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Obituary: Margaret Higginson 1918-2009

When Margaret Higginson became headmistress of Bolton School, she had never compiled a timetable or taken an assembly, but quite fancied the romance of working in Bronte country. By the time she retired, 25 years later, she had adjusted sufficiently to inspire, encourage and intimidate hundreds of girls.

Margaret Dora Higginson was born in Surrey in 1918. She developed a love of English literature, and obtained a first-class degree in the subject from Somerville College, Oxford. She subsequently went on to take a teaching diploma at Oxford.

During the first 10 years of her career, she held a number of teaching posts, including assistant English mistress at the prestigious St Paul's girls' school in London. Then, in 1954, she saw an advert for head of Bolton School girls' division. As a southerner, she thought she was being magnanimous: she assumed the school would have asphalt playgrounds and bars on the windows.

She arrived for interview at the school's imposingly verdant 19th-century site, and was tempted to turn around and leave. "Really, I had no right to be applying," she said later. "It was ridiculous cheek."

She was 34 and had never had to compile a timetable or address pupils from a podium. Nonetheless, the job was hers. A former pupil summed up the change of regime as: "Goodbye white ankle-socks, prunes and prisms; hello independent thought and adult responsibility."

Keen to know her pupils personally, she insisted on taking each class for general studies during her first year, as well as teaching A-level English and scholarship classes. She also attempted to sign up for the annual staff-pupil netball match, but was quietly informed by an older member of staff that it was not quite seemly for the headmistress to play netball.

"Hig", as her pupils knew her, was painfully aware of her youth and inexperience: mothers would buy a new hat to meet her, which struck her as strangely inappropriate.

"I was young," she said. "But I outlived it." She earned pupils' respect through her deep desire to see them fulfil their potential. If she thought girls were capable of Oxbridge admission, she would put immense pressure on them to apply.

But she also believed in a rounded education. Prefects were invited into her office each morning, to be cross-examined on the news. And every girl was expected to spend one lunchtime eating - and making polite conversation - with her at high table. This terrified many of them.

She was eager to modernise the school. The boys' division was only across the quadrangle, but previous heads had regarded its pupils as an alien species. Miss Higginson organised a joint trip to Italy in 1956, and later arranged for boys and girls to take general-studies classes together.

A new North Wing was built, a theatre equipped, a lacrosse field acquired. An organ was installed in the school hall, to accompany the new school song that Miss Higginson had commissioned.

When the direct grant was abolished in 1974, and Bolton became an independent school, Miss Higginson championed bursaries for the disadvantaged. She believed talent should be allowed to develop, regardless of background. In this, as in most subjects, she had firm opinions. After her retirement in 1979, she became a prolific letter- writer, corresponding with Radio 4, The Guardian and the Bolton Evening News.

She did not marry - some suspect an Oxford boyfriend, possibly killed in the war - and school was her life. In retirement, she continued to meet new staff and to monitor exam results. Old pupils visited every day, reading to her when her eyesight failed. Baroness Williams, a former pupil, organised a 90th birthday for her last year.

  • Margaret Higginson died on September 1. A memorial service will be held in Bolton on November 28.

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