Biography of Phyllis WallbankEducationist and humanitarian Phyllis Wallbank was born in 1918 in London and is now in her 90's and living in her home near Windsor. Her father was an engineer with the London Telephone Company and her mother looked after the household. Her paternal grandfather was the headmaster who provided the first hot meals to poorer school children and who also set up London's first technical college where young people could learn trades after work.
Phyllis had two elder siblings, a sister with whom she shared a room while they both lived at home, and a brother. While young, the two sisters would frequently play "school" with a collection of buttons and indeed both grew up to start and run their own schools - Phyllis in England and Beatrice in America.
Phyllis was lucky to win the one annual scholarship for the fee-paying school Lady Margaret's in London, a school that was very exceptional under the headmistress Moberly Bell. The scholarship exam papers were lost in a fire and so the teachers and headmistress selected by a process of interviews. Phyllis insists that she would never have got in otherwise as her written work was untidy, but she excelled at communicating her ideas and thus impressed all and received the free place. The school was in some respects ahead of its time and each class was run by its own elected student council that made the rules and created and imposed any penalties on their peers. Here Phyllis flourished and enjoyed a close relationship with Moberly Bell who had an office that was constantly and literally open to all at any time - an opportunity that Phyllis availed herself of.
During the war, while still living in Sudbury Hill with her parents, Phyllis saw the bombs dropping on the East End and immediately went there to help. She began by assisting at a "rest centre" which was a derelict building where she and others provided rudimentary food and shelter to those who had lost their homes in the bombing; soon she was running the place; she was 21. After this, she evacuated children from the danger zones in London.
At 18, while working in the kindergarten of her school, Lady Margaret's, Phyllis had begun a three-year part-time Froebel training course after work. She also helped in a school in Northwood. Her parents could not afford a university education for their children. Phyllis took a job as a child probation officer for Bucks County Council and studied child psychology in the evenings at London University where she became great friends with her teacher, eminent child psychiatrist Kate Friedlander. Kate became godmother to Phyllis's daughter, Judith, and Phyllis became Kate's daughter's guardian (Kate died a few years later when Sybil was 16). It was Kate who, when Phyllis expressed frustration at seeing how the disturbed children she came across while working in the juvenile courts failed to flourish under the normal school system, suggested that she went to hear Maria Montessori on her forthcoming visit to Britain, saying that she individualised studies.
It turned out to be a pivotal moment in Phyllis's life and she went on to complete the Montessori course, become a close friend of Maria Montessori herself, start her own initially tiny Montessori school and, at Maria Montessori's request, lecture and examine for her and with her and with her son Mario. She was examiner for both the ordinary and the advanced courses. Phyllis travelled to France, Italy, Holland and Austria examining and lecturing and also lectured extensively for the AMI in London as well as at many other places including Claud Claremont's teacher training college. Both Ted Standing and Claud Claremont were close friends of Phyllis's for the rest of their lives.
For many years Phyllis served as chairman of the Montessori Association in England and Vice-President of the International Montessori Association (AMI). She organized the last International Montessori Congress which met in London shortly before Dr. Montessori's death. Ted Standing, one of the great, original Montessorians, wrote in his book "Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work", "The Congress had been a great success. Dr. Montessori had been honoured by a host of outstanding personalities and representatives of many societies - from the Minister of Education down to the (equally important!) tiny children who presented her with a bouquet.... This Congress - arranged by Mrs. Wallbank, a personal friend of Dr. Montessori and Principal of the Gatehouse Montessori School - was a memorable climax to her long and fruitful labours in this country". Any work Phyllis undertook for Maria Montessori and her method over the years, she did on a voluntary basis without any kind of remuneration.
Meanwhile Phyllis had married her beloved husband, Newell Wallbank and went on to have three children over a period of sixteen years, first Judith, then Mark and finally Benedict. Newell had a PhD in music and philosophy and also a vocation for the Church and he was first curate and then clergyman of St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London, where he was rector for his entire ministry until retirement. His support, love and encouragement were the cornerstone of Phyllis's life right until his death in 1996 .
The school that Phyllis started when her eldest child, Judith, was two and a half, was named The Gatehouse School because it began in the sitting of their home which was The Gatehouse - the tiny rectory of St. Bartholomew's and the oldest house in London. The couple was very poor indeed and subsisted on the miniscule salary that Newell received as curate which was but £150 a year. However, Phyllis managed to pick up some second- hand Montessori materials and bought some cheap bathroom stools which she stripped of their cork and painted and she was all set to go! At the end of each school day everything was tidied away and the room resumed its family character.
As the school enlarged, it went on to occupy the cloister of the church and then moved eventually to Dallington Street in the City once there were eighty pupils. In 1964 the Phyllis Wallbank Educational Trust was formed to ensure that the School and Phyllis's educational philosophy continued in perpetuity. Phyllis managed to find the premises at Bethnal Green which were purchased by the Phyllis Wallbank Educational Trust and in which the Gatehouse School continues to this day. Phyllis ran the Gatehouse School for over thirty years.
A small house in a remote area of Scotland near Elgin was acquired by the school to provide the experience of country life to inner city children. Phyllis used to take groups of children there for two weeks at a time. Once there was a school trip that went much further afield when Phyllis took a small group of pupils, including one autistic child, all the way to India where they visited Delhi, Bombay and Agra, traveling with third class train tickets.
For several years Phyllis also had a small Montessori boarding and day school in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, which she supervised at weekends; this she named "The Gateway School"; she handed this school over to the acting head eventually.
Ever the pioneer, Phyllis followed Newell into retirement at their home near Windsor and embarked on various new activities. She became an expert on dyslexia and tested many young people and taught their parents how to help and teach their own children. For many years she went a couple of times weekly to Eton College to give individual help to selected students who required one-on-one assistance with their learning; as she aged, they were brought to her own home, three miles away, where she had built an upstairs study and also ran a homework club for local children. She made time to write a very comprehensive correspondence course for Montessori teacher training (acquired by "Modern Montessori" in South Africa) and at a later period she took a theology course and was awarded a diploma.
Not content with this, Phyllis began to work with and for the homeless. Again beginning on a small scale, Phyllis initially used to go to London with a friend and distribute various items of food and drink to homeless people who were in need. These humble beginnings have now grown into "The London and Slough Run", a charity which is operated by an ecumenical group of churches and provides non-sectarian friendship, food, drink, blankets etc. to many homeless people once a week. For this she received an MBE from the Queen, the Benemerenti medal from Pope John Paul 2nd and was named Catholic woman of the year.
Phyllis embarked on a "world tour" in her late eighties, ten years after Newell's death, in the course of which she visited and lectured on Montessori in many countries around the world including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. She asked for any fees she might have been paid to be given to poor children in each area. She went alone and with her wheelchair and organised the whole tour herself.
Now, finally, with declining health, Phyllis is resting at home, but is still happy to engage in any educational discussion with interested parties or to get in touch with any past pupils or teachers at her schools. She may be contacted through this website.