An interview with Phyllis Wallbank, by her daughter Judith (November 2009)
Judith: Tell me about Ted Standing and how you knew him.
Phyllis: Ted Standing was a prominent Montessorian. He had, as a young man, loved Montessori very much indeed obviously and given up a promising career; he gave it all up to follow her and her way of teaching. I met him through Montessori and he stayed with us several times. He was extraordinary because he didn't have his own home at all, but merely went and stayed with people for months on end and then went to another person and stayed there.
J: Did he work at your school?
P: Yes he did.
J: For how long?
P: Some years.
J: I remember being in the top bunk and he was in the bottom bunk in my bedroom.
P: That's right and he used to quote Shakespeare to you a lot and tell it as a story and then you'd hear him say, "Full fathom five, thy father lies," (Phyllis recites). And then he'd go on as if telling an ordinary story again....He had an M.A. and was a great lover of English and particularly of Shakespeare.
J: Where did Ted teach?
P: Dallington Street.
J: Did he teach a particular class or how did it work?
P: We used to have subject areas, so he would have taught at one of those.
J: I remember going on holiday with you and Ted to Austria.
P: Yes. Maria Montessori was there; she stayed at Eagles near Innsbruck. I went there and took you with me. She always asked me to go and examine with her and without her. I became an examiner for her. She asked me to organise her last big international conference for her which was in London. That was before her death when she was 82 I think. And I did all that and organised it all and did it all for nothing. I never charged anything for any Montessori thing....
J: How did you get involved with Montessori?
P: I had a great friend, Kate Friedlander, who was a brilliant psychiatrist in Harley Street. I met her when I did a course on psychiatry and she was teaching. At that time I was Children's Officer for Buckinghamshire and I was very worried because when there was difficulty at home, children's concentration went and they did badly at school so they were in trouble not only at home, but at school too. It was Kate Friedlander who said Montessori was coming to give a course and she individualised work for children so I should go and I went.
J: Was it a long course or a few days?
P: It was a long course, in the evenings, and I got to know Montessori and she saw that I understood very much what she was saying. You were 10 months old when I went to the lectures, but as soon as you were two and a half I began a nursery to give you some companionship because in the City there was no one near us of your age at all. I began with eight children in the sitting room.
J: So you did the Montessori course with Maria Montessori and then she went off; she was living in Holland I think. How did you have contact with her after that?
P: She asked me if I would do some examining for her in England and then she asked the same in France and I did it in France for her and then I examined for her in Holland, Italy and so on.
J: Did I go with you?
P: I can't remember, but I think you must have done.
J: So you were examining teachers, were you? People who were doing the courses?
J: Examining them in the practical things, written exams or what?
P: No, I just examined them at the end of the course for Montessori.
J: Does that mean you asked them questions?
P: I examined them for the practical work and then interviewed and things like that.
J: So this wasn't written exams?
P: No, other people checked the written work. I did the interviewing and the practical.
J: She came to your house occasionally, to the Gatehouse, didn't she?
J: For meals or what?
P: She came to see the school in the cloister and was very impressed by it. I think she had difficulty going upstairs in the gatehouse.
J: But Hugo (Hugo Wolfram, the novelist and businessman) remembers meeting her a couple of times at the gatehouse.
P: Yes, she was there, but I've forgotten for how long. But at any rate she came - and Mario of course.
J: How did you get to know Mario?
P: Well, Mario did the lecturing. He did one lecture and Montessori did one in the evening for the courses. So we had two lectures always - one by Montessori and one by Mario.
J: Yes, I remember Mario very well, and Ada his wife. They lived in Holland, didn't they?
J: And I remember meeting them with you in France.
P: Yes, later. They asked me if I would go and help them. I realise now that I was perhaps foolish: I did everything without any payment at all. But I went all over for them: Italy, France.
J: For Mario, you mean?
P: For Doctor Montessori.
J: So you never got paid for anything?
P: No. It didn't matter to me somehow. Well, money didn't matter to Daddy either so...
J: No, it didn't. Can you tell me about Claude Claremont?
P: Claude Claremont ran a residential training course in Surrey. It was the only residential Montessori training in England. Claude was very good. I learned later that he had fallen in love with Montessori and he given up his very promising career in engineering; he wrote a book on bridges....
J: Who was Claude's wife? I remember her.
P: She was a brilliant person for writing on history and she did a lot of original work on nursery rhymes, linking them with history (before the Opies)....
J: So she wasn't connected with the Montessori training, was she?
P: No, but she did lecture on history, but not on the whole.
