On Beacon Hill 3: Ellen Bicknell

Ellen Bicknell 1902-1994  

born Newmarket 29 May 1902
died Hexham 20 October 1994
daughter of Raymond Percy Bicknell
and great-grand-daughter of Elhanan Bicknell

OBITUARY in The Independent Newspaper, London, 17th November 1994

Ellen Bicknell was one of those rare people who carry on into their nineties – despite severe physical infirmity – the enthusiasm, interests and talents of their youth.  “I cannot breathe and I cannot walk” she said recently.  “So I cannot understand why the last 10 years have been the happiest of my life.”

She was an ex-headmistress whose former pupils devotedly flocked back to visit her, for she had a keen and sympathetic interest in people of all ages, especially the young.  In her eighties, although in continuous pain, she took up lace-making.  The sale of this beautiful work, and of the postcard reproductions of delicate botanical drawings she had started in her twenties, raised some £15,000 for charity.  The BBC was so impressed by a recording she made on her memories of India [which she visited in 1938] for its recent Radio 4 series ‘The Raj’, that it came back to tape further reminiscences of this clear-minded nonagenarian for a programme yet to be broadcast.  She made a triumph of old age.

After training at the Charlotte Mason College at Ambleside, in the Lake District, and a short period teaching in a school at Bude, Ellen Bicknell returned in 1923 to her parents’ house in Gosforth, Newcastle Upon Tyne, to form a small class round her five-year-old brother Nigel.  When four years later her father, a distinguished mountaineer, was killed in an alpine accident, she decided to consolidate the class and it became officially the Westfield PNEU School, affectionately known to the pupils as “Bicky’s”.

Map of the British IslesIt was run on Parents’ National Educational Union principles.  The three Rs were well and methodically taught, but many wider interests were richly covered.  These included raffia, leather and felt work, sewing and smocking, netball, tennis and country dancing, reflecting Ellen Bicknell’s own skills and enthusiasms.  Her pupils often found her brusque manner intimidating, but they soon detected the warmth beneath the surface. In 1960 she accepted an offer from a newly formed trust to purchase her school as the junior house of a new Westfield Independent School in Gosforth. to her delight, in her 87th year she attended, as founder and guest of honour, the 65-year celebrations of the flourishing Westfield School.

She had declined the invitation to continue as headmistress and moved back to the Lake District, beloved since childhood.  There, with the help of her brother Peter who taught architecture at Cambridge, she built a small house at Brigsteer, [near Kendal in the Lake District].  With wonderful views over the Lyth Valley to the Coniston Fells she shared the riches of the neighbourhood with an endless stream of welcome visitors.

Ten years ago she was so incapacitated by emphysema that she could no longer carry on alone.  She returned to the North-East to begin a new life at Hexham, creating what she called the happiest years of her life.  She returned briefly to Brigsteer this summer to attend the wedding of a great-niece.  Even at 92 she was still the kind of spinster aunt or great-aunt whose lively interest in the activities of the young remained undimmed. Obituary by Leonard Miall. 


Ellen Bicknell was a legend in her own life time of 92 years. I knew her for 62 of those years, from the age of five when I entered her school in 1932.  The P.N.E.U School, Gosforth, or Bicky’s as it was affectionately known, was by then well established but still delightfully small by today’s standards.  There were about nine of us in the first form, girls and boys. I regret that I cannot remember anything about my first meeting with Ellen.  But I do remember some time later, sitting cross-legged on the drawing room floor at 1 Westfield Grove while Ellen read Pilgrim’s Progress to us.  The picture in my mind’ s eye of Christian bearing his terrible burden on his back has remained with me to this day.

Towards the end of her life Ellen bore the burden of her own ill health with no less courage than Christian.  For she was, all her life, a devout Christian.  Regular worship wherever she happened to be living and a willingness to play a part in layman’s duties in the Church, were as natural to her as every other aspect of daily life.  It required great self-discipline and determination, towards the end of her life, to get to the Abbey Sunday by Sunday, but with the help of friends to transport her, she usually managed to be in place in the Abbey she loved so much.

All P.N.E.U schools shared the same programmes of work which was incomparable, but Ellen’s natural instinct for the best made her school unique and our education so very enjoyable.  Charlotte Mason, the founder of the P.N.E.U said ‘Education is the Science of Relations’.  Ellen held fast to this belief and practiced it for the great and lasting benefit of all her pupils.  She knew that it was not her mission, nor indeed possible, to teach us all about anything, but to open many doors and introduce us to a rich tapestry of subjects and ideas.  In remembering those years at Bicky’s, I and several of my contemporaries have said ‘those were the best years of my education’.

