19.03.15 : Mrs Robert Steedman O.B.E. (Miss Martha Hamilton)

In October 1988 Mrs Robert Steedman (Miss Martha Hamilton) was appointed O.B.E. by H.M. The Queen in recognition of her great service ‘to education both within her own school, throughout the British Isles and in the wider world’. She was the longest serving Headmistress of St Leonards School, St Andrews, leading the school from 1970-88 and an inspirational and much loved figure in the school’s history.

Martha Hamilton was born in 1929 to John Hamilton, a minister from Northern Ireland and the Hon. Lilias Maclay, a doctor; both instilled in her strong Christian values. She was grand-daughter of the 1st Baron Maclay, founder of Maclay & McIntyre, the shipping firm, and a member of the War Cabinet in 1918. Martha started out at St Denis School in Edinburgh and St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm before attending Roedean School in Brighton, where she became Head Girl. In 1942 she began what would become a life-long association with St Andrews when she enrolled to study Medieval History at the University.

Following the award of a Diploma of Education from Cambridge University in 1953 she taught for two years at Lansdowne House in Edinburgh before following her grandfather’s wishes to teach in a mission school in India. Her great enjoyment of an initial two-year post at a school in Kalimpong turned into eleven years in the region, the majority as Headmistress of the Paljor Namgyal school in Gangtok, capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim. During this time she learned to speak Nepali and became highly respected and widely known for her quick thinking and strong leadership. In addition to her academic teaching and leadership of a school of over 750 girls, she faced other challenges. Sikkim bordered Tibet and when China threatened to invade in 1965 she prepared her pupils by digging trenches and air raid practice in case war broke out.  Her work was acknowledged when she was awarded the Pema-Dorji Medal (Lotus Flower Thunderbolt) for ‘services to education’ by the Chogyal of Sikkim.

In 1966, following her mother’s death, Miss Hamilton returned to Edinburgh to care for her father. She completed a Diploma in Adult Education at Edinburgh University and was encouraged to apply as Headmistress of St Leonards in 1970. One student remembered, “It was a press event. Miss Hamilton was young, well educated, well connected, cosmopolitan, utterly glamorous. We received the newspapers in the boarding houses and there she was … our new headmistress!”

On her first morning at St Leonards, wearing a “trendy leather patchwork midi-skirt”, Martha asked her Head of School why they had chosen such a dreary hymn, ‘Through the night of doubt and sorrow’, to which the girl replied, ‘Miss Hamilton, it is the school hymn’. 

She proceeded to modernise St Leonards, introducing great changes reflective of the times. Affectionately known as ‘Martha’ among staff and students alike, it was her forward-looking and enthusiastic leadership which brought the School renewed direction and purpose, ensuring St Leonards’ success.

The girls were delighted by their new elegant Headmistress and the atmosphere was a very happy one when she was in charge. Seniors remembered her surging onstage for morning assembly, at the climax of whatever was belting out on the organ, often wearing a bright pink blouse with amber beads, “designed to wake us all up in the morning.” Her brilliant white Samoyed dog, Nicky and his successor became a firm feature of the scene at school. 

Her energy was formidable as also her strength of character and imagination. The Arts, in particular Music and Drama, flourished during her tenure and she was ahead with computers at a time of uncertainty as to the best approach to take with a technology whose scope and uses were then by no means clear. She was prescient and modern in this and other ways. Old fashioned practices were ended and ‘fuddyduddyness’ dispatched.

In 1977 St Leonards celebrated its Centenary and Miss Hamilton oversaw many special celebratory events including the visit of H.M. The Queen Mother to open the Junior Library in the vaults of Queen Mary’s Library. It was also the year in which she celebrated her marriage to Robert Steedman, the renowned Scottish Architect and became devoted step-mother to Scott, Helena and Sarah.

She announced her engagement to Robert at morning assembly by asking the girls if they had enjoyed their Easter holidays. ‘I did!’ she said joyfully, waving the engagement ring on her finger for all to see. The happy news was greeted with tumultuous applause from the girls. Robert became a familiar figure around School, supporting Martha in so many ways. Theirs was a partnership of talents which left its mark indelibly on the landscape of the school.

In 1987, H.R.H. Princess Alexandra made the second royal visit of Martha’s tenure to open the new Music School building, designed by Robert Steedman, which has proved a huge asset for the school.

Miss Hamilton, always keen to introduce her pupils to foreign travel, led an expedition in 1977 to her former school in Sikkim. One Senior who was on the trip reflected, “Martha was adored everywhere we went; princes, government officials, parents and pupils.”  In 1986 she and Robert took another group to China when the country was just opening its doors to foreign visitors and very few groups were admitted. She opened the girls’ eyes to the world and encouraged them all to do their best, irrespective of their academic abilities.

Martha was an outstanding and charismatic Headmistress who took a great interest in her pupils and their families which continued after they left school. She knew each of her students by name and was always keen to know details of their successes when meeting them years later as Seniors.

Upon her retirement in 1988, Martha remained one of St Leonards’ most ardent supporters and was an active and loyal member of the St Leonards Seniors Society. She was greatly admired and respected within the community and possessed an infectious enthusiasm for education and keen interest in the lives of everyone she met.

Martha SteedmanOne tribute from a senior read, “She left a lasting impact on all of us who knew her and for me provided a great role model and aspiration for the impact a woman can have in the wider world if she so chooses.” Martha will be remembered with great affection and as one of Scotland’s finest educationalists. As James Murray, Chairman of St Leonards Council put it so eloquently, “The like of her will not be seen again.”

After her retirement she moved to the nearby village of Blebocraigs with Robert to live in the house they had built together. She served as a member of the Fife Health Board and was a driving force behind the establishment of the Women’s Centenary Fellowships by St Andrews University in 1992. They travelled extensively from the Himalayas to the Arctic and Antarctic, where she swam off a beach in South Georgia.

A service of celebration of Mrs Steedman's life is to be held in St Andrews this summer (date to be confirmed). Should you like to leave a personal tribute please submit it by email to seniors@stleonards-fife.org or by post to: Seniors Office, St Leonards School, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9QJ.

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