Dr E Margaret Buckle, Dales poet and teacher at Settle Girls’ High School

Kathleen Kinder
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Recently I came across on my book shelves Stone Wall Country and Summer’s End, two little volumes of poetry written 40-50 years ago by the late Dr Buckle of Giggleswick. I had forgotten how beautiful the poems are and immediately thought that they ought to be revived and re-read for they tell of a Dales countryside which is changing and in the case of some of the flora, birds and animals she writes about so lovingly, disappearing. Her poetry presents us with another kind of heritage different from man-made objects from the past and the visible presence of the scenery of the Yorkshire dales. Dr Buckle is also of particular interest to NCHT members. She gave much enthusiastic support to its early development, starting with the Settle and District Civic Society, and was a vice-president of the Trust.

Margaret Buckle was born in Hampstead in London in 1905, two years before Settle Girls’ High School opened, where later she was to devote 38 years of her life, teaching French and Latin. Her background, upbringing and education could not have been more in contrast with the place she came to love, in which she came work and spend a great deal of her life. It did not occur to me until I came to gather information about Dr Buckle just how much the history of the School at which she taught has been largely forgotten by the community whose daughters it served so faithfully for 52 years. This article therefore touches on the development of girls’ secondary education in the area as well as dealing with the meagre background history we have of Settle Girls’ High School and Dr Buckle’s achievements as teacher and Dales poet.

The last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries were to see far-reaching changes in public attitudes towards secondary and university education for girls and women. Attitudes varied however, according to where one lived. The more remote and the more rural the situation, the more conservative and therefore, more resistant were attitudes to change. For most of the nineteenth century (until 1914), until the beginning of World War I, an influential middle-class ideology advocated that women should confine their activities to the home as housewives and mothers. There were very few jobs available for unmarried middle-class women who had been educated in privately-run establishments or at home. Some became governesses and teachers, like Jane Eyre and her creator Charlotte Bronte, but others known as ‘distressed gentlewomen’ could only try to earn a little with their needlework. The ‘agony columns’ of women’s journals like Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket were full of women’s letters asking for help to sell the women’s handicrafts. Mrs Smith, the widowed friend of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion (1818, posthumously), was a ‘distressed gentlewoman’.

In her novel, Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Bronte gives us an insight into how village girls’ education could develop from the teaching of the 3Rs and sewing. The character, Jane Eyre writes of her experience as teacher (presumably in Yorkshire) in the village school for girls established by the vicar, the Revd St John Rivers:

“I had amongst my scholars several farmers’ daughters — young women grown almost. These could already read, write and sew: and to them I taught the elements of grammar, geography, history and the finer kinds of needlework”. It would be some years before some free grammar school places were available to academically bright working-class girls.

In Settle, from the early nineteenth century some basic education was available to both lower-class and middle-class girls. In a letter to a friend dated 1825, William Lodge Paley, headmaster of Giggleswick National School writes, as quoted on page 246 in A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick, that in Settle there was a Ladies’ seminary and a Dame school. Dame schools were known for the poor quality of the education they offered. They were at best an inadequate form of elementary education, offering in many places nothing more than the teaching of spelling. However, the Ladies’ seminaries were often at the forefront of the advancement of better education for women. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a Ladies’ seminary, with boarding facilities, based at Overdale, a large house on the Skipton Road in Settle. This seems to have been the immediate predecessor of Settle Girls’ High School.

Formal secondary education for women, where it existed throughout the nineteenth century to nearly World War I, was based around the notion that a well-educated woman made a more interesting companion for her husband, family and siblings. The War altered everything. Women had to take on many of the jobs done by the men now fighting, and dying, in the trenches. The feminist and suffragette movements were making their mark. After the War, a generation of women, bereft of their men-folk killed in the conflict, were learning to forge careers as single, professional and business women. With all that came a new confidence. Even so, old attitudes in many communities towards educated women were hard to shift, lingering well on into the second half of the twentieth century. I was fortunate that my parents encouraged me to go to university, but some of my school friends had parents who refused to let them even think of the possibility, because a university education would be ‘wasted’ on marriage.

Because of the lingering belief that a married woman could not run a home and have a career, many academic women who also wanted to marry, were caught on the horns of a dilemma. In many professional jobs, they had to resign on marriage. There is a fascinating discussion of the problem facing some of the women dons at the fictional Oxford University Shrewsbury College in Dorothy L. Sayers’ final Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night (1935). From the 1930s until well after the Second World War, there was a growing reluctance on the part of many employers to appoint married women. In many girls’ grammar schools, unmarried headmistresses simply refused to appoint a married woman member of staff, no matter how experienced and well-qualified for the post the person was. My husband and I married in 1960, just before he was appointed to teach RE and woodwork at Settle High School. I applied for a post to teach English to scholarship level at Skipton Girls’ High School. I was told by Miss Harries, the headmistress who interviewed me, that though I was well-suited for the post, she could not appoint me because I was “married and would not be able to offer the dedication required for the job.” I have not forgotten her words. As it happened, an unexpected vacancy occurred in the English department at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School for Girls where I had taught before. I went back to teach English to scholarship level. I was only the second married woman on the staff (see below).

