Partner Dorothy Sergeant
3 Market Hill, Ramsey, Isle of Man IM8 1LA, Isle of Man
Homerton College, Hills Rd, Cambridge CB2 8PH, UK
Kirk Maughold, St. Maughold Churchyard Maughold, Garff, Isle of Man
Alice Havergal Skillicorn (1894 – February 3, 1979) was the principal of Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge from 1935. She first met Dorothy Sergeant in the early 1930s. They were both working in the school inspectorate at that time. But Alice’s appointment as the leader of a premier educational institution, responsible for several hundred young unmarried women, made it impossible for her to risk scandal, so Dorothy remained in the background. Thus during the week Alice lived in college and played out her headmistressy role to perfection: gruff, forceful and bossy, she didn’t waste words and could be austerely unapproachable. The weekends and vacations were a different story. The couple shared a house, where Dorothy’s abundant domestic skills came into their own, and where her warm, easy-going, gregarious character melted Alice’s repressed emotions. Alice and Dorothy remained together for nearly forty happy years, until Dorothy died in 1969. Alice was broken-hearted. Ten years later she too was laid to rest in the same grave, whose tombstone records their ‘dear and devoted friendship’. Everyone knew, but no one was offended. She separated her professional from her private life when she chose Dr Dorothy Sergeant, an HMI who had never been a member of her own staff, to b£; her partner. In this way Skillicorn avoided any possible conflict between the discourses of gender and power in her intimate life.
Skillicorn was born in 1894 in Ramsey, Isle of Man - the eldest daughter of Edward Skillicorn, a master shoemaker, and his wife Alice Kelly Goldsmith, who ran a baker's and confectioner's business from the family home. This business was later taken over and expanded by Alice's second daughter, Muriel. Other relatives were also local shopkeepers. Skillicorn was a well-known Manx name and an ancestor, Captain Henry Skillicorn, was one of the founders of Cheltenham Spa.
Skillicorn was already 40 years old when she took up her appointment at Homerton. She was acknowledged by all sections of the college community to be "vague about details" concerning her early life, and research in the Manx Archive, carried out recently by my colleague Sallie Purkis, suggests reasons why this should have been so.
Skillicorn and Sergeant had met in London in the 1930s when they were colleagues in the Inspectorate. Sergeant was influential in the teacher-training world and had given crucial help to Avery Hill College when it was reconstructing its bomb damaged site after the Second World War. Her partnership with Skillicorn was based on shared interests and mutual professional respect, but its success was due, above all else, to their complementary personalities. Skillicorn was "anxious and defensive" in the private sphere; she was never at ease socially and her lack of small talk was proverbial. Sergeant, on the other hand, was warm and relaxed on social occasions, and her support allowed Skillicorn to express the emotionality and "repressed depth of feeling" which lay beneath her "gruff exterior". Skillicorn is recorded, for instance, on one occasion as being "thrilled to bits" and even "running up the corridor to tell 'Dolly' [Sergeant)" the good news that they would be joining other members of Homerton staff for an outing to the theatre to see My Fair Lady.
Skillicorn and Sergeant had the means to live in considerable style. They owned a house in Cambridge near the college, and they also had a flat in Homerton's London hostel, Millbrook House. Moreover they enjoyed a 'pre-war' standard of personal service which was becoming rare in the 1950s. In the principal's flat at Homerton, where she lived during the week, Skillicorn had her own personal maid, Esme, who looked after all her domestic needs, including bringing her breakfast in bed each morning. Furthermore at Millbrook, in the holidays, Skillicorn and Sergeant could get right away from Homerton, enjoy the London theatres, and relax in the comfort provided by Millbrook's resident housekeeper.
The homoerotic quality of Skillicorn and Sergeant's relationship was publicly recognised, if in coded terms, by a speaker at the Memorial Meeting held after Skillicorn's death in 1979: She [Skillicorn] found it hard to let herself go and yet those of us who knew her great friend Dorothy Sergeant realised that there must be depths of understanding and affection that she found difficult to bring to the surface.
When Skillicorn died in 1979, her obituaries in the national as well as the local press extolled the major contribution she had made to women's education. At her Memorial Meeting, representatives of all sections of the college community remembered with respect and affection "the many qualities which had made her such an outstanding principal". Ruling Homerton had been Skillicorn's world, and she had never properly adapted, after her retirement, to life in the private sphere. Fate was not kind to her, and long before her own death, she had lost, not only Sergeant, but everyone else who had been close to her, including her brother and sister and her personal maid, Esme, who would have kept house for her. Skillicorn's "gnawing feeling of loneliness" was further exacerbated by her failure to acquire the feminine domestic and social skills that would have enabled her to build a new life for herself as a woman in the private sphere. Her twilight years were spent in a local nursing home, still loyally visited to the end by a faithful few of her former students. Even now though when she was old and ill, she enacted a discourse in keeping with the upper middle-class standards of her public role. She brought her own personal nurse with her to the nursing home, who, like Esme in the old days, looked after all her domestic needs.
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