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.

Alexandria_School's_(18727590293)

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.

Mary Ann Fairlie’s story (v2.0)

Mary Ann Fairlie’s two favourite pastimes appear to have been drinking and breaking windows – and if she was denied the first the second would often follow. Newspapers and prison records from all over Britain recount her breaking windows of pub after pub when the landlord refused to serve her, often on account of her foul language – which was considered unseemly in a woman and therefore reported with gusto. These feisty and colourful brushes with the law give an impression of a woman who flew in the face of mid-Victorian propriety, and went through life on her own path. Drinking and window smashing are only a drop in the ocean of her career through the British courts, and her other charges were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in available court records on numerous occasions – and in her native Yorkshire an account towards the end of her life says she was up in front of the judge there nearly 90 times (and more elsewhere) – on a variety of offences including larceny, obscene language, wilful damage, drunk and disorderly, stealing a weight, pilfering money, malicious wounding, pawning furniture that did not belong to her, spending war relief funds on drink, fighting in the workhouse, throwing pot bowls at men, and assaulting a police officer. She was also the victim in several cases, being wounded and assaulted herself, and occasionally deliberately committed offences to get a bed for the night. This chequered career takes place across several UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and although clearly painting her as a character of strength and spirit it seems at best chaotic, and at worst desperately sad that she – unlike many other women who only pop up in court reports once or twice (if at all, most court reports of the time pertain to men) – was living such an unsettled life.

A clue to what was going on for Mary can be found in the 1891 census, which coincided with one of her periods of imprisonment. She is described on the document as a prostitute, which perhaps puts the nature of some of her crimes into perspective, as working girls might often find themselves in difficult and violent situations. However, none of her criminal convictions are for soliciting – although she is charged with stealing money from clients in brothels on a couple of occasions. The copious newspaper reports add colour to the rigid language of the official court documents, and Victorian reporters loved to add embellished language and sensationalised detail. She was often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub in Mansfield who refused to serve her, and being dragged through the streets on her back afterwards, only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court and swearing that she’d finish it when she was released – or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder in Hull gaol so badly that the woman needed a fortnight off work to recover.

Her life didn’t necessarily have to have taken that turn – she’d been born into a relatively stable, if clearly poor, family in the North of England, and had been brought up in the communities that supported the fishing trade on the coast. Her parents, both from Ireland, had emigrated with her elder brother at some point after the Great Famine. Around the time Mary reached early adulthood, a parental split occurred with her mother taking her younger sisters to Scotland – but not Mary – and her father remaining in the family home. He became a pauper, and spent time in and out of the workhouse, so Mary was almost certainly fending for herself. The first newspaper report has her drunk in Basingstoke at the age of 16 while of no fixed address. This distance from family may have led to her choice of lifestyle, but was not the only choice of employment open to her – her younger sister made a living making fishing nets, and did not bounce in and out of the courts.

During the time she was in and out of the justice system, Mary was also working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Cardiff and Newport – where she apparently threw herself into the River Usk under the influence of drink, and was escorted to the local workhouse. This was thought to be a suicide attempt. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably on account of sleeping in a hedge while on the move and not being picked up by the enumerators.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter Rose was born in the mid-1890s, the pregnancy coinciding with an 8-month stay in Wormwood Scrubs for breaking yet more windows, which appears to have reduced the behaviour which led to spells in gaol. However, this did not stop the poverty which had led to Mary’s situation, and she and Rose spent seven periods in a London workhouse during the first year of the child’s life. Mary gave her profession as a spinner on admission records, but finding work must have been difficult in a community away from home and family with a tiny baby to support.

She went north again, and having briefly reappeared in Hull next surfaces in Manchester jail, having got a further six month’s imprisonment while working as a factory hand in Dewsbury. Presumably Rose was left with family during this period. This prison record reports that she was quite tall for a woman of the time, dark haired, with a damaged right elbow and a previously broken jaw. She also had old boyfriend’s names tattooed on her arm and chest, along with a heart and a sailor’s symbol. Tattoos were not uncommon among the Victorian working classes, particularly in the communities surrounding the sea-faring industry, but may also have marked her out as property of these men, who may have acted as her pimps.

A couple of years later, after another court appearance for fighting in Hull workhouse, she had two further children (David and Lillian), each of these also baring her surname so again out of respectable wedlock. She had clearly gone home, but around this time her mother died and her father was again in the workhouse, so in 1901 Mary and her three children were without support and spending time in the workhouse too. Around this time she’d been working as a cotton stripper and grinder – a considerable step above prostitution, although possibly less lucrative.

Another profession is given a couple of years later again, after her youngest child Lillian had passed away at the age of two, and Mary had brought her family back to London. Now working (when she could find employment) as a charwoman, she spent much of the mid-1900s in and out of three different London workhouses. Sometimes these admissions were just her children alone, as she would not have had the means to support them, but she often joined them. She also spent time in a workhouse hospital for rheumatism.

A newspaper article from 1905 has her charged with being drunk in charge of a child under seven years, while hawking flowers at a station just outside London. She says her husband is a sailor who has not paid maintenance to the children for two years, but this would appear to be a lie as there is no record of a marriage. She pleads her case and apologises profusely, and says that she will make up her debt to society providing that she is not separated from her children. However, that is exactly what happened as she was jailed for one calendar month.

By the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in Hull again. She had no children in her care – after she was jailed they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life, with Rose ending up in Canada with the British Home Children Scheme and David in an industrial school in Dartford – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

The removal of her children appears to have been detrimental, and the court appearances continue. She was found guilty of spending war relief money on drink not long after the outbreak of the First World War.

Rather surprisingly, in 1915 she got married. This was to a dock labourer called Thomas, who was at least a decade younger than her if not more. This may have been more of necessity than love, however, as she spent most of the next three years in and out of hospital suffering from catarrh and a heart complaint and probably needed the help and extra support.

She died in late 1919, while sewing one Friday night in bed. Apparently she fell backwards and expired immediately – as dramatic an end to her life as it had been lived. She was buried in Hull.

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This post originally appeared in 2017, but has been further researched and updated.