Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) is one of the leading authors of
stories for girls during the great period between the two World Wars,
remembered for her nine 'Dimsie' books, often paired with her near
Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie J. Oxenham.
I've only added new information about Clarence House, DFB' old
school, now, March 2009, but there will hopefully be more necessary
changes and additions later.
Books and series
The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society
Dorita Fairlie Bruce Excursions
Who's Who in Dorita Fairlie Bruce
The Boarding School Story
Collection of Boarding School Stories
Links to Other Writers and Societies
Dorothy Morris Fairlie Bruce, as was her original name, was born in Palos in Spain on May 20, 1885, as the daughter of Alexander Fairlie Bruce, a civil engineer of Scottish birth, and Katherine (Kate) Elizabeth Fairbairn. But much of her early childhood was spent in Scotland, in Blanefield among the Campsie Hills, Stirling, an area that was to feature in many of her early stories. She also had a younger brother, Alan. In about 1895 the family moved to Ealing, NW London, where Dorita was to live until 1949. At about the same time she went to boarding school at Clarence House in Roehampton, the model for Dimsie's school, the 'Jane Willard Foundation'. Many of her holidays were spent with relations in Scotland, particularly the Firth of Clyde area around Largs in Ayrshire, which was later to became her particular literary landscape. Her mother's family lived in West Kilbride, a few miles south of Largs.
Dorita's paternal grandmother, Roberta Cadell, was a daughter of Robert Cadell, Sir Walter Scott's publisher, who is mentioned briefly in her historical novel, A Laverock Lilting. You may read about their genealogy at The Cadells of Grange and Cockenzie.
Like so many other writers she started writing at an early age and
said to have won a competition for poetry at the age of six. The first
time she used her pen name 'Dorita' - no doubt inspired by her Spanish
connection - was in small hand-written magazines. After leaving school
she wrote a great number of poems and short stories in various genres
juvenile periodicals and anthologies from about 1905. Most of her short
stories are set in Scotland, like the 'Regiment'
stories, about two children and their pets living with their
in the Campsie Hills. This is also partly the setting of the long
romance "Greenmantle" (Girl's Realm, 1914-15).
Her first known school story, "The
Rounders Match" (Girl's Realm, 1909) is set in a
school , 'St. Hilary's', vaguely reminiscent of Clarence House. The
early 'Jane's' stories ("The Jane-Willard Election", "The
Terra-Cotta Coat", "For Mona's Sake", 1910-18) - set before
the arrival of Dimsie herself - would eventually lead up to her first
The Senior Prefect (1921), later renamed Dimsie
Apart from her writing, Dorita seems to have led a life similar to
of many other unmarried middle-class women of her time, devoted to
duties and voluntary work. She looked after her invalid mother and
her ageing father, and helped to bring up her brother's three children
after his early death. For more than 30 years, from about 1916 to the
40s, she was engaged in the Girls' Guildry, an alternative organisation
to the Girl Guides, founded in 1900 by Dr William Francis Somerville
originally associated with the Church of Scotland, but later spread
other parts of Britain and the Empire. She was for a period in the 30s
President of its West London Centre, and contributed many interesting
to the Guildry magazines. History of
Dorita Fairlie Bruce was above all, in spite of all her years in
a Scottish writer. She often went back to Scotland for holidays, as
by the detailed descriptions of the landscape in her many books set
Not until 1949 was she free to move back to Scotland, to the big house
she had bought in Upper Skelmorlie in the northern part of Ayrshire. In
this house with its marvellous view of the Firth of Clyde, and named
after one of her own books, she spent the last 21 years of her life and
died there on September 21, 1970.
Dorita Fairlie Bruce's best known books are the
'Dimsie' books (1921-41), seven of them
in the 'Jane Willard Foundation' ('Jane's') in Kent, the other two in
family home, 'Twinkle Tap' on 'Loch Shee' (Gael. 'Loch of the Fairies')
in Argyll. Any exact site has never been identified. Jane's is situated
on the Kentish coast, most likely at St. Margaret's Bay,
but the buildings are clearly modelled on Dorita's own old school, Clarence
House. The school stories follow Dimsie (Daphne Isabel Maitland)
10 year old Junior to popular head girl. The Dimsie books are famous
the 'Anti-Soppists', a group of six girls acting for the good of the
In the last book, Dimsie Carries on (1941), set during
she is married to Dr Peter Gilmour, has two children and makes
from her own herb garden. N.B. that the Dimsie books were not published
in the correct reading order.
