Dr. Ben Bernier giving morning meditations at Rydal Church

What a delight to spend Easter week in Rydal, to gaze up at the wild daffodils dancing down Dora Wordsworth’s rocky field and to attend Morning Prayer in Rydal Chapel, where the three amazing Armitt sisters regularly worshipped. I had been reading Stephen Gill’s wonderful literary life of Wordsworth. As I found out how the Lakeland poet came to write his impressive range of poems from Daffodils to The Excursion and, finally, The Prelude, I was struck by how many of the shorter poems I remembered from childhood. While travelling from Oxenholme to Windermere for the Retreat I looked out of the train window and saw the gleaming arc of a rainbow set against thundery clouds. ‘My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky’ was a cheering thought.

Mrs Netta Franklin’s daughter, Madge, challenged a friend to read the whole of Wordsworth’s Prelude during one weekend. As Miss Mason was staying with her family, Madge read much of the poem to her, enjoying her interpretations. Madge was a first-class student at the House of Education (1907-08) but later took up medicine and was appointed honorary physician to the London Clinic for Psychoanalysis!

Wordsworth, who wrote an early guide to the Lakes, was opposed to the extension of the railway to Windermere, which now enables us to reach Ambleside easily. He feared an influx of tourists would spoil the beauty and remoteness of the Lake District. Similar concerns have been raised more recently by James Rebanks, in his fascinating autobiography A Shepherd’s Life, where he describes how generations of sheep farmers have reared sheep on the fells and in the meadows, alert to the demands of the different seasons. Sheep farmers know the local terrain in ways that transient fell-walking visitors cannot possibly comprehend. James was a highly intelligent shepherd, who took time out from farming to study at Oxford University. I wondered if he was descended from Thomas Redbanks, also known as Rebanks, the long serving headmaster of Kendal Friends’ School (1715-1764), where Charlotte’s great-great uncle James Gough and great- grandfather, John Gough, were two of his most gifted pupils in the early years of the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Mason and her staff taught the students to respect the wild life, as they gazed at the birds flying past and sensitively selected flowers to paint in their nature notebooks. Driven out by Barrow, over about twenty different routes in and out of Ambleside, Charlotte Mason could observe the broad sweep of the fells from afar as her searching blue eyes caught sight of a waxwing in flight or the first primrose on a grassy bank.

Returning to the CMI Easter Retreat at Rydal Hall, I am sure we should take up Carroll’s suggestion of continuing conversations about Charlotte Mason and her educational ideas. Indeed, talking things over out of hours at conferences, sometimes daringly into the silent watches of the night, often yields new ideas and interpretations! With Ben Bernier, I was wondering why Charlotte Mason never attended Church Services after she became an invalid from 1897-98 onwards. I remarked that Barrow could have easily have driven her to the main entrance. As we talked, we suddenly realised that Miss Mason would have been appalled at St Mary’s congregation observing the indignity of her being lifted into an uncomfortable wooden pew; her students, expected to attend Church every Sunday, were always stopped from seeing her being carried up and down stairs at Scale How. Besides, the long service would have tired her.


Enjoying those conversations in the Rydal Hall Library

I am very grateful to Jen Spencer for writing such a comprehensive and thoughtful review of Charlotte Mason Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence (2015), posted on the CMI website. I understand that not everyone has welcomed a new biography of Charlotte Mason with open arms. Responding to the many and varied reactions to the book I recalled how some years ago, I felt I had to apologise for my presumption in writing about Miss Mason’s early life by opening an article with ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ ! I had borrowed this quotation from her tentative preface to The Home Education Series. However, I knew that Essex Cholmondeley, who did her best to please everyone with The Story, definitely wanted a new biography to be written. Appropriately or not, the Rydal Retreat ended on April 1st which, here in England, we keep as The Feast of All Fools.

Margaret Coombs reading from her biography on Mason

Margaret Coombs reading from her biography on Mason

Foolish or not, I no longer wish to apologise for writing a detailed historical life of such a remarkable woman after exploring the key influences and friendships that were crucial to her success. It has been an exciting journey. Despite Miss Mason’s apparently tentative approach in the Home Education Series Preface, she firmly believed the answer to the ‘elusive vision of Education’ lay in her ‘central thought ….that the child is a person with all the possibilities and powers included in personality.’ I suggest that, in the light of the recent discoveries about her family background and early education, we can now see more clearly how Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason epitomised the truth of her leading educational tenet. Born a person, step by patient step from an early age, she reached out to all the possibilities and powers grounded in her personality, celebrating the PNEU Executive Committee’s acceptance of her Short Synopsis of Educational Theory (1904).

The mythic Charlotte Mason of the Cholmondeley biography masked the arduous journey which led to the Ambleside retreat and, subsequently, to the significant spread of her liberal education for poorer children in state-funded schools. Although her move to Ambleside in 1891 was enabled by her college friendship with Selina (née Healey) Fleming, who was running the school started by Anne Clough, surely there was an archetypal sense of her coming home to Westmorland. Education and ministry was in Charlotte’s genes. Her great-great grandmother, Mary Gough, and other ancestors are interred in Kendal Friends’ graveyards. Her great-grandfather, John Gough, and his charismatic older brother, James, grew up in Kendal before they moved to Ireland, taught in Friends’ Schools, wrote books about education and travelled in ministry through Ireland and England.

Finally, I am aware that the complex British Victorian and Edwardian class structures, so skilfully surmounted by Charlotte Mason, a merchant gentleman’s daughter, seem very puzzling to modern Americans. The mid-century image of Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House, restricted in movement by voluminous crinolines, was one model of the ideal, softly-spoken gentlewoman, lying elegantly on a sofa, waited on hand and foot by loyal servants. Some people have found watching the TV series Downton Abbey a help! Rose Macaulay’s book, Told by an Idiot, republished by Virago Press some years ago, also offers a graphic overview of the social, political and religious changes affecting the middle-classes and the position of women, through the experiences of one large family, from the 1880s until the early twentieth century.

Meanwhile, may all go well with your Masonic educational endeavours. Here in Britain we face further imposition of restrictive tests on young school children, a legacy of the damage done by 30 years of the 1862 Revised Code, payment by results system, deplored by Matthew Arnold, but now forgotten.

Margaret Coombs


Former PNEU students



Dr. John Thorley providing further wisdom on curriculum


Jason and Fiona Fletcher leaders at Heritage School in Cambridge


Dr. Jim Peterson lecturing on Natural Theology


Conversations at the heart of the retreat


Family and friends enjoying a meal together


Getting at those important ideas through conversations over meals


Having fun mimicking the House of Education students at physical education class



© 2016 – text by Margaret Coombs

© 2016 – Photographs by the Charlotte Mason Institute



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One thought on “LET’S TALK ABOUT CHARLOTTE MASON by Margaret Coombs

  1. I have not yet read your book but I am curious to know what happened to Charlotte’s health that made her an invalid for so long?