J: They were quite an eccentric couple weren't they?
P: Yes they were. They were very unusual.
J: He used to go around with a box quite often didn't he? A box which he would open up and it had lots of little bottles in it and he would say that the contents were what the whole world was made of. Wasn't it the periodic table?
P: Do you know, I'd forgotten that. Yes. How extraordinary. He was a very great person I think.... Ted and Claude both gave everything up for Montessori and were terribly jealous of each other.... They disliked each other because they were jealous of each other....
J: I remember the names of a lot of Montessorians from when I was quite young and I'd like to know who they were. Can I ask you about them?
P: Yes, go ahead.
J: Who was Macaroni?
P: Oh, dear old Signorina Macaroni. Montessori said to me (laugh) - well Macaroni adored Montessori and Montessori found Macaroni a horrible hindrance and nuisance because she was sort of passionate about her and was a nuisance in that way. Montessori said to me it wouldn't be heaven if Macaroni was there! (laughter) Well, if someone is passionate it can be an awful nuisance!
J: So who was Macaroni? What was her function?
P: She was head of Montessori in Italy I think.
J: So I probably remember Macaroni from Italy.
P: Yes, probably. Although she came over to England. Wherever Montessori was, Macaroni went.
J: Was Montessori just charismatic as a personality that all these people fell for her and came under her spell? Or was it what she was actually teaching that they were interested in?
P: Both. Because she was so passionate about her subject it was attractive. And also the fact that all these people followed her around and so on, but she didn't give them much encouragement and she used to find it annoying.
J: Was she not very kind actually?
P: No. She was not sentimental at all. She was a scientist watching children and people in a scientific manner. Not at all sentimental.
J: But she was charismatic?
P: Very. Partly because, I suppose, of this passionate interest and ....
J: Did she not marry? Who was Mario's father?
P: Do you know Judith - the "Life" is there; Ted wrote it. I've forgotten. I used to know everything so well. Yes, she had children, but she had one illegitimate child first who was Mario.
J: She had other children as well?
P: Oh yes. You will have to look it up. But of course Mario was her illegitimate child, but she was a professor at a time when having a baby would have ruined her career so she got him farmed out and took him back at the age of sixteen and adopted him...
J: To a home or a family?
P: To a woman who fed him etc.. She didn't acknowledge him until he was sixteen. But I understood later that he was her illegitimate child, but I only know that from hearsay; I have no absolute knowledge.
J: Another person whose name I remember well was Mother Isabel. Who was she?
P: She was a nun at the Convent of the Assumption at Kensington and because Montessori lectured there she was very much involved and examined and so on.
J: Examined with you?
P: Yes at one point. But examined anyway long before me. That was where Montessori did her courses at one time.
J: And Mother Isabel was the head of that set-up was she?
P: No, I don't think so, but I'm not certain I'm afraid.
J: And who was Mother Angela?
P: Mother Angela was a nun - I've forgotten what her order was.
J: She wasn't with Mother Isabel?
P: No, a different order - Regents Park she was. She became very fascinated by Montessori and held courses there.
J: Who was Miss Child?
P: Now I didn't know at the time when I was asked, but I was asked to do Montessori's big London conference, a tremendous thing; and I was asked to organise it. But at the time when I was asked I didn't realize that Miss Child and Miss Humphrey at St. Nicholas Centre had done a tremendous amount for Montessori and she'd suddenly given them up. And later, I believe, I realised she gave them up because - this is only my belief; I don't know that this is so, but I believe that Miss Child fell in love with Mario and that Montessori decided that that was not to be and then did the AMI course....
J: A long time ago there were several Montessori centres in London weren't there?
P: Yes, particularly the AMI, the International Montessori Association which Montessori herself kept in with particularly, but she used to be with St. Nicholas.
J: So would there be records of your involvement?
P: Oh yes.
J: Where would they be?
P: I suppose in the minutes, the recorded meetings.
J: Where, AMI or St. Nicholas?
P: AMI. I was connected with AMI.
J: So when you had your school and it developed, what was your relationship with the Montessori organisations?
P: I was mainly connected with AMI because I was lecturing for them at the same time as running the school. But what amused me was that suddenly I was ... (hesitation)
J: Persona non grata?
P: Yes, because I opened my school to any visitors and I had masses of overseas visitors and they were allowed to come as long as they just remained like the furniture and didn't talk to the children, they could come in - from America, from Japan, from Australia. Always there were visitors watching and the children were used to it and took no notice.
J: These are Montessori people you are talking about?
