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.

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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.