Edith D’s story

For much of the 20th century, school head teachers were supposed to be formidable and particularly scary, so a visit to them or even just an interaction should have put the fear of God into a pupil. However, Miss (Edith) Denne, who was the first head of Chippenham’s Girls High School in 1956, still has a reputation among women of the town for being particularly fierce and terrifying. The school buildings have now been incorporated into the town’s Hardenhuish School, but the girls’ school she founded fully came to an end in 1976.

Miss Denne May 1950 picture

Edith in 1950

Like any scary teacher though, Edith was in fact only human – although that fact often does not occur to pupils – and had a life before and outside the school she presided over. She gained a science degree at a time when women attending university was still very rare, and science was still considered mostly a boy’s subject. She even at one point joined a convent. And had taught at various other schools before appearing in Chippenham.

Edith Cassia was the first child of her father’s second family, born in 1906 in a village just outside Canterbury. She was followed four years later by her brother William. Her father had previously been married to a woman named Harriet, and Edith and William had older half-siblings – Esther, Amelia and Percy – who appeared not to live with them while growing up by virtue of being much older. Harriet had died in 1903, and Edith’s father (a bricklayer employed by Canterbury cathedral) married her mother Emma in 1905. Both were from Kent, born and bred.

Edith, who was perhaps known to her parents as Cassia, was educated at Simon Langton Girls Grammar School in Canterbury, being bright enough to pass the entrance requirements and rise to the top of the school. This school still exists, although the buildings Edith would have attended were destroyed in the Second World War. Her father died in 1917, when he was 60 and Edith was around 11, and as such would have been too old to fight in the First World War. Edith, once she had finished school then went on to the University of London, and gained a BSc in the sciences in the early 1920s. She took her mother with her.

Chippenham Girls High School appeared not to keep a record of their staff’s careers before joining the school – this was often more common to long-established grammar schools – so it is impossible to trace Edith’s full career before she arrived in Chippenham. However, a newspaper articles reporting her headship of a previous school have given some clues to where she taught and lived.

She began her teaching career in 1928 after completing her degree. Going in to teaching was often the choice of bright young women coming out of university at this time, as it enabled learning to continue and gave the chance to impart what you’d learned so far to young minds. A degree was not required to become a teacher, particularly for women, but it did mark out women as committed and ambitious. There was also a marriage bar for female teachers at this time, meaning that if Edith had married she would have not been able to keep her job. However, that does not have been a consideration for Edith. This bar was removed for the London school boards in 1935, but not for the rest of the country until 1944.

Whether it was her first teaching job or not, by the late 1930s Edith was on the staff of Dame Alice Owen’s School in Islington. She was living with her mother Emma in Hendon for much of that decade, so it’s possible that her first teaching jobs were closer to there. By 1939 she was established as very much a part of Dame Alice Owen’s as the biology mistress.

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The original Dame Alice Owens Girls’ School, which Edith taught at

At the outset of the Second World War, the school moved as one to Kettering in Northamptonshire, taking all the teachers and evacuating the students. Edith initially lived in Kettering, in digs alongside the school secretary Rita. Her mother went to Harpenden in Hertfordshire instead, so they were separated, at least initially. About a year later the boys part of the school moved to Bedford, where it remained for the rest of the war, but the girls stayed in Kettering – alongside various other evacuated schools from London, including St Aloysius’ Covent School, two Catholic primary schools and Clark’s Secretarial College.

One of her pupils, Veronica Pinckard, remembered an incident involving Edith during these years.

“On our way to school one lovely, hot sunny day, my friends and I were enjoying an ice-cream cone when we spotted Miss Denne, our biology mistress. They threw theirs in the gutter, but I was a thrifty little soul and hated waste. Putting it in my pocket was a messy idea and hiding it behind my back seemed childish, so I brazened it out. Miss Denne was furious. ‘Eating in the street – in uniform – without gloves, Veronica is very low class. You shall not make a mockery of Dame Alice Owen’s. You will report to the headmistress immediately.’ She confiscated my blaze and straw hat, which was pointless as I was wearing the very distinctive saxe blue dress with the school emblem emblazoned on the breast pocket. Everyone in town knew which school we belonged to.

Miss Bozman, the headmistress, scolded me rather gently, told me to be more circumspect, reminded me to wear gloves at all times and not to eat ice cream in public. It was unladylike, and I must always uphold the traditions of our illustrious school. Then with my promise to do just that, she gave me back my blazer and hat.”

(Veronica Pinckard, A Damn Fine Growth, published 2012)

Veronica, perhaps understandably given this incident, had no love for Edith, describing her as “mean”, and as someone who delighted in dissecting insects and frogs as part of her biology lessons.

This episode shows the respect for ladylike qualities, and class boundaries, that were expected of young women at the time, and that had been bred and enforced into women like Edith. Teachers considered it their moral duty to enforce these morals into their charges, and were rarely off duty. Eating in the street was seen as vulgar, and uncouth, much as being improperly dressed without a hat and gloves, and was part of a peculiarly British sense of morals, and all about outward appearances.

The original Dame Alice Owen’s School girls’ buildings were bombed in 1940, so the school did not return until 1945. Edith went back to London with them, and her classrooms were now temporary huts on the former school site. She rose to become their senior science mistress, and lived in Finsbury with her friend Rita.

In 1950, fancying a change, Edith took on her first school headship. She moved to become the third headmistress of the girls’ part of the Silver Jubilee Schools in Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk. The schools, established in 1935 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of George V having the British throne, were at this stage part of the Secondary Modern schools that had been created in the tripartite system in 1944, providing a general extended secondary education and training for pupils not expected to go on to higher education. In the early days of these schools, the provision was continuing the elementary school style education that had flourished since the 19th century, but gradually more ideas were added to the curriculum and in some towns the main employers would have an influence on the skills the children learnt.

Here, under Edith’s jurisdiction, the sexes were kept strictly separate at the school, with a white dividing line in the playground. In addition to further English, Maths, Science, Scripture and some humanities subjects, the girls studied commercial, secretarial and nursing courses. Domestic science, often the backbone of girls’ education at the time, was also heavy in the curriculum, which would have encompassed food technology and techniques, textiles, and other home economics skills.

Edith Denne prefects 1953

Edith (left) with prefects at the Silver Jubilee School in 1953/4

Four years later, having been well respected in the town as the head mistress of the school, Edith decided on a full career change. She left the world of schools behind, resigning her head teacher position, and planned to enter a convent.

At this stage, in 1954, she was 48 and at the top of her profession – and may have felt that the life of a nun was right for her in terms of both spiritual and career fulfilment. She would also have long gone past the age where most women of the time expected to marry, even though she could now do so and keep her job. Or this may have been a long cherished ambition for her. Whatever her reasoning, she handed over her Bury St Edmunds school over to the next head teacher Edith Crocker, and prepared to take holy orders.

Exactly what happened next is not known, but Edith did not last more than two years in the convent. Whether being a nun was not what she expected it to be, or she missed teaching too much, she returned to teaching in 1956. She took on the position of head teacher at the brand new girl’s high school – another secondary modern establishment – in Chippenham, a market town in Wiltshire.

Chippenham Girls High School was opened 10 September 1956, by education secretary and Chippenham MP Sir David Eccles and his wife Sybil, taking the girls away from the mixed secondary modern which had operated out of the old grammar school site on Cocklebury Road since the Chippenham Temporary Senior School was formed in November 1940.

Sir David Eccles, MP for Chippenham, and his wife Sybil. Both signed the school log book.

