Obituary - Paula Haigh 1920-2011

14th October 2011 at 01:00

Mrs Haigh - never "Paula", even among colleagues - was formidable. Scary, even, particularly if you were a small child who had not done her homework. But the Doncaster head also inspired deep loyalty and respect, her lessons remembered decades after pupils had left school.

Paula Cannon was born in November 1920. Her childhood was spent in the New Forest, followed by St Mary's School, in west London.

When the Second World War broke out she enrolled as a plotter in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, moving model planes around a map. Later, as an officer, she was posted to Cairo. Here, a young serviceman spotted her carrying Schubert scores under her arm. "Shall I accompany you?" he said.

At the end of the war, Paula enrolled in an arts degree at St Andrews University. She also married Hamilton Haigh, her young serviceman accompanist, then working as headmaster of Hill House, a Doncaster private boys' school.

On Hamilton's insistence, Mrs Haigh gained a teaching diploma at Leeds University. Despite having three daughters relatively quickly, she also took on teaching duties at Hill House, filling in wherever necessary, and acting in a role she described as "a sort of matron-housekeeper".

She would have preferred to move south, but Hamilton steadfastly refused. And so, instead, Mrs Haigh set up her own prep school for girls. Named after her alma mater, St Mary's opened in April 1959, with 11 pupils.

"Formidable" and "redoubtable" were adjectives repeatedly applied to the new headmistress. When, for example, homework was not handed in on time, her disapproval was unequivocal and high-volume. Few dared to make the same mistake twice. (In later life, she apprehended would-be burglars in her home. They left shamefaced and empty-handed.)

But she could be unexpectedly forgiving: when she caught children vandalising her kitchen, she understood that their upbringing was at fault, and ultimately befriended the ringleader.

An enthusiastic sportswoman, she was an eager participant in staff-pupil netball matches. And, during one swimming gala, she leapt into the pool fully clothed to see how long the girls would take to rescue her.

Indeed, she was always something of an eccentric. Long before long-haul travel became fashionable, she would spend each summer driving solo (Hamilton had no interest in such trips) through North Africa, the Sahara and the Middle East.

After Hamilton died, Mrs Haigh sold St Mary's. But she continued to teach. And, even when she finally retired, she coached pupils, as well as serving as a local councillor.

She had always disliked birthdays, dismissing school-based attempts to mark the occasion. No one, therefore, dared to mention the fact that she turned 90 last year. But her body knew. Paula Haigh died on 2 September.

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