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Gryphon Gallery: Ivy Cheetham – A former actress who found her best role while at NHS 

Gryphon Gallery
Mrs. Cheetham at Norfolk House

Mrs. Ivy Leila Cheetham (née Watkins) arrived in Victoria with her small son, and a need to earn her living in a more reliable way than as an actress on stage, which she had been doing in England. She got a teaching position at the now defunct St. George’s School for Girls, then for one year at Norfolk House. In the fall of 1927 she joined the staff at the now shut down Strathcona Lodge School at Shawnigan Lake, but in the following year she returned to NHS and stayed for twenty nine years eventually becoming the Assistant Headmistress as well as the close friend and confidante of Miss Atkins.

Although never receiving any teacher training, her skills and experience in the theater made her a perfect fit for drama and she also had a penchant for sports. The 1933 building of the gymnasium next to the new Main House on the recently acquired Pemberton Woods property, opened doors for her passion and accelerated the development of competitive sports. She started the first Dramatic Club and encouraged the creation of Houses that would participate in sports and other activities. Drama flourished under her enthusiasm and directing skill, and by the middle of the ‘30’s House plays were firmly established.

Mrs. Cheetham had a tremendous impact on school life during this period. Many girls found they could talk to her about their troubles with an informality impossible with the more austere Miss Atkins. Apart from her enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities, she presided over the one-table chemistry lab in the basement of the Main House. And also taught mathematics. “Mrs. Cheetham got me through mathematics with all her little poems and words with which to remember mathematical calculations – I never really understood how the problems were actually solved” – Pam Mitchell ‘42.

“Cheety” as she was usually known amongst the girls, was always accompanied by Peter, the airedale dog, who soon became the school’s mascot. Whether in the classroom, on the field, in the boarding house kitchen making jam, supervising the knitting class, or doing the rounds at borders’ bedtime, Peter would obediently follow along. She was an instructive and inspiring hockey coach, i.e. when getting girls to reach out with their sticks she would say things like: “Pretend that you are tripping up the teacher you dislike the most!

Miss Atkins retired in 1956 and Mrs. Cheetham actually served as Acting Headmistress for one further year. Apparently, when both ladies ended their time at NHS, they boxed up all the administrative records of the first forty years of the school being, in their minds, matters of their private concern. They were kept at their residence at 900 Byng Street. There, Mrs. Cheetham became the caregiver to her dear friend until it was necessary to move Miss Atkins into Mount St. Mary’s Hospital. This sadly became the moment of a great NHS historic tragedy, because at some point during this time, a young person was hired for maintenance help that included stoking the furnace. One day he incinerated, or possibly was instructed to do so, all those valuable records, save one box of reports and registers which eventually and thankfully found its way to the school’s archives.

The final curtain closed on Ivy Cheetham on Christmas Day, 1972.