A Role Model of a Blackheath Headteacher

Written By Lynne Dixon

Imagine having a headteacher that leaves leaflets of a political nature around the school!  This seems to be what Miss Gadesden of Blackheath High did as she spread her views on women’s suffrage.

Miss F. Gadesden – Florence Marie Armroid Gadsden (the original spelling of her name), born in Paris in 1853 – became headteacher of Blackheath Girls High School in 1866 at the age of thirty two.  Educated at an Anglican boarding school she had gone on to pass the exams allowing her to attend Girton College in 1880.   She was an active member of the college: conductor of the Choral Society, organist, champion tennis player, and co-founder of the Girton Review.  She read history, and gained a 2.1 in 1883. 

Her first appointment was to Oxford High School and during her brief time there she showed her energy and commitment to education in helping to form the Assistant Mistresses’ Association in 1884. She was rapidly made its honorary secretary. Within a few months she had risen from the rank of assistant to that of headmistress when she was recruited as ‘a suitable, discreet and sufficiently learned person‘ to launch a new high school for girls being opened in Leamington Spa. In her two years there (1884–6) she established Leamington High School on a sound footing; one former pupil described her as ‘most engaging, attractive, electrifying‘, and she was remembered by another as ‘holding the alto part in a strong firm voice against our girlish trebles‘ (Parry, 12).

Headmistress Gadesden

Just three years later she was chosen to be the second headteacher at Blackheath High which had been established six years previously in purpose built premises in Wemyss Road in the heart of Blackheath village and was at the time the largest school of the Girls Public Day School Company. 

The girls there studied a curriculum of English, Mathematics, French, Latin, Art, Needlework and ‘Nature Study’.  During her period at the school Miss Gadesden placed a lot of emphasis on sports which she believed were essential to both mental and physical health and which trained the girls to manage themselves and others.

In keeping with the strong feminist ethos of the school, Miss Gadesden and her staff were in strong sympathy with the suffrage movement. Staff members, ex-pupils and Miss Gadesden supported the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

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Headteacher Gadesden

Her involvement with the suffrage movement included aspects related both to education as well as to the wider movement.   She had continued as a keen member of the Association of Head Mistresses (AHM) and as its president from 1905 to 1907 she backed a resolution demanding women’s suffrage in terms which avoided support for militancy for she was opposed to the use of violence.  In 1909 she was lobbying for women school inspectors.

Gadesden’s suffrage efforts in Blackheath and beyond

She was also involved in the suffrage movement locally.  Between 1892 and 1894 there was a reading room at 5 Blackheath Village – 5 Lee Road or 3 Beaconsfield Buildings – of which she was a part of.  Miss E. M. Theobald, later was its hon. secretary.  Later it became a propaganda shop for the Blackheath branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage of which Miss Theobald was also secretary.  Miss Gadesden also held meetings at her house – 3 Orchard Rd – including one in November 1910 at which Mrs Fawcett spoke.  Other events were for fund raising for the suffrage movement.  At 7 Blackheath Village – then ‘Jobbins’ tea room – branch meetings were held.  It was used amongst other things for ‘At Homes’.  On 17th March 1910 Mrs Robie Uniacke spoke there ‘and delighted us all with the charming, and at the same time, clear, way in which she put the point for Women’s Suffrage before us.  Some new members joined our branch’.  The shop sold copies of ‘The English woman’, ‘The Common Cause’ (which supported the NUWSS) and copies of Lady McLaren’s Charter of Rights and Liberties which was presented to Parliament by her husband in the following year.  Interestingly, the other end of the village, 72 Blackheath Vale was actually used by the suffragettes (WSPU) for three months in 1909. It was used for propaganda, fundraising and committee rooms! 

In 1909 Florence Gadesden lead a petition – referred to as a Memorial – to the Prime Minister on behalf of secondary headmistresses of public schools in support of the Parliamentary franchise for ‘suitably qualified women’.  Four years later she put her name to a further Memorial alongside Emily Davies, Philippa Fawcett, Dr Garrett Anderson and Mrs Sydney Webb.

Gadesden’s Impact within the Borough

During the First World War she did voluntary work for the Red Cross and in a canteen for munition workers; as treasurer of the Girls’ Patriotic Union she helped to co-ordinate the voluntary work of schoolgirls, to which Blackheath pupils made a substantial contribution.

Miss Gadesden continued at Blackheath High School until 1919 when she retired to Gresham in Norfolk where she fully involved herself in local activities as well as keeping an involvement with the old girls association.  She died in May 1934.

Miss Gadesden was without doubt highly regarded by those associated with the school and in 1911 a special presentation had been made to her by parents, old girls, staff and private friends:

Dear Miss Gadsden (sic), it is felt that your services as Head Mistress of Blackheath High School have been of so marked and permanent a character that some grateful recognition of them is most fitting…..some proof of our appreciation of what you have done, not only for Blackheath High School, but for secondary education throughout the country.

Her values and ideals are clearly revealed in the some of her own words on the last occasion of her speaking to the school: “You especially who are leaving will keep, I am sure, the memory of what the school has tried to do for you; and in whatever you may be called to do, you will remember that work must be efficient, that Service must be rendered and that personal goodness must be sought and treasured.  You will have your ideals and you will be faithful to them.” 

Florence Gadesden was surely a woman who was faithful to her ideals.  Here was a person strong in her convictions, energetic in her support for her chosen cause and committed to the education of the young women in her charge.

