Virginia Woolf
and her connections with Giggleswick School

Barbara Gent
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

On a cold day, 18th November, 1904 a beautiful, green-eyed, tall, shy young woman alighted from the train at Settle to spend two weeks with her cousin Will Vaughan, Headmaster of Giggleswick School, and his wife Madge. Her name was Adeline Virginia Stephen, born 25th January, 1882, daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, who was an intellectual, a prominent alpinist, a man of letters and the first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, which was started at about the time his daughter Virginia was born. Her mother, Julia, was beautiful, sensitive and full of good works, what the Victorians would idealize as ‘The Angel in the House’. Virginia’s mother died when she was 13; the effect on the family was devastating. Her father, always a difficult parent, although loving, became morose, demanding and self-pitying, and it fell to Virginia and her siblings to provide what comfort they could. She and her father were united in a love of books and Leslie opened the doors of his vast library to her. Virginia read voraciously but she was often alone in the nursery at the top of the house, whilst her father was in his study, not to be disturbed, her brothers at school and her sister at art school.

Her father died in 1904 — he was a long time dying and the effect of her other parent’s death was catastrophic. Her relationship with her father was complex, powerful and mixed, and after he died she wrote to a friend, ‘I never helped him as I might have done’. She suffered a total breakdown, the first of five major bouts of major mental health problems which were to haunt her all her life. It is possible that she inherited something of this problem from members of her extended family.1 After their father had died, the family decided to move as far away as they could from the house, 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, where they were born and where they had witnessed so much illness and death. But the house held darker secrets, two of which were to haunt Virginia. It was decided to go to the less fashionable district of Bloomsbury. To spare Virginia the stress of the move she was sent to stay with Violet Dickinson,2 who became one of Virginia’s closest friends, herself a friend of the Vaughan family and a Quaker. Sir George Savage,3 an old friend of Leslie Stephen and Virginia’s specialist, recommended rest and quiet; this Violet could provide. However, at Violet’s she made the first attempt to kill herself.

Recuperation in Giggleswick

Although she was allowed back to London for a few days after this to see the house in Gordon Square which she was to share with her two brothers, Thoby4 and Adrian5 and sister, Vanessa6, she was once more sent off to recuperate in the countryside, this time to Giggleswick. It is important to explain this background I think, because it helps to explain Virginia’s first reactions on her arrival at the School. By the time William Wyamar Vaughan was the Head, Giggleswick School had gained a considerable reputation under its previous Head, the Reverend George Style, who steered the School from 1869 to 1904. Competition for the post vacated by him was fierce, but Vaughan stood out head and shoulders above the rest: he was a born schoolmaster, was charming, intelligent and passionate about education. At the time he was a housemaster at Clifton College, near Bristol and it was with some reluctance that he was released. The same would be true of his next move, too. One of his testimonials was written by Virginia’s father who wrote that he had sent his own son, Thoby, to Clifton so that he would come under the influence of Vaughan.

Thus it was that ‘Cousin Will’ arrived at Holywell Toft7 (the Headmaster’s official residence) with his wife and three very young children: Janet8 born in 1899, Halford in 1901 and Barbara in 1903. Their other son, David, was born in 1906. Vaughan was to bring to the School his considerable qualities: his honesty, his dedication, his understanding of the young and his kindness. His wife was to bring her motherliness, her generosity, her quick intelligence and her total devotion to her husband. Madge was beautiful and talented, herself a writer. She was the daughter of poet, historian and classicist John Addington Symonds, whose work had influenced Oscar Wilde and who had taken his young family to live in Switzerland, in Davos, for his health’s sake; he became a Swiss citizen. Madge was always delighted when it snowed in Giggleswick!

It must have been with some trepidation that Madge prepared for her young friend’s arrival. She was 15 years older than Virginia and had often stayed with the family in London and in Cornwall where the Stephens had a house. The Stephen children called her ‘Chief’. But receiving a letter from Vanessa with instructions on Virginia’s routine must have made Madge aware of the responsibility of having this fragile, talented creature in her home. Vanessa writes on 28th October: ‘She does not sleep well. She goes to bed very early. She has hot chocolate when she goes to bed. She has her medicines to take. She needs as much fresh air as possible.’

