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Saturday, 18 August 2012


I was chatting on Twitter with someone recently, and we found that we had both been blogging enthusiastically about the maiden aunts in our family trees. Because they have no descendents, they are often consigned to the margins of the family tree. They are the ones who have to stay at home to look after elderly relatives. They are the ones with no children or grandchildren to celebrate their lives. And yet often – precisely because they have no children – they are able to throw themselves into activities and busy lives which parents simply don’t have time for.

Once I start looking, there are lots of these wonderful women in my family tree. Often they come to the tree merely as names, some without even birth or death dates. But a little digging adds detail and throws up some tremendous characters. The three Salter spinsters for example, and the remarkable Katie Gurney. And now, thanks to a casual remark which I read about Katie’s indebtedness to her, Katie’s half-sister Mary Gurney.

Mary Gurney (1836-1917)

Mary, a niece of my great great grandmother Emma Gurney, was a child of her father Joseph’s first marriage. A year after the death of her mother, Joseph Gurney remarried and raised a second family. Although he engaged a governess, and although there wasn’t much difference (18 years) in age between all seven children of both families, Mary as the eldest daughter was expected to assume responsibility for her younger siblings. She fulfilled her duties in that respect not only conscientiously but enthusiastically and (what’s more) to the satisfaction and advantage of her brothers and sisters. One of her half-sisters, either Harriet or Catherine, remembered that she “wept floods of tears at giving up lessons with Mary.”

In time her three brothers entered their chosen careers – lawyer, engineer, minister – for which Mary must take some credit. But she and her three sisters had, in the mid-nineteenth century, fewer options. The usual path for an unmarried daughter was to throw herself into “good works” – the Salter sisters for example helped out at their father’s chaoticly understaffed school; and Katie Gurney, Mary’s half-sister, read the Bible to men in prison. Mary herself, with such an obvious talent and enthusiasm for teaching, continued in that direction.

Victorian needlework from 1863, considered an appropriate activity for a young woman until 1864’s Schools Enquiry Commission

Specifically, she involved herself in the emerging movement towards giving girls a proper education. Mary was an enthusiastic European traveller. Her trips were often spurred by a desire to attend some music festival on the continent and as a result she was well versed in classical music and the cultures from which it sprang. In these travels she became fluent in five European languages and their literatures. All this she was able and keen to share with young women who had for decades been encouraged merely to acquire decorative “accomplishments” such as needlework or Sunday afternoon piano-playing.

The Schools Enquiry Commission of 1864 identified a general deficiency in the provision of secondary education for girls. In 1871 two sisters, Maria Grey and Emily Shireff, formed the Women’s Education Union (originally The National Union for Improvement of the Education of Women of All Classes). Mary Gurney was an immediate supporter of the W.E.U., serving on its Council where she was later described as its most influential member, and where she met fellow council member Lady Stanley of Alderley.

Sheffield High School for Girls, early result of agitation by the Women’s Education Union – these pupils attended in the 1890s

These four women, Gurney, Grey, Shireff and Stanley, worked tirelessly for the better education of women for the rest of their lives. In February 1872, for example, all four attended a public meeting in Cutlers Hall in Sheffield to promote it, with the result that only a month later on 12th March 1872, Sheffield High School for Girls was opened, with a roll of 39 pupils, in the former Surrey Street Music Hall. In 1884 it moved to purpose built accommodation in Broomhill and to this day the four school houses, for its now 1000 students, are named after the four founding women. (Girls in Gurney House compete in green colours, and in the Junior School they are known as Emeralds.)

Mary published an article in the Englishwoman’s Review that year titled The Establishment of Girls' Public Middle-Class Schools, and – in the same year again – a book called Are We to Have Education for Our Middle Class Girls? Or, The History of Camden Collegiate Schools. It was undoubtedly a middle-class movement, and with good reason. The ruling classes had always had the privilege of education; and the needs of the working classes were being addressed by the churches, particularly the non-conformist faiths. Mary Gurney did not ignore the latter, and someone who knew her recalled, "No one ever knew all she gave to help poor promising scholars."

Sheffield High School today

Encouraged by their success in Sheffield and elsewhere, they held a huge public meeting in the Albert Hall in London in June 1872. Their purpose was to raise funds for more girls’ schools, and the result was the establishment of the Girls’ Public Day School Company, with a nominal share capital of £12,000. As the Girls’ Day School Trust the company still operates today, running 26 independent schools which continue the work begun by my spinster cousin Mary Gurney and her colleagues.


  1. Suggest you write a wikipedia article about Mary Gurney.. ?

  2. Yes, I should. So many great women like her in my ancestry ... and so little time!


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