Obituary

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Hilda Fleming, who was the headmistress of the George Watson Ladies' College in Edinburgh from 1958 until 1974, died in January, aged 95.

She was born on a small rocky promontory, whipped by the winds of the North Sea, under the lee of the grey Abbey Church of St Hilda near Hartlepool. Cradled midway between two worlds, the shipyards and the Cleveland Hills, Hilda Fleming developed a love of history and literature and a precocious interest in science - especially physics.

She went to St Mary's College in the University of Durham where she graduated with an Honours degree in physics. Her year of professional training was in London, followed by a few years in Edinburgh, teaching at Craigmount School. At the end of the Second World War, she was appointed senior mistress (and later acting headmistress) at Howell's in Denbigh, and then headmistress of Bately Girls' Grammar in Yorkshire.

In deciding to accept the headship at George Watson's, Hilda made a conscious decision to return to a city with which she had fallen in love several years earlier and one where she believed she would find scope to follow her interests and lead others to discover theirs.

Her vision for the school was one of academic excellence, for science teaching in particular, and a multi-faceted education that went beyond the classroom. Like her predecessors, she believed that women should be educated citizens as well as scholars but she was also persuaded there was need for practical training as well as intellectual rigour.

As a member of the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board, Hilda was never afraid to speak her mind, even if it provoked uncomfortable reaction. Forthright she was, but only because she believed she was right and that it was her duty to take difficult decisions when others might prevaricate.

Given the changing political, economic and social climate of the 1960s and more pressures from the external examination bodies, Hilda had the foresight to see the need for change if the fruits of George Watson's benefaction were to continue to flourish.

When pressure had been applied by the University of Edinburgh regarding the future of the George Square site, the response from several officials within the Merchant Company (which maintained the school) was to consider a new location, possibily building on the Craiglockhart site which adjoined Myreside. But for Hilda there was a much better and more radical solution which entailed the proposal for a fully co-educational merger of the two George Watson schools on the existing site at Colinton Road.

There were many who did not approve. But if they had doubts, they need only look at what has happened since to understand Hilda Fleming was right. For this and much else, she deserves the gratitude of Watsonians everywhere.

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