The story of Cicely (pronounced Size-ly) Lucas (née Neale) is the fascinating record of a woman who overcame a troubled childhood, stood up for women’s rights, and achieved her ambition to become a teacher who could make a real difference to her pupils’ lives. She was outspoken, a woman of strong principles and opinions, sometimes overpowering in her manner and often admired rather than liked, but she inspired love and respect from her students and was well regarded in her local community.
When Cicely was still in her teens, the family was broken apart by scandal. Her father, Edwin Neale, was dismissed from the school at which he taught because of a liaison with a female colleague. Disgraced, he moved back to Dorset, the place of his birth, taking his youngest son with him but leaving the rest of his family behind.
The School Managers showed some compassion and allowed his wife, Sarah, to stay on as temporary headmistress until Cicely’s eldest brother, Cecil Neale, who was then away at Teacher Training College, should be able to take on the job of headmaster. It was clearly a very traumatic experience for Cicely, who remembered it vividly even in later life, but she found comfort in her studies, which allowed her an escape from the family crises around her.
By this time, Cicely had already decided to become a teacher and, even as the domestic storm clouds surrounded her, she applied successfully for a place at Derby Training College for Women Teachers. In order to gain admission, she had to achieve marks for art and so, in addition to all her other duties, she walked four miles each way to and from Coventry School of Art during the winter evenings. The marks were gained and so too was a friend, one of the very few in Cicely’s lonely and isolated youth. The friend was Ernest Lucas and he would later become her husband.
Although she was at times a cantankerous and opinionated student, Cicely was awarded a double first at the Training College. Her first professional teaching job was as a Trained, Certificated Assistant Teacher at Highfield Road, Saltley, Birmingham and she continued to work in several schools in the area, each new post bringing a promotion.
By this time, her parents had become reconciled and Edwin Neale returned home from Dorset. However, as her eldest brother Cecil had now become head of Westwood Heath Elementary School and her mother was not very well, Cicely bought a house in Mary Road, Yardley, Birmingham, and brought her parents to live with her.
Cicely was a proficient seamstress and, to increase her income, after she finished her school day she taught sewing at evening classes for women. During these lessons she became aware of the Suffragette movement, which was gaining momentum in the first decade of the twentieth century, and her passionate interest in women’s rights was aroused. Her early experience as the only girl amongst three brothers and the later repercussions of her father’s affair sharpened her interest in a political movement that was taking up the fight for women’s equality and recognition in a man’s world.
It seems likely that in 1911 she joined the Suffragettes’ boycott of the census. The return for her house in Mary Road lists only her father, Edwin, and the comment ‘Daughter a Suffrgette’ (sic) written across the form. There are four objects in the care of Warwickshire Museum that illustrate her time as a fierce and outspoken Suffragette.
In 1902, fearing that Ernest Lucas was dying, she agreed to marry him, but only if it were a register office wedding. They married in secret, with Ernest – who was illegitimate, as his parents didn’t marry until after his birth – using his mother’s name of Orton. Ernest and Cicely subsequently married publicly in 1912, with Ernest using his usual surname of Lucas.
In 1912, Ernest was offered a teaching post at a school run by the British Embassy in Paris, which he accepted. Cicely accompanied him to France and also taught some classes, did freelance translation work, and later went to work with Maximilian Berlitz at his language school.
She came back to England briefly in late 1913 to have the couple’s only child, Cicely Margaret, but she returned very quickly to France with her new-born daughter. In the summer of 1914 Ernest and Cicely were holidaying close to the border when news came that the Germans had invaded and were already close by.
There was a desperate rush to escape and get back to Paris, with Cicely and the baby travelling in a wagon and Ernest on foot. But the school was closed and no help would come from the embassy officials, who merely wanted to be rid of the Lucases. Cicely and their baby made a difficult and exhausting return to England, finally making their way back to Westwood Heath, where they were taken in by her brother. Ernest stayed in France and for a long while Cicely was unable to discover what had become of him.
Cicely was now safe with her brother but all her money was in France and she couldn’t access it. The answer was to find teaching work again and soon Cicely was employed teaching boys in Coventry. Before long, though, an even better opportunity arose and, in 1916, she was offered the post of Headmistress of Solihull Church of England School Girls’ Department, which was failing and in need of a complete overhaul.
It was a challenge that suited Cicely and she improved both the school’s efficiency and its educational standards. She would stay in post for the next 23 years, until retirement came in 1939 at the age of sixty. Her pupils recalled her kindness, her generosity and her sense of humour but also her strictness and her determination that all should work hard.
Ernest came back to England a year after his wife and very soon he was appointed headmaster of Claverdon School. The family bought a bungalow in School Road, Claverdon, and lived there for many years. Cicely travelled into Solihull each day by railway, the train obligingly waiting for her arrival before it would depart. She was a familiar figure all the way from home to school and greeted everyone by name.
When Ernest died in 1951, Cicely decided to leave Claverdon and live with her married daughter in London. This proved unsatisfactory so she moved to a small hotel in Blackheath. Although her health was now failing, she could still engage the travelling salesmen in discussion and she also found time to teach the young son of the hotel’s proprietor. However, her sight and hearing worsened and one morning she stepped off the pavement without checking and was knocked down by a lorry. She died two weeks later, on 3rd June 1970, aged 91.
© Christine Cluley, 2022. All rights reserved
A few years after her appointment as Headmistress of Solihull CE School, Girls’ Department, the school was merged with the Infants’ School and Mrs Lucas became Headmistress of the joint school – Solihull CE Junior Girls’ and Infants’ School. The Boys’ School was in Mill Lane, Solihull.
Mrs Lucas was succeeded as Headmistress by her first assistant, Mrs Ellen May Fitter (1907-1990) who had joined the teaching staff of the school c.1936. Mrs Fitter was Headmistress for the next 27 years before her own retirement in July 1968.
The information in this article is taken from an overview of Cicely Lucas’s life, written by Christine Cluley and based on Cicely Lucas’s autobiography together with other research.
An eBook is available, combining Cicely Lucas’s autobiography with reminiscences of people who knew her. It may be borrowed free of charge if you have a valid Solihull Library Card.
If you don’t have a current library card you may join online today and start borrowing eBooks, eAudiobooks, eMagazines and eNewspapers straight away. An online membership is valid for two years, the same as a physical library card.
Cicely Lucas’s great-grandson, Andrew Starr, has also written a memoir of his great-grandmother, which is available to download as a PDF (1.9 MB)