The People of Gibraltar
1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 6. First Schools

Dotto family and Sister Seraphia Rorke
Bishop Hughes and Sister Vincent Clinch
Mother Helena Hanlon and Mother Frances Hennessy 
Dorothy Ellicott and Ellen Taylor - Mother Angela Kelly
Mother Helena O’Hanlon and Mother Jane Francis Hennessy 

After Christmas in January 1846 the first Loreto school was established in Gibraltar. It was opened in a large room in a house owned by the Dotto family at 50 Governor’s (then ‘Gunner’s’) Street.  

Gunner's Street ( Late 19th century )

At Don Place a fee-paying day school followed soon after. Before long the Don Place premises proved too small for the nuns and their pupils and just over a year later they moved yards away to Southport Street (now the southern part of Main Street) to a building near the Supreme Court over what later became Roberts Pharmacy. 

Late 19th century

The nuns were beginning to settle in when they had to face their first heartbreak: just eighteen months after their arrival Sister Seraphia Rorke, one of the founder members of the new Loreto Community, developed TB and died in June 1847. She was only twenty-three.

Sister Seraphia is buried in Gibraltar. She appears to have been unwell even before she came to Gibraltar. . . . Two months after Sister Seraphia’s death Bishop Hughes wrote to Mother Teresa Ball informing her that Sister Vincent Clinch, just thirty, was very ill. Bishop Hughes suggested that she should return to Ireland, which she did. Sister Vincent recovered once back in Ireland and lived to the age of ninety-four. . . 

There were now only three Sisters left in the Gibraltar community. Later in February 1847 Mother Helena Hanlon and Mother Frances Hennessy arrived, bringing with them from the Mother House in Rathfarnham books and stationery for the free school in Governor’s Street. The Community were five once again. There were now as many pupils as could comfortably fit in the fee-paying day school in Southport Street. The number of children attending the free school grew rapidly, and very soon they had over two hundred pupils there. The school was subsidised by the Church, the Government and some charitable funds. 
The children at Loreto’s free school in Dalkey who were taught the usual “writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, plain and fancy needlework” were said to have “great advantages for mental arithmetic, geography and parsing”.

The free school in Gibraltar was using the same system as was in operation in Dalkey, the ‘Lancasterian System’ (named after its founder Joseph Lancaster). Its mechanical scheme of organization made it possible to teach large groups of children. Lancaster claimed that one teacher, by using the older pupils as monitors, could instruct one thousand pupils; he himself is said to have demonstrated its feasibility. 

There was one monitor for every ten students. The small-group peer interaction ensured that no one had a chance to get bored. Merit badges were awarded for excellence. The cost was approximately four shillings per year per child and boys and girls were taught according to the same curriculum, though the Loreto Sisters only taught boys up to the age of seven. Subjects taught went well beyond the basics and in the higher classes included algebra, nature study and foreign languages. 

The students wrote on (almost!) indestructible slate instead of on expensive consumable paper. One book per subject per class was used, each page separated and placed on a board suspended overhead. Each group of ten children studied a page as a lesson. Then the groups rotated. The system had been used successfully in the Loreto free schools in Ireland. Economically the scheme made education possible for all the children of a community on the basis of charitable and later of Governmental financial support.
A topic of conversation in the town in 1848 would have been the discovery of a primitive skull blasted out of Forbes Quarry at the foot of the sheer northern face of the Rock. Eight years later a similar skull found in Germany resulted in the designation ‘Neanderthal Man’. Since the Gibraltar skull was that of a young female, Dorothy Ellicott (1901 – 1990) suggests it might have been more fitting if ‘Gibraltar Woman’ had been promoted instead of ‘Neanderthal Man’. But Germany had been quicker off the mark in recognising the importance of their find. 

Dorothy Ellicott

Meanwhile fourteen-year old Ellen Taylor arrived with her parents from Greece to live in Gibraltar. It is very likely that she attended school with the Loreto Sisters because seven years later she entered with them and became “Sister Scholastica”. 
By 1851 Mother Angela Kelly, Mother Helena O’Hanlon and Mother Jane Francis Hennessy were teaching over seven hundred children at the school in Governor’s Street and seventy pupils at the Day School in Southport Street. . . .