Bearing all this in mind one should make allowances for Virginia’s rash judgements on the Vaughans on first sight. Writing to Violet on 21st November she writes that Will is ‘a Philistine’ and ‘I am longing to get a good walk among them (the moors), but so far Madge has been bothersome with little school duties. I keep warm with a fire and a rug. I have done my run of school duties ...and my word it is deadly.’ She bemoans the fact that boys or masters always dine with them and whenever she tries to chat with Madge ‘in blunders Will.’ She believes that Madge wants only amusing and unconventional people, artists and writers, around her. ‘She does seem thrown away here. She (Madge) tries to take an interest in football at School contests, but I can’t conceive a drearier life for anyone, let alone Madge.’

Poor Will, here he was trying to learn the ropes, coping with a young family; he had been Headmaster for just over a term and had to act as host to this apparently selfish and demanding young girl, with all the responsibility of her well-being. Much of Virginia’s attitude shows her permanent longing to be loved and at the centre of someone’s life. She needed a mother-figure and since she had lost both parents and, indeed, a half-sister by this time, she feared that those she loved would be snatched from her. She felt much the same when a few years later in 1907 her sister married Clive Bell 8 and thought she had lost her sister’s love for ever. She constantly sought assurance from Vanessa that this was not so. This is what she felt about Madge, with whom she had fallen in love at 15, as she was to do with her own sex at other times in her life. She saw Will as the villain of the piece and Madge the victim. However, matters greatly improved and before long Virginia had totally revised her opinion. Writing to Violet on 26th November, ‘She and Will I see more of every day and are perfectly happy. She worships him. There is a great deal that is charming and clever about him. He really is the saving of her. They are a charming pair.’

Whilst with the Vaughans, Virginia wrote some book reviews for a magazine called The Guardian, and as Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West 9 said in the talk he gave at School in 1994, it was a magazine for ‘sad clergymen’. More significant was the article she wrote about a visit to Haworth parsonage. It was the first article of hers to be published and for which she was consequently paid. This was something she had always wanted: to earn money of her own and by her pen. She wrote the article in less than two hours, which perhaps indicates the strong impression which the visit had made on her. When they (Will, Madge and Virginia) set out that November day the weather can only have helped provide a suitable backdrop. ‘A real northern snowstorm had been doing the honours of the moors. It was rash to wait for fine weather, and it was cowardly. I understand that the sun very seldom shone on the Bronte family.’ Virginia was nearer in time to the Bront√ęs than we are today and the experience would have had a real resonance with the fellow apprentice writer. Her view of writers’ houses being opened to the public gaze is mentioned, and she was moved by ‘little personal relics of the dead woman. Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her.’

On 27th November she writes to Will’s sister, Emma, before her return to London, ‘I wish to goodness Giggleswick Church bells could be silenced. Oh Lord those bells! I think the ringers are trying to keep themselves warm with hard arm work.’ So she is not totally uncritical of her surroundings. This, I think, also shows the sensitive state of her nerves. She could never cope with noise. Staying in a house with three young children may also have had its trying moments! In a letter to Madge on her return to Gordon Square, she writes that on her next visit she will take two rooms. ‘This was not suggested by any discomforts at Giggleswick.’ Although she had reservations at first about her cousin and the ‘infernal school’, she loved Madge’s children from the first, calling Barbara, ‘Carry’ and Halford, ‘Brotherboy’, and sent books and toys for them. Although when she married in 1912, Virginia was told by her doctors that it would be unwise for her to have children herself, she had a connection with the young and there are many stories about her playfulness in their company. Fearing no doubt that school food required augmentation, she sent hampers of fruit and vegetables from the market to her under-nourished relations in the wilds of Craven! Later in life, Janet Vaughan10 recalls the kindness shown to her when she was a medical student in London. In letters Virginia referred to the Vaughan children as ‘Heavenly Babies’.

Giggleswick in lodgings

Virginia’s next visit to Giggleswick was on 12th April, 1906. This time she rented two rooms in a boarding house run by a Mrs Turner, perhaps Brookside in Giggleswick, not far from the Church, since in a letter of 1904 to Madge Vaughan she wrote; ‘....your suggestion of a room at Brookside is very timely.’ An old resident of Giggleswick thought that Brookside was where she stayed. However, Mrs Turner is found at ‘Southview’ in Settle, and according to the 1911 Census Mrs Turner was in residence at Pendle View in Giggleswick with a Mr Turner Jackson who was working at the school. Both of these places accord better with the knowledge that Virginia said that the place was 10 minutes walk from the school.

