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Gryphon Gallery: Miss Helen Riach

Helen Riach is Back Row 2nd from right

Helen Riach taught at Norfolk House School (GNS) from 1922 to 1938(?)—although the photo above right, is titled Staff Picnic 1941 and her presence in it in the back row second from the right suggests otherwise—although possibly she was invited to attend as a long-time teacher/colleague at NHS.

She had been governess to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II’s seven children before WWI, speaking fluent German but with a Scottish burr. She was also reputed to smoke Russian cigarettes—a habit at the time that was not only regarded as “socially and psychologically acceptable” but a brand that was also considered to be one of the strongest for the toughest users.

The journey from the Berlin Palace to the Granite Street house that was the NHS school is unknown and it presents a mystery of when, why and how this tough little Scot chose her path.

Many Old Girls of the school regarded her as someone to whom they could relate in a personal way as she really listened to the girls, shared their triumphs and tried to find the cause of their tears. Not only this, she was an inspiration in the classroom. She taught History, Literature and Botany. It was said that her knowledge of history was phenomenal. One student’s recollection of her was: “I remember the tiny, grey-haired Scottish lady who taught us Botany in the Lower Third. She drew the stigma, style and pinker as she told us about the bee who landed on the sticky stigma with pollen on its legs and she traced the pollen’s progress down the style to the ovaries. I can tell you it was the nearest we ever got in those days to sex education”. Another student mentioned that she was a good teacher but not as good-looking as Miss Atkins! But not all was rosey, however, as another described her as a fiery little Scot who had the disgusting habit of seizing your eraser, licking it, and rubbing it right through your exercise paper when you made a spelling mistake.

There is mention of her sharing a room in the NHS boarding houses at the Granite Street, Amphion Street and St. James’ Street properties and she would become a Preferred Shareholder (5 shares) in the 1931 purchase of the Pemberton Woods property leading to the initial construction of Main House in 1932. It was in the basement of this building that accommodated an upgrade to the science programme with the first chemistry laboratory, the hiring of a new teacher solely for sciences, and the end of Miss Riach’s memorable Botany classes!