Patsy Sumpter

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Patsy Sumpter

17 July 1930 – 24 August 2011

Patsy Sumpter came to Rye St Antony by chance.  It was January 1959.  A school nurse was needed, and the agency had no one but ‘a New Zealand girl who could stay only for a month’.  The New Zealander was Patsy, and she arrived at a critical point in the school’s history. 

Elizabeth Rendall and Ivy King had founded Rye St Antony in 1930 and run it together for nearly 30 years.  In 1957, when Elizabeth was already 75 and Ivy 58, they had taken steps to secure the future of the school by establishing a limited liability company in place of the former partnership.  Ivy’s brother Herbert had come to live at school some years earlier following the death of his wife and the marriage of his daughters, and he had care of the school’s property and accounts.  Earlier still, in 1939, Ivy’s sister Gwen had come to the school, working in various roles as needed, in particular as teacher of woodwork, housekeeper, housemistress and gardener.  Herbert and Gwen joined Elizabeth and Ivy as directors of the newly established company.  Two years later, with Elizabeth’s health failing, Ivy was formally appointed Headmistress.  The appointment was made on 1 January 1959.  Several days later Patsy appeared. 

In the event Patsy stayed for 30 years until her own retirement aged 60 (the same age as the school) in 1990.  She came as School Nurse, but her firm and cheerful ways kept girls healthy, and there was time to spare.  So Patsy helped with the laundry… and the decorating…  and the cooking…  and the gardening…   She liked to be active, and there was little to which she could not turn her hand. 

A happy surprise for Patsy and Ivy had been the discovery on Patsy’s arrival that Patsy already had links with the school.  Ivy recognised the surname as that of Sir Patrick and Lady Duff’s host family in New Zealand.  Sir Patrick (retired UK High Commissioner in New Zealand) and his wife Meg were great friends of Elizabeth and Ivy, and indeed Sir Patrick was the school’s first benefactor for it was the house of his sister, Esther, which had been the home of the school in its first year.  The Sumpters with whom Patrick and Meg were staying in New Zealand turned out to be Patsy’s uncle and aunt.  Omens were good. 

Patsy’s zest and energy brought new life into the school, and Patsy was a source of strength to everyone, especially Ivy.  The next five years were hard for Ivy as first Elizabeth and then Herbert died.  Elizabeth’s death in 1960, at the end of several years of failing physical health, was not unexpected but nevertheless a great loss.  The death of Herbert in 1965 came as a cruel shock: he died suddenly of a heart attack.  Patsy’s practical help and her friendship and encouragement at this time energised Ivy and made clear the way forward for the school. 

The 1960s were years of important development.  Between 1959 and 1963 land on the north of the school site was purchased and the whole of the north-eastern boundary of the school’s land sold for the building of the houses which now line the south side of Franklin Road.  The land sale generated the funds for the first and second phases of the Rendall Building, the first completed in 1963 and the second in 1967. 

Throughout this time Patsy’s energy and versatility ensured that day-to-day business continued without difficulty.  If the cook failed to turn up, Patsy cooked lunch and supper, and her Afghan biscuits were legendary.  If snow fell, Patsy cleared it.  If curtains were needed, Patsy found the fabric, sewed it and hung it, probably also repainting the rooms in passing.  As School Nurse, Patsy looked after anyone who was sick: as Housemistress she looked after everyone.  She liked to be busy and she kept the school community busy - girls and staff.  She passionately believed that hard work would take people and projects ever forward, and that ethic she instilled in others.  The ethic was rooted in her Catholic faith, and in faith, as in all aspects of life, Patsy encouraged others to be always active.  Life was a quest, and the journey was to be made enthusiastically, purposefully and without delay. 

For many years Rye had use of the university women’s bathing pool, Dames’ Delight, but the pool was falling into disrepair: Patsy decided that the time had come for the school to have its own swimming pool.  She set about raising the £6,000 needed by organising a summer school for international students during the holidays.  With the further help of various sponsored walks and other fund-raising events, in all of which Patsy took a lead, the money was raised and an outdoor heated pool was opened in 1970.  The summer school became a major annual event, and over 40 years later it still continues to make a major contribution to the provision of funds for capital developments. 

