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Chapel of the Holy Child
Elmhurst Ballet School, Camberley

This fine reredos designed by Nina Somerset for the Chapel of the Holy Child Elmhurst Ballet School, Camberley is now in S. Silas's Church, Kentish Town.

History of the Reredos
An account by Jennifer Rice,
Pupil, Member of Music Staff and now Archivist for Elmhurst.

Following the end of the War, Elmhurst expanded rapidly. By 1946 the number of pupils had risen from 90 to 240 and the Chapel was far too small. An Appeal was launched in 1947 to raise funds to rebuild it and in 1950 two extensions were added just below the sanctuary.

It was to celebrate this occasion that Mrs Helen Mortimer commissioned the reredos from Nina Somerset. Apparently she had seen an exhibition of Nina's work which is how she came to be chosen to create this superb altarpiece. There are a series of letters in the archives from Mrs Mortimer to Nina Somerset discussing the design, colour schemes and other details, witten in 1949.

Mrs Mortimer's youngest son, Anthony was an exceptionally good-looking boy and when he was about 10 years old (1928) he had modelled for Pax House. His image was familiar to every Elmhurst pupil who came to the Chapel. A sketch of his head hung in the entrance and was also used on the covers of the school hymnbooks, while his figure for the statue of the boy Christ could be seen outside over the door of the Chapel. Most strikingly, his image appears in the centre of the reredos, portraying the boy Christ standing with outstretched arms, looking out towards us.

The dedication of the new sanctuary took place on May 17th 1950, performed by the Bishop of Guildford, who also confirmed some children. There is no information as to whether the reredos was actually in place by then, but the last letter in the archive was written on April 4th 1950 and it would seem to suggest that Mrs Mortimer was worried about the time of its completion. (The reredos is actually signed by Nina Somerset and dated 1950 which might suggest that it was ready by the time of the dedication.)

However, at the end of the year a series of photos were taken of the Christmas Play which clearly shows the reredos in the background. In particular, the photos show two angels who stood on either side of the altar throughout the play, subtly moving from one beautiful pose to another, their long dresses in a deep rich shimmering blue and their huge wings echoing the two angels on the reredos behind them.

Elmhurst Chapel - The Christmas Play
An account by Jennifer Rice

The Chapel was the heart of the school and its services and celebrations marked the pattern of the school year. The highlight was the annual presentation of the Christmas Play which originally was created from a version already in print. When in 1942 Helen Mortimer’s eldest son Michael was killed in action, she wrote a new Christmas Play in his memory called “Ye Serve the Lord Christ” dedicated to the Children of the World.

Generations of Elmhurst pupils remember it with affection and it continued to be performed for nearly 40 years. Every child in the school would be involved, for apart from the main speaking and dancing roles, there was an enormous crowd scene at the end. It has never lost its relevance, as the finale brings in refugees fleeing from the terrors of war. Children of all nations come to Mary and the Child to find peace, following her out of the building singing a hymn of praise and hope.

After the War, this remarkable Christmas Play was given in Southwark Cathedral in 1945 and in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1947, while the Finale – involving 150 children – was performed at the Albert Hall during the Empire Festival in 1946.

Since its last performance at the school in 1980, it has long been the dream of many Elmhurst students and staff to revive this much-loved Play and in recent years it has suddenly sprung to life again.

In 2005 and 2007, an Old Elm who was the wife of the headmaster of St George’s School, Windsor castle, stages some impressive performances in St George’s Chapel. Remarkably, none of the pupils was older than 13 and of course the choral singing was magnificent. Then in 2008 another Old Elm staged a much simpler but delightful performance at St Mary’s Church, Osterley, Middlesex. This was given by members of the congregation, children and adults, as well as other parishioners.

Another Old Elm in Deal is hoping to be able to produce her version of the Play with children at her Ballet School.

