12 May 2009

Literature & Education: Victorian Educators For Girls

By Anita Davison

During a childhood spent in North London, local folklore decreed that I grew up familiar with the rhyme:
Miss Buss and Miss Beale,
Cupid's darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss

Intended as uncomplimentary, Miss Frances Buss and Miss Dorothea Beale were both famous headmistresses of controversial girls' schools and proponents of the Womens' Suffrage movement.

Miss Beale became head of Cheltenham Ladies' College and founded St Hilda's College, Oxford, while Frances Mary Buss opened the North London Collegiate School for Ladies.

Born in London in 1827, Frances Buss was sent to a unremarkable private school in Aldersgate "...to get me out of the way". Sent to another private school in Hampstead, at the age of fourteen, she was teaching there, and by sixteen she was occasionally left in charge of the school.

In April 1850, when Francess was twenty three, she founded the North London Collegiate School in Camden Street, London. Thirty-five daughters of gentlemen and respectable tradesmen assembled on the opening day to receive an education which included Latin, French, and Natural science. German, Italian, and music were extras, taught with thought and observation rather than learning by rote. The school's success was immediate and by December, the school had 115 paying fees of between 9 and 12 guineas a year.

At this time there were no public examinations for girls, but in 1863 Miss Emily Davies, a contemporary of Dorothea Beale, prevailed upon the Cambridge authorities to allow girls to take the Local examinations unofficially. With only six weeks notice, 84 candidates sat the examination; of these 25 were from the North London Collegiate School, 15 of whom passed. In an age where girls were considered too weak to cope with study, none of the girls who took the examinations displayed the signs of physical strain their critics insisted would occur.

As a result of this experiment, girls were soon admitted to the examinations on the same terms as boys except that, "to avoid the supposed evils of emulation", their names, unlike the boys, were not published.

In order to gain public recognition for her school and girls' schools in general, Miss Buss gave evidence to the Schools Enquiry Commission that her pupils were mostly upper middle-class, but any girls of good character were admitted.

By 1865 the school had 200 day girls, with a few boarders, but was still run as a private, family concern, with her father Robert William Buss teaching Art and her brother Septimus Buss teaching Scripture. Discipline was strict, with talking apparently the main evil and breaches of the many rules taken seriously. The staff and pupils felt themselves to be pioneers in a great campaign against sex discrimination in education. Many former pupils testified not only to her discipline but also to her kindliness and generosity.

In 1870 Miss Buss turned her flourishing private venture into a public grammar school for girls. Miss Buss encouraged gymnastics, swimming, skating, hockey, and athletics. Her new building incorporated the first gymnasium designed for a girls' school and obtained the use of the St. Pancras baths. She instigated a school sports day, and in the interests of dress reform organized a tug-of-war between girls who wore stays and those who did not; the latter won. Miss Buss had little time for fainting girls, for whom she recommended the cold water treatment. She also encouraged the more usual accomplishments such as art, music, needlework, cookery, and handicrafts.

In 1929, the school acquired 'Canons', an estate that once boasted one of the finest Georgian houses in England belonging to the first Duke of Chandos and where George Frederick Handel was the composer-in-residence. The original house was dismantled and demolished 1760, but the colonnade now adorns the front of The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

By June 1940, the school was established and had 650 pupils by the end of the war. The 1760 villa which replaced the Duke of Chandos' mansion was decorated for the first time, and tennis courts and games fields were laid out. By 1964 there were 860 girls in the school, and many famous women are amongst its alumni.

Miss Buss was also a suffragette, participating in the Kensington Society, a woman's discussion society, and the London Suffrage Committee. She continued as Headmistress of the School for the rest of her life and died on Christmas Eve 1894.