In 1865, according to Elizabeth Missing Sewell, middle class parents considering their daughters’ education found themselves on the horns of not one but three dilemmas.  Firstly how could they ensure that the result of education was that their daughters knew enough to make intelligent conversation without having “opinions” which would frighten off future husbands?  Secondly, should they receive tuition in academic subjects at a school, or at home? Thirdly, and especially if home schooling was preferred, should they choose a governess who was “a clever, but under-bred woman who really knows what she attempts to teach” or “a refined lady who has only a superficial amount of information”?  We all think we know what is meant by the second of these – she appears in literature and paintings of the time – but who were the clever, well-informed, under-bred teachers?

Although the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution had for the last twenty years provided a school for governesses to improve their knowledge, and obtain the school’s own certificate of competence, this aspect of its activity was waning by the mid-1860s, while young teachers holding government teachers’ certificates were flooding out of training colleges intended to provide for the education of the poor.  Government subsidy for such colleges had begun tentatively in the late 1830s, but incremental increases over the next thirty years had resulted, in the early 1860s, in about two hundred students obtaining their teaching certificates in the two colleges, or Normal Schools, in London which trained both women and men.  Just under half of these students were young women, the great majority of whom came from the lower classes, having worked their way through elementary schools for which a nominal payment was collected from parents.   One or two other colleges in London, including the women-only Whitelands College, and several others in large cities added to this number.  Many, but by no means all the newly-qualified teachers, were placed immediately into schools around the country, or around the empire, associated with their training college.  The women students of the Wesleyan Westminster College in 1864 are pictured in the photograph above.

Image © courtesy The Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University 

Life in college, over a course of one or sometimes two years, involved long days, intensive instruction and supervision and considerable discomfort.  However, contrary to popular images of joyless discipline and drill, students were not only instructed in most academic subjects, but taught to manage a school and a schoolroom, and, perhaps most importantly, to teach lessons which engaged their pupils’ attention, stimulated curiosity and communicated the point of the lesson.  At Borough Road College, by 1841, the students were not only instructed in teaching the three R’s (plus Scripture), but in geography, astronomy, science, including chemistry, botany, mechanical drawing and singing. Both Borough Road and Westminster Colleges had their own infants and elementary schools attached, where students practised teaching under the supervision of the staff, and demonstration lessons were given each week to assembled pupils, fellow students and staff who gave feedback afterwards.  The teaching performance of the students was inspected and examined;  the Christmas examinations leading to the teacher’s certificate took place over a gruelling week in December and included ‘viva’s’ in which quick thinking was sometimes needed.  When a young woman left these and colleges like them with her teacher’s certificate, she not only knew her stuff (and had proved that she was physically and mentally resilient) but knew how to research and demonstrate her lessons to a class.

Qualified young women such as those pictured pursued varied careers.  While many got jobs in elementary schools for ‘poor’ children, others worked in schools requiring higher fees, and some went abroad to teach.  Since this was the Victorian age, a female teacher could only expect to teach small children or girls, whose curriculum was more circumscribed than that of boys.  There were fewer openings and she could look forward to less intellectual challenge, lower pay and less chance of promotion than male teachers.  Nevertheless research into their lives reveals a wide variety of economically-viable ways of combining teaching with independence, marriage and children, according to individual choice.  It seems that the parents to whom Elizabeth Sewell addressed her advice were not necessarily in a buyer’s market for the services as governess of the “underbred”.

Johanna Holmes researches the careers of women in London in the first half of the nineteenth century.  She is an independent scholar, having pursued a long career of her own in the public sector.