There can be no more difficult a task for a headmistress than to guide her staff and pupils through the personal tragedy of war. In Charlotte Ainslie however, George Square could rely not only on calm authority, compassion and consideration for others, but on the determination not to yield to the forces of evil in a period of unprecedented military engagement. She understood at an early stage in the war years, that the world would never return to its old order. She met that challenge head on, unafraid of the dangers that still lay ahead and unbowed by the personal sacrifices that she, and all the families of her staff and pupils, would have to make. These personal leadership qualities were matched by her distinguished academic achievements making her the outstanding headmistress of her generation.
If Charlotte Ainslie was the creator of George Square she was also the head whose life and work epitomised the school and who did more than anyone else to foster the common tie that bound her pupils and former pupils together both in Edinburgh and in lands afar. She was also a highly respected member of the Edinburgh establishment and, as such, a frequent guest at both social and academic events across the city.
Born in Edinburgh in 1863, Charlotte Ainslie entered Mr Thomson’s George Watson’s College Schools for Young Ladies in Session 1873/4 and left as Dux in 1880. Having left school already an accomplished linguist, she graduated from St Andrews University before embarking on studies abroad in France, Germany and Switzerland, before being appointed head of Modern Languages at Dunheved College, Launceston, Cornwall.
Before returning to George Square she was awarded a scholarship by the Reid Trustees following her outstanding success in the Matriculation Examination of the University of London, and she also won the Gilchrist Scholarship bestowed on the best candidate in the year - something that precipitated an invitation to lecture at the Cambridge Training College in Education and Psychology.
If the Merchant Company already knew the wisdom of its choice of the head to succeed Alexander Thomson there was both suspense and apprehension amongst the pupils and staff as to what the new head might be like, especially as many were so sad to lose the much-loved Mr Thomson. They were not to be disappointed. Described as a goddess by a pupil who attended Miss Ainslie’s very first assembly, the school stood in awe of this graceful and dignified lady whose very presence was sufficient to command respect and self-discipline. She was a passionate believer in womanhood and all that it could accomplish through a sense of purpose in life even in the difficult times of the First World War.
Despite the limited availability of George Square archives relating to this era it is clear that Charlotte Ainslie was regarded as an inspirational speaker and as someone who would set the highest standards for both her staff and pupils. Her first thought was always for the welfare and promotion of her pupils no matter whether they were brilliant, average or weak, and there would be only words of encouragement for those who could not or chose not to go to university. Her sensitivity and her generosity of spirit, as well as her pawky sense of humour, were greatly admired traits and much appreciated by those pupils who found themselves in genuine difficulty. She could also teach any class on any subject and frequently entered a classroom to find out what subject was being discussed. As a linguist she was fluent in French and German, she was well read in History and Music, and she had a deep love of literature which was evident in a series of lectures she delivered in 1920 on Dante’s Purgatorio.
But for those who offended the good name of George Square there was a firm hand of discipline. Woe betide any girl who was sent to the Tiled Hall should Miss Ainslie happen to find her there. A cold terrifying reprimand would be issued, sometimes along with more severe punishment, and the girl would be left in no doubt that she was the source of considerable disappointment as well as displeasure.
It was some time before Charlotte Ainslie admitted to being the author of the school hymn which continues to this day to inspire generations of Watson’s pupils, both boys and girls, and which speaks volumes about the values through which Charlotte Ainslie sought to educate her pupils. She would be delighted to know that her hymn, and its music composed by W. B. Ross, endures and she would be enormously proud of the achievements of so many women Watsonians as we mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of George Square.
Over the course of a quarter of a century, Charlotte Ainslie oversaw fundamental change within the curriculum and within the buildings at George Square. Never afraid to confront difficult choices and respond to new educational practices, her calm dignity reflected her courage and inward strength and provided her with an unfailing ability to respond to every crisis. In George Square she believed in the power of absolute value. Its ethos was sacred to her and so, with all sincerity, she could point to the school as an inspiration to work and service, as a source of pride and as the focus for Christian values.
The University of Edinburgh conferred a Doctorate of Laws on Charlotte Ainslie in 1926, the year she retired, and in 1929 she received an OBE for services to education. They were richly deserved and no-one could doubt the pleasure she received from both. Yet they meant little when compared to the legacy of George Square and all that it meant to its pupils and staff. Not only was Charlotte Ainslie the outstanding head of her generation but she was also a remarkable woman on whose heart is forever etched the words Ex Corde Caritas.