CBM Book & Production Partner Broadcast Drama Project
Story Origin & Synopsis:
A school was built atop Yorkshire’s Wharfedale Valley overlooking the ancient English market town of Otley.
Completed in 1893, Clifton School was tasked to provide education for children drawn from the villages and farming hamlets of the surrounding countryside.
The school eventually closed its doors in 1936 due to improved transport to and from Otley.
The school’s treasured day-by-day diary and logbook was unearthed and came my way for general interest during the early 1990s.
Strict Victorian values required for a school diary to be meticulously maintained by each head teacher, and then regularly checked by visiting school Inspectors. Clifton School’s brass-clasped, key-secured, leather-bound record book proved to be one of the finest examples of educational life from that era.
This diary’s content ignited my imagination. Published extracts from the log were commissioned by one of Britain’s oldest newspapers, ‘The Wharfedale & Airedale Observer’.
This industry famous weekly covers a huge area of circulation, including a 120 miles radius of the former school. Shortly after extracts started their weekly run, dozens of letters from families whose parents and grandparents attended the school, found their way to my desk.
Photographs and anecdotal stories soon followed, and it wasn’t long before one of the diary-logged pupils (by the mention of a pupil’s name) spoke directly with me.
Annie Yates was 91 during the early 1990s. Sadly, Annie passed away shortly after we met, mercifully not before I had set up a return to her former school with the Mayor of Otley.
The day proved to be a wonderful time of revisited memories for Annie, and the Mayor made sure of a very special day by presenting her with flowers at the Town Hall. Annie also enjoyed tea and cakes with the Mayor in his office – an event described as the finest day she could remember. Tea and fancy cakes with the Mayor – a quintessentially English thing to do!
Annie’s recollections prompted others to make contact, and this tiny corner of Yorkshire history soon returned to life.
Detailed reading of the diary illustrated a trail of former head teaching staff who came and went in great numbers. The origin of this was most young male teachers having been sent to fight in France during 1914, causing an acute shortage of qualified female teaching staff.
Within the school’s enclosed environs was built a small chapel. Both chapel and school are today redeveloped to beautiful exclusive homes.
The chapel is stunning, with its stained glass windows remaining intact. At 12 years old Annie would help play the chapel’s organ and this visit prompted a flood of memories.
Descending stairs from what are now bedrooms set high in the former chapel’s rafters, I asked its owners if they had heard any ghostly sounds of children playing? Perhaps the echo of voices in the night? The reply was a definitive no!
However, reference was made to a huge tree which still stood just outside an elongated stained glass window. The tree would seemingly whisper to them as gusting winds funnelled through the Wharfedale valley, and the tree’s branches.
A Weeping Willow tree was centrepiece of the former playground and often referenced in the school’s diary/logbook. One such entry recorded the tragic accidental death of a young lad who had fallen from the tree while playing.
By use of factual dates, events and characters taken from the diary, a dedicated Head Teacher for the entire period the school was open was created and scripted.
Central character is the beautiful Emily Burnett. London born and raised, Emily’s ambition and self-assured nature is well advanced of Victorian era.
Emily journeyed alone to Yorkshire on a personal quest to secure control of her first school.
She arrived in Otley to find herself confronted by hostility.
Emily was forced to fight local prejudice and a newly appointed School Board whose members were made up bigoted elderly men believing ‘women should know their rightful place’.
Energetically fighting her corner, Emily eventually wins over the Board’s members to secure the appointment she craved.
In nearby Harrogate, an army camp dominated the surrounding countryside. The diary also notes the camp providing visits to the school from various high-ranking officers.
It was within these environs I created an officer who more frequently visited, having caught sight of Emily overseeing her charges at Clifton’s school gate.
Their love develops, but the officer is forced to leave Clifton when posted to command trench warfare raging in France.
Returning home less than a year later the captain is mentally broken, struggling to re-establish his command and authority, and eventually succumbs to his grievous injuries.
This story is told in regressive mode as Emily recounts her time at the school, interwoven with diarists’ fact and creative fiction.
The Whispering Tree readers’ journey is a moving, uplifting and at times a tragically sad story of the children Emily helped to teach. Emily’s support had also extended to their parents’ harsh and suffocated hillside existence.
Visually rich with fine detail, scripting provides a powerful insight into daily life of turn-of-the-century education, and of the harsh village life endured.
This story moves its readers and viewers from laughter to tears as it journeys through memories of the single-minded and inspirational Emily, a young woman who left London to achieve her dream.
Emily earned her respect and teaching reputation while constantly working to help improve the lives of villagers, and many others less fortunate.
During her tenure as Principal of Clifton School, Emily Burnett became affectionately known as ‘Fine Lady’, greatly respected and fondly treated by locals and regarded as ‘one of ours’.
The tragedy of WW1 trench warfare would touch the lives of many, including Emily, whose special officer commanding would return to Clifton, his injuries grievous, his mind shattered from relentless trench warfare shelling.
Miss Emily Burnett continued to maintain the school to highest of standards until its eventual closure.
Production suspended due to COVID-19.
Mel Vasey – former Editor-in-Chief
The Whispering Tree
Malcolm R Fane ©
Concrete Butterflies Media Ltd ©
Photography: Nigel Ibbotson ©