Margaret Clarke belonged to the generation of pioneers in women’s education. She was born in 1833 in the parsonage in Wolviston, Co Durham, one of a large but impecunious family. She didn’t follow the paths we might have expected for a woman of her time – she didn’t marry, she didn’t become the useful spinster aunt and she didn’t become an unregarded and underpaid governess. She became a gifted teacher, a skilled networker and a good administrator and businesswoman.
Margaret Clarke's origins
Her father was the Revd Lancelot Christopher Clarke (1793-1864). He was born in Stanhope, Co Durham; his father, the Revd John Clarke, was then perpetual curate of St John’s Chapel in Weardale. John Clarke must have made his way on his own merits. A History of Northumberland in Three Parts by John Hodgson (1820) says that he was born in 1756 in the Morpeth deanery in “a solitary farm-house, called Ridpath, within the boundary of the Wallington estate, and on the north side of Harwood and of Fallowlees-burn”.
He had no patron to give him a living with a substantial income but must have had a friend at Durham Cathedral because in 1802 he was made a Minor Canon and in 1808 the Dean and Chapter appointed him vicar of Billingham where he stayed until his death in 1831. He wrote several tracts (A Brief Illustration of the Morning Service, &c and others) which were printed at Durham and later reprinted in an edition edited by his son. His position at the cathedral must have been useful in obtaining from the Dean and Chapter the preferment of the chapelry of Wolviston – which lay within the parish of Billingham – for his son Lancelot.
So Lancelot came to Billingham as a boy of about 14 and it was there that he met his future wife, Isabella White (1800-73). They married in 1819 after Lancelot came down from Emmanuel College, Cambridge and was priested at Durham.
Isabella was born and brought up at Brook House, Billingham. Her father Robert White was the farmer there; her mother Margaret Blackburn came from Guisborough. Brook House Farm lay not far from Billingham Mill, just above the mill race which led into Billingham Beck. An industrial estate covers the site now.
Lancelot and Isabella began their married life in Billingham and their first two children were born there. They moved into Wolviston Parsonage in 1823.
Wolviston was enticingly described in An historical, topographical, and descriptive view of the county palatine of Durham of 1834 – the year after Margaret was born – as “pleasantly situated on the turnpike road between Sunderland and Stockton ... The soil on which it stands is dry, and the southern prospect is extensive and beautiful”. It was a sizeable village, with “several good houses” and must have been a lively place as it contained 6 public houses, a spirit & porter merchant, 5 shopkeepers, a corn-miller, 4 butchers, 2 gardeners, 2 stone-masons, a bricklayer, 4 joiners & cartwrights, 2 blacksmiths, 2 tailors, 2 shoemakers and a saddler.
The young vicar was full of energy. On 23 January 1830, the Durham Chronicle reported that he had – by his “zealous exertions” – led villagers from Wolviston to the aid of people fighting a fire that had broken out “in some wooden sheds, used as workshops, adjacent to the splendid mansion of the Marquis of Londonderry”. Luckily there was a strong wind blowing from the north east so that the fire did not reach the “noble Marquis’s Orangery” or threaten “his Lordship’s magnificent house”.
During that year, the chapel at Wolviston was enlarged by the addition of “a neat, elegant steeple, of polished Yorkshire stone” which, according to the Durham Chronicle of 25 December 1830 “is now seen to tower up in the centre of the village, presenting to the eye quite a new and highly ornamental feature in the scenery of the surrounding neighbourhood. The whole has been effected by means of voluntary contributions”. The chapel re-opened just before Christmas with Lancelot giving “an appropriate and impressive sermon”. We can’t see Lancelot’s church now – I see from the Victoria County History that it was rebuilt in 1876.
By that time Lancelot and Isabella already had five children. There were to be several more – they had eleven children, as far as I can see. Margaret was the seventh, baptised on 16 March 1833. It was a full household and by 1841 it also included his mother-in-law, Mrs Margaret White.
