Sarah Canning’s Memorial
Below is the transcript of Eulogy from Sarah Canning’s Memorial at the bottom is a link to the service sheet.
Sarah used to read that particular passage from Isaiah when we were feeling a little nervous … perhaps we had an inspection looming or someone was riding in something important. I can tell you I am jolly grateful for it today as my knees are quaking as I think of Sarah on my shoulder and all of you listening!
There is just such a lot to say about her and my first attempt would have taken about an hour and a half. She was a force of nature, an indomitable spirit and, rather like a parent, one expected her to live for ever. Very few could get the better of her, be they man or beast, and trying to persuade her to change her mind once she had decided to do something … that was well-nigh impossible, so she was able to do exactly what she wanted all through her life. Also, blessed with a very good brain, coupled with huge determination and being very hard working, meant that whatever she turned her mind to, she did.
Three things were of great importance to her all through her life: family, particularly her parents, horses, which she adored, and a huge sense of fun, which carried her right through to the end. Sarah laughing is the first image that springs to mind.
She had quite a lot to live up to as far as her parents were concerned; her mother Enid, or Mrs C as we knew her, was the daughter of Sir Cyril Norwood, the renowned headmaster of Marlborough, where her father Clifford, or Tincan, was one of his housemasters. The Cannings moved to Canford when Clifford became headmaster there. Both her grandfather and father were classicists, her mother a very gifted amateur artist and Tincan painted in his spare time. They were intellectual and unpretentious and probably a breath of fresh air in the world of education. Between them they attracted a wide circle of friends, including artists and writers, and it would have been an interesting and stimulating environment for Sarah and her two sisters as they grew up.
Sarah’s relationship with her sisters was interrupted by the war when her parents made the very difficult decision to evacuate Rose and Ela to America. Sarah didn’t go because at 8 they said she was too young. This decision had huge repercussions; Sarah spent a wonderful few years as an only child with her parents concentrating entirely on her.
Ela and Rose were separated on arrival in America; Ela had a relatively happy time for those 4 years she was away and ended up working in the City later on. She was supposed to bail out Hanford if things went pear-shaped. Meanwhile, Rose had a dreadful experience; she was severely mentally traumatised and had to be rescued by her mother. They never spoke about this time but Rose never really recovered. She taught a little at Hanford when she was well enough but after Mrs C died Sarah looked after her very loyally for the rest of her life.
She and her mother had looked after Tincan in his last years, Mrs C sleeping for a time on top of the bath in surgery! When Mrs C retired, Sarah and the Sharps converted the old cow shed into a little house for her: Neat’s House; “Neat” is Old English for cow. So looking after the elderly and infirm at the same time as running a school was something that Sarah had grown up with.
She also cared for, with great devotion and generosity, all those who had worked and given their lives to Hanford, the extended family, such as the cook Eve Goddard who was still going strong in the kitchen when we arrived in 1994. She had worked for the Milk Marketing Board after the war and came to Hanford knowing very little about cooking. I remember her spending the whole of a summer holiday convalescing in the dining room after a knee replacement, being waited on hand and foot by Sarah! Lucker was another; she spent her last years in a static caravan at the bottom of the garden after she had recovered from an aneurism. She collapsed a few days after her retirement party … she had joined in with a huge game of Drop the Sock on the West lawn. Sarah
helped the Underwoods all through their lives. I’m not sure if Mr Underwood ever retired – he loved the gardens so much – and Alistair is still here. Sarah would not have dreamt of doing anything else.
Last but not least was Peggy who arrived sometime in the 1950s and never left. After Peggy had done a couple of unhappy weeks in the dorms as a matron, Sarah realised that Peggy, having worked with horses in the circus, was part horse like her, so she transferred to the stables and never looked back … she only left the stables when she and Sarah finally moved down to Neat’s House.
