Gresham's School in Wartime

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Irene Statham - Gresham's own suffragist

Irene Statham – music teacher (1905-8) and ‘suffragist’

Marian Adelaide Irene Statham was born in Plymouth in 1878.  Her father Edward was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and her mother Annis née Forbes hailed from Jamaica.  The 1891 Census sees the family, including younger sister Nora, resident aboard a reformatory ship, Clarence, moored off Birkenhead, where Edward is Captain. Irene came from a musical family, her uncle Henry was an amateur musician, who played the organ and contributed articles to Grove’s and the Dictionary of Music & Musicians. Her cousin Heathcote, himself an OG (1905-8) went on to become an organist of international repute, as well as a composer and conductor.  By 1901 Irene and her mother and sister are staying in Notting Hill, Kensington, whilst her father is boarding in Arundel, Sussex and gives his occupation as retired Commander RN.

Irene came to Gresham’s in 1905 to teach violin and piano, performing in her first concert with four others in 1906. In 1907 she performed in her first staff play, A Pair of Spectacles, playing the parlour maid.  The following year Irene again played a maid in Punch, and was credited for her realistic ‘intonation and imitation of a cheerful menial’, helping to set the scene when the curtain rose without a trace of nervousness.  It is perhaps for her concerts that she was most remembered at School, though, and following a 1907 performance The Gresham Magazine reported, “Miss Statham is always sure of a hearty reception, she can and does undertake great music and interpret with poetry and insight, with delicacy of phrasing and, we venture to think, perfection of style.”

Music was already flourishing when Irene Statham arrived to teach in 1905, with a small choir performing public concerts. In 1906 the much-heralded orchestra was launched, and thanks to the connections in the musical world of its director Geoffrey Shaw, the School attracted regular well-known visitors such as Cecil Sharp.  From 1910 Walter Greatorex continued the good work, establishing music as an important part of the life of the School, and producing many talented OG musicians such as Lennox Berkeley (1914-16).

The 1911 Census sees Irene as a boarder in Hanworth House in Holt, along with other single teachers including Vivian Smith and Dalziel Hammick.  Interestingly, she gives her occupation as violin teacher and suffragist, and in the following year takes part in a debate on the topical subject of women’s rights. On 2nd March 1912 Mabel Smith, a South Yorkshire politician, moved that ‘This House disapproves of the Enfranchisement of Women’.  Miss Statham showed the absurdity of the present system under which women were allowed to canvass but unable to vote, and were not permitted to sit on town councils.    Mrs Field, wife of the School Chaplain, ‘boldly declared that she belonged to the most militant class of suffragists.’ Another of those who spoke in favour of women’s suffrage was headmaster Howson who believed that women could take part in public life ‘without detriment to home and family’, pointing out many examples of their ‘excellent activities’ in public life.  The subject of unfair and outdated distribution of votes had been keenly debated at School since 1908, when an important discussion took place with 120 in attendance, when the motion that ‘This House would welcome the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to women’ was carried by 27 votes.


Irene Statham left Gresham’s in July 1914 and was credited with having much to do with the success of music in the School.  She went on to study the ‘new method of teaching’ under Professor Yorke Trotter who put his system of musical education based on rhythmic movement into practice at the London Academy of Music. Irene remained a spinster all her life, living in Westminster during the 1930s and up to the 1950s.  She died in Purley, Surrey in 1963. 

I would love to know what happened to Irene after leaving Gresham's and to find out more about her suffragist involvement. If anyone has a photo of her I would be very pleased to have a copy.