P: Not necessarily, no - any visitors. And suddenly the Montessori Association said I couldn't have any St. Nicholas people watching and they must all be AMI. And as I was open to any visitors watching, I refused. And from that moment I had no contact; they cut off and so I was persona non grata with all other Montessori associations because I would not preclude them from coming and watching at my school.
J: Was that the same with St. Nicholas; they only wanted St. Nicholas people to come?
P: No, I was already AMI and not St. Nicholas because there was no contact between the two. But now I am very much in with St. Nicholas.
J: But what was the difference between AMI and St. Nicholas?
P: I don't know. Only that I know my lectures were very good.
J: And your lectures were held where? Where did you lecture? At the AMI organisation? Was there a headquarters?
P: Yes. Do you know I've forgotten Judith. It's all in the records of the meetings of course. .... P: And then I was asked to organise for Montessori her last big international conference which I did. I got all the lecturers and it was terribly difficult because half them wouldn't speak to the other half. So I always arranged that they never met; you know. But I managed to get them all.
J: Ted says in his books, and you say, that you were a friend of Maria Montessori's. She was of course in her eighties and you were in your twenties. What did this friendship consist of?
P: I was a friend of Montessori in that we could talk - we just knew that we understood each other. She knew that I understood absolutely what she was trying to say in her lectures and I was very enthusiastic and carried out whatever I heard and found it worked and so on. And so in that way there was a unique friendship and friendship is without age funnily enough. You know by each other's eyes, by the smile, by the contact and so on.
J: But it wasn't like a personal friendship in a sense was it? Or was it more a professional friendship - all to do with the Montessori method. Did personal stuff come into it?
P: Yes I think so. Yes. But there was a language difference and we always had to have things translated by Mario or by someone.
J: Hugo remembers meeting Maria Montessori at the gatehouse. Would she have had a translator there? Or did you manage to get by without?
P: We managed to get by without - very much so. And also, because I did Latin at school I often could tell the root of the Italian and together with the knowledge I already had of Montessori, I could understand very often what she was saying.
J: So it was a sort of equal friendship in a sense or not?
P: Friendship to me is just friendship. You can tell by the eyes, by the face, by the pleasure....
J: But it was a friendship rather than just a collaboration?
P: Oh yes. But it was both of course, and it was only during the last decade of her life, which is extraordinary in a way. And yet there was this.... It's funny, but friendship is without age.
J: It's an understanding between you I suppose?
P: Also a recognition in the eyes very much, in the face.
J: Under what circumstances did she ask you to examine or lecture for her?
P: I've forgotten the circumstances. But I know that she gave a lecture for the first half and then various lecturers gave the second half whoever did the subject for that time. So I did the second lecture to hers and so on.... The second lecture of the evening was by Ted Standing or Claud Claremont or Phyllis Wallbank in the end.
J: How long was it between when you finished your training and when you started to lecture?
P: I've no idea.
J: And the examining came after lots of lecturing or what?
P: No, I think she asked me to examine with her before I lectured....
J: Did you examine with her or for her?
P: Both.... And then she asked me to go abroad to examine for her. France, Holland. I took you all wherever I went.... I always took you and said that I didn't want a fee but they should pay our fares.
J: How did your work with Mario begin? Was that while she was still alive? P: Yes, and after.
J: Can you describe a little bit more what she was like and perhaps Mario, Ted and Claude.
P: Oh gosh (pause). Montessori herself, she was so dedicated a scientist in her work. She was not sentimental towards children at all, not at all. She was a scientist observing them and had this over-riding passion for giving out what she now had discovered - particularly about the 'absorbent mind' which now the present brain study bears out so well. She knew that there was a biologist that saw this with creatures, I think insects particularly, this absorbent mind stage before consciously going somewhere or doing something. And this was a great discovery of hers - enormous. Now we know that the pre-frontal lobe cells actually die off at the stage after this absorbent mind stage and where conscious learning comes. But the frontal lobes help a child to learn its language not through conscious learning at all; it will speak French if it's in France or Hindi if it's in India whatever - like a sponge that takes in the whole environment. So if a mother has an untidy cupboard but tells her child she must be tidy, the child won't be tidy because at the absorbent mind stage it saw the untidiness....
J: Can you think of anything else to describe Maria Montessori?
P: Oh crumbs. She had obviously been very attractive in her youth and many men had obviously fallen for her.... Ted and Claude gave up everything to follow her.
J: Had they met her many years before you came on the scene?
