Mrs Burky had held a post at Stackallan which combined the roles of housekeeper and matron. She was appointed there in 1843 and had attended the ceremony in which Singleton was installed as warden. Her background is obscure, even her first name is unknown, and the only clue to her birthplace is the rumour recorded in Abingdon in 1847 that a Catholic Irishwoman from Wexford had arrived to work for the new college at Radley. There is no evidence that she was Catholic, but her presence certainly caused consternation in the neighbourhood and fuelled speculation and distrust about the religious affiliation of the new school. That these rumours were widespread is shown by the incident when a group of Irish labourers arrived at Radley seeking someone who could conduct Mass.
As housekeeper and matron she must have been widowed, but there is no record of her daughter’s presence as her helper at Stackallan, which may indicate the age of the unnamed daughter when they arrived at Radley in 1847. Mrs Burky demonstrated great loyalty to Singleton, in particular, by this move and his references to her are always complimentary, expressing her great joy at her new home and work. Singleton is also very considerate of her comfort, more so than of his own.
She is described in the reminiscences of Samuel Reynolds, the second boy to enter Radley College:
Last, but not least – as those who knew her will acknowledge – I must put down the name of the housekeeper, Mrs Burky, a stout, comely, good-natured, open-handed, open-hearted Irishwoman. Her little room on the ground-floor of the House was at all times open to the boys, and there she was always to be found, with her pleasant face, her genial manner, and her unfailing readiness to do a kind turn for any of us. It was one of her duties to send helpings to the boys at dinner, and I still retain a lively and grateful recollection of the liberality with which she did her work. We had pudding twice a week, and during good Mrs Burky’s reign we had it in most abundant measure. She was not very long in office – I think about eighteen months, – and she left Radley to the general regret of all of us.1
Mrs Burky’s generous helpings of pudding may have contributed to the rift which developed between herself and Singleton. He was deeply concerned about the effect of over-eating on the boys, imposing a dietary regime which left the earliest boys at the school perpetually hungry. There was an increasing sense of grievance about this which culminated in an incident in Hall on February 8th 1848 in which one of the younger boys, Gilbert Elliot, rang the bell to order more butter, apparently because some boys had been given a larger allocation than others. This Oliver Twist-inspired act brought punishment on the two Elliot brothers and on Samuel Reynolds as the oldest boy in the school. Mrs Burky, when interviewed over the incident, was deeply angry.
She left the school before the end of Singleton’s term as Warden. There is no indication what happened to her, or her daughter, after they left Radley.
1: Quoted in TD Raikes, Fifty years of Radley, Oxford 1897