Miss Margaret Higginson, Headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division 1954 – 1979

EMDH photoducated at Sutton Girls’ High School, Margaret Dora Higginson went on to gain First Class Honours in English Language and Literature at Oxford and a distinction in her Teaching Diploma.

Following posts at Wycombe Abbey and Bemrose School for Boys, she moved to St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1945. There she taught Shirley Williams (née Catlin), who later wrote: “I owe you a life-long sense of intellectual excitement and a goal of integrity … you are a lighter of flames and not just a simmerer of pots.”

Appointed Headmistress of the Girls’ Division in 1954, Miss Higginson provided firm, authoritative leadership. She set the standards against which her pupils should measure themselves and encouraged them to have their own ideas – and the confidence to test them out. The Sixth Form quickly realised that things had changed forever: “goodbye white ankle-socks, prunes and prisms; hello independent thought and adult responsibility”.

Miss Higginson’s delight in literature was infectious and it was through this, in particular, that she sought to inspire her pupils. Her beautifully crafted addresses, whether at the regular assemblies or on special occasions, underlined not only her lucidity of mind but also what was important to her. The opening line of the School Prayer – that God will “require much of those to whom much is given” – perfectly encapsulated her philosophy. Her religious faith was her guiding principle and she, in turn, shaped her pupils’ social consciences and ideals, inspiring them to help the wider community – whether through small scale local activities or on a more global stage.

Miss Higginson was keen to know her pupils personally and had insisted on taking each class for general studies during her first year. With her searing intellect, high standards and a propensity for provoking and speaking her mind, she filled her pupils with awe. Recalling their A Level English lessons with her, Elaine Lever said that “she set a higher personal standard of teaching than some of us received at university” while Elizabeth Mullenger described her as “a truly inspirational teacher who demanded rigorous analysis and a concise written style”.

Committed to seeing every pupil achieve her full potential, Miss Higginson encouraged excellence wherever shoots of it appeared—and, when they did, they were not allowed to lie dormant! She was at the forefront of curriculum developments and encouraged girls to test themselves through challenges at home, such as walking the Pennine Way, or through Voluntary Service Overseas. Under her leadership, the school intake rose significantly, pupils’ horizons broadened and the number going up to Oxford and Cambridge increased.

Believing passionately that her students should be aware of the wider world, she cross-examined her Prefects each morning on the day’s news. She also showed the Sixth Form how to cope with formal occasions by requiring each one to spend a lunchtime with her, dining at High Table and making polite conversation – a daunting prospect which led to a few strategic illnesses!

If she expected much of her pupils, Miss Higginson also expected a great deal of her colleagues. New ideas shot from her room with alarming frequency, leaving everyone somewhat breathless. They coped, of course, because her judgment in appointing staff was sound, and her encouragement led to many of them becoming Headteachers or leaders in education.

In 1965, the School acquired St Mark’s Vicarage at Cautley. A firm believer in the benefits of letting one’s hair down away from school and in the importance of developing the whole person, Miss Higginson embraced this “new dimension in School life” wholeheartedly. She appreciated the family feeling that Cautley nourished and it appealed to her love of the simple, traditional ways of doing things. Crucially, as she later said, it also “brought the two Divisions together—not before time”.

In this new spirit of cooperation, she worked with Headmaster David Baggley throughout the Sixties and Seventies to establish better links between the Divisions so that they no longer regarded each other as “alien species”. The two Divisions began to share Sixth Form teaching in General Studies, Classics, Economics and in Oxbridge tuition groups. A common Entrance Examination was established and joint ventures in Music and Drama began to flourish.

Miss Higginson retired in 1979, and died thirty years later, just eight weeks short of her ninety-first birthday. A towering figure, she was described by former colleague Ena Evans as “a person of great integrity … a visionary. She admired plain living and high thinking. She was right for her time and her influence lives on.”

Veronica Millington