By D W Budworth, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 15, 2006
The historical records for the late Victorian period during which Bedford Park had its brief period in the limelight tell us much about the facts of people’s lives but little about what most of them were like. For those who were not thought worthy of obituaries, biographies or, very rarely, entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the historian has to rely on occasional flashes of light from such sources as Court cases, amongst which is the one that ensued from the attempt in 1895 of the then headmistress of the High School, Bedford Park Ltd to deprive its liquidators of the lease of its premises in order to set up her own school. She appears to have been an able, but somewhat headstrong and undisciplined personality, and much the same could be said of the school’s landlady, her co-conspirator in the attempt. Official records of the case survive in The National Archives and from these and contemporary newspaper accounts it has been possible to reconstruct the story.
The Bedford Park School Ltd was opened in April 1884. It was intended to be co-educational and non-sectarian, with religious teaching restricted to that required by individual parents. This latter feature was unacceptable to some residents, who organised a rival school, the High School, Bedford Park Ltd, which opened a few months later. The result was two unviable schools, which staggered on in parallel for 11 years before common sense and financial reality eventually triumphed, and it was agreed to merge the schools into the Chiswick and Bedford Park High School Ltd. Because of the corporate structure, the mechanism to bring about the change was to put the two existing schools into voluntary liquidation and to float a new company to run the new school. Liquidation involved terminating the employment of all the teachers, most of whom it was envisaged would be re-employed in the combined school. This expectation did not extend to the two headmistresses, as it was the intention to find someone new, probably to avoid any suggestion that the merger was in fact a takeover.
Netty Pryde and her plot
The resulting loss of employment was more serious for the headmistress of the High School, Bedford Park, Miss Netty (originally Janet) C Pryde, than for her rival, Miss E M Case, because the terms of her employment required her to live at the school, which took boarders. She thus faced the loss of both job and home. Miss Case had a family home in Hampstead to which she could return, but Miss Pryde’s family, originally from Scotland, had dispersed. She was, in fact, rather well connected: her father had been headmaster of the Edinburgh Ladies’ College, a very large establishment, and her only brother was James Pryde, the painter and half of the Beggerstaff Brothers, whose other member, William (later Sir William) Nicholson was married to her sister Mabel, also a painter. By 1895, most members of what seems to have been a talented but tempestuous family were in the London area.
Netty Pryde had the St Andrews qualification of LLA, which was equivalent to the degree which only men could at that time obtain, and her own subject was languages, in which she had adopted a then-fashionable teaching system known as the Gouin method. She saw an opportunity to make this the basis of a school of her own, for which she would need premises. Obviously, the High School, Bedford Park’s home at what is now 9 and 10 South Parade, then known as The Canaries, was suitable, and in correspondence with the landlady, Miss Mary Eliza Richardson, formerly of Bedford Park but now resident in Cornwall, she entered into an agreement to take over the lease. The school was in arrears with the rent which, despite being a fairly normal occurrence in Victorian England, nevertheless provided legal grounds for terminating its lease. She and Miss Richardson agreed that Miss Richardson’s solicitor, Francis Jerome Sass, would enter the premises a day or two before the end of term and of her employment on 26 July 1895 and eject her, as representing the school, in order to take possession for Miss Richardson. After half an hour, Netty Pryde was to re-enter and sign a new lease which the solicitor had prepared, thus becoming lessee of the property.
The plan was duly carried out, without informing the school authorities. Its underhand nature was made worse by the facts that Miss Pryde had been made, at her own request, a director of the High School, Bedford Park Ltd only a few months before, and that Miss Richardson was a shareholder and one of the original promoters of the other school. Nevertheless, Netty Pryde gained and retained possession.
The High School did not accept the fait accompli and promptly brought a Chancery action against Misses Richardson and Pryde. The school’s case was that it was late in paying the rent only because it was seeking clarification from the Inland Revenue about what amount of tax to deduct, and that the arrangement between Miss Richardson and Miss Pryde was improper. After the exchange of formal claims and counter-claims, and many affidavits, the case came to trial in May 1896.
The judge, having studied the written evidence and taken oral evidence in court from the parties, found in favour of the school. He is reported in the local papers, in an account which was probably written by the school, as having said that the oral evidence of the defendants had weakened their case considerably. Netty Pryde was given a month to vacate the premises, and duly did so, moving her school across The Orchard to No. 14, where she remained until about the turn of the century, when she vanished from Bedford Park records. She appears to have moved to Paris, where she was living in 1912, running a small school and incurring a large debt which William Nicholson had to work hard to pay off. Miss Richardson eventually defaulted on her mortgage on The Canaries, which was repossessed after another Chancery case in 1903.
Chancery records in The National Archives; the Chiswick Times and Acton Gazette; William Nicholson: Painter, Andrew Nicholson, Giles de la Mare, 1996.
David W Budworth is a former scientist who is spending his retirement on research on Sydney House (where he lives) in particular and Bedford Park in general.