The Bradford Female Educational Institute

JY Saville is a writer and blogger from West Yorkshire. Having two degrees herself, she retains a horrified fascination at the lack of educational opportunities in the past for the working class, women, and working class women.

“Every argument for the education of working men is equally applicable to the education of women,” so said the forward-thinking vicar of Bradford, the Rev Dr Burnet, at the second annual meeting of the Bradford Female Educational Institute in November 1859. He had first-hand experience of arguments for and against all forms of working class education, having been told in a previous parish where he wanted to open an infant school that educating poor children would ‘only make them into nice show things for the ladies to look at’. He’d also run up against ‘a great lady of the county’ who didn’t see why women should be educated, and wouldn’t have her servants taught to read or write. Nevertheless, thankfully, Dr Burnet and other like-minded souls persevered.

In later years the West Yorkshire textile town of Bradford gained a reputation for pioneering educational and social reforms. It’s easy to think that it was always thus but even as late as 1870 when the MP for Bradford, William Forster, successfully introduced his act of parliament establishing universal elementary education – bringing a basic education within the reach of all working class children for the first time – many of his constituents were not supportive. However, despite some less than favourable attitudes the Bradford Female Educational Institute came into being in the autumn of 1857, to educate working women via evening classes and the use of a library.

In structure and purpose the new Institute was similar to the network of Mechanics’ Institutes for working men which were increasingly popular across the northern manufacturing towns, and in fact it joined the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes in 1860. As Dr Burnet pointed out, it was not so long since those Mechanics’ Institutes themselves had been expected to churn out ‘either infidels or violent chartists’. As, on the whole, that didn’t seem to have happened they had become an accepted part of life. Dr Burnet’s message to the eager young women of Bradford was clear: all pioneers are seen as dangerous until they gradually turn the tide of opinion and become the new normal, so stick with it and ride out the temporary criticism.

That the young women of Bradford were eager to learn is obvious from the numbers that had to be turned away initially due to the size of the premises – scores of girls, according to one report in the local paper, one or two hundred according to another. The average attendance during the first year was 123 pupils per evening, ranging in age from 12 to 27. Far from being simply a pet project of a few well-meaning individuals with wealth behind them then, this was a facility that the under-educated Bradford mill girls wanted for themselves.

Victorian education, for both boys and girls, was used as a form of social control, a way of ensuring that a certain set of values was passed on and the social order was maintained. One of the arguments against educating the working class at all was that it might lead to political awareness and wanting a say in the running of things. Nature had provided a clear distinction of sex as well as class so working class women were doubly undesirable as recipients of education, as their social superiors not only included members of other classes but also their own menfolk. At the domestic level, women were expected to absorb the ideas of their father or husband, and to put forward ideas of their own would be a form of disobedience.

Although in 1864 William Forster publicly stated that he looked forward to the day the Bradford Female Educational Institute could impart higher learning, in fact it largely concerned itself with the basics. Many of its pupils were ‘scarcely able to distinguish one letter from another’ when they enrolled while others could read and write but not well. The main classes were in reading, writing, arithmetic, needlework and singing, with older and more able pupils able to take history, geography, general knowledge and grammar classes. They were not offered the scientific education which was often a feature of the Mechanics’ Institutes. It’s interesting to note that many arguments against middle class women entering higher education were used against these moderate levels of education for working class women, levels that we would now associate with girls in their early teens.

The proper occupation of a woman was as a wife and mother, so the prevailing feeling went, and nothing should be allowed to interfere with this. Wives and mothers were expected to be selfless and put the family first, but just as higher education for middle class women was seen by many as a selfish endeavour, so too was anything beyond basic literacy for working class women. Being able to read the Bible or prepare household accounts might be a useful accomplishment, but any higher intellectual pursuits could only lead to trouble. For one thing, replacing their natural intuition with the ability to reason was seen as unfeminine, and in any case, what would they do with their education? If there was no practical purpose then they were pursuing knowledge for their own pleasure, and there was a danger that this would distract them from their domestic duties. Women learning to think for themselves constituted a threat to the stability and indeed continuance of the nation. It wasn’t only that women might be too busy thinking to get married, but that they might render themselves unfit for it.

A letter to the editor of the Bradford Observer from a Mr Topham in November 1859, two years after the Bradford Female Educational Institute had opened, undoubtedly voiced the concerns of a fair few working men. He wanted to know who would marry all these young women turning themselves into ‘fine ladies…only fit for the parlour’ by dint of their education, as they would be above the ‘drudgery and toil’ necessary to keep a poor man’s home and children clean and respectable. The Mayor of Bradford advised the members of the Institute to ignore this and similar criticisms, though even within the supporters of the Institute there was a split between those like Forster and Fanny Hertz (later to represent Bradford on the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women) who hoped for greater things for the pupils, and those who advocated lessons in cookery and ‘household matters’ to enhance their domestic skills.

One thing is certain: the girls and young women who attended the Institute were made of stern stuff. Unlike the mainly middle-class women attending daytime classes at Manchester Mechanics’ Institute for instance, the women of the Bradford Female Educational Institute worked for a living. To attend lessons voluntarily from 7-9pm after a long day’s work takes commitment. Their behaviour and general attitude was praised by those who taught them, and they kept at it diligently despite often being tired and stiff. Even those women who didn’t have homes and children of their own to attend to will have often had younger siblings to care for, and duties expected of them by their parents.

Despite this they somehow found the time to read books borrowed from the Institute library. They learned money management both by carving their subscriptions out of a tight household budget and through the savings bank set up alongside the Institute. Some of them became committee members, learning to speak up for themselves and their fellow pupils. All of this at a time when their being educated was not always accepted, certainly not expected.

No wonder they had some of their neighbours worried.