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.