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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, both my grandmothers went to the local school and when they were old enough were sent away to board for a short time at a young ladies boarding school where they learnt the three Rs, needlework, music and possibly French.

My own mother went to the village school where once she knew her letters and numbers she became a monitor, that is an older pupil who taught the little ones, until she left at sixteen to help her mother at home. Even in my day, just after the Second World War, when it was suggested that I might go to University, it was seen as an unnecessary expense for a future wife and mother (I did go eventually but after the children had been to college themselves and left home). So when I came across a distant female relation who became not only a graduate but also a Doctor of Science as early as 1908 I was more than a little intrigued. For it is only in modern times that women have been educated to the same standard as men, and, as you will know from family records, many could not even write their name but signed with a cross.

Although they might be able to read if not write, our fore-mothers were expected to know only enough to teach the smallest children their letters, or manage the household accounts. But some knew how much they were missing. In the seventeenth century, Aphra Behn believed to be the first professional woman writer, bewailed her lack of learning:-

Till now I curst my Sex and Education,
And more, the scanted Customs of the Nation,
Permitting not the Female Sex to tread,
The Mighty Paths of Learned Heroes dead.
The Godlike Virgil, and Great Homers Muse,
Like Divine Mysteries are conceal’d from us,
We are forbid all grateful Theams,
No ravishing Thoughts approach our Ear;
The Fulsom Gingle of the Times,
Is all we are allow’d to Understand, or Hear.


In the eighteenth century  a group of society ladies, bored with card playing, gambling and social chit-chat (think Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer), set up an informal group to enjoy conversation on all kinds of topics, except politics (shades of the WI) with invited guests. These would usually be men of letters, and Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds were some who attended. Another was the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet who published the first English editions of the works of Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist. He was said to have been too poor to afford the black silk stockings which were formal dress, and Fanny Burney said that he was told to come as he was, which was in his day wear of blue worsted stockings. An Admiral who was very rude about his wife’s enthusiasm for the project mocked her for attending the Blue-stocking Society, and the name stuck. Ever since, Bluestocking has been used disparagingly about any woman who has been educated above what someone considers her place in society.  If you would like to see some of the original members of the society, go to Brilliant Women.

I discovered that Ethel Louise de Fraine was a student at Whitelands Training College on the King’s Road, Chelsea, in the 1901 census.  I have not yet found out how she came there after being born in Aylesbury in 1879. Her father died when she was only ten, leaving her mother with three girls to bring up of whom Ethel Louise was the eldest. In the 1891 census she was in Leicester living with an aunt who was down as an elementary school teacher and perhaps someone had recognised her talent and sent her there to be taught. As she attended Whitelands College she was probably living in London before she went to Whitelands. Her mother was a Londoner so it seems quite possible they went back to live with relatives. But that is speculation.

Whitelands College was an important factor in the education of women in the nineteenth century. It was one of the oldest higher education establishments, predating only Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and London Universities, and it was solely for young women.  It was founded in 1841 with just twelve students by the National Society for the Promotion of Education of the Poor in the principle of the established church, as a teacher training college for women, and the students had to be members of the Church of England until 1907 when it admitted non-conformists for the first time. Its aim was to ‘produce a superior class of parochial schoolmistress’ and its graduates would mainly be employed in the Church of England primary schools. It did not admit men until the 1950s but became fully co-educational in 1966. It had an excellent reputation from the start and was supported by such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Burne Jones.

The students learned to teach in schools attached to the college, in one of which poor children were admitted free, and in less than ten years it had four schools including a girls’ secondary school. It was a rigorous curriculum for the student teachers, including Latin as well as French, botany, art and algebra, kindergarten theory, music and needlework.

Ethel Louise’s grandfather had been listed as a gardener and seeds man in all his census returns and her father too appeared as a gardener, the first time when he was only sixteen and working with his father. So although both men were dead before she was very old, an interest in plants must have been in her genes for she clearly excelled at botany as her later records show.

The staff at Whitelands must have realised that her interest in botany was something special and encouraged her to study for a degree from London University at Westfield College.  The record states that she was an ‘Internal Student’ which meant that she was accepted as a full time student of the university.

London University admitted women as full members in 1878 and awarded degrees to women long before either Oxford or Cambridge. In Oxford, women had to obtain permission to attend the lectures, and degrees were not awarded until 1920. Cambridge had two colleges for women and allowed them to attend lectures and sit the exams, but did not allow them to graduate until 1948.  Whereas in London Ethel Louise, having graduated as a Bachelor of Science, was able to study full time as a post-graduate at Goldsmith’s College and gained her Doctorate with a written dissertation in 1908.

It would be interesting to know how her studies were financed for none of this would have been free, unless she had a scholarship. It may be that the college records might shed some light, but that is for another time.  A history of Westfield College and the history of women in the University of London can be seen at Women at Queen Mary Online: a virtual exhibition.

Her entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, states that she became a Fellow of the Linnaen Society in the same year as her DSc and describes her as a British botanist and plant anatomist who lectured at Battersea Polytechnic from 1910 to 1913. She returned to Westfield College in 1915 where she headed the department of Botany, teaching other women towards a degree, until her early death on 25th March 1918 in Falmouth, Cornwall.

She published what was probably her DSc thesis, “Seedling Structure of Certain Cactacea,” in the Annals of Botany in 1910. This was followed by an important paper on fossil botany and another after taking part in ecological expeditions. Her last publication was on the morphology and anatomy of the genus statice in its habitat at Blakeney Point. She is mentioned as collaborating in certain research techniques with a T.G.Hill, and presenting their results in papers for the journal Nature, and in the Annals of Botany and in the Linnaen Society publications.   The Biographical Dictionary states that she contributed to the knowledge of the structure of seedlings.

Benjamin Stillingfleet would have had something in common with Ethel Louise, a real ‘bluestocking’ who certainly benefited from her higher education, as did society, even if in a very narrow field of knowledge (and she was my grandfather’s second cousin).

Marjorie Dawn

© Marjorie Dawn 2008


Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie and Joy Dorothy Harvey 2000

Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists, Ray Desmond, Christine Elwood. CRC Press 1994

Castle Adamant in Hampstead, A History of Westfield College 1882-1982, Janet Sondheimer, University of London 1983

Women at Queen Mary, University of London 2007