Social Climbing Through Ladies’ Boarding Schools

Today my guest is Naomi Clifford. After a long career in magazine journalism in the UK, Naomi returned to her first love: history (which she studied at Bristol University in the 1970s). She is now happy to be a freelance writer based in London, which gives her the time and freedom to explore the delights of the British Newspaper Archive, the National Archive and the British Library, and to write non-fiction books about the Georgian era, the first of which, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, has just been published. With that introduction, here is Naomi’s guest post.

Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 6 June 1808 © British Library Board

Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 6 June 1808 © British Library Board

For centuries, genteel girls and those of the ‘middling sort’ were educated at home, usually by their mothers or governesses, but in the latter part of the 18th century and into the early 19th, the number of girls’ boarding school proliferated. Not only were they seized on by aspirational parents eager to enhance their daughters’ accomplishments but they were also offered a new opportunity to lone, or otherwise unsupported, educated women: a career and an income.

The reasons for the popularity of these private fee-paying schools with parents are much as they are now: standards and social aspiration. Their daughters could learn refined skills such as harp-playing or figure-dancing in an environment where they would brush shoulders with their social superiors. A boarding school education was an investment. It increased a girl’s value on the marriage market and, should the worst happen (that is, she did not marry or the family’s finances collapsed) at least she would be able to support herself. She would have acquired an education that would enable her to find work as a teacher.

Of course, there was a huge range in the quality and type of education on offer. In the middle of the 18th century, the basic curriculum might be reading and needlework, but by the early 19th century grammar and literature (English and French), history and geography were on the curriculum. Often specialist teachers were contracted in. It was not unknown to offer Italian, classical mythology, natural philosophy, or household skills such as pickling, preserving and pastry-making. The annual cost of a boarding school education would be in the region of 12 to 20 guineas but that could rise to 80 to 100 in London or Bath, with additional subjects charged separately.

While some schools focused on accomplishments such as dancing and drawing, others promoted their credentials as serious educators, albeit within the accepted, and highly gendered, limits of the day. Thomas Broadhurst, who ran Belvedere House in Bath with his wife Frances, wrote, “A young lady will not sing the less sweetly, nor dance the less elegantly, because she understands something of the elements of natural philosophy, or is acquainted with the history of her native country” (Advice to Young Ladies on the Improvement of the Mind, and the Conduct of Life, 1808).

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 8 January 1817 © British Library Board

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 8 January 1817 © British Library Board

The aim of the schools was to produce perfect Georgian women, primed to enter the marriage market where they would become ideal wives – helpmeets (not rivals) to their husbands, able to converse intelligently (but not stridently) in company and to manage a household efficiently. Occasionally, however, suitors appeared on the scene before a girl’s education was completed. Thomas Broadhurst warned girls specifically against this: “While you display the purity and innocence of the dove … remember that there are birds of prey constantly hovering around you, and be guarded and wary as the serpent.”

Thomas Rowlandson's Version of the Bristol Elopement, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Thomas Rowlandson’s Version of the Bristol Elopement, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Girls disappearing overnight from boarding schools, especially young heiresses fleeing with unsuitable men, became an easily understood trope in the public imagination. There were regular newspaper reports of elopements from boarding schools but, in truth, many were not what they seemed. In 1772, Robert Morris abducted his 12-year-old ward Frances Harford, the illegitimate daughter of his recently deceased friend Lord Baltimore (and recent heiress to £30,000), from her Chelsea boarding school. The marriage was later annulled. In 1791 Richard Vining Perry deceived the Misses Mills, 14-year-old heiress Clementina Clarke’s Bristol schoolmistresses, into handing her over. He dragged her off to Gretna Green and forcibly married her. He was later prosecuted but acquitted, but by then Clemetina was pregnant with her second child. In 1827 Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s abduction of 15-year-old Ellen Turner, whose school teachers had been duped in an elaborate conspiracy, ended with an annulment – and a prison sentence for Wakefield.

These scandalous abductions were not the only reason for misgivings about boarding schools, and must have troubled parents. But there was another reason to distrust them. Those at the top of the social scale, traditionally the arbiters of taste, the owners of the wealth and the administrators of the state, were threatened by the encroachment of the middle classes on what they regarded as their territory. A boarding school education encouraged girls of ‘inferior’ rank – and their parents – to think that they could imitate the manners of their superiors and move up the social scale. If people did not remain in their allotted place, the whole edifice of society was at risk. Just across the Channel the dramatic and horrific disintegration of a social order had been vividly demonstrated. Boarding schools represented the start of the slippery slope.

Critics, including the socially conservative philanthropist and educationist Hannah More, were of the opinion that everyone would benefit if the different ranks were educated entirely separately: a form of educational apartheid. That did not happen; the fluidity of social classes continued. But some would argue that, the abiding divide between public and private education in Britain, and the anxiety around it, is evidence that, at a basic level, not a lot has changed.

If you enjoyed this post and want to connect with Naomi you can visit her website, Naomi Clifford: Glimpses of Life in the Georgian Era, by clicking here. She is also on Twitter as @naomiclifford, and you can follow her Facebook page by clicking here.

If you are interested in learning more about Naomi’s book, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, here is a brief synopsis:

Taunton, 1817. What seems a simple newspaper report of “elopement gone wrong” turns out to be a rollercoaster story of crime, coercion, illusory triumph and fraudulent defeat. Barrister George Tuckett wakes to discover that his 16-year-old niece Maria Glenn, reputedly the heiress to West Indian sugar plantations, is missing. He discovers that she has been abducted by the Bowditches, a local farming family, who intend to force her to marry one of their sons. Maria is rescued and Tuckett starts investigating the crime himself, uncovering a complex and disturbing web of lies and impersonation.

To buy or learn more about Naomi Clifford’s book, click on the appropriate link below:

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  1. June Austen On Dit | Austen Authors on October 6, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    […] Social Climbing Through Ladies’ Boarding Schools […]

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