Canon John Duncan – St Mary’s owes its foundation to the vision of John Duncan, Vicar of Calne from 1865 until his death in 1907. A Scotsman by birth, he took the highest honours at Aberdeen University while in his mid-teens and then studied in London and Berlin before spending time travelling on the Continent. He joined the Church of England in 1854 and began his career as a classics master at a school in Calne, later becoming ordained.
John Duncan dedicated much of his time to pastoral duties and had a keen interest in education. Although there were several schools in Calne serving different sections of the population Canon Duncan felt there was no adequate schooling for the daughters of the Anglican tradespeople and farmers of the area. This was a time of national concern about girls’ education and the pioneering work of Miss Buss and Miss Beale showed that girls could benefit from an ambitious education. An admirer of Nathaniel Woodard’s idea of sound teaching grounded in an Anglican tradition, John Duncan sought the support of the local Church community. With their backing and generosity, he was able to open St Mary’s in 1873 near the church in Calne. Canon Duncan was a familiar presence to the girls, being the prime mover in managing the financial affairs of the school and teaching divinity each week.
Ellinor Gabriel – When Canon Duncan looked to set up a Church school for girls in Calne he needed the support of the local community. Ellinor Gabriel was among the first to offer help and became a major benefactor of St Mary’s. She lived on The Green in Calne and to provide accommodation for the new school she bought a house on the opposite side of The Green which she let to Canon Duncan for the school’s use. On St Mary’s foundation in 1873 Ellinor Gabriel became the superintendent, managing the day to day running with a headmistress and her deputy. The fledgling school struggled to make a profit and it was Ellinor Gabriel who settled the deficit each year until 1879 when she handed management of St Mary’s to Penelope Murray. She continued to support the school in many ways and provided further accommodation when the school needed to enlarge. She died in 1900.
Ellinor Gabriel was a woman of wide interests and with a great dedication to causes dear to her. St Mary’s archive holds a scrapbook of cuttings which she gathered from the 1850s to the 1880s. These give a wonderful insight into local and national issues that concerned, informed or amused her.
Penelope Murray – It fell to Penelope Murray to take on the role of superintendent of St Mary’s after Ellinor Gabriel left. Mrs Murray was the widow of the Rev George Murray, eldest son of the Bishop of Rochester. Married in 1848, by 1854 she was left on her own to bring up five children. One of her daughters married John Duncan. Penelope Murray was a firm and loyal supporter of the vicar and played a pivotal role in the early success of St Mary’s. Like Ellinor Gabriel before her she covered the deficit each year.
Penelope Murray was described as “a woman of strong character and highly intellectual, of charming manners united to a gentle dignity”. She believed fully in the value of a comprehensive education for girls. An admirer of the work of Nathaniel Woodard in founding church schools for the middle classes, Mrs Murray was highly committed to the success of St Mary’s. Just before her death in 1910, she wrote a strongly worded article criticising the church authorities’ previous lack of support of local clergy in their work in providing secondary education to their communities. In her article titled “An Educational Experiment”, she recalled the foundation of St Mary’s and the success that it had achieved thanks to the local church community.