Prejudice against highly-educated, academic women had its roots in the past. What really appalled many in some Victorian communities was the thought of girls’ grammar schools. Grammar schools were for boys. These schools specialised in Latin and a ‘classical’ education. Dr Buckle incidentally, taught both French and Latin, the latter for some of her 38 years at Settle Girls’ High School. Latin was considered to be the language for men in ‘the professions’. When girls’ grammar schools appeared in the 1880s, many were called ‘high schools’ so as to avoid an invidious comparison with the local boys’ grammar school. The grudging acceptance of the new girls’ grammar schools continued well into the twentieth century, manifesting itself in a variety of ways. When a building was put up to house a new girls’ grammar school, it was often of inferior quality or placed in a less salubrious part of town as far away as possible from an ancient, well-established boys’ grammar school. Leigh Girls’ Grammar School, in south Lancashire, where I was educated, certainly fitted that situation. At least its pictorial archives are on the internet, which is more than can be said of other girls’ grammar schools, abolished in the late twentieth century to make way for the new comprehensives. I have just been staring at an internet image of myself, aged 17, in a photo of the 1949-50 Upper VIth at LGGS. There we all are, neatly attired in blouses, skirts and school ties, proudly displaying our prefects’ badges and honours won on the sports field.

Skipton Girls’ High School was founded in 1886, but even though it was subsidised by an endowment, like many grammar/high schools of the time, it was fee-paying. In the history section of the School’s web site, there is an interesting extract from the inauguration speech of the Chairman of the governors, who promised: “an education equally good, sound and thorough as that which is given at the Grammar School to their brothers. And they must remember that admirable education was given at a ridiculously low price, fees being £4-£6 a year for day girls and £36 a year for boarders, according to age”. For a good part of the twentieth century, until they perhaps, joined as co-educational schools, most boys’ and girls’ grammar schools in a town had little to do with each other. When they shared the same premises and resources, there could be friction as there occasionally was at Clitheroe 1954-57, during my first period of teaching English at the Royal Grammar School for Girls (founded 1915). In 1957, the girls school moved to a new building, and then merged with the boys’ school in 1985. Now, Queen Mary’s Royal Grammar School (to give it its full title), founded in 1554, is co-educational, and the former animosities seem to have been laid to rest. The old shared building I remember so well, now houses the VIth form, one of the largest in England. In 2005, after the failure to be granted Technology College status (which had been granted to Settle High School in 2004), Clitheroe Royal Grammar School was granted specialist Language College status and now offers courses in Mandarin, Urdu and Russian. Secondary schools move on to serve the needs of the time.

Although there was an exhibition in the Folly in 2007 to celebrate the Settle Girls’ High School centenary, there does not seem to have been an accompanying booklet outlining its history. The Folly museum has an incomplete set of School magazines. I have yet to come across research based on these. Neither have I found any archive material relating to Settle Girls’ High School, if any exists. I am grateful to friends who remember Dr Buckle, as I do, or who were pupils at Settle Girls’ High School, or who were colleagues in her last years at Settle High School, all of whom have shared memories of a much-loved lady, a happy school and its remarkable, gifted and highly qualified staff of single women teachers. Apart from their memories, which mostly relate to the 1940s-50s, there is nothing. In the 58 years I have lived in the Giggleswick-Settle area, I cannot recall one article written about this School by any local historian. There is a brief reference on the website of Settle College where we learn that Settle Girls’ High School was founded in 1907 and ceased to exist when one of the first mixed comprehensive schools in the country, Settle High School, came into being in 1958. Settle High School became Settle College in 2004 when the School gained Technology College status. When the School became comprehensive in 1958, Dr Buckle continued to teach for a short time in extended premises under a new regime, until her retirement. It must have been quite a change for her, moving from a small, all girls’ establishment to a much bigger, mixed, non-selective pupil environment, but as her colleagues noted, she coped with the change remarkably well.

The internet has yielded some interesting facts about the advances that were made relating to girls’ secondary education at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was no accident that 1907 saw the foundation of Settle Girls’ High School. During that year the Education Administrative Provisions Act came into force. All grant-aided grammar schools were required to provide 25% of free places. The Act empowered Local Education Authorities to create new secondary/grammar schools for girls. Under the governance of the West Riding, Settle Girls’ High School was one of those new LEA grammar schools. We have no record of the composition of the first intake or of how it was achieved. It is likely that daughters of staff at Giggleswick School would be amongst the first pupils. Settle was a small bustling market town, with a growing business and professional community. In the surrounding countryside were some reasonably well-off farmers. Some at least, would be prepared to have their daughters educated at the new High School. The School was very small, never more than 150-200 pupils. In the early days a kindergarten shared the premises, no doubt helping to make both institutions economically viable

In the 1997 edition of the North Craven Heritage Trust Journal, not only is there an affectionate tribute to and obituary of Dr Buckle by the late Phyllis Houlton, an ‘old girl’ of Settle Girls’ High School, and to which I am indebted, there is also a collection by Enid Taylor of Gleanings from Giggleswick National School Logbook, written by successive head teachers. There is an entry for 1907 which makes no mention of the opening of the new Settle Girls’ High school. Perhaps there was no girl from this local elementary school who was able to take up a place? The first girls’ grammar schools were for middle-class girls whose parents could afford to pay the fees.