I think money must always have been tight, as the stipend was not generous and Lancelot had so many mouths to feed. The 1834 View of the County Palatine shows that he was then running an Academy. He later tried his hand at farming, but it evidently didn’t answer the purpose because by the early summer of 1847, when Margaret was 14, his financial situation came to a terrible crisis and he ended up in Durham Gaol as an Insolvent Debtor. He spent four months in gaol. Perhaps he was helped by friends or family, because he was able to come to an arrangement with his creditors and I’m glad to say that he seems to have bounced back. The day after his appearance before the Durham County Court he was at the third Annual meeting of the tenantry of the Londonderry estate enjoying a good dinner with the other local clergy. But it must have been a searing experience for the family.
Margaret's education and early career
Unsurprisingly, Margaret was sent to the Clergy Daughters School at Casterton, where she could be educated cheaply. This was the later incarnation of the school at Cowan Bridge, which was described so vividly and unfavourably by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. The school had moved to the healthier situation of nearby Casterton in 1833, eight years after Charlotte and her sisters were removed from the school by their father.
We find Margaret there, aged 18, in the 1851 census together with her younger sister Mary Ann, aged 14. Margaret was one of the older pupils and I think she must have stayed on as a Pupil Governess because her obituary in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough records that she went from there to become an associate of the Sisterhood of Holy Trinity, Oxford.
The Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity was an Anglican Sisterhood which ran a convent school in Oxford – the buildings now form part of St Antony’s College. There she must have gained more teaching experience.
I suspect that during her later years at Casterton she encountered Miss Dorothea Beale, who was superintendant of the school during 1857, because in 1860 Margaret was invited onto the staff of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where the celebrated Miss Beale was Principal.
Margaret sets up her own school
Margaret remained there five years and then, in 1865, set up her own small school at the Old Hall, Kirkleatham – the building we now know as Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum. She had made good use of her time at Cheltenham and clearly had made some very useful connections. Here is her advertisement from 1868:
Newcastle Journal, 19 December 1868HOME EDUCATION – MISS CLARKE, Kirkleatham Old Hall, Redcar receives TEN YOUNG LADIES to educate on a system adapted to the highest purpose of Education. The domestic arrangements are those of a private family. Terms from £60 to £100 per annum, according to age and requirements. There are two Vacancies. References can be given to the Dowager Viscountess Barrington, the Lady Ponsonby, the Rev Canon Woodford (Vicar of Leeds), Dr Acland, F.R.S., Regius Professor of Medicine, Oxford, &c
Margaret was targeting the affluent market and had references – and fees – to match. She soon realised that she could build on her growing success and decided to relocate to London where it would be very much easier to find staff of the calibre she required.
She took a house in Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, in a terrace of tall white-stuccoed Italianate town houses. They were five stories high including the servants’ quarters on the top floor and only recently built. There she and her sister Catherine (who seems to have been generally known as Kate) set up their school.
At the time of the census in 1871 they occupied numbers 26 and 28 Warrington Crescent and their widowed mother and older sister Elizabeth were there with them. The school remained popular with parents from the North, and among the 15 pupils were four from Yorkshire and three from Newcastle. A closer inspection of the census details reveal that two of the Yorkshire girls were from Middlesbrough and that they were girls who have featured on this blog before: Annie and Ellen Richardson, aged 14 and 13, the daughters of Dr John Richardson and his wife Margaret Elizabeth Weatherill.
Expansion of the school & the last years of the Misses Clarke
Perhaps Margaret was always on the lookout for a large house in its own grounds, because it was not long before she took out a lease on Brondesbury Manor House in Willesden. The buildings dated mainly from the late 18th century and early 19th century; the grounds had once been landscaped by Repton, who commented favourably on its hill-top position. The railway had reached Willesden and from the late 1860s houses for merchants and City professionals were being built. It must have seemed a very appropriate area. Margaret took possession in around 1881 and seems to have begun building work to make the buildings ready for occupation by the girls.
The 1881 census shows that the school had expanded dramatically. Margaret and Kate now had three houses, numbers 24, 26 & 28 Warrington Crescent. The seven teachers (described by Miss Clarke as “governesses”) included a young French-born British woman and a young woman from Germany, so we can see the pupils were learning both French and German. The housekeeping staff consisted of a housekeeper, an accountant, a matron, a cook, 2 parlourmaids, 5 housemaids and a kitchenmaid.