The new building was close to the buildings that the grammar school had moved to in 1939, and had been purpose-built for their use. Four years of schooling were offered at the time, from 11 until the school leaving age, which was then around 14, so at the end of what was is now called Year 10. There were 486 girls on the roll at the beginning of the school, with 22 teaching staff and a school secretary. They offered English, maths, science, music, history, and a LOT of domestic science. With a nod towards the surrounding area, the school also offered rural subjects. They supported some girls who had already started work towards their GCE – but the ambition of Edith and her school was to further improve the depth of the education offered to the girls of the town. The staff wanted to aim for the University of Cambridge courses, not the Associated Board syllabus that they had been working to before, and one of the first subjects discussed at staff meetings was the provision of advanced courses (beyond the GCE examinations) in Secondary Modern Schools.

Hardenhuish staff Sept 1956

This came to fruition quickly – two years after the school’s founding, in 1958, there were over 600 girls on the roll, and the school offered a Fifth Form and even had a lower Sixth Form. And by 1959 there was a full opportunity for girls to study either for GCE, general subjects, or practical courses, and they were streamed accordingly. Shortly after this commercial subjects were added to the senior school provision.

In terms of school life, Edith’s log book regularly records sports matches against other local secondary modern schools – those in Melksham, Malmesbury and Calne most often – and athletics tournaments, with educational trips and visits from speakers intended to inspire the pupils. For example, a representative of Simplicity Dress Patterns (clothes making was an important skill when very little came ready-made) visited in October 1958, and the school held a fashion show to demonstrate the skills they’d learned, and in 1966 they hosted Flying Officer PL Sturgess of the WRAF to talk to the girls about opportunities in the armed forces. And in July 1959 the BBC radio discussion programme “It’s My Opinion” was broadcast from the school hall. Some pupils remember that when the neighbouring boys’ school opened across the field at what is today Sheldon School, Edith altered the start and finish times of the school to discourage her girls from spending time with the boys on the way to and from school.

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The buildings used for Chippenham Girls’ High School

Edith remained at the school until the summer of 1966, having presided over some initial discussions about integrating secondary education in the town a couple of years earlier, although this did not take place for several more years. She’d had a period of ill health just after Christmas in 1966, and had lost her mother the previous year, so at the age of 60 took retirement. There was a presentation made for her in that July, with guests served tea in the library afterwards.

She returned to the school at least once more, to talk about its history at a celebration event in 1975, alongside second head teacher Miss Wilkins.

Edith spent her last years by the sea, on the south coast of England at Worthing in Sussex, and died there in 1991, aged 85.

Griselda C’s story

Daughter of a baronet, Griselda was a considerable part of the movement to collect and preserve British folk music, spearheaded by Cecil Sharp. While the women who are mostly remembered tend to be the collectors themselves – Lucy Broadwood, Maud Karpeles, Mary Neal, Kate Lee – as their work is filed in libraries and is therefore still visible, rather than those who gave more physical support. Griselda, as headmistress and founder of her own private school, was able to give space to early English Folk Dance Society and Folk Song Society activities and summer schools, and supported the movement and the songs and dances’ preservation that way. She was a believer in giving the knowledge and information that had been collected back to the people and sections of society that might have become detached from whence it came, and worked at a grassroots level to encourage everyone to know and experience folk songs and dances from the British Isles.

Cecil sharp sign

Griselda never really knew her mother, a daughter of East India Company civil servant Sir Thomas Metcalfe who died when she was two after giving birth to her youngest brother. She was second youngest in a family of 13 siblings – although her sister Pamela died at the age of 2 – and had two sisters who lived and nine brothers. Her eldest siblings had been born in Bengal, where her colonel father had been stationed, but the family returned to England in the early 1860s. They first lived at various different army bases, but by the time Griselda arrived in the later years of that decade they had been established in Herefordshire for many years.

As upper-class Victorian children, Griselda and her siblings had domestic servants, a nursemaid, and a governess at home until they reached the age of nine or so. Thereafter, they were sent away to school. The family’s boys appear to have gone to a school run by a vicar in Ashbocking, Suffolk, while the girls went to West Grinstead Lodge at Belstead, also in Suffolk.

It was here, while at school with her older sister Finetta, that Griselda would have learnt of her father’s death in 1882, at around the age of 12. The barony went to her older brother Guy, who at this point was out in India serving in the army, while it seems likely that Griselda continued at school, later moving to further study at Westfield College in Hampstead which was a women-only institution founded in 1882. Some of her brothers also went out to India with the army, while others took up professions in the church.

On leaving school, Griselda went to live with her brother Francis, who later became a reverend, but in the early part of his career he held a position of assistant second clerk in library of the British Museum. Her eldest sister Annie also lived with them, as did her youngest brother George. Neither Annie nor Griselda had to work, and the household had a servant, so it was likely that they were still comfortably off.

In 1894 Griselda married Dudley, who was both the son of a Lord and a prominent (if understated) member of the Royal Asiatic Society. An authority on the Malay language, he had spent considerable time in the Far East before marriage, and was also appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and published papers in both society’s journals. He was 20 years her senior.

They had three children together. A son, named Dudley, arrived a year after the marriage. Another son, Ambrose, followed four years later but sadly only lived for two weeks. And a daughter, also named Griselda, was born in 1901.

They settled in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, at around the time Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lived in the town, and employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a lady’s nurse – which implies that Griselda’s health could be on the delicate side.

In 1906 they turned their residence into a private school for girls, with Griselda as headmistress. The fact that it was a private school meant that she, as a married woman, was able to hold the position and teach her pupils – had the school been run by a local education board she would have been subject to the marriage bar on female teachers.

The school was called Belstead House, named for the location of her former school, and was for girls “of breeding and means”. When the school began there were only seven pupils, but by the 1911 census this had grown to 17, and numbers continued to expand over the next decade. In 1911 there was one other teacher in addition to Griselda, and a full complement of domestic staff to look after the family and the pupils, who ranged in age from 11 to 16.

belstead house school

In 1911, her husband Dudley took a tumble from a pony and trap and broke his shoulder bone, which festered. and he died a week later. Griselda maintained the school, and together with her two children and house full of staff, continued to run it as a success. The reputation of the school was extremely good, and it attracted interest from many families who could afford the fees.

They took on adjoining premises to accommodate more pupils, building a gymnasium and a chapel, and even a domestic science laboratory – the subject during this period looked more at the actual science and technology of food and domestic chores, rather than teaching girls how to do them, and was a route into science for many young women.

Her son Dudley, who was educated elsewhere, went to fight in the first world war, and was able to come home afterwards. He married in 1926. Her daughter Griselda was educated at her mother’s school and went on to become an actress.

Griselda senior’s link to the British folk revival came through her friendship with Cecil Sharp himself. Her later obituary reports that she was a strong believer in the educational value of folk songs and dances, which aligned with Sharp’s own views. She incorporated folk songs and dances in the curriculum she taught at the school, encouraging those best at the art forms to go out into the communities just outside Aldeburgh to help local girls and young women form folk music groups and companies of their own. She was awarded one of the first two gold badges (the highest accolade) by the English Folk Dance Society – which later incorporated with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to form EFDSS – in 1922. The other recipient was Lady Mary Trefusis, who is commemorated with a hall named after her in London’s Cecil Sharp House, but no real mention of Griselda is evident on those premises today and even her gold badge names her as “Mrs Dudley Hervey” rather than using her own first name.

EFDSS-gold-badge

In addition, she also invited Cecil Sharp’s Summer Festival School to make use of the school buildings as their headquarters when the venture outgrew previous accommodation at Cheltenham College. This – the last summer school that Sharp ran himself – took place in 1923. Several hundred people attended, working on dances and songs, and Sharp gave lectures. Griselda kept a scrap book, containing photographs, programmes and correspondence about the event, which is now held by the University of California.