Her second series of school stories may be seen
two different series connected by the character of Nancy Caird. The
'St. Bride's' books are set in an island
in the 'Hebrides', more or less identical with Great Cumbrae opposite
The first book, The Girls of St. Bride's (1923),
takes place a few years before the arrival of Nancy. The five 'Maudsley'
books, on the other hand, are set in a day school in a town in southern
England, probably based on Farnham
in Surrey, where Nancy spends a few years between her two sojourns at
Bride's. The Maudsley books are probably the most significant
of the Girls' Guildry in girls' fiction. The last Nancy book, Nancy
Calls the Tune (1944) is another 'adult' sequel, about life in
a small town in Scotland, probably Crieff in Perth, during the War.
The six 'Springdale'
books are Dorita's most Scottish school stories, set in the little
resort 'Redchurch', without a doubt modelled on Largs.
But Springdale is a far larger school than 'Jane's', a more typical
public school with five, later six, different houses and a more complex
prefect system. These books follow the little group of friends around
Willoughby and Primula Mary Beton through their schooldays, from new
to prefects. Anne's elder sister Peggy and some of her contemporaries
among the principal characters in the first three books.
Her last two sets of school stories are shorter,
the 'Toby' books set in two very
schools, The School on the Moor on Dartmoor, and The
School in the Wood in the New Forest respectively, with another
'War' sequel, Toby at Tibbs Cross. The three 'Sally'
books, her very last books, turn back to Scotland, but their plots and
themes are somewhat different from those of her earlier school stories.
Dorita Fairlie Bruce's school stories are more concentrated on the
themes offered by the (boarding) school as a small society of girls,
those by many other writers. Her plots are skilfully built around the
between schoolgirls of the same or different ages: friendship, rivalry
and conflicts. Teachers and lessons play a comparably smaller part.
adventures and mysteries are normally well incorporated in the central
plot, often inspired by her great interest in history, local legends
The 'Colmskirk' series is different from her school stories, nine young adult novels about a group of families living in and around Largs ('Colmskirk') and West Kilbride ('Kirkarlie') from the 17th C to post WW2 time. The first four of them are historical. This is probably the kind of novels Sylvia Drummond is supposed to write in the later Dimsie books, and Dorita evidently wanted to consider these books her more 'serious' works. They are full of references both to the history and church history of Scotland and to local traditions.
All Dorita Fairlie Bruce's series of books, save the Sally books, are more or less interconnected. Dimsie and her friends appear in the Springdale books, while Anne and Primula are the principal characters in Dimsie Carries On. They also appear briefly in Nancy at St. Bride's. One girl from Maudsley are mentioned in Dimsie Intervenes, and another is a principal character in Toby at Tibbs Cross. Characters from the Dimsie series reappear in The School on the Moor. Lastly Primula Mary we meet Primula Mary in the last Colmskirk book, The Bartle Bequest, as if Colmskirk were not another incarnation of the Redchurch of her own school days.
Unlike her near contemporary Elinor Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce
was not republished in paperback editions. The new
editions of the Dimsie books in the 1980s, including a collection of
are heavily updated, removing the books from their original period.
But attractive, unabridged, paperback editions are now available from Girls Gone By Publishers, who plan to reprint all the books of Dorita Fairlie Bruce. All of the Maudsley/St. Bride's series and the first 2 Toby books, The School on the Moor and The School in the Woods, are already published. The Girls Gone By editions have well researched introductions and original illustrations and cover art.
This text was mainly based on my Ph. D. Thesis at Stockholm
Löfgren, Eva Margareta. 'Schoolmates of the long-ago': motifs and archetypes in Dorita Fairlie Bruce's boarding school stories, Stockholm: Symposion Graduale, 1993, (Diss., Stockholm University) (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska barnboksinstitutet. No 47) ISBN 91-7139-141-X
There are still several copies left for sale, so please, contact me for information.
For links to some other interesting web sites about girls' school stories, see my Swedish or English main page.
More about Dorita
Books and series
Who's Who in Dorita Fairlie Bruce
Back to Top
Most of this information was based on my own visits to the various
A group of members of the Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society spent a week in
Largs and surroundings in 1996. Other members have made excursions to
Margaret's Bay in recent years, but my only visit there was made
in 1984. Members have also searched for other possible sites for the
books, in England and Scotland.
Site of Clarence House, Roehampton
The buildings and grounds of Jane's were modelled on Dorita's old school in SW London, on Priory Lane, south of Upper Richmond Rd (SW15).
Clarence House was originally built c1730 and for a time owned by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. The buildings were used as a girls' school from 1867 to about 1919, as a junior school for the Royal School for Daughters of Military Officers until 1885. The grounds were bought by the Bank of England and were for many years part of their sports grounds. The buildings were demolished in 1934. My drawing was based on a photo c1912. The grounds were still fairly intact at my first visit in 1988, with the original gates and lodge and several large cedar trees at the bottom of the lawn.
