Education 1: Thyra Creyke-Clark

When I started work in October 1974 as the part-time French teacher at Davies’s College in Cromwell Road, Hove, all I knew of my predecessor was that she was called Thyra Creke-Clark and had died suddenly the previous July.  According to the Principal of the college she had been “a formidable woman”

Window detail, 47 Cromwell Road, 2006. © S. Hinton

The “French” classroom was on the ground floor of No. 47 Cromwell Road.  In it, I found a small library of French, history and art books in what had clearly been a Victorian bedroom wardrobe fitted with shelves.  One day, as I was flicking through a 1915 copy of Le Petit Larousse illustrated dictionary, a black and white photograph (now sadly lost) fell out.  It was a picture of three young women in a garden or park.  Their skirts reached the ground.  Their Edwardian blouses were severe.  They were smoking cigarettes.  I had a strong feeling that it was the smoking that was the focus of the photograph.  These were modern young women, and they were determined to show how modern they were. My guess is that the photograph I had found was of a young Miss Greyke-Clarke in the early years of World War I.  Anything went.

The stairwell at 47 Cromwell Road, photographed in 2006 but unchanged since the early 1970s © Suzanne Hinton

Perhaps the photograph was of Thyra Creyke-Clark and friends.  Perhaps Miss Creyke-Clark was no little old lady eking out her pension but a person with a rich life to be celebrated. 

Davies’s College (since re-names Bellerby’s College) was originally a “crammer”, specialising in “cramming” information into pupils so that they could pass public exams.  By the 1970s the college was welcoming a small number of overseas students, mainly from Europe.  The staff were either post-graduate students, teaching to supplement their grants, or men and women who had retired, some many years previously.  Thyra Creyk-Clarke had joined the staff in her mid-60s and worked until she was 76.

Over the years, I have been able to piece together something about Thyra Creyke-Clark.

Born in 1895, Miss Greyke-Clark was from a military family.  Her father was a Lt-Colonel in the Royal Artillery (Charles Clarke), her grandfather served in the Royal Engineers and had seen action at the Battle of Balaclava.  Her great-grandfather had been the Archdean of York (the Venerable Stephen Creyke), but few of his descendants followed him into the church.  The ladies of the family turned to art and literature.

Thyra Creyke-Clark seems to have spent many years abroad, in Europe, as a girl and a young woman.  She does not appear in the English Census of 1921 and so can be assumed to have been travelling abroad.  In 1924, at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, she gained a distinction “for the colloquial use of the language in question” for her degree.  Six years later she was living and working as a teacher at Langford Grove private school for girls in Maldon, Essex.  This job did not last long as by 1933 she had taken up a post as French teacher at the prestigious girl’s school on the outskirts of Brighton: Roedean School.

Thyra Creyke-Clark joined the staff in 1933 as French teacher and later became Head of Languages.  She retired from the post in 1961.  During the evacuations of WW2, she had accompanied the Roedean girls and her colleagues to Keswick but clearly by 1946 she had developed itchy feet… or a midlife crisis. War does that to people.

She reduced her teaching hours at Roedean and took on the task of personal assistant to Sir Robert Witt, co-founder of the Courtauld Institute.  She worked at the Witt Library of Drawings, Paintings and Engravings (now part of the Courtauld collection) at 32 Portman Square. In his memoires as a student in the late 1940s, Dennis Farr recalls seeing Sir Robert Witt in his wheelchair, “assisted by Thyra Creyke-Clark”.  It was “T.C.C.” who published a short addition to Sir Robert’s obituary in the times: she describes herself as “one who has worked with him as well as enjoyed his friendship for over 20 years.” 

This friendship extended to enjoying extended visits to the Clergy House in Alfriston where Sir Robert and his wife were early tenants of the National Trust. Following Sir Robert’s death Thyra took over the tenancy.

Her interest in art must have been not only great but sound.  Her mother had been an amateur artist on the outer fringes of the Bloomsbury Group and her taste seems to have run to the modern.  The one painting Miss Creyke-Clark bequeathed to Brighton Museum was Frances Hodgkin’s “Figures on a platform” painted in 1931. 

“Figures on a platform”: Frances Hodgkins c. 1931. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

In his will, Sir Robert Witt bequeathed “£250 to the said Miss Thyra Creyke-Clark,” and his “cloud sketch by Constable to her for life.” Presumably on the assumption that she would take great pleasure in looking at the sketch.  Realising that the Witt Library would inevitably change after his death, Sir Robert, ever a thoughtful man, added to his bequest: “£5,000 to Miss Creyke-Clark if she is not able to obtain, and if she so desires to retain employment with the Courtauld Institute and in deep gratitude for her past services to myself.”

Miss Cryke-Clark returned to work full-time at Roedean in 1954, so possibly did not inherit the £5,000.