The revival and preservation spirit was so deeply embedded in the school’s philosophy that when Romanian pianist and composer Béla Bartók was invited to give a concert to the pupils in December 1923, he found that the girls were completely capable of learning and following Romanian folk dances without much bother.

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In addition to the emphasis on the folk arts, Griselda’s school also focused on French, and actively prepared girls for university education. She was also keen to promote good living and bodily welfare to her pupils, which included establishing a “clean milk” dairy for the school’s use, and worked on matters of faith and spirituality across the whole school. She was local deputy commissioner for the girl guides too, and worked with young people across the Aldeburgh community as well as her pupils.

In the later 1920s, however, she was in poor health. She died at the school in 1929, in her early 60s, of heart failure. Her elder sister Finetta, who had married and spent considerable time in India, then came to run the school in her stead for a few years, maintaining the values that had been established and sustained under Griselda. The school building is now a holiday home for Aldeburgh’s thriving tourist trade.

Griselda hervey pic

*****

A footnote should give more history of her daughter Griselda, who went on to be an actress as Grizelda Hervey. She appeared on stage in Ireland in 1923, and newspapers report her role as the Spirit of Kent in a pageant of 1931. Much of her renowned work was broadcast on the radio – for example the BBC broadcast a play called Congo Landing by Horton Giddy in 1935, which was an account of the adventures of Lady Susan (Grizelda) and Captain Smith (Stewart Rome) in the Cape Town Air Race. She was also in the cast of the first broadcast of the Forsyth Saga in 1945, when the BBC Home Service put on A Man of Property with Grizelda as Irene.

Griselda 2

She also appeared in extremely early live broadcast television plays on the BBC. Two of these were The Royal Family of Broadway, and The Circle, both from 1939. Television at this time was broadcast live to anyone who had a set, and no recordings of these plays were ever kept. Later television work included one episode of The Wednesday Play in 1966. She also appears to have consistently worked in theatres.

In September of 1957 she married Clarence Napier Bruce, third baron Aberdare of Duffryn. In early October that year the couple were in Yugoslavia to attend a meeting of the International Olympic Committee at Sofia, and planned to drive home through the country as their honeymoon. Their car fell over a precipice near Risan, into water. Clarence drowned, leaving Grizelda a widow after being married for just one month, and she herself was injured in the fall. To the end of her days – she died in Hull in 1980 – she was styled Baroness Aberdare of Duffryn.

Aileen F’s story

A school-marm has a particular historical resonance, and immediately conjures a vision of an older unmarried woman with a sour expression and a mortar board – but women of this tradition were often regarded as some of the very best and most beloved teachers, and this reputation could sometimes be traded upon to build an extensive career.

One of the very first Oxford female graduates, early 20th century teacher Aileen was regarded as “formidable” and taught at various British and American institutions, then went on to found her own British-style boarding school in the eastern United States – complete with British values, cold dormitories and chilblains.

She came from an Irish background – her father came from Waterford and her mother from Dublin – but her father’s employment as a railway clerk and then an accountant seems to indicate that their emigration to the London area was not directly from the labouring class in search of better work. Both parents arrived in Britain at some point before 1891, and while her father went straight into clerical work, her mother appears to have taught at a convent school in Edinburgh before they married.

Aileen was the middle child of five – two older brothers and one younger survived childhood, but her younger sister did not – and was born at the very tail end of the 19th century. With a family home in Woolwich, all the children were well educated. From the ages of nine to 18, Aileen was boarding at St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine foundation at Princethorpe, near Rugby in Warwickshire. The building here now forms part of the modern Princethorpe school. The mother superior at the institution was French, while the nuns came from all over the globe – Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, India, and even Mexico. Aileen was one of 41 students being educated here in 1911, in a large community of nuns, and it may be that becoming a nun was her original plan.

Miss-Farrell

Aileen at her teacher’s desk

However, her obvious intelligence led to further study. She joined the University of Oxford Society of Home Students in 1917 to further her studies. Although women were allowed to study at the university, due to their gender they were not allowed to be admitted to the university – in other words be given their degree – until 1921. Trinity College Dublin, which – as the whole of Ireland was part of the UK until this era – was considered on a par with Oxford and Cambridge admitted women to their degrees from 1904, but Cambridge did not follow suit until 1947. Aileen was housed at St Frideswide’s, a large hostel at Cherwell Edge, run by the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus along with many other young Catholic women. Aileen would have gone to Oxford expecting to just follow a course of lectures, but reforms in 1920 meant that she would qualify for her degree in English Language and Literature and be given it – and she received it, one of the first women to do so, in 1921. The Society of Home Students became St Anne’s College at Oxford in 1942.

As one of the first Oxford women graduates, this status opened doors for Aileen. While one of her older brothers went to work in China in 1919, having served in the navy in the First World War, was awarded Master of Foreign-Going Steamships in 1923, she got her first teaching job at Hays School, at Shaftesbury in Wiltshire, in 1921. After this, Aileen took up a teaching position in the United States and relocated there in 1923.

Arriving in New York in early autumn of that year, she became part of the staff of Marymount College in Tarrytown, located up the Hudson River about 25 miles north of the main city. This was founded as a boarding school by Mother Marie Joseph Butler in 1907, and educated Catholic girls. Aileen was 25, unmarried – as was required for a female teacher at that time – and her well-educated convent background would have been seen as an asset to the school. She remained at Marymount until the summer of 1925, when she returned home.

She arrived back in America the following autumn, and took up a teaching position at Foxcroft School in Virginia. This prestigious boarding and day school educated girls from well-connected families, and took pupils from the ages of around 13 to 18, preparing them for college. Aileen worked alongside founding headteacher Charlotte Haxall Noland, and the school famously educated Wallis Simpson.

She appears to have come home every summer, but in 1928 she stayed in the UK rather than heading back to America. She gained a position at the County School, a grammar school a world away from the boarding schools she’d previously worked in, in the Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon. This school, where she taught English to 11-18 year olds, had many more male teachers than she would previously have worked with, and rather than being an exclusive boarding school for those who could afford it instead educated those children of the town who had passed an exam for entrance. The school later became Fitzmaurice Grammar School.

Fitz Aerial view

The County School, later Fitzmaurice Grammar, in Bradford on Avon

However, it seems this position did not suit her well. She wrote a letter of resignation in June 1929, saying that she had been offered another very good position in the United States, and “owing to family reasons I do not feel justified in refusing”. Exactly what her family situation was at this time is open to suggestion – both older brothers were happily settled in professions, her younger brother was also working as a school teacher, and her parents both appear healthy – but leave she did.

Exactly what the teaching position Aileen was offered in the US to tempt her back is unclear. The founder of Marymount College had founded a connected girls day school in Manhattan in 1926, so it is possible that a job here was offered, but it equally could have been any other school in the eastern US.

In 1930, with around ten years of teaching behind her, she established her own boarding school in the US. Foxhollow School was founded at Rhinebeck in Dutchess County in New York State, another part of the Hudson River Valley, but north of Tarrytown. The house she acquired had previously belonged to Tracy Dows, the son of a successful Manhattan grain merchant, who had commissioned the building in 1910 from architect Harrie T Lindeberg. The family had fallen on hard times during the Wall Street Crash, and Aileen was either able to purchase the estate for her school, or rent rooms in the building, depending on which account you read.

Foxhollow farm

Foxhollow Farm, the original home of Aileen’s school

Foxhollow School was a college preparatory school, so catered for girls in the final four years of American schooling. Aileen was known as a proper Brit, with values, accent and manners to match – which probably helped cement the exclusive and top-quality nature that went with the reputation of British-style boarding schools.

