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A life-long association with teaching and schools (1913-1997)

Mary Oakeley

Mary Oakeley (12 Jun 1978)

The photo date is an approximation.

‘Mary O’, as she was affectionately known, was in her 85th year and had recently published her autobiography, The Long Timetable. Her book begins with her birth in Bristol in April 1913; an event which took place in a girls’ school, the chosen nursing home being full. Thus began Mary's life-long association with teaching and schools.

The Oakeley family moved to Eynsham shortly after Mary’s birth and her early life was spent in the village where she attended Miss Swann’s school in Redthorn House. Mary had a deep respect for Miss Swann and thought her ‘a marvellous woman and a fine and caring teacher’. From the age of ten she attended St John's School, Bexhill, followed by study at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she graduated in History.

In 1940 Mary travelled to New Zealand on the last passenger ship to sail through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal during the Second World War, the boat being chased by submarines until it reached Gibraltar.

The post of headmistress at the Craighead School at Timaru in the South Island was a daunting one for a young woman of twenty-seven; however, when Mary finally left in 1955 she had transformed an establishment of 42 disenchanted girls into the leading South Island school with 220 pupils, a new chapel and playing fields. During this time she had become the second woman in the Anglican church to be appointed lay-reader and had preached in Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches in New Zealand.

Mary’s second headship was at St Felix School, Southwold, where she worked for twenty years until her retirement in 1978. The school had suffered wartime deprivations but during Mary’s administration, a language laboratory, a new form block, squash courts, an art room and a sixth-form house were also built. The school crest was adapted by Julia Loken for a memorial kneeler in St Leonard’s Church

During her retirement in Eynsham, Mary worked in an Oxford Summer School for ten years, operated St Leonard's Boys’ Club and the Drop-in Club at the Church Hall. She became a Diocesan Synod representative and assisted at services in St Leonard’s church for many years.

As Chairman of the Eynsham Society her expertise was greatly appreciated during parish meetings on the vexed question of local gravel extraction.

She remained very active to the end of her long life. A long-serving member of the Eynsham History Group, at the time of her death she was its Outings Secretary, and had urged us to produce a formal constitution, providing a suggested draft.

She was a source of strength in village society, honest and direct with an immense ‘savoir faire’ and a fund of amusing local tales. Her support and her optimistic presence will be greatly missed.


Joan Weedon, Eynsham Record 15 1998 pages 2-3

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