Having sent on a box of books, Virginia arrived at Settle station complete with dog, Gurth, a large woolly creature, who was to enjoy its tramps on the hills after urban London life.

On 16th April she writes to Violet Dickinson, ‘I read and write and eat my meals.’ She describes her life there as solitary, although she takes tea with Madge and we are told that the children come to her for tea. ‘There is a Greek austerity about my life which is beautiful. I never wash or do my hair, but stride with gigantic strides over the wild moorside, shouting Odes of Pindar11 ...exulting in the air which buffets me and caresses me like a stern but affectionate parent.’ Of Madge she writes in the same letter, ‘somehow odd and unexpected though it is, we get along very well together.’ She is less kind in her description of the wife of one of the masters at Giggleswick School, ‘Raw Newnham let loose upon the moors.’ This lady, the unfortunate butt of the cruel, mocking tongue which Virginia Woolf was to use throughout her life when describing someone whom she thought ridiculous or pretentious, presented Miss Stephen with a two volume set of ‘a poetess who killed herself’. Virginia does admit that Madge called her ‘disloyal’ and ‘Will something else’ when later she joked about the gift.

Writing to Lady Roberts12 on 18th April, she refers to the landscape as ‘It is the kind of country that makes me quite content and I could wander about it till I was gray.’ It is in this letter that she explains her plan to take Halford and Janet with their father to Belle Vue Zoo13 in Manchester and, more mundanely, to have their hair cut. Writing to Emma Vaughan on their return, ‘They were all shouting about bears, when I left them, and Madge was screaming with laughter.’ It is in her journal, however, that we see emerging Virginia the writer; her description of an ordinary trip to a zoo inspires her to see it thus: ‘But perhaps the most ghastly touch of all was when a man fired a rocket from the edge of a chilly pond, and the light shot into the pale April morning which seemed to extinguish it instantly by the force of cold common sense. A rocket at 12 midday in the Manchester zoo! No wonder the hyenas howled; the hippotamus (sic) wondered if he had sufficient energy to yawn.’

Mention, too, is made of visits to two of the masters’ families, the Motts14 and the Bearcrofts.15 In 1904 Mr Mott was appointed senior science master. Vaughan told him he was anxious to turn the school into a place where science excelled. Mr Bearcroft, who had taught history at school but who in 1904 became the Headmaster’s secretary and bursar, was on the staff of Giggleswick from 1878 until 1910. He must have been a fount of school information into which the Headmaster might dip. No other member of staff is referred to by name.

Virginia enjoyed life at Mrs Turner’s, delighting in ‘all kinds of Yorkshire cake and muffins. It is a splendid place to come — but I have not yet had my bill!’ Even the dog seems to have been a success: ‘Gurth has won old Turner’s heart.’ Virginia’s Journal contains the following, describing Settle as ‘a discreet little northern town, swept clean and simplified out of all prettiness and vulgarity by the nobility of the country in which it lies’. On a walk over High Rigg she sees in the stone walls and small fields a likeness to Cornwall, a county she loved and knew well from her many childhood holidays. The Stephens had a house near St Ives. ‘All the trees here are red and purple, but not yet green. In winter (1904) it looked much the same. 2000 years ago it looked as it did this afternoon; in that continuity lies its singular grandeur and stability.’

On Easter Sunday afternoon she made the ascent of ‘Attermaier’, writing, ‘It is a strange country. You get into a desolate sea of moors, gray as bone ...’ Easter Monday saw her on the Giggleswick Scar with Gurth where she saw several trains and a hare and ‘climbed over walls made exactly as walls ought not to be made; high and loose without any footholds.’ On 17th April she walked over to Feizor, ‘a wizard-like name.’ She mused, ‘I thought it an odd fate it was to live in an old stone house all the days of one’s life in the village of Feizor.’ This comment came from a young woman from London, who lived a busy, interesting life amongst the upper classes and who had already travelled much around England and had been to Italy and France. No wonder the thought amazed her! On her way back she came upon some tinkers who asked for matches, ‘Had I been alone it would have been unpleasant.’ She does not indicate with whom she was, it might have been her cousin or Madge, or perhaps she meant just the dog. She writes of the effect of the inevitable rain: ‘Rain came down and the country seemed well pleased at this change of mood. Storm and rough weather suit it better than bland and innocent skies. But words! Words. You will find nothing to match the picture.’ She is accompanied by Will and Madge on her walk to Lawkland Hall which delights her: ‘a beautiful specimen of simple domestic building. All its graceful gables and worn traceries there untouched.’ Again it is in her journal where her developing style is apparent; ‘The land remains a half tame thing; with all the wild creatures fearing for freedom in its eyes.’ Vanessa joined her sister for the last four days of her stay at Mrs Turner’s. What landscape she had to paint! I cannot help thinking even in those days what strangely quaint and eccentric figures the two of them would have cut in the streets and lanes of Giggleswick and Settle. I wonder what the boys at school thought of them? They were certainly two lovely and striking young women.