British schools, especially private (also called “public”) schools with boarding facilities, have always held an enviable international reputation as the best places to educate children. Elite families around the globe, especially those from countries in the former British empire, would package up their children on a ship and send them to school with a tuck box, and only see them again during the holidays. As did many British parents too. For (literary) examples of this phenomena see books by Angela Brazil, Charles Hamilton, or Enid Blyton.

A by-product of the esteem these schools were held in was that teachers associated with the British grammar and public school tradition could usually find themselves held in high renown if they took a position in a foreign school, and even values that we would today frown upon could be upheld if they came from the British Boarding School tradition. For example, Aileen’s pupils apparently complained of chilblains from the coldness of their dormitories, but were told that this was to be expected of a school of this character, and to buck up and suffer in silence as girls had done for decades previously.

When the first Jewish refugees from the Nazis started to arrive in the US in 1933, Aileen felt it was her moral duty to help them. She offered refugees temporary jobs at her school until they could find something better. She reportedly despised Nazis.

An account of the school in the late 1930s exists from a letter written by Charlotte Houterman, who taught there briefly in the early 1940s. She reports Foxhollow School of the time as an elegant expensive boarding school for girls, which contrasts with later pupils’ impressions of the school. At the time Charlotte was there, the school was clearly riding high.

Aileen Farrell 1939Aileen Farrell 1939 2Aileen Farrell 1939 3

In 1939 Aileen chose to move her school from New York state to Massachusetts, but kept the original name – so Foxhollow School was resident at Holmwood, the former estate of the Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt family in Lennox. This was a much bigger property, with 47 rooms, so shows that the school was doing well and expanding. Vandebilt, who had died on the Lusitania in 1915, never actually lived in the house. His widow, Margaret, had bought it after his death, had it remodelled, and had lived there with two subsequent husbands.

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Holmwood, which Aileen’s school took over in 1939

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Margaret Emerson, widow of Alfred Gwynne Vandebilt

As the school had continued to expand, Aileen looked at other nearby properties to take over, particularly as some of the classrooms and a stable suffered some fire damage in late 1941. Adjoining Holmwood was The Mount, which had originally belonged to writer Edith Wharton, which Aileen was able to buy for a reasonable price, and boarded girls in their junior and senior years of the high school system in the servants’ sleeping quarters in the attic and the first floor bedrooms. A chemistry lab was established in The Mount’s kitchen, and four older girls shared the room that had previously been Wharton’s bedroom – even with her original decorated panels in situ. On Sundays, senior girls were allowed to sit and read quietly in what had been Wharton’s private library.

The mount

The Mount, former home of Edith Wharton

The school also had extensive stables, based in the original buildings at The Mount estate. Riding was seen as an important part of school life at Foxhollow.

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Pupils riding at Foxhollow

Aileen herself has been described as “formidable”, “charmingly British”, “strict and proper” and a “grande dame”. She was an established presence in local town life, and – despite living in America for most of her life – never gave up her British citizenship. According to Charlotte Souterman, she had a limousine and a chauffeur in the early years of the school, and would send them to the docks or airport to pick up visitors – including her younger brother when he came over to visit her – but these were not kept in later years.

The school girls were allowed to have dances with neighbouring boys’ schools, to socialise the pupils and teach them how dance. At one of these Aileen is supposed to have leaned over to a male chaperone from The Berkshire School, and asked him “can you tell me, is the word “fuck” still in common usage?”.

The school gradually lost a number of pupils as the image of British boarding school education faded, and the economy of the local area changed, and eventually closed in 1976. Aileen had retired as headteacher in 1970, having long retired her chauffeur and limousine, and had placed the school buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Holmwood building was then used as an inn, and has now been converted into apartments. The Mount has been restored to the glory days of Edith Wharton’s era, and is now a visitor centre dedicated to her life and work.

Aileen had never married. Neither had two of her brothers. One brother did, but there do not appear to have been any children. She continued to live in Lenox, Massachusetts, until her death in 1981 in her early 80s. She left no survivors, but a considerable legacy and is remembered fondly as a particularly committed teacher.

Elise G’s story

Imagine being intelligent enough and working hard enough to achieve a doctorate in mathematics, in an era where women were only just allowed to earn them, and then being denied the title by some foreign men because you were a) from a different country and they weren’t sure they recognised the institution you earned your qualification in, and b) a married woman. This happened to Elise – a well deserving holder of a PhD, but referred to as Mrs (despite a divorce) when she found work as a maths teacher.

The second daughter of a Czechoslovakian lawyer, Elise was born at the turn of the 20th century in Most, a Bohemian city in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic. The region was German-speaking – Most’s German name is Brüx – and Elise grew up speaking that language. Her family was Jewish, well-educated and quite well-to-do.

During the first world war, when the situation for Jews in that area was good, she and her sister Kathe attended high school in their home town, with Elise showing a particular aptitude for mathematics. She went on to study at the local college at 16, graduating in 1923, and then went on to the University of Vienna for four further years – gaining a distinction in maths – and achieving a doctorate in 1928. At the time, women were only admitted to doctorates in certain subjects at the University of Vienna. Somewhere along the way she’d met and married Ernst, a junior lawyer in her father’s office, in about 1924 and gave birth to a daughter around 1928. However, the marriage did not work out and ended in divorce.

After qualifying for her doctorate, and gaining the first part of a teaching diploma, she spent eight years as visiting lecturer at the University of Prague, and then moved to be the Statistical Expert at the Institute of Market Research in Vienna. Her father died in 1931, but her mother continued to live in Most. By this point, the situation for Jews in this part of Europe was getting dangerous. Her daughter, then around 10, was excluded from her school in Vienna on the basis of her Jewish background, so she and Elise returned to Prague. Her daughter managed to escape in January 1939 as part of the Kindertransport with the help of the Barbican Mission to the Jews, based in London’s East End, who saved around 100 children in the nine months up to the outbreak of World War II. The idea of the mission was that the Jewish children should convert to Christianity, which did not particularly bother Elise or her ex-husband as – though Jewish by birth – they were agnostic. Elise was able to follow her two months later, on a domestic permit – presumably with the idea of being able to care for her – but left her mother and ex-husband behind. Her sister had married and moved to Chile with her husband, which may have been considered as another avenue of escape, but ultimately the domestic permit provide Elise with the means to leave.

England at the time was not a particularly cosmopolitan place. Many people had not been abroad – the country was decades away from package holidays – and much of the news from the area that Elise came from centred on Hitler and the activities of the Nazi party, so even rescued Czech Jews could be viewed with suspicion. In addition, Elise’s doctorate came from a non-British university, so many might doubt the rigour of that education as it was “different” to that which they had experienced.

Therefore, Elise had to find work in England as and where she could. With the help of people within the Barbican Mission for the Jews she began working as a chamber maid, then a cook and a governess, and the 1939 register – taken a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War – has her performing domestic duties for a female accountant in London, though the register acknowledges that she is a statistics expert, and she probably helped the accountant as well as doing the cleaning. But on this form her doctorate is not acknowledged. Her daughter lived separately, with the mission in a home in the Brockley area, and Elise’s access to her was restricted.

In January of 1940, with many of the male teachers starting to be taken into the forces as the war got underway, there were starting to be shortages in teaching staff in many schools. She managed to gain a position as temporary science mistress at Thorn Bank school in Malvern-Wells, Worcestershire. This was a small private school for girls, which did not have a great deal of funds for equipment. Elise taught here on her wits and vast knowledge, as her only scientific equipment was pieces of litmus paper. However, the stability of this job meant that her daughter was returned to her care, and they lived together in Malvern-Wells and later in Carlisle where Elise held a mathematics teaching position for a year from September of 1940 that was slightly better than the previous post but not by much.

