Bolton School Former Pupils

Sheila Tonge

Sheila Tonge (1956-1963), Governor 1997-2008

My original career choice would have been to be a doctor, but after some disappointments and illness problems at home I switched from the idea of doctoring people to plants and headed into horticulture. I thought about trying music as a career but kept my cello playing as a hobby.

After a one year apprenticeship in an aristocratic garden in Cheshire I went to Studley College (women only) for Agriculture, Dairying and Horticulture to take the National Diploma course in Horticulture. It was great fun – we learnt a little about everything from rock gardens and hot house plants to growing carrots commercially, drove tractors and befriended the local young farmers to get out down the long Sequoia lined drive for a drink in lovely Warwickshire villages. We went by the coachload to dances at Cirencester College (the all men version), often still sewing the frock on the coach! I also organised a lot of trips to the theatre – Stratford mainly – and became Head Student in my final year. Four of us went on to Constance Spry School in London to do Floristry and Flower Arranging which was a lovely way to finish our education.

I came home then to be with my Dad (my Mother had died after years of illness whilst I was at college) and applied for the job of Floral Decorator for Wigan – a very novel idea dreamed up by the then Head of Parks – so unlikely that I was featured on the Today programme, interviewed by Jack de Manio. Even more thrilling, I got paid twice, for the main programme and the repeat! After two years and with Dad safely married again I got a similar job in Cheltenham – heading up all things floral and gardens for St. Mary’s College.

I got married to Kai Andersen in 1969 which brought me back again to Bolton, where he had set up a company recycling silver from photographic materials – a job he had learnt in his native Denmark. I concentrated on home and babies, became a Magistrate, and a Samaritan. Then Kai was diagnosed with MND and, because he lost his ability to speak very quickly, we decided that I should of necessity become involved with the business, eventually taking over as MD when he was unable to work anymore. They were gruelling years – lack of sleep, the constant worry about the business and trying to encourage my brave little girls. His sad death after a valiant three year struggle was followed by the lowest point in the business but I turned it round, expanded it considerably and went for the quality initiatives. I did a short course for entrepreneurs at Manchester Business School (very good fun) and widened the services we offered. In 1994 a European Group looking to expand their recycling initiatives into the UK bought me out, although I stayed as MD for a further two years. I am pleased to say that they are still going strong and many of my 65 employees have stayed with them.

Now what to do? I was busy again in months expanding my role with the Hospice movement and promoting music both as encouragement to young musicians and, by hiring the Hallé and other ensembles, to raise funds for the Hospice. I served as Chairman of Bolton Hospice for seven years, represented the 32 North West Hospices on national committees and eventually joined the Board of Help the Hospices (now Hospice UK) – the umbrella organisation for the UK Hospice movement. I also became a Governor at Bolton School and Chairman of Bolton School Services Ltd. Part of me was highly amused that, after a not very high achieving School career, I was seen fit to be a Governor.

What is your connection to Bolton School? Were any other members of your family here?

My parents only moved to Bolton when I was eight. I won a town scholarship to the School which was marvelous. I was there from 1956 – 1963.  Subsequently, my youngest daughter attended Bolton School from 1981 – 1991, in Juniors and Senior School

What is your fondest Bolton School memory?

I have lots of good memories:

  • Just taking in the magnificence of the architecture, the furniture and the paintings.
  • Pushing ‘trains’ of chairs down to the Great Hall for grand occasions.
  • Morning prayers and hymn singing.
  • A trip to Derbyshire aged 13 going on a coach and staying in a Youth Hostel with all my pals – giggle, giggle.
  • The organ being played well – spine tingling!
  • Eating too many chocolate digestives in the Prefects Room.
  • Being very proud to be there.

Did any member of teaching staff particularly inspire you while you were at school?

Teachers I remember with gratitude and affection:

Miss Higginson – awkward but such a support when I needed her.
Mrs. Page – such a support during my difficult Sixth Form years.
Miss Handley – Physics with a bang.
Charlotte Sefton – my first cello teacher. A friend for life.
Jennifer Paterson – Music. Inspirational . Such high standards.
Miss Stott – Biology. Very warm and caring.

What do you feel your experience at Bolton School has given to you personally?

  • Confidence to tackle any situation (and I have!)
  • The absolute necessity to give back to Society.
  • An appreciation of fine buildings and lovely things.

What is the best career advice you can give to Bolton School pupils today?

  • Be flexible – I ended up having several ‘careers.’
  • Work hard and play hard.
  • Aim to end up in jobs you enjoy.

What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund?

It would be wonderful to get back to the sort of numbers who were assisted when I was at School

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