Alice Woods: Bedford Park & Co-Education

by D W Budworth, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 14 (2005)

It is an unusual 90-year-old who has the didactic urge combined with the organisational drive to write and self-publish a 10,000 word booklet of advice on How to Grow Old. In 1940, Alice Woods was one such. Earlier in her career, AW had been one of the group of liberal, reformist, 30 to 40 year-olds who had been attracted to Bedford Park in its heyday in the decade from about 1882. She was recruited in 1884 as the first headmistress of the Bedford Park School (Ltd), which was from the start intended to be fully co-educational and non-sectarian. In 1892, she was appointed as the Principal of the Maria Grey Training College which was close to where Brondesbury Park Station (1908) is today. During her 21 years there, and in her subsequent long retirement, her formative experiences in Bedford Park combined with her energy and enthusiasm made her into one of the country’s leading experts in, and advocates of, co-education.

Alice Woods 1849-1941 (Courtesy of Brunel University London Archives)

Alice Woods 1849-1941, from the portrait by Annie Swynnerton ARA, (Courtesy of Brunel University London Archives)

Although she was recognised by inclusion in Who’s Who in 1907, her contributions were never adequately recorded after her death in early 1941, when the pressures and demands of the darkest period of World War 2 imposed higher priorities on the living than writing obituaries of those who had long retired. Belated recognition has, however, come in the form of an entry in the recently-published Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Family background
On her father’s side Alice Woods came from a Quaker family, a fact of which she was always conscious, although her parents were married in the Church of England. She herself has left little indication of her religious beliefs, if any, except for a stipulation in her will that her funeral should be as simple as possible and not according to the rites of the Church of England. She was a great-granddaughter of the Quaker diarist Margaret Woods (1748-1821).

AW was born into a prosperous family in 1849, the youngest of at least seven children, at Wood End, Walthamstow, a large house now demolished. Her older siblings had been born in the Liverpool area where her father Samuel had worked as a broker in the import-export business in the first part of his career. He had made a visit to the USA as early as 1831, before marriage, but a decline in the US trade and the widening opportunities provided by the expansion in the number of limited companies in the 1840s seem to have decided him to return to his native London to take up stockbroking.

Early career
There was no need for AW to work. She seems to have had adequate funds to live without working, as had the two sisters nearest to her in age, with whom she kept in close touch throughout their joint lives. The self-confidence and independence which contributed to her success in her chosen career probably stem to a significant degree from this comfortable background. Nevertheless, she had a great desire for work, and she first found it in 1875 as a teacher at Chelsea High School, whose headmistress was her cousin Mary Anne Woods. MAW was, in fact, a first cousin through their mothers, but she was also a second cousin through the Woods line. Although AW thus owed her start in her chosen profession to what would nowadays be regarded as nepotism, her eminent suitability for it cannot be denied.

After a couple of years at Chelsea, the 28-year old AW was in 1877 admitted to Girton College, Cambridge, then a comparatively new and very small foundation. Girton students took exactly the same courses and examinations as the male students, although they were not allowed to take degrees. AW studied Moral Sciences (philosophy, logic, psychology, ethics), taking a second class in the Tripos of 1880.

From Girton, AW returned to teaching, this time as an assistant mistress at a girls’ high school at St Andrew’s, whose headmistress was Miss (later Dame) Louisa Lumsden, who had been one of the ‘Girton pioneers’, the first five students of the College when it opened (in Hitchin) in 1869. In 1882, after two years in St Andrews, AW returned to the south as head of the junior department of the Girls’ High School, Clifton, where her cousin MAW was by this time headmistress.

Recruitment to Bedford Park
The idea of establishing a school in Bedford Park seems to have originated in 1883, fortunately during the brief period of publication of The Bedford Park Gazettee which contains much useful information about the genesis of the school. Many of the more prominent members of the Bedford Park community took part in the planning of the school, in which they had an acute interest as parents of school-age children. There were two unconventional aspects of the school as planned. First, it would be completely co-educational, an unusual although not unknown feature at the time; and secondly it would be completely non-sectarian, on the grounds that belief in Bedford Park encompassed such a wide range that it would be impossible to satisfy all the parents’ requirements by a single provision. The directors did, however, express themselves as being willing to organise individual religious tuition to suit parents’ wishes.

The co-educational provision seems to have been uncontroversial, despite its relative novelty, perhaps at least partly because it was envisaged that the boys would leave at the age of 13 to go to public schools, and only the girls would stay beyond that age. The lack of religious content was, however, unacceptable to some members of the Bedford Park community, with the result that they organised a second, rival, school, the High School, Bedford Park, also as a limited company. There was really no room in Bedford Park for two schools, and both were starved of resources.