From here, she had an interview with the head of a town grammar school in Wiltshire on the railway station platform at Derby with a view to replacing his head of maths who was serving in the RAF, and got the job. Whereas the governors of that school were not particularly worldly at that time, the head teacher was young and a Quaker, part of the Rowntree chocolate manufacturing family of York, and as part of the company business had even been abroad. He recognised that a doctorate from the University of Vienna was equal to one from a British university, and persuaded the governors to take on Elise – though in a nod to their reservations she was still referred to as Mrs and not as Doctor. They may also have had reservations as the previous replacement was also a German Jewish refugee and had been interned in an Enemy Alien camp for a few months in 1940, and they may have feared losing Elise to this fate too – although it was only the men who were interred in the end.

Elise became the senior maths teacher of the school, in Bradford on Avon, and her daughter enrolled too. She was well liked by staff and pupils alike, and respected by all. Her heavy accent apparently was difficult to understand at first, but many students found her lessons inspirational. She was paid on the standard scale, with slight deductions for being in a temporary position and technically an alien, but was awarded a special payment for her exceptional qualifications – which they still weren’t formally recognising – in 1943.

During this period, both her mother and ex-husband – who had not been able to escape the Nazi regime – were placed by the Third Reich. Communication would have been non-existent, so she probably would not have known of their fate until after the war. Her mother was sent to the Theresienstadt Jewish ghetto, with other Czech Jews, which eventually became a labour camp. She was then sent on to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers sometime in either 1943 or 1944. Ernst, Elise’s ex-husband, was sent to the ghetto at Łódź, Poland, where he died of starvation in 1943. Her teaching position, and life in the UK, must have included hope that her family and friends had somehow survived.

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Elise, left, with other grammar school staff in 1944

Elise remained at the grammar school in Bradford on Avon until the end of the school year in 1945, when – the war having ended in May, at least in Europe – it was expected that the head of maths would return from RAF duty and take his place again at the school. In practice, this did not happen until 1946, and another German refugee was employed until then. The job did belong to the original head of maths, but it is fair to say that Elise was far better qualified for the role than he was.

She moved to be maths teacher at the Greenford County School, in Middlesex, and her daughter moved with her. After a few years here she was able to make the switch back into working in higher education in London, although an exact institution remains elusive. She was active in both the English and German language fields of maths, and here reclaimed the title of Dr again as it was finally recognised.

Elise 1961

Her daughter lived with her in Wembley until her marriage in the late 1950s, after which she appears to have lived alone. She visited her sister Kathe in Chile in the late 1950s and early 60s. After Kathe’s husband’s death in the early 1970s Kathe went back to Germany and lived in Munich, so Elise had a ready made base there when she travelled for work. She eventually had two grandsons.

elise edinburgh

She also continued her research while working in higher education. There is a picture of her attending the Edinburgh Mathematical Society Colloquium in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1976. She is also mentioned as a member of the Austrian Mathematics Association by the International Mathematical News published in Vienna in 1977. By this point she was living in Latymer Court in Hammersmith, built in 1934 and described at that time as the largest single luxury block of flats in Europe.

latymer court

In 1978 she was awarded a Golden Doctorate from the University of Vienna, an accolade given to those who have reached 50 years since their original doctorate and are still continuing to research and push the boundaries of their subject. She still did not stop there – in 1983, at the age of 80, she delivered a paper in Germany on “The practical treatment of stress concentrations and singularities within the finite element displacement algorithms”, and there is mention of her having delivered lectures for the Open University.

She died in 1991, aged 88, and was buried close to home in London.

Ethel B’s story

It is relatively well known that English universities would admit women to study during the late 1800s, but would not award them their degrees or admit them to the university. Newham College in Cambridge is a good example. Founded in 1871 as the second women’s college at the University of Cambridge, and amalgamated into the university in 1880, women could sit university examinations from 1881 and their results were recorded in lists separate from the men. Various attempts were made to persuade authorities to give women their full degrees and privileges rather than just a certificate, one in 1887, another in 1897, and a further attempt during the first world war. Oxford – which had similar rules, capitulated in 1920 but it took until 1948 for the change to happen at Cambridge.

In contrast, the situation in Ireland was different. The Royal University of Ireland Act 1879 allowed women to take university degrees on the same basis as men. However, Trinity College Dublin – also known as Dublin University – which was seen as a sister institution to Oxford and Cambridge in the pre-split British Isles, was still a sticking point. They might have been comparatively late in admitting women to study in that it took until 1904, but unlike the English schools women were allowed their degrees from the get go. So much so that women who had gained their degrees at Oxford and Cambridge but had been denied their award on the basis of their gender could travel to Trinity to be awarded it. These women were known as the steamboat ladies, and the arrangement continued until 1907.

It was against that background that Ethel studied at Trinity College, entering around 1908 at the age of 18, one of the first groups of women to do so – but had had involvement with the college earlier via her later schooling – which took place at Alexandra School and College, a Protestant foundation intent on furthering women’s education that offered an equivalent education to that afforded to boys at the time, with a grounding in maths, philosophy, history and the classics. Lecturers at Trinity College would also provide tutoring for girls at Alexandra, and the two schools enjoyed close links.

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She’d been born in Ballycastle, in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, the daughter of a Church of Ireland Reverend who had also studied at Trinity College. She was the fourth of six children – four girls, two boys – and led an extremely musical upbringing. Her father was a renowned authority on church music, one of her sisters studied at the Royal College of Organists, and another was a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music who specialised in putting contemporary lyrics to old Irish airs. The girls of the family were educated by governesses at home in Ballycastle for the most part, but Ethel went off to Dublin to board at Alexandra College at about the age of 14.

In 1908 she moved to study at Dublin University, based at Trinity College, where – interspersed with some secondary school teaching (presumably to fund her studies) she achieved a BA (Hons) degree in French and English in 1912.

MS EX 02

In the years between women being admitted to universities to further their studies and the growth in women’s employment of various types during the First World War, teaching in schools was the best possible place for educated women to continue learning and flex their grey matter. The only trouble was that the marriage bar was in place for women teachers – so at the point when Ethel entered the profession if she found a relationship she would have to give up her learning and research. The idea that women went to university just to find a husband seems to have originated in this era, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case for Ethel.

As it was, she began working for her Master of Arts while simultaneously taking on a teaching position at the County School (later Fitzmaurice Grammar) in the picturesque Wiltshire town Bradford-on-Avon. She started work here in 1915, and was awarded her MA at Christmas in 1916, which is proudly remarked upon in their staff register. Most female teachers in this era did not hold degrees, let alone post-graduate ones. Some were even uncertified, and had learnt their skill on the job starting as a pupil teacher, whereas others had undergone some training at teacher training colleges. Ethel would therefore have been a rare and prized member of the school’s female staff.

This school had been going for nearly 20 years at this point, under a male headteacher. Many of the teaching staff were female, however, as was fairly usual in schools of the time. This school was mixed gender, and selective based on ability, as during the pre-1944 grammar and elementary system many schools were. Here Ethel taught French and History, in conjunction with stalwart school deputy head Julia Blake. Both are given as languages and literature specialists in the town’s trade directory for 1915.

Fitz Aerial view

Both brothers fought in the war. The elder rose to a high rank, whereas the younger was badly injured in 1917 and became a senior classical music master at a school in Mauritius. Both musician sisters appear not to have married, since that choice would have meant giving up their playing by the rules of society of the day. Her mother died in 1919, just after the war ended, and her father followed her in 1921.

