Memories of Dumbrell’s School and its most famous pupil

To mark the Coronation of His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Queen Consort on Saturday 6 May, our Patron Jenny KilBride reflects on her time at Dumbrell’s School with a young Queen Camilla.

A never-before-seen photograph of Camilla Shand (now Queen Camilla) as Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. 1956.

Soon after my 5th birthday I started school at ‘Dumbrell’s’ just a couple of miles away in Ditchling. It was officially called North End House but everyone called it simply Dumbrell’s after the three sisters who set it up in 1882. When I arrived only one of the Miss Dumbrells was still alive, Miss Mary as we called her, and she was a rather shadowy figure always dressed in shades of grey and lilac. It was very definitely what was then called a ‘Dame School’ and was run very strictly by the formidable Headmistress, Miss Knowles.

One year earlier, Camilla Shand (now Queen Camilla), had arrived at the school soon to be followed by her sister Annabel and brother Mark. By the time the pupils turned eight the boys were taught separately and all the girls between eight and eleven were taught by Miss Knowles in a big school room with lines of old fashioned wooden desks. It was only at this point that I got to know Camilla and even then could not be said to be in her friendship group.

Miss Knowles stands outside the school with two children

The great dividing fact in the school was whether or not you owned a pony. I didn’t – though I have to admit that I longed to have one! What did draw all of us together though, whatever our backgrounds, were the activities at the school which nowadays would mark it out as rather eccentric. In the autumn some afternoons were devoted to ‘top and tailing’ gooseberries, de-stalking blackcurrants or podding peas on the floor of the school room while Miss Knowles read from the classics. Walter Scott was one of her favourites.

At the end of term came the Christmas Party. A huge tree decorated with real candles was brought in by the gardener and decorated. Paper chains were made and on the day of the party bran tubs were placed around the tree containing wonderful presents for each child. The present I remember receiving with most excitement was an italic pen set and instruction book. A glorious tea was prepared by Miss Kempton who, in an echo of earlier times, we called Cook. She was a larger than life character who loved to dress up and joined in the party games after tea with enormous gusto. Even Miss Knowles let her hair down and rushed about with the rest of us.

The class of Dumbrell’s School, 1957. Queen Camilla is third from the right. Jenny Kilbride stands beside her 4th from the right.

In spring there were nature walks led by Miss Knowles who had a passion for botany. We would put on our gumboots and set out along the footpaths that surrounded the school to collect specimens. On our return we placed the flowers in jam jars on our desks. Then one by one they would be identified and we would draw and paint their constituent parts. In the summer term there were two major events. Firstly, the School Picnic when we would walk in a crocodile up onto the Downs or to Nye Woods to find orchids. My memory is that all these longer walks were centred around wildflower searches.

At the end of the summer term the whole school was involved with ‘The Play’. In fact, there were usually several plays to reflect the different age groups in the school. Miss Jean Ellis who lived next door came in to direct us and one of the great excitements was to go to her attic where there seemed to be boxes and boxes of costumes. Here we would be fitted out for our parts. In Camilla’s last year she played the part of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress while I had the much smaller part of Hopeful but my time came the next year when I was Alice in Alice in Wonderland with Annabel Shand playing the Mad Hatter! I remember Camilla as a natural leader, intelligent and kind to the younger children.

Queen Camilla and Jenny KilBride in 2014

After leaving Dumbrell’s we went our very separate ways but in 2006 I wrote to the then Duchess of Cornwall and asked if she remembered our time at Dumbrell’s and whether she would consider being the President of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. I was amazed when she wrote agreeing to do so. Since then she has visited the museum three times and each time we have enjoyed reminiscing about our time at Dumbrells. Like me, she was very happy there and was devoted to Miss Knowles – though it has to be said that others found her truly terrifying.

Maybe Dumbrell’s was a good preparation for the challenges of her future life though nothing could have been further from our thoughts as we made camps in the back orchard at playtime and tramped about the muddy Sussex countryside looking for wildflowers.