In 1971, mindful of the situation in Northern Ireland, Patsy forged links with a girls’ school in Belfast, to help a new generation see beyond the sectarianism of its predecessors, and to help further understanding in the UK of the religious and political issues underlying the Irish conflict.  Ivy gives an account of the project in Ask St Antony, Ivy’s history of the school from 1930 to 1976:

It was during the Christmas holidays of 1971 that Miss Sumpter conceived the idea of giving a group of children from Belfast a short holiday in England away from all the turmoil, and where they might see that guns and bombs need not be a part of everyday life.  With encouragement from some of the local clergy in Oxford she paid a visit to Belfast.  The reaction there was favourable and she was given encouragement to carry on with such a scheme.  An appeal was made for funds in churches of all denominations in Oxford, and with the help of undergraduates, sixth formers from our local schools and of course from Rye St Antony itself, five such holidays took place in the next two years.  The arrangement was that the parties of children and teachers should be made up of 50% Catholics and 50% Protestants.  There is no question but that these holidays were very worthwhile and we made many good friends. 

Patsy made links with the Newman Trust and offered the use of the school in holiday time for respite care for physically and mentally disabled children.  As ever leading by example, she enlisted the help of current and former pupils and staff to provide the care team needed. 

Patsy introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to Rye and acted as its co-ordinator for most of her 30 years at Rye.  She organised weekend camping trips, and she had already led the school’s first holiday visits abroad, to Paris in 1962, Rome in 1965 and Spain and Lourdes in 1967.  These extra-curricular activities were much needed as pupil numbers steadily grew from 100 to 150 and beyond.  The annexe to The Croft gave accommodation for an additional 30 boarders, and The Cottage was adapted to make provision for the new sixth form. 

Theresa Merry had come to Rye as a resident member of staff in 1946.  Marjorie Clifford and her husband John had looked after the school accounts from 1965.  By 1976, with their support, Patsy was working closely alongside Ivy and carrying ever-increasing responsibility for the school, so that it was a small step for Ivy and Gwen formally to retire that summer and for Patsy to be appointed Headmistress with Theresa Merry as her Deputy.  Ivy and Gwen moved into a house built for them in the school grounds, and they lived there happily and much loved until their deaths, Ivy in 1993 and Gwen in 2000, unfailing in their interest and support.  For her 14 years as Headmistress, although Patsy had to relinquish some of the many other jobs which had become hers over time, her energy, drive and vision remained strong as ever.  To find her, it was still often quickest to look in the kitchen or the garden, and staff grew to understand that wherever things (the staff room, for example) had been before a holiday would be an unlikely place to find them afterwards, for Patsy would have made a few adjustments in the interim, and she encouraged everyone to accept ‘flexibility’ as a moral imperative. 

In the mid-1970s, in addition to everything else, Patsy studied through the University of London for her BA History degree, and then, through Westminster College, Oxford, for her post-graduate teaching certificate.  This was the time too of the arrival of Mary Benham, a mainstay for Patsy in her years as Headmistress.  Mary’s daughters were pupils at Rye, and Mary herself joined the school in 1977 as a mathematics teacher.  Other responsibilities quickly followed, and it was Mary who succeeded Theresa Merry as Deputy Head on Theresa’s retirement.  Astutely Patsy had recognised not only Mary’s potential but that of the rest of her family, including Mary’s parents Tom and Delia Snow.  Mary and her family worked tirelessly for the school from the 1970s until Mary’s own retirement in 1999. 

Pupil numbers continued to grow - to 200, then 300, 350…   Temporary classrooms provided much needed teaching space, and King House, opened in 1986, gave at last a handsome dining hall and two floors of boarding accommodation.  By 1990, the year of the school’s Diamond Jubilee and Patsy’s retirement, the school was ready to face the challenges of the rigorous inspection regime which the 1990s were to impose on independent schools, particularly those with boarding provision.  Rye was ready also to hold its place in the world of league tables without compromising its mission to provide a Catholic education for girls across the ability and social spectrum, and to help them become both individually fulfilled and keen and able to make a worthwhile contribution to the world.  What a gift it was to the school that Patsy’s New Zealand background enabled her so easily to override the academic and social snobbery of her time: affectation and narrowness were not for her. 

Patsy’s retirement from school brought, needless to say, many new projects, first the guest house in France, then the bookshop in Australia, followed by a short time in Auckland, before the bed and breakfast some miles north of Auckland at Point Wells.  Patsy helped in various hospitals and nursing homes, including the Warkworth Hospice of which she was Chairman for some years.  She had travelled to the UK in 1959 with a nursing friend, Pam Goodwin, and it was Pam and her family for whom Patsy cared as Alzheimer’s disease took its course for Pam. 

It was only in Patsy’s final months that her remarkable drive and energy diminished.  The time came for Patsy to accept the care of others.  She died peacefully in North Shore Hospital, Auckland, New Zealand on Wednesday 24 August 2011.  Members of her family were with her to witness the passing of a woman of great independence, vision and courage.  Life for Patsy had been an adventure and a quest, and her spirit and enterprise inspired many others along the way to welcome life’s challenges with something of Patsy’s own enthusiasm and expectation. 


Alison Jones

September 2011