This appears to have instigated a change for Ethel. She left Bradford on Avon in the September of 1921 to become French mistress in the next town over at Trowbridge Girls High School. This was a single sex, fee paying school – not necessarily a step up for her, but a different position in a slightly bigger town. She appears to have been here until around 1926.

trowbridge girls high

In the mid-1920s she chose to follow her faith and became a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) at their base in Cawnpore (now Kanpur), India. Now called United Society Partners in the Gospel, the organisation was a high church group based in the teachings of the Church of England – not too far away from the Church of Ireland organisation that Ethel was brought up within. Here she was given a head teacher position, as head of the SPG School of the Epiphany, working with elementary school-aged girls.

Although the position in India fulfilled her desire to bring the Bible and its teachings to a different part of the world, her school position here did not particularly suit her as she was teaching to a much younger age group and found this frustrating. While there she was offered the secretaryship of the local YMCA, various jobs at the Indian girl guiding headquarters, a position at one of the biggest women’s colleges in India, and even the position of headmistress at one of the most prominent girls’ schools in North India. She refused all these, remaining loyal to the SPG mission, but hoped that the society might help her find a better post within their ranks.

A keen member of the girl guiding organisation, she asked mission if they would lend her to be a guide trainer for three years with the United Provinces Educational Department while she remained at Kanpur, but this was not allowed and she stayed with the Epiphany School and committed to her role as missionary.

At some point between 1929 and 1932, however, she felt she had given enough in Kanpur, and returned to the UK. She lived for a time at a prominently designed youth hostel in London, and in September of 1932 was appointed headmistress of a private girls’ school in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

This school, which again was private and fee-paying, catered for older girls who had already gone through the elementary education system and was particularly renowned for the arts when Ethel took it over, which would have suited her perfectly. She ran the school with a full complement of female staff, and appears to have relished teaching older girls again. The outbreak of war in 1939 shows that she was also an air raid warden as part of her role in the school and the local community.

The school decided to move from Aldeburgh – which was on the coast and probably directly under the flight path of German aircraft from the continent – to a priory in Mountnessing, Essex, in 1940. This would have been a quieter location, with less disturbance from the war, and more rural for protection. It is unclear whether Ethel went with them, however, as records were scarcely kept during the conflict. In 1943 she did step down and took a degree of retirement.

She moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire for the last bit of the war, becoming housemistress for St Helen’s, one of the boarding houses of Cheltenham Ladies College – another prestigious seat of female education. It is unclear whether she took a teaching role at the college in the way that modern housemistresses do, but she had a full time role looking after the pupils assigned to her care and took on a role of district commissioner for the girl guides at the school for the benefit of the girls. As part of this she gave various prominent talks and organised events on the guides behalf. She also worked coaching the choir.

guides 1940s

Around 1953, she left Cheltenham and again headed to the coast – but this time to Devon. She lived in Colyton, on the county’s southern edge, in a church cottage, and spent seven years in retirement. She died there, leaving her money to a nephew – the son of her eldest brother – and Violet, Baroness Merthyr, another prominent girl guiding commissioner.

Theodosia F’s story

The current special exhibition at Chippenham Museum, in Wiltshire (WWMM’s home town, if it wasn’t obvious) is:

What’s in Store: Behind the Scenes at Chippenham Museum

They have on display many objects that people have donated to the museum over the years, which reflect the history of the town but are not always the sort of object that you might associate with a display, alongside information on the history of the museum and how they care for its objects.

One of their objects is this lovely sampler:

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Beautifully stitched, it was made by Theodosia Faulkner, who was seven in 1788. This gives her a birth of around 1781, so WWMM couldn’t help but investigate.

It turns out that Theodosia wasn’t from Chippenham at all. She was born to John and Rebecca Faulkner in Birmingham – over 100 miles away – and baptised at St Phillip’s Church in the July of 1781.

She appears to have been their third child. There were brothers called John and Joseph born before her to the same parents, and a younger brother James followed a couple of years later.

At this date very little was recorded about jobs and economic conditions of the family, so it is unknown what her father did, but in later life one of her brothers was an accountant – which speaks of a fairly wealthy family. The fact that Theodosia made a sampler of this quality also indicates a fair amount of money in the family – rather than having to help with domestic work, wealthier girls at this age were taught decorative needlework, mostly cross stitch, and produced work like this as a test of their skill. They demonstrated the knowledge and accomplishment of the young girl – hence why her tender age is usually included – and were seen as a sign of virtue, achievement and industry. More history and information on samplers can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Without a visit to Birmingham records office, it’s hard to find out much more about Theodosia’s family. It’s possible that there may be further record of her father there. But what is possible to deduce is something of what happened to the family later through church records.

Theodosia’s brother James died in 1790, aged around six. He is one of many children on the burials page, often given with their parents’ names, showing that loss of a young child in this area at this date was far from a rare occurrence.

Her brothers John and Joseph grew up and married, and had children of their own. It was Joseph who became the accountant.

Theodosia herself died in May 1798, when she would have been nearly 17. As she was under the age of majority, her parents’ names are also given on her burial record. Her brother John had a daughter called Theodosia in 1808, probably named to remember his sister.

How did this young woman’s work happen to be in the stores of Chippenham Museum though? It would have been donated by someone local to Chippenham to be preserved – which they have done – and looked after, and it’s in the nature of all museums to care for any object they’ve had donated, regardless of where it originated from.

Birmingham to Chippenham at this time does seem a little bit far though, until you read some of the town’s street directories – published since 1877 by local printing firm Spinkes – and census records, and realise that there have been Faulkner families in the town for at least 150 years. Perhaps Theodosia and her family were relatives of these families, and her work and legacy was passed down through the generations, and now is cared for in the capable hands of Chippenham’s museum.

No more suffragettes please!

This week contains the 100th anniversary of another important point in women’s history. On 14 December 1918 the general election called by Prime Minister Lloyd George saw the first women in the UK to cast their votes, after the passing of the Representation of the People Act the previous February.

It’s been a great year for women’s history, on the back of these anniversaries.

But I’m going to say something that may rile some people.

I am PIGSICK of the flipping suffragettes.

I have had a gutful of Millicent, Emmeline, Christabel et al. Sorry, and all that, but it’s true.

Does this make me anti-feminist? Does it make me not worthy of calling myself a women’s historian?

I believe not. I believe it’s a very feminist standpoint, and one that shows my commitment to the wider cause and depth of women’s history.

Of course those women were amazing, inspirational and changed lives. I am not arguing with that in the slightest, and they’ll always have my utmost respect. But they’re not the be all and end all of women’s history by a long way.

My view point comes from the suffrage cause being ALL that anyone wants to talk about when women’s history is mentioned. Talk to a history teacher about women’s history and the general response is “Oh yes, we include women’s suffrage in our curriculum now”, with possibly a footnote on women’s rights in the 20th century. Talk a museum curator about women’s history, and one of the responses I’ve received is an apology of “Oh, we’ve not found a suffragist from our collecting area.”

For the past two years I’ve been running The Women Who Made Me project, which has looked at discovering extraordinary women’s history among the ordinary – we’ve profiled nuns, penitents, criminals, divorcees, landladies, social pariahs, farmer’s wives, cooks, women’s officers, prostitutes, social workers, gentry, workhouse inmates, mothers of fourteen, mothers of none, mothers of illegitimate children, artists, musicians, manageresses, matrons, highway women, confectioners, travellers, teachers, factory workers, and someone who recommended do-it-yourself enemas. All important and diverse parts of women’s history. The idea behind the project is to get people to connect with and value their female ancestry, and not dismiss it as not interesting or relevant. Grassroots women’s history research, if you will.