The photos below, of the wall, gates, and drive, were taken in 1988. (cop. Eva and Astrid Löfgren)
The site of Clarence House is now wholly changed and occupied by the
new National Tennis Centre opened by the Lawn Tennis Association in
2007. Very little is left of the original features apart from parts of
the wall and some of the wood inside it.
There are a few recent photos on the Lawn Tennis
Association website, but they used to have more information about
the buildings and the grounds.
28 Inglis Rd,
Ealing, was the
home of the Bruce family according to
the 1901 Census. A short walk from Ealing Broadway Station.
St. Margaret's Bay, 6 km W of Dover, is the most likely site for 'St. Elstrith's Bay'.
This used to be a popular seaside resort from the early 19th C to WW2, when most of the buildings in the Bay itself were destroyed. The Bay is now also more shallow after erosion of flanking cliffs, but wooden flights of stairs still climb the cliff from the beach, which is still good for swimming. There are caves visible in the white cliff, memories of their smuggling past. Many ships have been stranded here during the centuries, so the wreck featured in the Dimsie books is certainly realistic.
The upper village, St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe, with it's Norman church, was still fairly old-fashioned in the 1980s. South Sands Lodge is the most likely model for 'St. Elstrith Lodge', and you may still see South Forland Lighthouse, the 'old lighthouse' of the Dimsie books.
St. Margaret's Bay
The Francis Frith Collection with old phtos and maps from all of the British Isles
Boileau Rd, North Ealing, was Dorita's home for many
She had her study in the attic. Close to N. Ealing Underground Station.
Photo 1985, © Eva M. Löfgren
Largs and the Firth of Clyde Area is the central landscape in Dorita Fairlie Bruce, the scene of nearly half her books. Ayrshire is known as 'Brigshire' in the Springdale books. Largs itself is a pleasant seaside resort with a beautiful view of the Firth of Clyde, The Cumbrae Islands, and, in fine weather, the distant peaks of Arran. This is the 'Redchurch' of the Springdale and St. Bride's books, and the 'Colmskirk' of the Colmskirk novels, both names obviously derived from the parish church, St. Columba's, built in 1892 by red sandstone and quite a landmark with its lofty spire.
A visitor may follow the Springdale or Colmskirk characters along the streets of Largs and its surroundings. Four of the 'Springdale' houses still lie along Greenock Rd, just N of the church, though what must have been the 'Rowans' is now mostly hidden behind Nardini's Restaurant.
The Skelmorlie Aisle ('Seaward Vault'), a 17th C mortuary chapel and crypt, is fascinating in itself, quite apart from its connection with Prefects of Springdale. The three pillars on the 'Fairy Mound', erected by Mr Boyd in A Laverock Lilting, are still to be seen at the back of the town, called the 'Three Sisters'. And there is a pleasant walk to the 'Prophet's Grave' in its shady glen.
Largs is the point of departure for the little car ferry to Cumbrae, and the lovely boat trips to Arran or the Kyles of Bute, that Dorita used to love so much. There are several websites for this area and lovely photos on the web, but they keep changing.
Largs for you
Great Cumbrae ('Inchmore'), just
Largs, is the site of the St. Bride's books - thought Dorita might have
thought of an island further out in the Hebrides when she wrote The
Girls of St. Bride's. Unfortunately we could never find any
of a large house suitable for the school. Apart from the nice little
Millport, at the S end, there are very few houses on this island, but I
would recommend a drive or walk around it, and the marvellous view from
its highest point.
Little Cumbrae ('Inchbeg') is unfortunately not accessible to visitors.
West Kilbride, 10 km S. of Largs, is the 'Kirkarlie' of the Colmskirk novels and Dorita's maternal grandparents' home at Drummilling was probably the model for 'Windylands'.
Castle, the 'Braidheugh', is the scene of The King's Curate,
the first Colmskirk novel. This 15th C tower house would have been the
chief attraction of the village, if it had not been too heavily
in recent years, after having been a ruin since the 17th C. My photo
1987 (© Eva M. Löfgren) shows it as it probably looked
at the time of Mistress Mariner, in the early 19th C.
The history of Law Castle and more recent photos after the restoration.
Portencross, 'Portarlie' in the
books, is a similar kind of small ruined castle with a dramatical
on the edge of the sea.
Both Francis Frith and 197Aerial Photography are great
sites for old and modern photos of the United Kingdom.
where Dorita spent the last 21 years of her life, 1949-70, lies about 8
km N. of Largs. From her house, 'Triffeny', in Upper Skelmorlie she had
a wonderful view over the Firth of Clyde. What was her garden is now
destroyed by new smaller houses on either side.
Photo 1987, © Eva M. Löfgren