In the wardrobe/bookcase at 47 Cromwell Road, many of the books had the name Lavauden written inside them. The dedication below was a clue to a very close relationship:

Personal collection. © S. Hinton

Thérèse Lavauden was born in 1892.  As a student she had won a gold medal at the Geneva conservatoire, but later her attention moved from music to politics and from Switzerland to England.  In 1917 she published an article on Lord Northcliff, and over the next three years at least two long political articles carried her byline: Le problème régionaliste [The regionalism problem] in the influential Mercure de France and then Sur le nationalisme indien [On Indian nationalism].  Not all Mlle Lavauden’s articles were on very serious matters.  In January 1931 she published an one on La vrai Sophie Tucker [The Real Sophie Tucker – Sophie Tucker was the “red hot momma” of her day] within a year of having written one on L’humour dans l’œuvre de Debussy [Humour in the works of Debussy]. Music and art and perhaps above all her love of England re-emerged as her dominant themes as she published more and more articles both in English and in French.

In 1932 Thérèse took up a teaching post at Roedean, just one year before Thyra Creyke-Clark arrived.  The mutual attraction between the two must have been strong from the start. As early as 1935 they travelled to France together to attend the funeral of a Lavauden family friend.  When Thérèse died, it must surely have been Thyra who put the following announcement in The Times:

LAVAUDEN. – on June 6th, 1970. Therese Cecille Lavauden, in her 76th year, last descendant of the ancient Huguenot family Lavaldens [sic], and beloved life-long friend of Thyra Creyke-Clark.  Service at the Downs Crematorium, Bear Road, Brighton.

The couple had been together for nearly 40 years. When the obituary of Miss Creyke-Clark appeared in the Old Rodeanean’s Association magazine, it refers not only to their joint hospitality at the Clergy House in Alfriston from the early 1950s, but also “… much longer ago, in their house in Provence.”  In their later years the couple lived in Flat 7 of 35 Sussex Square – a property which had formerly housed Roedean School in its early days.

Miss Lavauden and Miss Cryke-Clarke both made a strong impression on the girls:  in her compilation of pupil’s memoirs, Judy Moore quotes the following about Miss Lavauden (aka The Lav or Love-a-duck): “Mlle Lavauden, who was Swiss, wore big cameos and entranced us with stories, in French, of [surgical] operations.” “The popular, lively and highly-respected Mlle Lavauden”

In the 1950s, shortly before Miss Lavauden took retirement, one “old girl” [Jean Naggar in her book “Sipping from the Nile”] remembered the piano concerts in Brighton given by Thérèse Lavauden, but above all:

I can still see her piercing blue eyes and her leonine mane of pure-white hair which her ringed fingers periodically raked through in exasperation, as she challenged the class, “Andromaque était plus épouse que mère. N’est-ce pas? Qu’en pensez-vous, Mesdemoiselles? Allez! Allez!” … and while I was always a little afraid of her razor wit and sarcasm, particularly when they were directed at me, I valued her classes more than any other and later missed the intellectual stimulation she provoked and required.”

Miss Creyke-Clark (aka TCC or Crikey) was a more difficult subject. Judy Moore writes: “Wildly imaginative Thirties pupils were convinced that the French tutor, Thyra Creyke-Clark had been a spy in the First World War.”  Other girls remembered:

  • ‘She had one half-closed eye and we claimed that she had injured it while looking through a key-hole for the Secret Service.’
  • ‘faintly Parisian raffishness and too terribly civilised.’
  • ‘Just as I imagine Edith Sitwell with a voice to match.’
  • ‘I was terrified of her … she made learning French a misery for me. On a good day she would take out a large watch she carried on a chain about her person and demonstrate its various chimes, and tones and bells and tell us how it had saved her in the darkness and dangers of Paris during the war*.  Perhaps she was a sad person, burdened with tragedies beyond anything I would ever know.’ [* 1914-1918]

The obituary of Miss Thyra Creyke-Clark in Old Rodeanean’s Association magazine did not gloss over her “flame-like mind and ready tongue. No one could deny her asperities …” but all this had been put to good use.  The obituary continues: “… but when the rapier was drawn it was with a tremendous flourish and often with an unregenerated glee that robbed it of half its sting.”

It is interesting to note that one pupil should have judged her to be a “sad” person.  This might have been simply the pupil’s youthful romanticism.  TCC had a very rich life and a loving relationship … with, of course, Thérèse Lavauden. 

Both women worked as teachers throughout their lives.  Thérèse Lavauden was able to supplement her income by writing articles – indeed, on her naturalisation papers to become a British citizen in February 1947, Julie Cécile Thérèse Lavauden gave her profession as “teacher and journalist”.  When Thérèse died in 1970, she left a small fortune of £20.000 (presumably to Thyra) – enough to buy a small Regency house or a fine semi in Brighton at the time. When Thyra died, she left over £33.000. After the death of Thérèse, Thyra stayed on in the flat in Sussex Square and continued to work.  Not for the money.  Teaching enabled her to keep in touch with young people (many from overseas at both Roedean and Davies’s), to indulge her love of French literature and, of course, after the death of Thérèse, to have a way of dealing with her grief. 

An amazing woman who would probably have intimidated me but who I would have loved to meet.

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