Recently I’ve looked at an 1880s case where a botched abortion led to a pregnant woman’s death and a herbalist locked up for the crime (which it was at the time) was incarcerated for 23 years past the duration of her original sentence because she insisted upon her innocence and was declared insane.

I’ve also looked at female anti-suffragists, many of whom were articulate and intelligent women, as I was fascinated these women could oppose the idea of expanding rights and roles. One of such was Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, who intrigued me greatly, as even when many other opposers had given up in the face of seeing what women were capable of during WW1, she kept up the fight. And she was so vociferous that she didn’t appear on the electoral roll until she’d changed her surname in 1938. There’s loads more to Gwladys, and I urge you to go and read the rest of her story on The Women Who Made Me.

Why would I want to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst again, when I could talk about some of these women instead?

The rule of thumb is if someone has a Wikipedia page then people know about them, and I tend not to touch them. It’s about uncovering and discovering history that hasn’t really been recorded, for whatever reason – because it wasn’t known about, because it wasn’t considered important, because it was disregarded, because history as taught in schools for decades was believed to be about kings and queens and empire and foreign policy and nothing else, because it sits behind a blank box on a census return, because the woman herself didn’t think it was up to much so didn’t talk about it.

Occasionally, rather than talking about the suffragettes, someone will tell me about their grandmother. Invariably she was a “strong woman”, but when pressed on exactly what that means the answer is “Er… she wasn’t a suffragette or anything but she raised us all her children really well and kept going.”

Strong woman is right. What people usually don’t mention is what granny did before she was married, after she left school. What her childhood was like. Who she was as a person rather than someone based around the house and in a nurturing role. When I asked listeners to BBC Wiltshire to tell me about their grannies there were dozens of stories of warm older women who would make great apple crumble and always be on hand to dispense a cuddle when needed. Which is great – the world needs more people like that – but really doesn’t give the full picture of a person and their life.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a grandmother too. But I’m willing to bet that Helen Pankhurst doesn’t get asked about the quality of her apple crumble, because it might be considered insulting and denigrating everything else she achieved. But she may well have been a good cook. It’s about seeing the whole woman, not just part of her life.

It’s really a question of value when it comes to historical women – what we can find out about them, and looking at what we consider as history or an achievement. There’s been an upsurge in publishing of inspiring books for kids over the past couple of years – the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Women in Science are prime examples. They focus on some exceptional women – of the past and the present. However, the reality is, these women are few and far between, and we’d be really lucky to find someone like them in our ancestry.

And, really, are these women’s achievements being judged by ‘male’ parameters – they are making discoveries and achievements in areas that have been traditionally male: politics, science, medicine, engineering.

Therefore, are we valuing and judging them and their achievements against a male-based scale, rather than valuing them as whole women?

Is that too feminist, or too divisionist, or not the case at all?

Maybe, but it’s definitely something to consider as we look at the women in our ancestry and attempt to find out their stories.

Do we disregard them out of hand if it looks like they “just” had children, and didn’t do something that little bit different or out of the ordinary? There’s the “blank box” syndrome, whereby a married woman’s details weren’t recorded on many census returns because she had no identity past that of her husband and children. Even the jobs she did do – for example helping with home-based manufacture, or farming, or running a pub or shop – were attributed to her husband if she was married.

The point is, these women – those who exceeded society expectations, challenged perceptions and broke molds – are few and far between. We’re lucky if we find one in our ancestry, but most of us haven’t got that. The quite frankly excellent recent Back In Time For The Factory on the BBC looked at this – the story of ordinary working class women in garment factories, and ascribing value to their experiences.

What we need to do is re-evaluate the women we do have in our ancestry, and find value in their stories.

The nature of humanity often means that we think ourselves better than those who came before us, because we’ve built on their achievements. But this often means we’ve not experienced what those of the past did – for example multiple pregnancies (unless your name happens to be Helena de Chair), or high infant mortality rates, or domestic work without modern appliances – so our judgement on what to value comes from a blinkered perspective. Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ Maternity, published in 1915, features very frank accounts of working-class motherhood and domestic work from the late Victorian era that are completely alien today.

By its very nature, our family history comes down to us from married people, women who had achieved the “ultimate” and envied position for a woman – that of wife and mother. Society taught people to pity the unmarried woman as she had not achieved this position (look at words like spinster, old maid, dried up, etc, as opposed to bachelor) – but actually the unmarried women are often the most interesting, if you seek them out. But because they have no descendants they tend to be an afterthought in our family history, if they feature at all. It’s all about the lens we see women of the past through – because of how it was recorded.

The question is, should we perpetuate that viewpoint and that lens in how we view our female ancestry?

Or should we challenge it?

The ending of the year of important suffrage anniversaries means that women’s history has quite justifiably had a lot of focus over the last 12 months. What needs to happen now is that interest to be sustained, and to go beyond those obvious figures – looking at more than just the suffragettes.

Emilie and Mary’s stories

“A recent addition to the industries of the town is the steam laundry,” trumpets the Wiltshire Times about Chippenham in September 1902, “or to give it its correct title the Chippenham Sanitary and Laundry Company Limited. Work was started last week in the new and capacious building which has been erected just outside of the borough boundary in Barley Close. The laundry is the only one of its kind in the neighbourhood, and may be said to supply a long felt want. Already there are 50 customers on the books, and the number is increasing daily.”

Women and washing clothes have been tied together for centuries, with many women falling into the work to make ends meet in hard times or to sustain themselves and their family when they were widowed. However, until the advent of the technology that enabled steam laundries to be established, most laundresses took in extra washing at home to supplement their income and did others’ washing alongside that of their own family.

With the advent of the steam laundry, this practice continued for married women with families who needed extra income. But the steam laundry offered extra employment opportunities for local women, and these were mostly taken by younger women straight out of school, in the time between leaving education and their own marriage.

Working at the steam laundry was considered a respected professional career for a young woman, and – although officially run by men – the day to day life of the business fell to a manageress.

The first manageress of the Chippenham Steam Laundry was Emilie, who had been brought in from a laundry in the South Wales coalfield to manage the premises, and after she moved on to London she was succeeded by a Miss Martin – who remains elusive – in 1906. The third holder of the manageress position was Mary, who took up her place in 1911.

Emilie was born in the mid-1860s in Staffordshire, the youngest of three sisters. Her father ran a bookshop, and the family were decidedly middle-class – which befitted someone who would go on to be the manageress of a workplace.

Her father died when she was only a few months old, and her mother took in boarders to keep a steady income for the family in Wolverhampton. Clearly bright, Emilie and her two older sisters were educated well into their teens, which meant that they were affluent enough to not need to leave school to contribute to the family finances. Later on they even had a domestic servant.

Her oldest sister Florence became a governess initially, which was a career that Emilie and her other sister Annie followed her into, but the advent of the steam laundries offered managerial roles to bright unmarried women of a “decent” background, and both Emilie and Florence were recruited to run a new laundry in the South Wales coalfield at the tail end of the 19th century. Here they shared the manageress role, but it was only Emilie that was recruited to run the new Chippenham laundry in 1902.

After about four years in the Chippenham position, she went to South London to manage another laundry, which would have been a step up from the provincial nature of the Chippenham establishment.

Later on, she moved to the Hastings area to manage a laundry there – again with her sister, sharing the managerial role – and living with her mother and their other sister who were running a boarding house by the sea. Neither she nor her sisters ever married

Emilie died unmarried in her early 50s, just after the end of the first world war. Her sisters continued to live in the Hastings area until the 1950s.

