Today is the anniversary of the death of Sister M Catherine Walsh OP, Headteacher, for many years of St James' Secondary School, Burnt Oak, London.
Known to both staff and pupils (behind her back) as 'Kate' she cut an extraordinary figure. Around five feet tall she was almost as rotund, her face resembled flayed pink leather and her mouth was a gash akin to a pillar box slit. I am being descriptive here, not gratuitously insulting.
In her time Kate reduced many teachers, secular males and females, as well as sister nuns, to tears. She was a ferocious adversary and she was adversarial in all of her dealings. St James' School was unusual inasmuch that it was Secondary but had an academic record better than most Grammar schools. This was down largely to Kate's practice of cramming. Pupils started GCE (as they then were) studies at 13 and took the exams at the age of 14. The next year they took A Levels and sat exams within a 12 month period. Any exams failed were sat again the following year. Not a good base for learning but an excellent one for passing exams.
Kate was never seen without a large rubber strap that dangled from her leather belt for all the world in the fashion of a gunslinger. She used it generously on anyone who transgressed her code of discipline. The school was a mixed sex one but boys and girls were taught separately and had different break periods so no contact between the two was ever made within the school boundaries.
She was afraid of no person be they Bishops, Local Education Directors or Teddy Boys (yes, there were still a few of those around in the late fifties). A gang of them invaded the school playground one day and were trying to kiss the girls. Kate strode out to them and jutting out her Desperate Dan type chin uttered the immortal words: "If you want to kiss anyone, kiss me!" They melted away.
On one occasion two delinquent pupils tried to hang a boy in the lavatories (the last man to be hanged in Britian, James Hanratty, was also an ex pupil). They were under suspicion of the act but would not own up to it. Kate mustered the whole of the boys section in the Hall and made all of us kneel (until someone would inform). No one ever did, the fear of being dealt with as an informer was far greater than kneeling on a hard floor for several hours.
She had little concept of justice and would mete out punishment on a totally random basis. On the occasion of a tube strike I did not arrive at school until 11.15am (I had a one and a half hour journey on normal days, this day it had taken me over 3.5 hours to get to school). I was unfortunate enough to be caught by Kate as I arrived late and was expelled on the spot. Several days later and after several letters and phone calls from my Father to the school I was reluctantly re-admitted.
I have tried to make this post as charitable as possible but it has to be said that I know of many ex pupils who have experienced considerable behavioural problems as a result of the harsh and uncompromising methods employed at the school.
In her defence the school was in a rough area (at the time) and Catholic Schools were penalised more in funding terms than they are today. She fought her corner for the school and won new technology and resources purely because she of her harridan like style of doing business.
She was professed on 23rd October 1915 and died on 11th April 1984.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.