Victoria Eleanor Louise Doorly, known as Eleanor, was a teacher and writer of children’s books. For her biography of Marie Curie, ‘The Radium Woman’, she won the 1939 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, which recognises the year’s best children’s book by a British subject.
She was born in 1880 in Richmond Hill, Port Antonio, Jamaica, the daughter of British Army Captain William Anton Doorly and Sarah Louise Brown. She moved to England when her father died suddenly in 1887, to be raised in Leamington Spa, by a great-aunt, Rebecca Boughton, and attended the Leamington High School (Now Kingsley School). She studied Modern Languages at the University of London, followed by an M.A. in History (an unusual academic achievement in her day). Miss Doorly was a gifted linguist, and was competent in several languages, put to good use on her extensive travels.
Miss Doorly taught first in North London, then in Twickenham, followed by 22 years as Head Teacher of King’s High School, Warwick, where there were 361 girls on roll when she arrived. She retired in 1944 with 523 on roll, the rise in numbers reflecting the reforms and improvements Miss Doorly had instigated. She was the first Head teacher in the area to introduce Form and School Councils, and founded the school’s Parent-Teacher Association. The Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser published a glowing tribute to her on the verge of her retirement in December 1944:
“After three brief years, school seemed a very different place. Headmistress, staff and girls met in the lecture room to discuss the internal affairs of the school. Self-government had begun. Societies were more varied and alive, a Music Makers club was formed, an orchestra flourished. In the past we had all been botanists. Now chemistry, no longer the handmaid of botany, was, with physics studied in her own right. The garden became more exciting and colourful. Roses appeared, new and rare rock plants replaced the hitherto all-conquering aubrietia. The Hall was changed; first came books (the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Punch) then pictures, the Bluebell Wood specially painted to hang over the platform. Soon books and more books lined the shelves. Pictures and more pictures gladdened the walls of Hall and form rooms. …… So many vital minds came into our lives. One of the first was Dr Geraldine Hodgson. A galaxy of talent followed. Walter de la Mare, Professor Gilbert Murray, Professor Salvemini, John Galsworthy, Jelly d’Aranyi. ……. But above all, was the constant impact of Miss Doorly’s own mind. Does the school still relish its Wednesday morning lectures? And does Miss Doorly still range from everyday hygiene to the philosophy of Shelley? Does the Sixth Form Shakespeare lesson still include all drama and all life? ……… It is little wonder that the Honours Boards grew full and many girls went off to further study and varied, interesting and worth-while careers…… It is almost impossible to begin to thank her for the beauty, the vitality, the breadth she has brought into the life of the school, for the courage needed to introduce so many of her reforms, for the help and advice she is given so generously to two decades of girls …. They will always remember her with admiration, gratitude and affection.” (Miss K M Dencer, former pupil and Headmistress of Rotherham Municipal School for Girls)
Kings High School also enjoyed the reflected glory of Miss Doorly’s reputation as a best-selling author of non-fiction books for children, historical and biographical works, some on famous figures in science. Because it was wartime, her Carnegie Medal for the biography of Madame Curie, was not awarded with customary pomp and ceremony at the Library Association’s Annual meeting in London, but simply handed over in 1941 by the Birmingham City Librarian, the Association’s Honorary Treasurer. This book was praised far and wide, not least for its readability. The Observer critic wrote that it was specially to be commended because although written for children, and was a model of scholarship and clarity, the book did not talk down to its readers, and adults would enjoy it just as much as its younger readership. Miss Doorly’s publications, in order are:
1920 – England in her days of Peace (subtitled ‘An Introduction to Social and Industrial History’)
1936 – The Insect Man (a life of Jean Henri Fabre, with an introduction by Walter de la Mare)
1938 – The Microbe Man (Louis Pasteur)
1939 – The Radium Woman (Marie Curie, – for which Miss Doorly won the Carnegie medal)
1944 – The Story of France
1948 – The Ragamuffin King (A life of Henry of Navarre)
(The Insect Man, The Microbe Man and The Radium Woman are still widely available, translated into almost every European language, Mandarin, Japanese, and some Indian languages.)
Eleanor Doorly died in a Dartmouth Nursing Home in May 1950, having retired to Dartmouth when she left Warwick. She left £11,000, (about £386,000 in 2021) and after legacies to relatives and friends, bequeathed £1000 (about £35,000 today) in memory of her old tutor, to the University of Oxford, to establish a bursary to enable students of French to visit France or to attend vacation courses in French.
Sources: Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser; Leamington Courier (via BNA online); Ancestry, National Archives census returns;