**

In contrast, Mary – Chippenham Steam Laundry’s third manageress – came from Norfolk, from a small rural community between the city of Norwich and the coast of East Anglia. She was the eldest of her parents’ ten children, and the family owned a grocers and drapers shop. This shop was clearly successful – their household in 1881, when Mary was four, had a domestic servant and a nursemaid, and her mother had employed the services of a monthly nurse to look after the family while she was lying in in the days following the birth of Mary’s brother Sidney.

Over the next ten years, the family moved south to Worlingworth in Suffolk and took over her paternal grandfather’s wine and spirits, grocers and drapers business in this village, building on the shop’s reputation. Clearly bright, Mary was sent to a girls’ boarding school elsewhere in Suffolk, while the brothers nearest to her in age remained at home.

It’s unclear how Mary’s career began, as her record in 1901 is elusive. As an unmarried woman, she was probably boarding somewhere, and the house owner noted down her details incorrectly. It’s likely that she started on the career towards management of industrial premises – either being employed as a manageress of another laundry or instrumental in some other industry at the time. Her career was a contrast to that of one of her sisters, who only went as far as Ipswich to be employed as a drapers’ assistant.

By 1911 Mary had travelled to Chippenham and taken up position as manageress at the Sanitary Laundry Company. Most of the workforce were women, and the bulk of them were unmarried – either young single women or those who had been widowed. Married women did work as laundresses, but tended to take in extra laundry to do alongside their own to earn money for their family, as going out to work when you were married was frowned upon. Similarly, the manageress position was held by an unmarried woman.

Laundry was collected from around the town by a man with a horse and cart (one of three men employed by the business, one of the others having the job of running the boiler), and received and sorted at the premises. Then the articles went to the wash house, where recent advances in metal rotary machines had resulted in a hydro-extractor, the drying chambers (eight of them), and the ironing room. The washing was then sorted again, ready for dispatch back to its owners by horse and cart. Of this workforce, 29 strong in 1911, Mary was in charge. She would have handled day to day management of her employees, kept an eye on the books, and sorted reordering and maintenance of the services and machines that the laundry offered. She was answerable to the company secretary, in an office elsewhere in the town, but expected to be in charge on the ground.

By the mid-point of the First World War, the laundry offered dyeing, carpet beating, and refitting of shirts – all important parts of a service that would have been done at home before women went into the industrial workforce because of the number of men on army duty.

In 1916, at the age of 40, Mary married Alfred, who had been working in Chippenham as a dental mechanic and false teeth manufacturer. He served as a soldier in the war, and was posted elsewhere. Despite propriety dictating that a married woman shouldn’t really have a job, Mary remained manageress at the laundry.

One of her brothers, Sidney, was killed at the end of the war, dying in France and Flanders just a few weeks before the armistice. Her husband survived, however.

She kept her manageress position until at least 1920, after Alfred returned from fighting, and lived with him on Malmesbury Road. By 1923, however, she’d resigned from the laundry and was not working. Alfred had moved his business up the road to Malmesbury, and Mary was with him as the dentist’s wife.

They don’t appear to have had any children, and by the outbreak of the Second World War they were still living in Malmesbury.

Mary died in 1963, aged 87, in Malmesbury.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Ida H’s story

A campaigner and activist for women’s education, and later a playwright and author, Ida H’s roots were very much in her beloved Wiltshire.

Born in the mid-1880s, she grew up in a village in the middle of the county, just outside Devizes, as one of seven children (including a set of twins) of the village vicar and his rather-unconventional wife. The fact that she was a vicar’s daughter means that her exact time of birth is recorded alongside her baptism. She later recounted tales of her not-particularly straight-laced Victorian childhood in a memoir. One of these involved the whole tribe of her siblings regularly running about the village bare-footed and exacting the ridicule of some passing gypsies. The gypsies’ reaction incensed their nurse so much that she insisted all the children return home and put on their Sunday best stockings and shoes, to be paraded in front of the travelling folk. However, when the children returned the gypsies had retreated to their tents for the night and the nurse’s efforts were in vain.

Her mother was a writer, and appeared to have not too much care for the strict conventions of the day, leaving Ida and her siblings to roam the area as a gang – swimming in the canal, climbing the church roof, and wandering all over the local Wiltshire downlands. Ida and one of her younger sisters even went on a riding tour alone for three days, spending one night sleeping in a barn. Their household appears comfortable, with a whole complement of domestic staff to help the family, which would mean her mother had more time to write instead of child-rearing.

She was also a keen archer, taking part in mixed doubles matches for the Wiltshire Society of Archers when she was around 20.

When Ida was in her early 20s and still living at home, her father’s position moved to another village in Wiltshire, closer to Swindon. It was here that she became involved in the work of the Workers’ Educational Association, which was initially set up in London in the early 1900s but had enthusiastically been taken up in Swindon by local politician and county councillor Reuben George. The organisation worked to further education and bring new skills to the whole population, with focus on the working class, as part of a drive at this time to improve and progress society.

Ida, in the face of considerable opposition from the locals, set up the first village branch of the WEA in her home village. This endeavour was supported by Reuben George. This was a step towards her lifelong drive towards social reform, and was followed by another – a move to London to undertake social work. Indeed, on the 1911 census she was in London, lodging with a female tutor in sociology and called herself a social worker – a fairly unusual choice of a career for a woman of her background. At home her branch of the WEA flourished, and she was appointed just the second WEA women’s officer in 1912, at the age of 27.

This put her in a position of improving the lives of women when the women’s suffrage campaign was at its height. In 1913 she wrote:

“If the WEA is to gain any substantial victory in its campaign against ignorance and injustice, men and women must be fighting side by side. Their cause, their interests are inseparably bound together. Neither party can march by itself without endangering both its own safety, and that of the party it has left, and if one ceases to make progress, the other is held back too; so, of all the special efforts the WEA has to make today, perhaps none is more important than the special effort it is making on behalf of women.”

This job took her to speak about women’s education at meetings and gatherings all over the country, and it was at one position – in Oxfordshire about three years later – that she met and fell in love with the community doctor. As married women did not have jobs, she resigned her post with the WEA and did not even acknowledge her working life on her wedding certificate, when they married in the middle of the First World War.

As a doctor, her husband was in a reserved occupation and therefore excused conscription – so did not go to war. Ida gave birth to two sons in quick succession in the years that followed, and settled into life as a doctor’s wife in Oxfordshire.

It was as part of this life that Ida, who had been a compulsive writer since childhood, began to write in earnest. As her children grew, she started as a playwright in the 1920s, penning several works for children before working on dramas and comedies for adult groups. At the tail end of the 1920s she gave birth to her third child – a daughter – nearly ten years after her second son. She continued to write plays, sometimes directing them or producing them with amateur and semi-professional companies, and several were broadcast by the BBC on the home service in the early days of radio. One, a comedy called Lardy Cake, referred to a popular Wiltshire baked product, and others made reference to occurrences in her Wiltshire childhood. She also started writing books, among them an account of her Wiltshire childhood.

The family moved to Shropshire in 1930, where Ida’s plays continued to be written and performed by the village players, and her two sons went to study at university while her daughter went to boarding school. She also wrote and broadcast about Shropshire life, and during World War Two was very active in the local WI. Writing took a bit of a back seat for Ida at this time.

Her husband retired at the end of World War Two, and they moved to Dorset – but Ida was widowed about three years later. She began to travel the world, as her family had spread out and her eldest son was now working as a diplomat and was posted to far flung places.

She moved back to Wiltshire, and settled in Aldbourne, returning to writing. In the early 60s she researched and published a book on the village she grew up in, which was followed by a book detailing holidays with her five spinster aunts in the New Forest. She then wrote a book on Shropshire, and finally an intricately researched history of Aldbourne. She was at the heart of village life until she died in the late 1970s, and was buried in Aldbourne churchyard.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.