There were 48 pupils aged mostly between 14 and 18, the youngest child being 10 years old. They included four girls from overseas (India, Cape of Good Hope, Portugal and Canada) and several from the North of England – a girl from Newcastle, another from Kendal, and Elizabeth Faber, the daughter of Henry Grey Faber, solicitor in Stockton-on-Tees, and Kathleen Newcomen, whose father owned Kirkleatham Hall, the great house that was demolished in the 1950s.
By 1891, the school had expanded further still. Brondesbury Manor was nearly ready for full occupation and in the meantime the census shows that the sisters now had four houses in Warrington Crescent – numbers 24, 26, 28 & 30. The pupils, teachers and domestic staff were divided between the houses.
In Number 24, there were 12 girls, four of them from Yorkshire, living under the supervision of three teachers. One taught German & Music, another English & Music and the third taught English. In Number 26, Miss Kate Clarke presided over the domestic staff – a secretary, a matron (from Gateshead), a housekeeper, a cook, parlourmaid, 5 housemaids, a kitchenmaid and a 15 year old boy as a page. There was another Music teacher living there. In Number 28, an English teacher and a French teacher were in charge of 14 pupils, including 2 from Yorkshire and one from Tynemouth. In Number 30, yet another English teacher had the charge of 7 girls (including one from Nova Scotia and another from New Zealand). Also living there were a carpenter, a housekeeper, and a 13 year old described as School Boy. Clearly the school prided itself on music and English – masters will have visited the school to teach other subjects.
At Brondesbury, the census reveals Margaret presiding over three teachers (one taught German & music, the other two English) and 27 pupils, including a girl from Australia. She was assisted by a manageress born in Wynyard, Co Durham, and her staff consisted of a ladies’ maid, parlourmaid, 4 housemaids, a cook and a houseboy. A gardener and his family lived in the Manor House Cottage. Staying with Margaret was an old pupil, Miss Agatha Skinner, aged 33.
While Miss Kate Clarke stayed in Warrington Crescent, chiefly with the younger girls, work continued apace to build a school chapel. The building was largely financed by a generous donation from Miss Agatha Skinner, and the chapel was dedicated on 7 June 1892 by the Rev W H Cleaver. The first Confirmation was held by the Bishop of Marlborough, Alfred Earle, whose daughter was a pupil. Soon afterwards the houses in Warrington Crescent were given up, and all the girls moved into the Manor House, which had been extended to accommodate them
Miss Margaret Clarke presided over the Manor House for only a few more years. She died on 11 February 1897 at the age of 64. Her obituary in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough on 26 February called her
“a once well-known [clearly her renown in London did not count] and highly-respected Northern lady educationist ... known to the leading educationists of the day as one only second to the late Miss Buss [of the North London Collegiate School for Ladies] in powers of organisation and devotion to her work.”
Kate Clarke carried on the school for the next two terms, but it must have been a very difficult time and she must have been very glad to find a buyer quite quickly. This was Miss Lucy Helen Muriel Soulsby, headmistress of Oxford High School, who arrived at the school in September 1897 and took it over completely from Kate at the beginning of 1898. Kate lived only two years longer. She died on 11 February 1897, aged 59.
The two Misses Clarke had not only made their school a resounding educational success, they had also made a substantial fortune. When Margaret died in 1897, she left £8,114 10s 1d; Kate’s estate (which obviously included the sale of the business) amounted to £18,717.
Brondesbury Manor House School under Miss Soulsby (1856-1927)
Miss Soulsby – such an apt name, I feel it would have been chosen for her by Charles Dickens – had bought the school with her own objective already fixed in her mind. Her mother was the strongest influence in her life and, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography, Miss Soulsby reverenced “the power of the home”. She intended to put character-building ahead of academic achievement and she intended to form “fine wives and fine mothers”.
She drew further inspiration from the works of John Keble, Charlotte M Yonge and Elizabeth Missing Sewell (who, with her brothers, has already appeared in this blog), emphasising the importance of developing spirituality and self-discipline. She was clearly a very charismatic character and was very much in the public eye, a great committee woman, traveller and writer of pamphlets and books. Unsurprisingly, she opposed female suffrage.
She retired from the school in 1915, leaving it in the hands of Miss Frances Abbott, but she was still very much in charge.