Sydneh House, Acton Green, artist's impression by Tim Shelbourne (courtesy pf D W Budworth)

Sydney House, Acton Green, artist’s impression by Tim Shelbourne (courtesy of D W Budworth)

The Bedford Park School was always the more successful of the two, partly no doubt because it had the support of more of the prominent members of the community and because it opened some months before its rival. A greater share of the credit, however, properly belongs to Alice Woods, its headmistress. How she came to Bedford Park is not at all clear. There are guarded references in The Bedford Park Gazette to the directors being confident of being able to make a suitable appointment, and it seems likely that AW was what would nowadays be described as head hunted. The directors of the school had assembled a board of distinguished advisers, which included the legendary Miss Buss, the founder of the North London Collegiate School, and it was probably she or one of her fellow advisers who drew attention to AW, whose claims as a rising star of the educational scene, and whose Quaker background, with its tradition of equality between the sexes and hostility to organised religion, together made a formidable case for her appointment.

Alice Woods in Bedford Park
AW gave some account of her experiences at the Bedford Park School in her evidence to the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1894-5. She criticised the quality of the assistant mistresses whom she was able to recruit, and complained that the school was always short of money. It was also unsuitably housed. Although there had been ambitious plans for a purpose-built school right from the beginning, and a site and architect were eventually identified in 1898, the plans came to nothing, and the school started life in temporary accommodation at the Chiswick School of Art in Bath Road before moving in March 1886 to the original Georgian Sydney House, where it changed its name to the Chiswick High School. Sydney House was one of three built by John Bedford in 1793, around which Bedford Park was built from 1875. It was replaced by a block of flats 1904—6. Its its extensive garden could be used as a playground for the school, and extra land was rented to serve as a playing field.

One exception to AW’s criticisms of her assistants must have been made for her deputy and eventual successor, Esther Maria Case, who, although younger than AW, had preceded her at Girton, and had herself been educated at a co-educational school in Hampstead run by her parents. Nor was AW without success in Bedford Park: at least two of her pupils followed her to Girton, one of them Amy Lilian Lawrence, who made the journey daily from the family home in Hampstead to benefit from AW’s teaching.

AW had a wide range of contacts with leading personalities of the day, and a former colleague recalled that on two or three occasions she had persuaded her friend John Ruskin to address the children.

Nonetheless, whatever the limitations of the school, AW’s experiences there convinced her of the virtues of co-education, of which she became an articulate and well-respected advocate both in her time there and throughout her subsequent career. Her first known public discussion of the subject, at a time when it was still known as joint education, came in April 1890, when she published an article in Seed-Time, the journal of the high-minded and somewhat unworldly Fellowship of the New Life, whose most lasting contribution to public life was as the jumping-off base for the Fabian Society. Whether or not AW was formally a member of the Fellowship is not clear, but she certainly attended some of its meetings in her Bedford Park days and retained some friendships formed through it. On her first visit to the USA in 1907 she made contact with the former Secretary of the Fellowship, who had emigrated in 1889.

AW published a second article Joint-Education before leaving Bedford Park, this time a lecture delivered to the Manchester Branch of the Teachers’ Guild. The fact that AW was lecturing as far away as Manchester shows that she had become an established authority on co-education before leaving Bedford Park.

There is only one mention in The Bedford Park Gazette of AW contributing to the discussion at one of the Bedford Park lectures, but this journal ceased publication not long after AW came to Bedford Park, and it seems likely that she was a significant contributor to other local meetings.

An intriguing possibility about AW’s Bedford Park years is that she may have met the distinguished artist Annie Swynnerton, who lived for a few years at 18 Queen Anne’s Grove, during the period when AW was a boarder almost opposite at 21 Queen Anne’s Grove. In 1911 AS completed a portrait of AW which hung in the Maria Grey Training College thereafter, until it was in all probability destroyed in 1941 when the College was badly damaged in an air raid. Fortunately, a photograph of the portrait survives (above).

After Bedford Park
AW had been appointed in 1892 as both Principal of Maria Grey Training College and head of its associated school, but in 1898 she gave up the direct responsibility for the school and was therefore not able to practise co-education at first hand. Nevertheless, drawing on her Bedford Park experiences, supplemented by careful study of practice in co-educational schools in a series of study trips, including that to the USA in 1907, she continued as an ardent, although not uncritical, advocate of the practice. She edited and contributed to a book of essays, Co-Education, in 1903.

After retirement in 1913 she continued her study and travel, visiting the USA another three times, editing another compilation, Advance in Co-Education, in 1919, and publishing an original work, Educational Experiments in England, in 1920. She maintained contact with a large number of her former pupils and colleagues, some from her Bedford Park period, until her death in early 1941. Her constantly preached watchword, derived to some extent from Meredith, her favourite author, about whom she lectured and published, was ‘service’, a precept which she exemplified throughout her life.

Birth, marriage, death, census, and probate records. Archives of the Maria Grey Training College (now at Brunel). Who’s Who, The Bedford Park Gazette, Girton College, reports of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education 1894.

David W Budworth PhD, MBE is a former scientist who is spending his retirement on research on Sydney House (where he lives) in particular and Bedford Park in general.

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