History of Elmhurst Ballet School 
A summary by Jennifer Rice

Miss Violet Crisp, headmistress of a Prep School called ‘Elmhurst’ in Camberley, Surrey, moves to a larger site in Heathcote Road, where it will remain for 81 years. Mrs Helen Mortimer has just returned to England from New Zealand, recently widowed with three young sons and little money.
She joins the staff of Elmhurst and founds The Mortimer School of Dancing, with a studio in the grounds and just eight pupils.
Mrs Mortimer becomes joint headmistress with Miss Crisp. The school expands, adding a senior department and residential facilities.
A Chapel is built and dedicated as The Chapel of the Holy Child. It is a beautiful setting for the Christmas Play and the Easter Play which are performed every year.
Miss Crisp retires, leaving Mrs Mortimer as the sole Principal of Elmhurst. When her son Michael is killed in action during the war, she writes a new Christmas Play in his memory called “Ye Serve the Lord Christ” which is performed at the school until 1980.
After the end of the War the school expands rapidly and the name is changed to Elmhurst Ballet School. There are now 240 pupils. From now on it begins to establish an international reputation as a stage school.
The Revd John Mortimer, son of Mrs Mortimer becomes School Chaplain.
The beautiful reredos by Nina Somerset is installed in the Chapel.
Mrs Mortimer dies and is succeeded as Principal by Father John’s wife, Helen – always know as ‘Mrs John’. There are now 350 pupils, including 100 dancing students.
A Theatre is built in the grounds as a memorial to the late Mrs Helen Mortimer. Patrons of the school include Dame Ninette de Valois, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Flora Robson and Sir Donald Wolfit.
Father John and Mrs John retire. Miss E A Jenkyns (Deputy Principal) is appointed Principal. She has been 22 years on the staff and so is able to continue the aims and traditions of the school.
Michael Mortimer, son of Father and Mrs John, joins the staff to help with the technical side of the theatre, as well as becoming General Caretaker.
Miss Jenkyns retires and a new era begins. The new Principal is Jeffrey Skitch from Malvern College.
Mick Mortimer leaves, ending a family link of nearly 70 years.
Jeffrey Skitch retires. The new principal is John McNamara from Marlborough College.
After 81 years in Camberley, Elmhurst relocates to Birmingham to become the Associate School for Birmingham Royal ballet. It is renamed “Elmhurst School of Dance”. By a happy chance, Helen Mortimer’s grandson, the Revd Lawrence Mortimer is vicar of the church at Wootton Wawen near Solihull. A family link with the school continues, as he is invited to many of the Shows and Celebrations that take place there. He also takes charge of all the contents of the Chapel at Camberley, including the reredos by Nina Somerset.
At the end of the year, the reredos finally comes to rest in St Silas Church, Kentish Town, surrounded by works of art by Nina Somerset, who used to worship here.
On Januay 11th a celebration takes place, the Blessing and Dedication of the reredos in its new home – nearly 60 years after it was created.

Mrs Helen Mortimer 1892-1958
Biographical notes by Jennifer Rice

Helen Mortimer, the founder of Elmhurst Ballet School, was a charismatic figure, a passionate lover of the theatre and a woman whose faith was central to her life.

She was the daughter of the Revd Henry Burton who in 1913 was sent to New Zealand as Diocesan Missioner of St Alban’s cathedral, Christchurch. Helen went with him and that same year she married one of his curates, the Revd John Mortimer. Sadly, in 1920, her husband died, leaving her a widow of 28, with three young sons and little money.

She returned to England and settled in Camberley, Surrey. As a young girl she had trained at the Tree School in London – later at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – and now she began to teach drama and dancing to earn money.

In 1923 she joined Miss Violet Crisp at her Prep school in Camberley called ‘Elmhurst’ teaching Scripture and Elocution. A studio was built in the grounds and here Helen Mortimer founded The Mortimer School of Dancing with just eight students. So began her great mission in life. She had no recognised qualifications, but she had great determination and an implicit faith in God. When she set out to start her school, her wish was to impart to her pupils the spiritual strength that is so necessary in a profession as demanding as the theatre.

Soon Elmhurst expanded, adding a senior school and boarding facilities, while the number of dancing students also increased. Mrs Mortimer gathered round her a remarkable team of women, both artistic and academic. From the earliest days she was creating, writing and producing complete shows in Camberley, while her Mortimer Dancers also took part in other events in the locality.

In 1931 Helen Mortimer became joint Headmistress of Elmhurst with Miss Crisp.

In 1933 the exceptionally gifted Helen Fischer became Ballet Mistress, from then on producing and choreographing all the show until 1966. Finally the Chapel of the Holy Child was built about 1933/34 – the fulfilment of a long-awaited dream.

In 1942 Miss Crisp retired and Mrs Mortimer became sole Principal of Elmhurst. After the end of the War the school expanded rapidly, soon acquiring an international reputation. Its students were working all over the world as dancers, actresses, choreographers, producers, designers and writers. The most famous names include Royal ballet ballerina Merle Park, and the actresses Juliet and Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Caroline Langrishe, Hermione Norris, Fiona Fullerton and Helen Baxendale.

When Mrs Mortimer died in 1958 there were 350 students at Elmhurst, including 100 dancing students. The Mortimer years continues through her son, the Revd John Mortimer, who was School Chaplain, and his wife Helen, who became the new Principal. Their son Michael joined the staff in 1979. When he left in 1992 it ended a family link of nearly 70 years.

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