Obituary: Jac Cowie
Monday 25 January 1993
IT IS remarkable how many people remember one particular teacher whose influence from their schooldays remains with them all their lives. There are hundreds of women all over the world for whom J. A. ('Jac') Cowie was that teacher.
For over 30 years she specialised in the teaching of geography and mathematics at St Paul's Girls' School in London but she was also in charge of a form for the youngest in the school, helping to allay the anxieties of a succession of quaking 11-year-olds on their arrival at this large and unfamiliar public school.
For many of her pupils Miss Cowie's lessons were, above all, fun, an element not always appreciated by the school establishment in her time. The complexities of fractions and percentages, of algebraic problems or trigonometry were relieved by games of solitaire or the folding of paper dragons; the discussions of longitude and latitude and the staple crops of parts of Africa were augmented by instruction on how to count in Zulu or by a slide show of travels taken before the war. But her piece de resistance was the making of 'foolproof fudge', which she distributed to the class at times of serious crisis, such as the taking of O-levels.
Born in Aberdeenshire in 1906, Jac Cowie was the niece of the painter James Cowie, whose work she later brought to the attention of a number of publishers' art directors for their jackets. She was a country girl, sometimes riding to the local school on horseback, but by 1922 she was reading mathematics at Glasgow University. Her first teaching post was at Withington High School, Manchester, where she was befriended by the McDougall family, and it was with Helen McDougall that she was to share the rest of her life. Together they went to South Africa and taught in a school in Natal. Such was the impression made by this young teacher that when revisiting the country 50 years later she was greeted by a gathering of her former pupils.
It was in 1936 that Jac Cowie was appointed to teach at St Paul's, then under the greatly admired regime of the High Mistress Ethel Strudwick. When the school was evacuated to Wycombe Abbey at the start of the war with a much-reduced staff, Jac Cowie joined Helen McDougall in Yorkshire and taught at Skipton High School. She rejoined St Paul's on their return to London towards the end of the war and taught there until her retirement in 1968.
Jac Cowie valued every child who came under her care, zealously seeking from them their special qualities. She made them feel important and often gave them the confidence they needed in a school where competition was keen and where it might be all too easy to feel a failure. St Paul's was important in Jac Cowie's life, its pupils - who included during her time there Shirley Williams, Shirley Summerskill, Emma Tennant, Selina Hastings and Harriet Harman - were her pride.
In her long retirement in Guildford, Jac Cowie continued her many and varied interests, contributing valuable work to the Guildford Archaeological Society. She was a tireless correspondent, not only keeping in touch with many of her pupils all over the world but initiating long and sometimes extraordinary exchanges of letters with those whose books or films she admired, among them Rosemary Sutcliff, Katharine Hepburn and Rosamond Lehmann. In her eighties she was given a computer which she soon mastered and used to great effect. Jac Cowie was, above all, a great communicator and an inspiration to many. Her last weeks in hospital and nursing home were marked by the constant stream of her friends and one-time pupils to her bedside.
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