Dr Buckle had acquired considerable academic distinction before she moved north from London to teach at this little-known girls’ grammar/high school in the Yorkshire Dales. She graduated from the Royal Holloway College of London University with a first-class honours degree, gaining her doctorate in French literature two years later. By all accounts, she was not the only woman teacher at Settle Girls’ High School who had a doctorate. Her alma mater, London University, was the most advanced in its provision of higher education for women. In 1880, London University was the first to award degrees to women. Not only that, London University imbued its graduates with the revolutionary idea, new at the beginning of the twentieth century, that education was for the whole person and not just for the training of the academically inclined. Phyllis Houlton writes in Dr Buckle’s Obituary, ‘Her wide vision of education of the whole child involved her in a variety of extra-curricular activities including drama, senior musical society, Scottish dancing and the League of Nations. She taught many girls to swim in the river, just below Queen’s Rock!’ Those were the days before Health and Safety regulations.

Apart from her deep involvement in local and social history, Dr Buckle’s keenest interest lay in the natural world, the flora and fauna and scenery of the Dales countryside. She became an authority on local wild flowers and was an ardent advocate of uncut grass verges where flowers and plants could flourish undisturbed. She lived with her friend and colleague, Miss C M Oddy, in Garstangs, the seventeenth-century house at the bottom of Belle Hill in Giggleswick. Together, they walked the hills and dales imbibing the sights and sounds, enjoying and sharing the different experiences of the changing seasons. Often Dr Buckle took solitary walks around Giggleswick, the limestone and millstone grit landscapes and the farmland near her home. It is experiences from these walks that provide most of the material and inspiration for her poetry.

In 1967, she became blind and taught herself to touch-type. It was then that she started to write poetry, the inspiration coming from a rich vocabulary and vivid, visual imagery stored behind the blindness in her mind and imagination. Beethoven did the same with music when he was going deaf. Wordsworth called it, ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Dr Buckle wrote poetry mostly in traditional form and it reads superbly orally. She wrote two little books of poetry, Stonewall Country and Summer’s End. Her last poem in Stonewall Country begins defiantly:

         You do not like my verse?
         I do not write for you.
         I write to please myself.
         And seldom do.

Then in verses two and three, she reveals a little of the creative process that goes on in the mind of a poet who is blind:

         I have no eyes to see
         Colours of earth and sky.
         Inside my skull, I hide
         To watch the swift thoughts fly.

         And catch, if catch I can,
         A word, a phrase, a theme,
         Some cadence from the deep,
         Heard in a dream.

Dr Buckle’s achievements were recognised further afield. She won a national BBC competition writing the conservation poem Tomorrow’s Child for the NCHT’s Museum Appeal. In 1989, Ted Watson of the Royal Shakespeare Company asked if he could set some of the poetry to music. Phyllis Houlton writes: ‘He and actors from the RSC performed the work at Ingleborough Community Centre. It was recorded by Yorkshire TV and later, Dr Buckle was the subject of a radio commentary by Nigel Forde’. The CD of her poems set to music and the various editions of her poems are still available from several internet outlets.

As I have been writing this article, it has gradually dawned on me that Dr Buckle’s rich legacy is closely bound up with the legacy of the girls’ school she loved and where she taught for so many years. Neither she nor Settle Girls’ High School and their influence on this community will be forgotten.

E. Margaret Buckle — editions of poems (available at time of writing from internet outlets) Stonewall Country and Summer’s End were published twice, once by Yew Tree Books 1981 (two editions), and self-published with cover illustrations by Margaret Blackburne, in 1986. The CD is also available from Amazon.


Former pupils of Settle Girls High School - Margaret Blackburne, Susan Brookes, Linda Clemence, Audrey Daykin, Barbara Fiorato, Margaret Holgate, Dora Tattersall

Former colleagues of Dr Buckle at Settle High School — Olwyn Bolger, Elaine Pattison

The Folly Museum - Anne Read, honorary curator.

Photographs - courtesy Susan Brookes, Linda Clemence, Dora Tattersall


  • Persuasion — Jane Austen, (Collins, 1953)
  • Jane Eyre — Charlotte Bronte (Penguin, 1956)
  • Mrs Leach’s Fancy Workbasket — (omnibus edition, 1886)
  • Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers (Gollanz, 1935)
  • A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick,