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Gryphon Gallery: The Birth of Norfolk House, Part 1

The founder and first headmistress of Norfolk House School was Miss Julia McDermott. Born in Lewisham, England, her first teaching position was at Norwich High School for Girls in 1904. She taught modern languages and coached tennis. 

After seven years, she had done well enough to receive an excellent reference from her employer, so Miss McDermott left for new adventures in Canada. On August 12, 1911, she set sail from Liverpool on the White Star Dominion Liner Teutonic docking in Montreal. It is believed she travelled by train across Canada to Vancouver and took a posting at Crofton House School in the fall of 1911. This is borne out by an entry in the Norwich High School Register stating that Miss McDermott left for a private school in Vancouver, and while teaching there she also received a postcard addressed to Crofton House School and postmarked “Norwich, May 18, 1912” from her former colleague in Norwich, Dora Atkins.

The next school year however is shrouded in mystery. It would seem that Miss McDermott did not continue at Crofton House School for the 1912/1913 school year, or at least not for the full year. At some point, she travelled to Victoria and was certainly there before the end of March 1913. The Victoria Colonist newspaper supports this by carrying the following advertisement in the “Tuition” section: PRIVATE SCHOOL A school will be opened on Head Street on April 2 by Miss McDermott. For particulars apply 911 Blanshard—an address almost next door to Christ Church Cathedral. It is quite possible that she was invited by A.J. Doull, Rector of Christ Church Cathedral to come to Victoria to start a school.

There is certainly a lack of written evidence supporting whether this particular venture got off the ground, or what else may have happened to Miss McDermott over the next five months, but there are a few recollections that provide opportunities to speculate on the possibilities. What we can confirm is that on September 10, 1913, Julia McDermott with her former colleague Dora Atkins started Norfolk House School. By maintaining registers from that time on, there is a written record of the school’s existence and the first record of attendance on September 10. Thus the decision was made to use this date as the start of Norfolk House School—and also as the ‘birth’ of GNS.

Filling those five months prior to September 1913 with facts has been next to impossible, particularly as they lack supportive written records. One of the difficulties has been that later in the school’s history when Miss Atkins retired as the longest-serving Head at GNS, several boxes of administrative papers and school records were deliberately incinerated, save only one box that contained the registers. Thus very useful, historic information was lost.

To be continued…