During this time, Northern families remained loyal to the school, perhaps unconscious of the changes that had taken place. Mrs Margaret Richardson, who had sent her daughters Annie and Ellen to Miss Clarke’s school in the 1870s, sent her stepdaughters Averil and Madge Buchannan there as well. They evidently remembered their schooldays with affection because they sent their own daughters there after the First World War. Alas, by then the school was not the congenial place they remembered, and several of the girls were actively unhappy while all of them seem to have resented the petty discipline and the poor academic performance.
Memories of the school in the early 1920s
Mary Hurst attended the school between 1921 and 1923. The best that can be said for it, as far as I can see, is that it gave her plenty of time to daydream during lessons; she had two novels, Thy People and The Bond of the Spirit, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1928 and 1930.
In her unpublished memoirs, Mary left a vivid portrait of the school, which her sister-in-law Katharine Stubbs described tersely with the words, “Lousy education. Sadistic discipline. Good on arts.” Interesting to note that Mary came to Brondesbury from the Oxford convent school in which Miss Clarke had once taught, and which Mary found preferable in terms of education, discipline, kindness and lack of silliness about boys.
|Brondesbury Manor House, c1921|
Mary wrote that even in the years that she spent at Brondesbury, Miss Soulsby still “periodically made formidable descents on the school to see that [her customs] were being duly continued”.
Here is her description of the school regime:
When the present girls left they did not become simply old girls but some sort of flower, the earlier Miss Soulsby generation being Rosemaries and the later Water Lilies, but the original Manor House-ites, to whom my mother-in-law and her sister belonged were simply called “Miss Clarke’s old girls”. I fancy Miss Clarke, an uncompromising Puseyite lady devoid of whimsies, would not have approved of all the horticulture.
We were given over to the care of our respective “school mothers” for the first two weeks of school life. It was a good idea, and conscientiously did my worthy if uninspiring “mother” perform her heavy task.
She made me rise at 6.30 in order that no possible thing should be left undone to ensure a tidy bedroom. The bedrooms were inspected when we were at Prayers and the names of the untidy people and their offences were read out by the Head at breakfast. It was an offence to have a piece of cotton on the floor, a corner of blanket hanging crooked on the chair when the bed was stripped, a blind out of line or a single dead flower in your vase.
You belonged to a block house, a group of seven or eight girls under a Captain. “Lucknow” was the Scottish block-house where I, who have not a drop of Scottish blood in my veins, spent two terms; but indeed I started in the Kitchener’s Army block-house and ended as Captain of Revenge, the Navy one, without the faintest connection with either.
The untidy offender followed her block-house Captain upstairs and picked up the cotton or whatever it was. If there was no excuse the whole blockhouse lost the Red Star for that week. It taught us neatness all right, but when I tell you that we lost the Gold Star for a word spoken at any time in the bedrooms (the worst offence of all), the Green Star for a word in the passage, half another star for a shoe adrift in the boot-room, half for any unpunctuality and another whole star for an untidy drawer, you can imagine life was rather hazardous.
Every morning our persons were inspected from hair to shoes in a vaguely military manner by the Blockhouse Captain and her lieutenant, and it went ill with you if the white starched apron in which each girl was clad had a tear or a button missing.
The rooms in which the girls slept were named after places that appealed to the imagination of Miss Soulsby. The landings on the first and second floors were named after her favourite countries – Spain, Italy, France, Greece, etc – and the rooms were named accordingly. Mary seems to have been in an Algerian section, sleeping in the room called Timgad, which led out of Tiemcen. The 6th form room was called Byzantium. The passage by the garden door where girls could read the Illustrated London News was called The Fourth Estate. I see from a map I found amongst Katharine Stubbs’ papers that the naming extended to the garden, where could be found Bunyan’s Arbour, Little Gidding, Tigris, Arabia and a path named Path to Fairyland and St Hilda’s.
We were placed in classes for sitting, standing and walking. I soon acquired a more poker-like posture, but my walk was beyond either threats or entreaties. We were exhorted to strive to be Harebells, which involved always being very straight-backed, courteous and tidy and thus gaining the right to wear a brooch with a harebell upon it.