Peggy was marvellous; she had much more patience with animals than ever she had with children but she was stalwart in her support for Sarah, helping with out rides up on the hill, mucking out, driving her tractor, cooking rabbits for the dogs in the stable flat. Sarah was very generous in turn and bought horses for Peggy. The last one I remember was Caramac. Later Peggy turned her attention to cooking and cooked for Sarah every night and in addition for all the boarding staff on a Saturday night. She cooked really well and appreciated a glass of wine right to the end of her life! She worked so hard Sarah totally relied on her. They became very good friends.
Peggy outlived Sarah by just 8 months, enough time for her to take care of Nonsense, Sarah’s last lurcher – aged 18 – until she walked off one Friday night in April and died.
Peggy herself died very peacefully in Neat’s House 2 weeks ago. I expect Sarah gave her a shout from Up yonder!
Sarah first met horses at Canford. Major Goldingham was in charge of the stables there and he taught her to ride. The Goldinghams became friends of the Cannings and moved with them to Hanford in 1947 to run the Hanford stables. Their daughter Ann, who was a bit older than Sarah, became Mrs C’s secretary … and was to become Mrs Sharp … another member of the Hanford family who, with Michael, stayed nearly 50 years. Major Goldingham was well known throughout Dorset as he taught the pony club. And he would have been the brain behind the first riding displays on Parents’ Day, having been part of the military musical rides at Earls Court or Olympia.
Riding at Canford would have been perfect for the young, bold and determined Sarah who had the whole of Canford Heath on her doorstep. A friend, Willy Trotter, remembers meeting Sarah for the first time. His parents had brought him down to see the school with a view to his going there. While they had their tour he was looked after by Sarah who would have been about 10 and he a couple of years older. The conversation went a bit like this: “Can you ride?” “Yes.” Off to the stables; ponies tacked up. Off Sarah trots. “Can you do these?” pointing to a line of jumps. “Yes, I think so.” “Not bad”, Sarah said on completion. Sarah, as always, was very much in charge even in those days.
The story repeated itself a few years later on the hunting field out with the Portman, when Willy found himself following Sarah over a line of huge hedges, at the end of which she turned to Willy: “Still here?”
Riding became a drug for Sarah. She obviously had nerves of steel in her youth, loved the challenge of training horses and, more importantly, later on it gave her an escape from school.
Accidents prompted Sarah’s changes of direction in her riding. It was her beloved hunter who had the first accident. They were out hunting one Saturday trotting down a track in the woods and her horse got its hind leg stuck in an old bit of gate or fencing and the front tipped up under its belly and cut straight through into the stomach. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do and the horse had to be shot there and then. Sarah would have been distraught. You remember how much she
loved her animals, and you will also remember how jolly sympathetic she was when she had to break really bad news to any of you.
Show jumping was the next serious venture. She had done it all the time but she just took it to another level. She and Peggy would go on their adventures with Sarah competing every Saturday during the summer term. There was such a thing as the summer circuit which would take her to Wembley, and to the Windsor Horse show. Peggy said she was never nervous although I do know Sarah once told me the only thing she could eat before competing was Hanford rhubarb so even she must have had a few butterflies. (I couldn’t find out much about her trainer. She was a very good showjumping lady, said Peggy, called Lady Wright!)
The accident happened to Sarah this time. She didn’t fall off or anything As she mentioned to her form one day, it is not a good idea to be reading a book with a Grade A show jumper. Peggy remembered immediately: she was grazing Nemo and reading a book and suddenly he must have been startled, knocked her over and jumped on her leg.
So, undaunted, when she was better Sarah did a course with Molly Sievwright and turned to dressage. More competitions! She got as far as Prix St George level, the first where you have to wear top hat and tails. There will be a picture somewhere – Sarah must have looked so smart and we all know she wasn’t really one for dressing up! She had lessons with Rocky – Herr Franz Rochowansky – who was the youngest chief rider of the Spanish riding school. Sarah certainly knew to choose the best and he is worth googling. I can imagine that they would have had some amazing conversations.