After Giggleswick

Virginia was not to visit Giggleswick again. Why would she when in 1910 her cousin Will was appointed Master of the prestigious public school, Wellington College? He later became Head of Rugby School and retired in 1931. Madge Vaughan died in 1925 and the sundial, with its Italian inscription, ‘Segno le ore si, ma non piu quelle’, translated as: ‘I count the hours ’tis true, but no longer these’, placed on the Headmaster’s lawn at Giggleswick School in her memory, can still be seen today. As Madge was very fond of Italy, and had written in 1908 a novel ‘Days Spent on a Doge’s Farm’ set in Padua, it is not surprising that this inscription was chosen. It is believed that it was found on the wall of a Tuscan farmhouse. By then the close friendship with Madge had cooled but Virginia writes to Janet Vaughan, William’s daughter, on 15th November, 1925, after Madge’s death: ‘She (Madge) was such a part of our childhood we worshipped her.’ Virginia (by then Woolf) had immortalized Madge as Sally Seaton in her novel Mrs Dalloway (published in 1924).

William Vaughan was to marry again; his wife was Elizabeth Geldard of Cappleside. The wedding took place in Rathmell Church. She lived after her husband’s death in Prince’s Risborough. William’s interest in education never waned; whilst at Giggleswick he was a Governor of Skipton School for Girls — how that would have pleased Virginia wearing her feminist hat. She herself had been educated at home by her parents and governess. Virginia’s reading was her real education. Her father had attempted to teach her mathematics, but according to her sister, Vanessa, all her life she added up on her fingers! Also, whilst still Headmaster of Giggleswick, Will was on the committee of the Training College, University of Leeds. After leaving Giggleswick he was to serve on the committees of several other educational organizations, earning him great respect. He was awarded the MVO. It was whilst attending the Indian Science Congress in Delhi in December 1937, that on a trip to the Taj Mahal William Vaughan fell, broke his leg, which had to be amputated, and died a few days later in February 1938 of pneumonia. He was buried in the cemetery of St Paul’s Church, Agra. 16

I say that Virginia did not visit Giggleswick again, but writing in the Charleston Newsletter, September, 1985, Janet Vaughan recollects seeing Virginia and another cousin, Cordelia Fisher, 17 arrive at their house in ‘West Yorkshire’. She writes, ‘As a child I remember the excitement of the arrival of Virginia and Cordelia in a painted horse-drawn caravan to stay with us. Where they were going remains obscure.’ This is a mystery for several reasons, not least of which is that Virginia was not particularly friendly with her Fisher cousins, although they shared some childhood experiences. In every source I have consulted about the Bloomsbury set and Virginia in particular, there is no other reference to this startling visit and by the time Janet was 11 the family had left Giggleswick for Berkshire. And what a journey for two unaccompanied young women! I can only conclude that the time and place were muddled; after all she was remembering something in 1985 that had happened in her childhood. By this time Janet Vaughan was a very old woman! Virginia’s only other visit to Yorkshire was in 1927 when she and her husband and some friends travelled by train to York, thence to Richmond and on to Barden Fell in order to see the sun’s eclipse, seen best of all from Giggleswick, as the wise Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Dyson knew and who arrived at the school chapel field with assistants and equipment ready for June, 29th. (This visit is well documented in records in the School archive.)

And, finally, what of Virginia? By the end of her life she had written ten novels, four books of short stories, seven essays and one biography (or two if one includes Flush: a biography, about the dog belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Her contribution to the 20th century novel was immense: the style and structure of her fiction were innovative. She is regarded as being one of the most significant writers of the 20th century. Her novels are never out of print. Virginia had fought bravely all her life against the psychosis from which she suffered. She worried about the war and the fear of a Nazi invasion (in 1912 she had married Leonard Woolf, a Jew). Living as they did at this time in Sussex, she had watched the German planes overhead on their way to bomb London. She was exhausted from completing her latest novel, Between the Acts. She had even written to her publisher stating that he was not to publish it. She was in a fragile state of mind. After every book which she wrote, Leonard always watched his wife carefully awaiting signs of the bipolar disorder which threatened to strike her when she was at her most vulnerable.

