Myra Curtis

Portrait by Herbert James Gunn (1893 – 1964)[1]
Myra Curtis, D.B.E., 46, (1886-1971) was an editor before becoming a career-long civil servant, followed by “retirement” as Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge in 1942. At the time of the dinner she was superintendent at the Post Office savings bank department, where she introduced a machine accounting system, regarded as a model of its kind. In 1942 she was appointed C.B.E. and became Dame Myra in 1949. Already a high flyer, with more to come. More recently, watchers of the recent television wartime detective series Foyle’s War will have heard an older lady being reassured that Dame Myra Curtis’s Report on young people will be looking into “youth problems” of the day.


On the four person table this matters little but her methodical mind might have enjoyed a tête a tête with the young physicist, Tess Dillon, and perhaps learn more about what it takes to run an educational establishment (running Newnham was almost a decade away but she may well have learnt things that she remembered at a later date).


I would hope an evening away from the Post Office savings bank was a time to relax and enjoy the event, engage with familiar friends and perhaps make new acquaintances.  Like many others at the dinner (including her table’s Theodora Bosanquet) she was a member of the London and National Society for Women’s Service , others present being Josephine Collier, Winifred Cullis, the Hon. Mrs. Franklin, Cicely Hamilton, Laura Wallis Mills, Hélène Reynard, and Lady Rhondda, .  Also members were The Lady Camrose (not at the dinner but wife of dinner speaker Lord Camrose), possibly the Mrs. Crosfield, and Mrs. G.F Watts of Table 23.


Myra Curtis was born on 2nd October 1886 at 11 Belle Vue Road, Sunderland, co. Durham, one of three daughters of George Curtis, a Post Office telegraphist, and his wife Annie Johnson, an elementary school teacher. She was brought up in a hard-working, close-knit family, which valued education. She was educated at Dame Allan’s endowed school at Newcastle upon Tyne, at Winchester School for Girls and at Newnham College, Cambridge.

After seven years as assistant editor for the Victoria History of the Counties of England, in 1915 she became a civil servant when she joined the temporary staff of the War Trade Intelligence Department. In 1918 she transferred to the Ministry of Food, specialising in personnel work (perhaps coming into contact with Lord Rhondda?). From 1928 to 1937 she was superintendent at the Post Office savings bank department. At the time of the dinner she was still moving up the ladder, albeit already in a pretty senior position.[2] [3]


In 1937 Myra moved to the Treasury as assistant secretary and director of women’s establishments, in effect the premier women’s post in the civil service. She was known as a “firm disciplinarian”. In 1937 she published Modern Money, in collaboration with Hugh Townshend. In 1942, after retiring from the civil service, she became Principal of Newnham College. This was also a period where she headed  or served on many commissions including the War Damage Commission (1943–50), the Central Land Board (1947–59), and the General Medical Council (1955–66).[4] [5]

Perhaps her most prominent inquiries were the two Curtis reports. In November 1944 Myra was appointed by Home Secretary Herbert Morrison to a committee to investigate conditions in LCC remand homes. Although the February 1945 report was regarded by some critics as a whitewash, she was then appointed in March 1945, also at Morrison’s recommendation, to head an interdepartmental committee to inquire into the care of deprived children – the Curtis committee – which undertook “the first enquiry in this country directed specially to the care of children deprived of a normal home life, and covering all groups of such children”,[6] which led to the path-breaking Children’s Act of 1948.[7] [8]

At Newnham, she “injected business efficiency into the academic habits of laissez-faire, not without some passive resistance”.[9] She played an important part in the negotiations which resulted in women being admitted as full University members in 1948 and in 1952 was the first woman elected to the council of the senate at Cambridge. Her “impelling impetus was ethical, not religious”, avoiding sentimentality.[10]

Appointed C.B.E. in 1942 on retirement, she became Dame Myra Curtis in 1949. In “serious” retirement she lived in Cranbrook, Kent, sharing her home for a short period with her friend the Irish historian Constantia Maxwell. Dame Myra died in a nursing home at Bognor Regis on 27th June 1971.


[1]  Portrait by Herbert James Gunn (1893 – 1964) from original hanging in the Jane Hamilton room at Newnham College, Cambridge, from Myra Curtis, Wikipedia, Fair Use accessed 17th April 2019

[2] Mary Alvey Thomas, Curtis, Dame Myra (1886–1971), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23rd September 2004

[3] Cathy Hartley (2013), A Historical Dictionary of British Women, Routledge, 15.4.2013, page 125

[4] Mary Alvey Thomas, Curtis, Dame Myra (1886–1971), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23rd September 2004

[5] Cathy Hartley (2013), A Historical Dictionary of British Women, Routledge, 15th April 2013, page 125

[6] Report of the care of children committee, Parl. papers, 1945–6, 10.5, Cmd 6922, cited in Thomas, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[7] The National Children’s Homes Story: The Curtis Report

[8] The Therapeutic Care Journal, ‘The Second Curtis Report’ Chaired by Dame Myra Curtis 1st February 2011, accessed online 12.2.2019

[9] M. E. G., Newnham College Roll Letter (1972), 53–7

[10] Obituary, The Times, 29.6.1971

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