She was as happy teaching Hanford children on her Hanford ponies as she was helping budding eventers on their more glamorous mounts. She knew the ponies so well that she could almost trust them to do the teaching and would meticulously match personality and ability of child to pony in the drawing room every night, preparing the riding lists for the next day. And everyone got laughed at; ponies can easily make their riders look very silly, but not even the budding eventers were safe on their rather smart horses. Sheena KK remembers the time when she was practising her extended trot on a very elegant young horse across one of the diagonals of the riding school. Sarah was helping her. Unbeknownst to them Robert and Alistair were in the apple orchard picking apples. They started shaking branches and it rained apples onto the roof of the riding school. That horse turned 180 degrees in the air and Sheena landed splat on her bottom, furious! Sarah roared with laughter. She laughed until she had tears running down her cheeks. Poor Sheena! At 18, she was the youngest rider to have completed Badminton and she freely admits that up to then had been feeling maybe just a little pleased with herself at how things were going! Of course, from then on Sarah couldn’t clap eyes on Sheena without reliving it!
The real fun started for Sarah when the Cannings moved to Hanford, their first real home. Ela said that they rode their horses up from Canford to Hanford in those summer holidays of 1947. What a ride and what a wonderful new home, a new start for them all. Sarah, who was so close to her parents, was in on the discussions and decision making and part of the team of friends, family and staff who helped to scrub and rub classrooms and dorms to get everything ready. That is when she wasn’t jumping the box hedges or gorse bushes up on Hod and Ham. Her grandfather now lived in Iwerne Minster and he would walk over for Sunday lunch to find the usual Hanford scene: dogs lying on the sofas. In those days even the hound puppies seem to find their way into the house.
In term time Sarah concentrated on her schooling. She enjoyed Sherborne; she was a star pupil, head of house, head of school, goalie for the School 3rd XI hockey, and went on to Somerville College Oxford with a County Scholarship to read Classics when she was 19.
The holidays were packed, hunting as much as she could fit in and parties every week, lots of them at Hanford. They used to have the hunt balls there until one day some drunken youth walked off with one of the cherubs and never brought it back. She had a great crowd of friends and Michael Sharp used to tell stories of her riding up Hod and Ham with boyfriends and galloping them to the edge to see if they would topple off … and then laughing uproariously! Her bananas sense of humour was legendary. She threw parties at Oxford inviting her Dorset friends. This involved Sarah having first to escape out of the window of her college rooms as in those days they had a curfew every night. So she was fearless and lucky, and managed to survive her time there without being caught.
An entry in the Sherborne Old Girls magazine says: “Sarah Canning was seen reeling at the Scottish society and she is making hay while her tutor is away, desperately trying to sell film tickets to unwilling undergraduates.” And in Dec ’51: “Sarah is in the gloom of approaching moderations and may be seen looking earnestly at statues in the Ashmolean…”
She worked hard, played hard, and emerged from Oxford having done one year of classics and then three of law. The fact that she got a third in both just shows how much she lived life to the full. However, her workload would have been huge. One of her friends describes life with Sarah at Oxford: “Mods was a great slog. Unlike today we had to read the whole of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc and I recall long evenings before and after supper with a break at 10 for coffee, perhaps with fish and chips and a copy of the Eagle. Visits to Hanford were memorable. I met her parents, her father always painting, and Ela and Rose. Early morning rides, dogs, seeing Sarah school a new German make over jumps, returning from a dance in Dorchester in an open car with the smells of a summer night. Years later, when Sarah was Head, I remember sleeping in a room used as the ‘san’ (sickroom) which was suddenly needed, and hearing Sarah ’phoning parents to tell them their daughter had fallen out of the cedar and broken her collar bone. How lucky she was to have been at a school where tree climbing was allowed. Inevitably my daughter went to Hanford and was much attached and influenced by it. Of all my friends I can’t think of anyone who had a more fruitful and fulfilling life than Sarah.”
