‘We had become an individual, with its urge to express itself – individuality – one of the greatest things in the world, upon the fineness and quality of which so much depends. I hope this school will always hold on to its individuality and always continue to develop its own traditions.’ (reflecting on the school’s move to its current site)
‘I have always thought that one of the great gifts a school can give its members is a standard by which to judge true worth, true beauty, a touchstone which enables them to make the best use of their leisure as well as of their working hours.’
Miss Ellis brought a very up-to-date approach to Varndean School when she arrived in 1909. She was the first Head with a degree, having studied Languages at Cambridge. Her major interests were travel, art and sport, all of which helped fashion her view of girls’ education. Hockey (soon with proper sticks rather than ash walking-sticks) and Swimming at North Road Baths became major features of school life, as did cultural visits.
Perhaps, most important of all, she had the lucky knack of being able to persuade reluctant councillors to fall in with her plans. Very early on, she achieved some improvements to the building, including the installation of limited electric lighting. But her dream was to escape the overcrowding of York Place and the pollution of central Brighton. She envisaged an ultra-modern school overlooking the hockey pitch near Varndean Farm, with the sea in the distance.
All this was suddenly put on hold. On 23rd November, 1914, Miss Ellis was told to vacate the building within 24 hours so that it could become a Hospital for wounded Indian troops.
The school didn’t return to York Place until 1919. Now Miss Ellis’s campaign could begin in earnest. It took until 1923 for the Council to approve the scheme, but events then moved swiftly. Local architect Gilbert Simpson, who later designed the Boys’ School too, was employed to draw up the plans. The foundation stone was laid in 1924 and the opening, by The Duchess of Atholl, took place in 1926. It’s hard to imagine now, but Varndean was the most advanced school building in the country and even featured on the front page of ‘The Daily Mirror’. No wonder Miss Ellis thought they had moved out of ‘cupboards’ to a ‘magnificent building’ and felt that “with such beautiful rooms we shall not be in any hurry to leave school”!
She was keen to increase the school’s academic excellence, but also to widen her students’ experiences through sports, clubs, and day trips – sounds ordinary today, but it was innovative then. The overcrowding at York Place prompted her vision of a new school on the outskirts of town, close to the school’s then hockey pitch (now Balfour School). Eventually, she saw her dream fulfilled with the opening of Varndean in 1926 and guided its early years here.
Miss Ellis continued to develop the school until her retirement in 1937. Her headship of 28 years is the longest in the school’s history. Not surprisingly ‘this exquisite little lady’ kept in touch and frequently visited Varndean for the rest of her life.