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Gryphon Gallery: Dora Winifred Atkins – Part One

Dora Winifred Atkins was born in Newbury, England in 1885. She was tutored by her father (the Headmaster of Newbury Grammar School) and graduated from Durham University with an Honours Degree in Classics. Dora taught at Norwich High School from December 1906 to July 1913, and at that school, she was a colleague and close friend of Julia McDermott.

When Julia left Norwich for Vancouver, Canada in August 1911 to teach at Crofton House School, Dora kept in contact. One postcard from her, dated May 17, 1912, stated: “We are wondering if you are getting a lot of tennis (Julia had won provincial titles). Do let me know when you have your first bathe in the sea.” 

Julia moved from Vancouver to Victoria soon after to tutor a small group of girls. Sufficiently optimistic about the enrollment, she persuaded her friend Dora to hand in her notice at Norwich High School and join her. Dora set sail for Montreal in August 1913 on the RMS Andania and in September, she assisted Julia, the founder, in opening Norfolk House School. Together, they moved the school from temporary sites at the old Cathedral Sunday School and 1164 Oscar Street to 1950 Granite Street, which remained in place until the move to the current Pemberton Woods site. For the first four years, registration teetered between seven to 13 girls and for the summer term in 1914, Julia instructed all the students while Dora was absent.

However, by the fall of 1916 roles had reversed. Dora took over the senior girls, while another teacher came and looked after the junior girls. It is believed that Julia married in August 1917 leaving Dora to be the headmistress of the school.

Dora was often described as forthright, determined, insistent on good manners, and even sometimes sarcastic when addressing a student’s behaviour, but always unselfish and hard working. Over the next 15 years she increased enrollment to almost 80, acquired additional property for boarding, implemented a matriculation level class, introduced uniforms, and after moving the boarding to the same house that Major Simpson was to later start Glenlyon in 1932, she hired Julia Forbes (McDermott) back as matron. 

However, even as the school’s academic reputation increased and enrollment continued to improve, financial concerns and a more business-like future plan needed to be addressed. Thanks to the leadership of a lawyer and parent, Harry Davis, the parental group at the school convinced Miss Atkins to look for a new school site that offered opportunities for expansion and that the school become a limited company. In November 1931, the purchase had been completed and construction began on clearing and building Main House at Pemberton Woods, to be ready for the start of the summer term in 1932.