One of my peer group said she had met no non P.N.E.U pupil who, at the age of 14, had a little, but not dangerous knowledge of Greek and Roman history and mythology.  Plutarch’s lives, the heroes of Asgard, Astronomy, Geology, Physiology, Botany, Latin, Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies, Composers and Artists whose work we studied and listened to, the classics which we read in school and as holiday reading.  Does this sound rather heavy going?  Not much fun?  Not so. remember – we had no distractions like T.V or computer games.  Our imaginations were fired and nourished by reading proper books, by attending the war-time lunchtime concerts at the City Hall, by going to hear our adored form mistress sing the St. Matthew Passion or Messiah at King’s Hall.  We hadn’t heard of Pop Groups in those days.

And all these activities were fun for us and not to be missed, because the atmosphere created by Ellen in her school left us in no doubt that this was normal and natural, as were the weekend outings on bicycles discovering some unusual, occasionally rare, wild flower.  Sometimes we even indulged in water colour sketching expeditions, surely inspired by Mrs Bicknell’s beautiful water colours at the side of the stairs in Westfield Grove.

Yes, it was a rich and goodly heritage that Ellen provided for us.

There is no doubt that many people, myself included, were in awe of her, even it should be said a little afraid.  Ellen knew this and in later years would talk about the effect she had had on some people, admitting that perhaps she had been rather fierce.  As she grew older, this side was seen less and less and she rejoiced in renewing friendships with past pupils and their progeny.
I have no memory of stress or overt disappointment.  It was taken for granted that everyone did her best and everyone was good at something.  A memory I have always kept and which helped me when I was myself a teacher, is of the occasion when I failed to reach the final of the annual tennis tournament – a great occasion for us. I was was knocked out in the semifinals.  My disappointment was quickly got under control when Ellen asked me to be a ball-boy for the Final match, pointing out that it was important to have a really reliable and sensible person on such an occasion.

I believe I felt as important as any of those marvellous Wimbledon ball-boys and certainly tried to imitate them.  And what’s more – I was included in the Strawberry and Cream treat after the match.  Such was the tone created by Ellen.  We all mattered.

When in 1960 Ellen decided to sell her School to the Northbrian Trust it provided the sturdy roots for the creation of a new independent secondary school, Westfield School.  Initially the whole school was contained at Westfield Grove until a suitable property was found – Oakfield House.  Then it was that the senior school moved to Oakfield House and the junior school remained in Ellen’s property.

Ellen moved to her lovely new house near Kendal, designed by her architect brother Peter. Here she began a period of exceptional happiness, revelling in her closeness to the Lake District.  She entertained her family and friends, became an accomplished cook and created a garden round her home not only for her own pleasure but for the delight of her many visitors.  Here she had time to enjoy her family’s and friends visits and delighted in sharing with us all the beauty of her surroundings.  It was during this period that my own relationship with Ellen truly became that of a friend and I came to realise how much her own family of brothers, nephews and nieces meant to her.  Her handwork skills were used continually and many beautiful pieces of work were completed in a variety of needlework, intricate knitting and, of course, still the botanical paintings at which she excelled.  Her love of handwork and her skill had been immensely important during her teaching days and those of us who were taught by her were introduced to a wide variety of crafts.  Never one to waste time she always managed to fit some handwork in to her day.  A habit she had developed in her teaching days when she would frequently attempt to fit in a little weeding before morning school, much to the chagrin of her mother Mrs Bicknell, who did not approve of the Headmistress conducting morning prayers with soil on her heels.

When in 1984 Ellen felt that entertaining was becoming too much for her and she was feeling the need for more support in her life, she decided to move back to Hexham and became one of the first residents of Overstone, in her own bungalow, in the garden of the main house, close to the house where she had spent some happy childhood years.  Then surprisingly to her, began what was to be one of the happiest and most fullfilling periods of her life.  Although increasingly her health did not permit her to be very active, this was compensated for by her re-discovery of pillow lace-making, a skill she had actually acquired as a school-girl.  Now she embarked on it very seriously, attending classes with one of her old girls who was new to the craft.  And as with everything she did with her hands, the results were beautiful.

Soon her work was being requested by friends and strangers alike, and to her joy she was able to donate substantially to charity from the sale of her work. An abiding memory of Ellen, and I rather think it could be your memory of her too, is of entering her room and seeing at the far side near the window an elderly lady, head bent over the lace pillow and those small firm hands throwing the bobbins as she created an exquisite piece of lace.  Then we would talk and she would tell me of her latest commission or of a happy visit she had made or of a re-discovered old friend who had been to see her.  Always looking forward and planning the next event.  ‘I haven’t time to die yet’ she would often say.

So many things that have been useful to me or have given me pleasure and enriched my life were rooted in those days at Ellen’s school. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ellen, my teacher and my very good friend for so many years. I believe we all do and I believe we should give thanks to God for the life of this remarkable woman.

Ellen Phillis Bicknell,  born in Newmarket 29 May 1902, died in Hexham 20 October 1994.