Miss Maria Nickel joined the Downe House staff as a Geography teach in the early days when the school was still based in Kent. It quickly became apparent that her talents were considerable and she soon left the classroom to become architect, builder, chauffeur, engineer and caretaker. One of the girls wrote that Miss Nickel could run up a building just as another might run up a dress; she was an excellent cook, her puff pastry was light as a feather, her cream filled meringues were superb.
She had left her home in Eastern Europe at a time of social and political unrest and made her way to Paris where she worked in medical research. She had taken a vow of silence about her past, which everyone at the school respects. It is reported that the only time she broke her vow was when she was interviewed by the local constabulary as it was thought she could be a spy. It is believed that she was from Poland or Russia; she was well educated, creative, energetic, musical and spoke twenty three languages.
Miss Willis wrote “in everything she did, there was a touch of genius”. The girls and their parents would always enjoy talking with her as she was entering or leaving the pump room with a huge spanner in her hand, as she was heading up a ladder or as she was collecting girls from the station in the school car, a natty little de Dion with a basket weave design. “She had never become used to driving on the left-hand side of the road” Miss Willis wrote, though she had found it necessary to write to parents to assure them that the girls’ stories of Miss Nickel rounding corners on two wheels were exaggerated.
Miss Nickel was usually to be seen in her distinctive felt hats, made for her in London, by Scotts of Old Bond Street, and an ankle length serge overall, belted at the waist with a packet of cigarettes tucked into the breast pocket.
The Nickel Room, now the staff common room, was built as the school library and was officially opened in the summer term of 1929.
The library was designed and built by Miss Nickel, with the help of the team made up of the school’s maintenance men and other workers. The impressive linenfold panelling, which is still there today, was designed and carved by Miss Nickel herself. Pevsner’s Buildings of England (Berkshire), 2007, describes the library as having “a tie-beam roof with curious woodwork, perhaps inspired by Japan, above the beams.”
She died in 1946 and her ashes are scattered in the memorial garden behind the chapel.
Some years ago Mrs McKendrick received a parcel containing her spectacles in their velvet lined case, and a letter. Someone had bought them in a small antique market and felt that they should be returned to the school. They are kept in the Archives and you are welcome to look at them at any time.
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