P: Oh yes... She was quite vain even as an old lady. I will always remember her saying, "I must have a cloth over that table," she said to me, "Because I want my legs to be hidden now because they are not nice now." So I had to find a tablecloth to hide her legs.
J: Can you tell me a little bit more about Ted and Claude. What did Ted do all the time?
P: He worked at my school - for money. He used to be a Quaker and then became a Catholic, following Montessori and the Montessori materials.
J: Was that an influence on you too?
P: Oh yes, same. You teach those materials (laugh) and you find yourself just becoming naturally so....
J: Ted never married, did he?
J: But Mario did.
P: Mario married Ada. I think that gave Montessori and himself real security for the first time because Ada was the daughter of a very big banking family in Holland... So for the first time Montessori and Mario had a nice house and were not short of money.
J: They didn't have children, did they?
P: I think I'm right in saying that Mario was married before to an Italian and they had children I think....
J: I remember Mario a little bit with his wonderful whistle; I remember him being very appealing.
P: Yes, he was very good with children.
J: And Ada was a very tall woman, wasn't she?
P: Yes, she was a dear, very nice.
J: She wasn't a Montessorian, was she?
P: She was supposed to be, but I don't think really was.
J: And what about Claude and his wife? Didn't she wear scarves around her head a lot?
P: Yes, I'd forgotten about the scarves, but now I remember. Francesca was very eccentric, but brilliant. It was she who did the timeline - the history timeline.
J: So she was a Montessorian?
P: Yes, yes. Montessori never pushed the timelines at all because it wasn't her own invention (laughter) and she was ....I always remember how very thrilled I always was with the timelines and her (Montessori's) facial expression always changed.
J: Did she set up the thing about people having to buy their materials from a particular place?
J: Why was that?
P: Because they got a percentage - quite rightly, it was their...
J: Like copyright?
P: Copyright. Yes...
J: When I was in Canada, the materials were so expensive. It must be so hard for people in poorer countries.
P: Yes and it was ridiculous and they're out of copyright now I would think almost certainly. But they got a percentage which they needed. But now I think anyone can make them. But often they mistake the real thing. The brown stair was meant to be heavy for the muscles of the hand and that and the pink tower were built accordingly. Now they do it with just plywood. It's true it's arithmetical progression, but a lot of the material they miss the point of.
J: Ted and Claude were both close friends of yours, weren't they?
J: Family friends.
P: They were extremely good to me, both of them (emphatically). They gave me all their knowledge, absolutely freely and as much as I wanted to ask and they'd help me. Thinking back over it, they were remarkable to me - very, very kind. You know, I could ask anything and get absolute help at any time.
J: When you were in your twenties and first met them, how old were they?
P: I've no idea.
J: Much older, weren't they?
P: Oh yes.
J: They became very great personal friends of yours, didn't they?
P: Oh yes, good friends, but years older. Oh they were very good friends and they were so good to me in helping me in any way I wanted, you know (warmly).
J: Did Claude teach at your school at all? Why would I remember him so well? Did you go and lecture at his training college in Cranley much?
P: Yes. We were together when we lectured and so on.
J: Would you say that Ted and Claude were the early, great Montessorians?
P: Yes. Different generation from me. I only came into the last ten years of her life. They had been with her since they were young men.
J: In what way were they the greatest compared to all those other people?
P: Because they had left everything to study with her, be with her. And they soaked in it absolutely. But Ted was also a wonderful Shakespearean scholar....
J: Ted was a very spiritual sort of man wasn't he?
P: Yes. He had been a Quaker and became a Catholic and being a convert he was very converty really in a way - you know what I mean. Because of being a convert he was more obviously Catholic.
J: Claude Claremont - what was he?
J: Were there any other scientists that she influenced - in the field?
P: I think in many countries there were people like that who saw that what she was saying was true. And the brain research has born out her scientific observations. That book "The Absorbent Mind" is still brilliant. It's a hundred years old and I would recommend it still as the greatest teaching book ever.
J: Would you say she (Maria Montessori) was more of a scientist than an educationalist?
P: A scientist. Yes. And because she was a pure scientist, observing, she became an educationalist because she realised how children learnt.
J: Did she make up the materials herself?
P: Yes. Being a scientist, that's why they're so good in their own categories. She saw that all abstract understanding depends completely on sensorial experience. And so she realised this and then made the sensory experience into categories and as a scientist really defined those categories clearly in her materials. That's why they're so brilliant: they're not haphazard.
J: What would you say was your contribution to education?
P: I've no idea. Except... yes, I think my contribution was that I was the first person, I believe, to integrate people with different types of extreme disability in the same environment as genius level.