In her hopes and ambitions for Hanford School, Sarah wanted each child to experience that same feeling of fun and the sense of being truly alive. This included a love of learning and appreciation of the Hanford family and all it stood for. She taught so much more than the rudiments of Latin, English and riding. She knew us all very well. However, her form had the most contact with her and she made it her business to get to know them inside out, their fears, pretences and vanities, and one by one she stripped them away. She teased, cajoled, played and laughed with them and at them, calling them by nicknames which were sometimes quite hurtful; it was a toughening-up process which we all went through. On the positive side she was imaginative and creative, choosing books and poetry with great care, constantly forcing us to broaden our horizons. Perhaps above all she taught us to see; to see the beauty of our surroundings, to notice details such as the picture in the drawing room above the fireplace, you know the one … why was that sea captain rather worried? She wanted us to see if someone was unhappy, to notice what the ponies were doing in the field and to help if anyone needed help. This was real life and important. Equally, we were important to her as members of her Hanford family and although she laughed at us, was cross with us, and generally put us through it, she was on our side and wanted us to succeed. I have all our three childrens’ worth of Sarah’s reports and they bring back very clear memories. And when we went back we saw how long it took for her to write those reports. Each one was carefully considered, distilled and rewritten until she was satisfied. June Taylor would read Sarah’s reports with interest as they would always tell her exactly who would be walking in through her door at Sherborne on the first day of term.
Another letter from a school friend of Sarah’s, Anne Watson (nee Davies): “I spent so many hours with Sarah at SSG pouring over our set books for School Certificate. There were just the two of us and we had undiluted coaching from the young classics teacher who was fresh out of Oxford and a
real enthusiast, probably not a lot older than us. We were crouched somewhere out of the wind at the edge of the games pitches trying to find out what Plato really did. All we were told was ‘perverting the youth.’ In those far off days we never talked of such things. She, Sarah, arrived at the school as a scholar. She was a tousled untidy lass with, even then, a huge work ethic and off she went to Oxford. Please pass on to any family and friends my great memories of that curly-haired, scruffy but fun loving Sarah that I knew so well. We were just a duo through Virgil’s Aeneid about bee keeping and one of Plato’s writings on philosophy and the early Greeks. She was always clever but managed her brains without losing her wicked sense of humour. And she was known as Wog in those non PC days.”
I hope you are all listening, Sugar Tongs, Rabbit, Google Eyes, Mole, the Gingerbread Witch! Sarah had a nickname too.
And a PS from the letter: “Her socks were always round her ankles … we were supposed to wear garters to keep them up but that was not for Sarah … Happy Days!”
So she came full circle. Many of the best Latin lessons were spent outside under the cedar or somewhere on the west lawn, acting out myths with Sarah; she was seldom happier than when watching you all playing games after supper, cartwheeling on the lawn or rollerblading on the playground – do you remember all those games! She carried on riding in the early mornings around the Park field, with Nonsense following along behind, well into her 70s and was a constant presence in the stables and the house most evenings; she always had an uncanny knack of appearing when least expected! Her stable flat, into which she had moved as a teenager, her refuge from the school; her other life, where only the most intrepid visitor ventured (Michael Sharp always used to say what a disgusting mess it was over there!) was the last bastion to be relinquished before she moved down to Neat’s House. That must have been very difficult for Sarah.
A badly dislocated knee took her into hospital, keeping her sense of humour to the last when told by a young anaesthetist that he was there to answer her worries, quick as a flash she replied, “I have only one: your competence!”
Sarah died peacefully at home in Neat’s House being looked after to the last, very much in the Canning style. She gave her life’s blood to Hanford, and this is her legacy: a forward thinking school with very few rules where children can play and learn to think for themselves; a place to learn what is really important in life and to experience how to live it to the full.
Kate McKenzie-Johnston 20th May 2018