A teaching legend on two continents

For 30 years she and Dorothy Geoghegan instilled in their students service, integrity, pride (in themselves and in their school), faith in God and faith in themselves to reach their potential, academically and socially.

Half a century ago, it was said that "no one is more deserving of the title Cowichan Citizen" than the co-founder of Queen Margaret’s School, Norah Creina Denny. This remarkable lady left another legacy, Cowichan’s Girl Guides movement.

Irish-born but raised in East Berkwith, Lincolnshire, Eng., she had, she told an interviewer in 1962, a happy childhood. It was while attending Queen Margaret’s School in Scarborough, that she became interested in Lord Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement. That was in 1911, when her brother joined the 1st East Berkwith Boy Scout troop. Two years later, she became involved with the Guides and continued to wear her pin with pride for the rest of her life, as well as the Beaver, Canada’s highest award in Guiding.

The original precepts of Guiding and the Brownies hadn’t changed over the years, she said. Girls still earned their merit badges but there was a marked change in the cultural attitude towards their outdoors programs – the boys had always camped outside in tents, but the girls were originally domiciled in a rented house by the sea.

For Miss Denny, the First World War meant volunteer work with the Red Cross, including 11 months in a civilian hospital in Northumberland and a year in an army hospital in Staffordshire. She also served in France as one of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Reserve and was one of the few nurses, it was said, who performed her duties "under fire".

Demobilized in 1919, she came to the Island to join her two brothers. But life here was difficult for Norah Denny, who had to accept menial jobs just to scrape by. Her answer was to open a private school in a converted garage, beginning with seven morning students, five boys and two girls, and working at odd jobs in the afternoon for all of 25 cents an hour.

As it happened, another Miss, Dorothy Rachel Geoghegan, was also operating a private school for girls. Their common interest in Guiding brought them together, first as friends, then as co-proprietors of St. Margaret’s (which Miss Denny had attended as a boarder) that would make both women "a legend among private school mistresses on this continent and in England".

It was an acquaintance who wanted to rent them a house for use as a school who suggested that they merge. This was the landmark "Holmesdale," built by Rev. David Holmes (today it’s a B&B), which they divided into two sections, the Upper School and the Lower School, and opened their doors on April 4, 1921 with 14 students, boys and girls, seven of them boarders. The move to the present location came two years later, everything being financed through plowing tuition fees back into the school.

The school colours, which have become known internationally, are: Lincolnshire green (for service), red (for moral courage-strength, independence and self-assurance), and gold (for purity, perfection and beauty). The school motto, "service to others," says it all for the Denny/Geoghegan philosophy of giving to the community and country, and the school’s coat of arms is an amalgam of heraldic symbols from schools attended by both women.

Miss Denny walked the talk: "During the Depression she fed the unemployed as they marched through to Victoria. At Christmas she suggested to the girls that instead of having a party for themselves they invite those that wouldn’t have a Christmas dinner. The girls followed her idea and found so much more out of giving than receiving that it became an annual affair".

During the Second World War, she and "her girls" collected scrap metal. Each Sunday after chapel, she and Miss Geoghegan donned their Guide uniforms and led work parties in search of donated metals for the war effort. She recalled having handled, packed and shipped a ton of scrap a week. Not to mention paper (shredded for use as mulch in Victory gardens), bottles (returned for their deposits or, if of no value, used in stuccoing houses). Penny by penny, she recalled with pride, they’d raised $5,000.

Almost as legendary as Miss Denny’s lifetime work with Queen Margaret’s was her green thumb and she was as recognizable in her off-duty uniform of floppy hat and garden gloves as in her matron’s dress or her Guides uniform.

Miss Denny and Miss Geoghegan owned and administered Queen Margaret’s School until 1953 when they turned it over to a trust company as a non-profit organization.