On the morning of March 28th 1941, leaving two notes to her husband, she slipped out of the garden gate and made her way across the water-meadow near their house to the River Ouse. She forced a large stone into the pocket of her coat and drowned herself. Her walking stick was left on the bank. Her body was found some three weeks later by some young children who were playing by the river’s edge.


  1. Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, suffered from deep depressions and hopeless dejection. He had breakdowns and persistent headaches. Leslie’s older brother, James FitzJames, developed dementia in old age. Another brother, James Kenneth, became ill and suffered from manic-depressive outburst in his 20s. He was committed to an asylum where he starved himself to death within 3 months. Virginia’s great-grandfather drank himself to death. Her mother was a highly emotional nervous woman who on the death of her first husband, Herbert Ouckworth, used to go to his grave and lie upon it.
  2. Violet Dickinson was a Quaker and close friend of Virginia’s half-sister, Stella. When their mother and Stella died, she befriended the Stephen children and became especially close to Virginia. She encouraged Virginia’s early talent as a writer.
  3. Dr George Savage was Virginia’s specialist and an old friend of the family.
  4. Thoby, born 1880, was the favourite brother. He died of typhoid in 1906.
  5. Adrian, born 1883, was his mother’s favourite. Virginia eventually set up home with him after her sister married and Thoby had died. They were never very close.
  6. Vanessa Bell was the devoted sister of Virginia who married Clive Bell in 1907. She was to become well-known as an artist and lead an unorthodox lifestyle, sharing the old house Charleston in Sussex with her husband and her lover, Duncan Grant, the artist with whom she had a daughter.
  7. Holywell Toft was built for the Vicar of Giggleswick, Rowland Ingram (1800-1844), son of the Giggleswick Head. It was for some time lived in by Mrs Kempson and bought by the School Governors in 1872 as the Headmaster’s official residence.
  8. Clive Bell, son of a Welsh colliery owner, was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge. He was a friend of Thoby and became interested in Post-impressionism, writing books on aesthetics and art.
  9. Vita Sackville-West, daughter of Lord Sackville, married Harold Nicolson, writer and diplomat. Both engaged in affairs with their own sex and she and Virginia were in love for a time. She was a poet, novelist and broadcaster. She and Harold had two sons, Benedict and Nigel.
  10. Janet Vaughan, older daughter of Will and Madge, went on to become an eminent medical scientist. She became Mistress of Newnham College, Cambridge. As a medical student studying in London, she was a frequent visitor to Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf.
  11. Pindar was a Greek poet living sometime between 518 and 482 B.C.
  12. Lady Roberts was the wife of the son of Lord Salisbury, sometime Prime Minister. Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, painted a fine portrait of her.
  13. Belle Vue Zoo opened in 1836 and closed in 1977.
  14. The Motts, Charles and his wife, Lilian, were both scientists who had worked at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge with Lord Rutherford. They were at Giggleswick from 1904-10 and were very fond of Vaughan. When the Vaughans’ daughter, Barbara, died, Charles Mott feared that they would not keep the Head for long. Apparently William Vaughan had told him that, under the painful circumstances, Madge and he should consider a change of scene.
  15. Philip Bearcroft was a History master at Giggleswick in 1878. In 1904 he became the Head’s secretary and bursar.
  16. Cemetery of St Paul’s, Agra, India. Most of this cemetery has been ‘unofficially’ sold off, and what remains is neglected.
  17. Cordelia was one of Virginia’s many cousins. She was one of eleven children. Her mother was the sister of Virginia’s mother. She was called ‘Boo’ by the Stephens children. The Fisher cousins were not as popular as the Vaughan cousin of whom the Stephens saw a great deal in their youth. Cordelia’s aunt, Adeline, had married H. Halford Vaughan whose only son was William Wyamar, ‘Cousin Will’.

We acknowledge permission to use pictures by The Virginia Woolf Society and Giggleswick School.

Mr William Wyamar Vaughan 1912
© Giggleswick School
The Vaughan family


Mr William Wyamar Vaughan 1912
© Giggleswick School

The Vaughan family