Dora Robertson (née Butterworth) 1893-1972 impacted on the history of Salisbury in two ways: by helping to secure the future of the Choristers School when it faced financial collapse in the 1920s, and by writing the first history of the Cathedral Close, a work still used as a standard reference work by historians today.
She was born Dora Butterworth to a wealthy industrial family in Manchester. Her maternal grandfather, Philip Goldschmidt, was the first Jewish and first foreign-born Mayor of the city. By 1901 the family was living in Bayswater, a fashionable part of London, so she & her sister Elsie had a comfortable upbringing. In 1916 Dora became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment)1 driver based near Cheltenham, and apart from a minor traffic offence in June 1917 (case dismissed), nothing more has come down to us about this time.
In 1920 she took a School Matron’s diploma at King’s College for Women in London; it was the syllabus which interested her rather than a career as a school matron. In her book she enigmatically refers to ‘work among slum boys in clubs and camps’ but no further details are known.
The Choristers School in Salisbury Cathedral Close had been run since 19002 by Arthur Robertson, with the help of May, his wife. In February 1924 their daughter Sylvia was married but only eight months later tragedy struck as May died suddenly of a stroke while visiting her daughter and son-in-law near Cambridge. Arthur was devastated and the school had lost the person they had long regarded as ‘mother’. A matron was appointed in January 1925 but left after a month. It was into these unhappy circumstances that Dora Butterworth arrived as the new school matron appointed in February/March 1925. She and Arthur were engaged within a short time and were married in a lavish ceremony in St Martins in the Fields, London, in October 1925. Dora wasted no time settling into her new role as Headmaster’s wife and indeed was instrumental in securing the future of the school when, as so often in its history, its current financial situation was becoming unsustainable. The details of the story are described in Chapter 18 of her book.
Not satisfied with this impressive achievement, which alone would secure her place in Salisbury’s story, once Arthur retired in 1930 she decided to write the history of the School. Meticulously researched and written in a light and lively style, by the time it was published in 1938 it had become a more general history of domestic life in the Close.
Arthur and Dora remained in Salisbury for the rest of their lives, retiring to Rowdens House, Netherhampton, until their deaths, in 1940 and 1972 respectively. We can catch glimpses of Dora’s altruism in her First World War work and her involvement with the ‘slum boys’ as well as the way she took the school in hand when she arrived in 1925.
1 In the First World War the county branches of the Red Cross had their own groups of volunteers called Voluntary Aid Detachments (often abbreviated to VAD). Voluntary Aid Detachment members themselves came to be known simply as ‘VADs’. Made up of men and women, the VADs carried out a range of voluntary positions including nursing, transport duties, and the organisation of rest stations, working parties and auxiliary hospitals.
2 The Cathedral School at this time was based in No.56 and No.57 The Close, Braybrook House (Headmasters residence) and Wren Hall (schoolroom.) In 1946-47 it moved to the former Bishops Palace and the Bishop moved to the South Canonry.
Researched and written by Beatrice King, notes by Susan Brain, edited by S.Ali.
Photo of Dora Robertson published by kind permission of the Salisbury Cathedral School.
We would like to thank Celia Cotton for assistance with finding sources for this profile.
Robertson, Dora, 1938 (2nd Ed 1969), Sarum Close: A Picture of Domestic Life in a Cathedral Close for 700 Years and the History of the Choristers for 900 Years. Firecrest Publishing Ltd.
Smith, Peter L. (ed), 2011, In the shadow of Salisbury Spire: recollections of Salisbury Cathedral Choristers and their School. Hobnob Press.
GRO Index reference, 1893 D Quarter in CHORLTON Vol 08C p.723
Marriage register, St Martin in the Fields, 10th October 1925.
1939 Register Salisbury and Wilton WSRU Registration District 253/3
Wills: Dora Robertson (1972) & Arthur Robertson (1940)