Marion Farrell (MOF) (25 April 1899 - 15 Sept 1964)

July 1938 letter (reference) by Otto L. Shaw (Word document) Courtesy of Peter Farrell via Ralph Gee

Ralph Gee's personal memories and conflicts with MOF

by Peter Farrell

Marion was born in 1899 in the East End of London. For some reason, she had already adopted the surname O'Farrell before Shaw recruited her as Matron for the School he was opening at Red Hill in Chislehurst in 1934. The nickname "MOF" stuck and remained with her until she died thirty years later, still employed as Matron at RHS.

Otto Shaw had an eye for talented people who could think expansively and were not fazed by the unusual. Marion was no academic but she brought a huge well of compassion and practical experience to her role.

One of 15 children, Marion seems to have been something of a problem child herself. She refused to take the predictable path of working class girls of the time. Working as a land girl during the First World War was respectable enough but qualifying as a psychiatric nurse at Colney Hatch Mental Hospital was not the sort of direction her long suffering mother would have wished for her daughter. The Colney Hatch Female Staff register recorded dates and the reason for leaving (usually "to be married"). On 17 August 1928, the registration clerk scratched "absconded" against the name of Nurse Marion Farrell. After 6 years in such a harsh environment she simply walked out.

Marion became something of a feminist hippie, well before that terminology was adopted. She worked for a while with Edgar Saxton the editor of Healthy Life Magazine who ran an alternative health centre in the West End. She supplemented her income by private nursing, visiting rich dementia patients in the West End of London. Through these contacts she met Major Theodore Faithfull a contemporary of A S Neill, Bertrand Russell and, later, Otto Shaw. Faithfull had been a Major in the Veterinary Corps. He was the founding Principal and self styled "resident psychologist" of Priory Gate School. Marianne Faithfull, the singer, is scathing of her grandfather and his apparent obsession with things sexual. Priory Gate was a private school built around Baden Powell type woodcraft principals which combined love of the outdoors and extensive participation of the pupils in the school community. Swearing was allowed and the Principal encouraged what he described as "sun battling" - nudity. Priory Gate proved unsustainable and had been closed. Faithfull recruited Marion to help him in his new School - Hazeleigh. This relationship did not last long and Marion was let go after a year or two as Faithfull struggled to balance the books at his new school.

A S Neill was patronising about Faithfull's attempts to establish an alternative school but when Shaw was looking for a Matron for his new school in Chislehurst, he readily accepted Faithfull's endorsement of MOF for the job. This was the start of a productive, occasionally volatile relationship with Shaw and his Matron which was to last for 30 years.

Although her title was "Matron", MOF performed a whole range of tasks needed to get the new School started. In those early years she was gardener, handyman, cook, cleaner, nurse, teacher, piano player and surrogate mother in addition to the more traditional role of Matron. This willingness to do whatever was needed continued throughout her 30 years at RHS. Len Bloom, a foundation pupil and later staff member, said that Shaw described MOF as an unpolished diamond, absolutely essential to RHS and to Shaw himself. The unpolished component referred to MOF's dark cockney humour, Irish temper and inventive use of language.

MOF was well aware of Shaw's less endearing qualities and was not afraid to draw them to his attention from time to time. Not everyone, including Shaw, appreciated her outspokenness.

Some have described MOF as a substitute mother to them at RHS. She would smile at this description but she did bring enormous compassion, patience and pragmatism to her relationships with children of all ages some of whom seemed to be struggling with insurmountable difficulties. As the only nurse in the locality she was also called in to deal with medical emergencies within RHS and the surrounding district.

Soon after RHS moved to Kent, Marion became pregnant. Little was known of her relationship with Morris Horovitch or Horovitch himself who was a colleague at RHS for a short period. The relationship ended and Shaw arranged for Horovitch's departure. Peter was born in 1940 and MOF moved from free spirit to solo mother, a role she combined effortlessly with being Matron of RHS.

With a German invasion expected in 1940, preparations were made to move the School to Worcester but this never eventuated. Instead, MOF was told to be prepared to operate RHS as a dressing station should the need arise. It was never clear whether RHS was to operate as a dressing station AND a school. Fortunately this was never put to the test.

Being available 24 hours a day and having one half day off a week gave MOF little time for a life beyond RHS and her son. Her family remained important to her and she always visited London's East End during her two weeks holiday at Christmas. Her sisters never really understood her work at RHS. They loved Marion but the paths she chose in life were a constant puzzle to them. RHS was the biggest puzzle of all.

Marion died on 15 September 1964. She is buried at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in East Sutton.

Peter Farrell March 2010