Generations of teachers and pupils revisit Norwich school for poignant event celebrating its 150th anniversary
09:00 14 July 2014
Friends who’d been apart for decades shared memories from times gone by as they gathered under the sun in Norwich this weekend to mark a special milestone.
Notre Dame High School - a history
“Teach them what is necessary to equip them for life.”
Those were the words of sister Julie Billiart, the founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame – a group of women who dedicated their lives to young people.
Setting up schools all over Belgium, it was not long before the women came to England.
In 1864, six sisters arrived at Norwich train station to begin the Notre Dame High School’s 150-year-long history.
At first, the sisters were adamant that the poor were most in need of their help. In 1808, Sister Billiart wrote: “I ask you again to receive only poor little girls who cannot pay at all. Collect as many of them as you can. We exist only for the poor, only for the poor, absolutely only for the poor.”
Opening as an all girls’ school, the St Catherine’s Hill building has since been a girls’ boarding school, a mixed preparatory school, a girls’ direct grant grammar school, a mixed comprehensive and a mixed academy.
In 1931 a small sixth form was created and by 1937, the school’s population had expanded to 460.
During the Second World War, the school escaped largely unscathed – although several of the sisters were forced move to rural areas of Norfolk in 1942.
Sister Cecile recorded the dramatic moments during an air raid: “The garden was covered with incendiary bombs. Immediately all the able-bodied sisters transformed themselves into firefighters and, by their united efforts, saved the building from serious damage.”
Although the school eventually became fee-paying, the sisters honoured their promise to exist for the poor and every morning provided a cup of tea and a bacon roll for those in need.
The biggest change came in 1979, under Sister Mary Cluderay’s leadership, when 72 boys were admitted.
Following her retirement, John Pinnington became the first male headmaster in 1997, followed in 2010 by Brian Conway.
Taken from Notre Dame High School, Norwich – A Celebration of the First 150 Years 1860 – 2014 by John Eady.
Former staff, students and proud parents flocked to the Notre Dame High School’s grounds on Saturday to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Hundreds of visitors and a reunion of more than 70 members of staff ensured that it was a nostalgia-filled day.
Shelagh Allen and Annette Edwards, both 66, left the school in 1965 – and have stayed close for the past 50 years.
Known for their mischievous antics, the pair took the opportunity to share their favourite tales.
“I remember when the first male teacher came to the school, and all the girls were hanging out of the windows of the gymnasium excitedly, it was big news for everyone,” Mrs Allen said.
“I really enjoyed coming to school here. We were known though – we were caught up on one of the turrets in our bras sunbathing and were told off,” Mrs Edwards added.
As the busy crowd took their seats, current headmaster Brian Conway reflected on the school’s beginnings at its “historic milestone”.
“We owe the sisters of Notre Dame a huge debt. They were brave and strong women,” he said.
He added that although they might not recognise the new classrooms and developing technology, the sisters would still recognise “the ethos and the values that inspire us”.
“We really value learning – that lasting impression has given us all memories to treasure and I think their educational support reverberates around this school.”
A book detailing the school’s history was launched, while a display of old photographs brought back memories for former pupils.
Linda Read, 74, started Notre Dame High School in 1945 when she was just six.
“The junior school was nearly all run by nuns and I remember the only male was saw was the gardener,” Mrs Read said.
“It was very strict on behaviour and manners – if you were going up and down stairs between clasrooms and you passed a teacher you offered to carry their bags and walk with them. I really enjoyed it,” she added.
Helen Abbot, 47, described her years at the school as “the best days” of her life.
“I loved being here, I love it with a passion. It was a real community here. I don’t think we appreciated what we had – you would walk along here and just see the nuns. It was beautiful,” she added.
Do you have fond memories of the school? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email EDPletters@archant.co.uk