Stories from the Archives: A Twenty-Four Year Puzzle
The reply came later that day and started, “Dear Mr Weston, I can’t tell you how delighted I was to receive your letter. Indeed you are talking about my parents and I am the Victor to whom you refer.”
The email sent to me by Professor Emeljanow of the University of New South Wales back on 17th October 2001 meant that at long last, after some twenty years of searching, I had made contact with the family of Gwen Brunton-Jones, the lady who founded our school back in the 1930s. Victor Emeljanow, a distinguished elderly academic, was the same Victor that I had read about in one of his mother’s letters written in 1940: “Victor is growing apace and is really a darling…. He is wonderfully strong and healthy and sleeps like a top…. If all is well in the summer he will have much pleasure running around in the dunes … without those awful nappies. I often wonder what the future holds for him.” What the immediate future held for him was the German invasion of The Netherlands, internment in a camp in Germany for six years with his parents, and then emigration to the antipodes.
In the weeks after my locating Victor Emeljanow, there was a steady to and fro of emails between us as we shared information. I was able to tell him much about the school that his mother had started and about events taking place around him while he was just a toddler. He, in turn, told me a great deal about his mother. Fortunately, after her death in the 1980s, he had hung on to some of her photos from the 1930s. There were only five of them, but at least I could actually see the face of our founder who had eluded me for over twenty years. In one picture, although small, you could see her face quite clearly as she stood with some of the children in front of the Dutch school where she had rented a couple of rooms. So that‘s Gwen Brunton-Jones (aka Emeljanow), I thought. Well, well, Gwen! I’m so pleased to meet you.
That was it then. I had managed to assemble a complete history of the BSN right back to its beginnings. The final piece of the jigsaw had slotted into place. I could write FINIS on the last page.
And then I looked on the back of the photo and read, to my total bewilderment, In the school grounds – two of the children are away. August 1932. Why was I bewildered? The information was surely harmless enough. Well, yes, except that we had always thought the school had been founded in 1935. That was what it said in the prospectus. No one had even questioned it, least of all myself. We had had high profile 50th Anniversary celebrations in 1985 with royal visits and other VIPs, then our 60th in 1995. So what was this about the school operating in 1932? Victor was not able to help me. His mother had never told him when she actually founded the school, and there was no one else I could turn to.
There was, though, one person still alive who could tell me the truth of the matter; but I did not yet know her and she was many thousands of miles away. In Canada, in the beautiful city of Vancouver, there lived an old lady called Clare Baillie (née Macgillivray). Back in the 1920s, her father had been appointed Canadian Government Commissioner to The Hague, and Clare had, for six years, been a pupil at a certain English Kindergarten and Preparatory School, run by a certain Gwen Brunton-Jones. In 2004 she tried, via our recently established Old Students Association, to find out if anyone knew what had become of Mrs B-J and her family after the war and her enquiry came through to me in the archives.
Claire Macgillivray really was the final piece of the jigsaw and, apart from what she told me about the first four years of the school, she provided me, unknowingly, with a good lesson as archivist, namely to take with a pinch of salt stories that people tell you about long ago. With the best will in the world, the human memory often distorts the truth. People really believe they are telling you what happened – when they are not. I sometimes heard quite different versions of the same events from different ex-teachers, each assuring me that they were certain because “I was there at the time, Mike!” I know now why we thought for so long that the school was started in 1935. I know who was responsible, whose memory let her down, and I shall be writing about the lady in question (incidentally a wonderful person whom I got to know very well) in a future article. In Clare’s case there were no spoken reminiscences to go wrong; instead, there were her actual school reports (now in the archive) on printed school stationery and with the dates filled in.
She started at the little English Kindergarten and Preparatory School in the autumn of 1931 in its first term.
Jigsaw puzzle started in 1980, completed in 2004.
Stories from the Archives is a new Voices Blog series by BSN Archivist Mike Weston.
Mr Mike Weston
BSN school archivist, detective and storyteller
Mike came to the English School at The Hague (BSN) in 1972 as Head of German, intending to stay for two years. Mike has been at the BSN for nearly 50 years. Over the years, he has taught a range of subjects and has been involved in many school activities. Starting a school archive from scratch and tracing the school’s history is the activity that has given him the most pleasure. Once he reached retirement age, he asked if he could stay on as the school archivist in hopes to be of service for a while yet. In this capacity, he regularly dives into the archives and comes up with some great stories. His stories are all our stories; enjoy them.
When asked what does he do? In limited space, he can only give the bare bones: Mike stores the BSN’s past. Strictly speaking that is the past of the whole school up to 1966 and after that date (when the BSN split into separate Junior and Senior Divisions) of the Senior School. He has past students’ records, about 150 photo albums going back to the 1940s, programmes, letters, realia, over 200 CDs and DVDs, magazines (beautifully bound in blue and gold!), newspaper clippings. And so on. It’s a long list. Much of the printed material has been scanned – a very onerous and time-consuming task. Mike deals with all manner of enquiries, from parents, alumni, colleagues, employers, other schools, embassies, the public, people being shown round the school.
He enjoys it very much when visitors come to the archive. If you would like to get a glimpse into the archives and hear a fascinating story (or two), just get in touch with Mike beforehand to arrange a time.
In case you missed it, you can read the last instalment of Stories from the Archives: Who is Mrs Emiljanof here.