At the beginning of every term came the ceremony of obtaining a motto for your cubicle. “Ich Dien” and “Noblesse Oblige” were the most popular, but “I can because I must and by God’s help I will” was quite a good second. The mysterious “Here Stand I. I can no other,” and “Here or nowhere is America,” were low on the list. “Don’t think of the carriage-in-pair in front but the donkey-cart behind” was deservedly rejected, and “He is so much in love with misery who likes to sit down on his own little handful of thorns” (a most uncomfortable bed-time thought) was at the very bottom. Miss Soulsby’s passion for mottoes ran riot in every corner but was there or was there not a glint of humour in putting “E’en the light harebell lifts its head exultant from her airy tread” over the school’s main staircase?
Miss Soulsby was present in person and we were told to bow or curtsey low to her when we entered the drawing-room. Distracted by seeing a youthful mistress appearing, far too daringly, as an ancient Briton in a hearthrug, bangles and enough brown stain to render Dominion bathroom unusable for days, and hampered by shortsight, I prostrated myself before the only strange lady in view, who turned out to be the Normanbys' governess, who was visiting Katharine Phipps [daughter of Lord Normanby], only to be later confronted by a prodigious vision in a Mary Queen of Scots mantilla, who was obviously the great Lucy S.
There is a photograph of Miss Soulsby in the mantilla on the Brent Museum & Archives website.
The Sunday routine sounds particularly uninviting:
A Manor House Sunday began for those who had not been to Early Service, with shortened prayers before breakfast and after breakfast a promenade round the grounds as on weekdays, only always with hats on because of it's being Sunday. This was known as First Walk.
Then we sat in the schoolroom and learned alternate verses of a poem from The Christian Year, then we were herded into the Chapel for Morning Service ending abruptly with Ante-Communion but no communion to follow. After this came Long Walk which was the only walk taken outside the garden, and the neighbourhood was so dreary that this hardly caused surprise.
Then we stood in twos in the schoolroom and said our verses from The Christian Year. After lunch came First Sweet Walk, round and round the garden again, everyone with hats on. Then the actual sweet-eating, an unseemly exhibition in the Boot-room where you were often unable to have any of your own sweets as they had to be universally distributed and greedy people always asked if they could take two. Then there was the Second Sweet Walk, followed by the oasis of silent reading from which we were rushed to Chapel for Church History or some such.
Then tea, and after tea we all took chairs and trailed into the drawing-room where there was hymn-singing (it was amazing that in a finishing-school where so much weight was given to music there was hardly a girl who could play for this adequately).
After hymn-singing there were readings from George Herbert and The Pilgrim's Progress, Miss Abbott having previously recorded the Stars of each block-house on a special board prepared by the Bell-ringer and had a good stare at any star-losing culprit, who had to stand up for the purpose.
Then we went back to our class-rooms and wrote our home letters. Then we had supper and some more improving reading in the drawing-room and then went, exhausted, to bed.
Only one girl in the Sixth Form in Mary’s time passed Matriculation. It is cheering to note that Miss Soulsby’s strong aversion to women’s suffrage had no effect on the girls of Mary Hurst’s time. She herself was already very politically aware and her father Gerald Berkeley Hurst, Conservative MP for Moss Side, Manchester, always impressed upon his daughters and granddaughters that they must vote, because women had died for them to be entitled to do so. Katharine Stubbs, on leaving school, went and helped a friend’s family electioneering in Eastbourne, while Katharine Phipps, always known to her schoolfriends as a Communist, went to work in the East End at the Camberwell settlement.
Miss Soulsby died on 19 May 1926, and the school continued – but with something of a change of direction. It was examined and approved by the Board of Education and it gained a science laboratory.
The school went on to have several new manifestations.
In 1934, after a move from Brondesbury to Cranleigh, Surrey, it became known as Brondesbury-at-Nanhurst. Brondesbury Manor House, described as “shabby-looking”, was bought by a builder and demolished to make way for housing. In 1941 the school evacuated to Shakenhurst Hall in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire. The following year it moved again, to Stocks House near Tring, where it became known as Brondesbury-at-Stocks.
And it was there that Miss Clarke’s school at last came to an end in 1972.
Unpublished memoirs of Mary Hurst
Information sent to Katharine Hill née Stubbs in 1987 by the Grange Museum, London Borough of Brent: copy of the Silver Jubilee issue of the Brondesbury Magazine 1930
Notes left by Margaret Isobel Stubbs née Buchannan
Photographs by Katharine Stubbs