II (right) took off from RAF Castle Camps, Essex for a night patrol with a crew of Peter E Corbett (pilot) and Sergeant Clarence Landrey (observer), The plane’s starboard engine failed and then exploded and caught fire, yet the pilot was able to land safely with only minor damage and no injuries to its two-man crew.
Pages from The Sculpture of the Parthenon which illustrate its scholarly style. (See review below)
There is an article featuring Rose at this link: Miss Barker). While realising that Margaret and Rose were contemporaneous teachers at Preston School, the closeness of their friendship was not fully appreciated until some of the Corbett family photographs were sent.
Review of The Sculptures of the Parthenon 1959
Re: Margaret Corbett and Miss Rose Barker, teachers at Preston, Herts School
An informal photograph taken at Margaret’s home, 15 Stevenage Road, Hitchin and shows Margaret (right) and Rose relaxing in the garden in around 1954
This view of Crunnells Green (aka West View Cottages) was sent to ‘Master Peter Corbett’ of The School House, Gravenhurst, Ampthill on 27 June 1927 by Miss Barker, along with her birthday greetings.
(I am grateful to James O Corbett for sending information about the Corbett family together with several family photographs and permitting their use on this website)