Bibliography (in order of appearances):

Blackheath Guide and District Advertiser, 23rd Dec 1911

Common Cause 31st Mar 1910

Common Cause 9th June 1910

Common Cause 24th Jan 1913

Kentish Mercury 21st oct 1892

Kentish Mercury 29th April 1910

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on line

The Book of the Blackheath High School, M.C. Malim and H.C. Escreet (eds), 1927

The Jubilee Book of the Girls Public Day School Trust 1873 – 1923

Votes for women 12th March 1919

Image from ‘The Book of Blackheath High School’, Malim and Escreet, 1927

Suffrage Showcases: John Stuart Mill

Of course! Men, too played a huge role in fighting for gender equality and suffrage. We can’t assume that every man in Britain was misogynistic and ignorant of women’s struggles, because many were just as passionate about ‘the cause’ as Fawcett and the Pankhurst’s. John Stuart Mill was a huge equality player that paved the way for suffragettes and suffragists alike in the 1900s. His connection to the royal borough? He resided at 113 Blackheath Park for 20 years!

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Women’s Freedom League endorsing JSM. click here

The ‘Radical’ John Stuart Mill

Advocacy for women’s rights in 2018 is hardly seen as ‘radical’ in the UK, but progressive and necessary. However in the 1860s, when he became an MP, John Stuart Mill was criticised and condemned for his ‘radical’ views on women’s rights. The Dunfermline Saturday Press discussed JSM’s recent petition campaign in which 1550 women signed. However, the paper ended up rejecting Stuart Mill’s feminist ideals stating that women would be much better off in the home ‘we would confine them [women] to that place where in reality they are strongest, conserve that influence which they exert as the sweeteners and pacifiers of domestic life‘. JSM was dynamic, his views on equality was hardly matching with the times; women had no vote, few rights and yet he, in combination with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and step-daughter Helen Taylor.

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Harriet Taylor Mill, wife of JSM. click here

John Stuart Mill; the celebrity?

Newspapers from around Great Britain throughout JSM’s life documented his speeches, criticised him and praised him; this media presence only suggests that Stuart Mill was a person of public interest. Why was this? Could it be because of his MP status? Or possibly his feminist views? Let’s overlook short segments displaying the contrast in the media’s perception of JSM throughout his life:

  • The Morning Advertiser in 1871 seemed to simply document JSM’s support for women as they presented details of his speech at a women’s suffrage event in Edinburgh. Would you say they are effectively endorsing JSM? These are his words: “How too, could a woman have a conscience about the public good if she was told and believed that it was no business whatever of hers? Give women the same rights as men, and the same obligations would follow[2]”
  • The Dunfermline Saturday Press praising Mill during his time as an MP “Mr Mill is in many respects a valuable accession to the House of Commons. Long known as a profound thinker on political and philosophical problems, his entrance on a career of practical statesmanship has been hailed with satisfaction by men of all parties[3]”
  • On the death of JSM, the Stonehaven Journal declared that it was Mill’s writings and philosophy that made him memorable “It is as an author and Political Economist that Mr Mill is best known. He occupied the post of editor of the London and Westminster Review for a considerable time”[4]

We could all write a book on John Stuart Mill and his influence on modern day feminism and the work of gender equality campaigners a century ago. I hope this short blog gives you a little sneak peak into JSM’s life, so that you may be inspired to do your own research!

[1] 1860s, Dunfermline Saturday Press, British Newspaper Archive

[2] Friday 13th January 1871, Page 3. Morning Advertiser, British Newspaper Archive

[3] Saturday 16th June 1866, Dunfermline Saturday Press, British Newspaper Archive

[4] Thursday 15th May 1873, Stonehaven Journal, British Newspaper Archive

Woolwich’s Suffrage Story

Written by Amy Calvert

Woolwich has more than earned its place on the suffrage map. The London district has a rich, interesting and entertaining history (in some instances!) when it comes to suffrage within the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Woolwich’s involvement in issues surrounding female enfranchisement was regularly documented in the London Newspapers.

Woolwich non-believer gets a chance to speak at Labour Party conference

One of the more comedic parts of Woolwich’s suffrage history was by someone who opposed the movement, in a very public way… It was 1907; the Labour Party’s conference in Belfast, A.K.A Mr H. S. Wishart’s (representing the Woolwich Trades and Labour Council) big moment to announce in front of the attendees of the conference, that Labour supported adult suffrage for all sexes. There was only one problem that threatened Wishart’s cause; he did not believe in female enfranchisement…

The Kentish Independent reported that:

“Mr Wishart’s speech was not very convincing . He admitted that his chief reason for proposing the resolution was the fact he had been instructed to do so. For himself, he thought that women would find votes were of very little use when they got them” [1]

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Anti Suffrage postcard, insinuating Wishart’s view that women are not politically aware… Image Courtesy of LSE Library click here

Let’s not generalise; Not everyone from Woolwich was anti-suffrage!

The same year, 1907, at a Derby Independent Labour Party conference, Mr. Brownlie, a Woolwich delegate spoke very much in favour of women’s suffrage, declaring that “This conference declares very much in favour of adult suffrage and political equality of the sexes” [2]. Woolwich’s Brownlie also shunned the sexist, harmful and offensive view of some other male delegates that ‘women should leave their homes only three times in their lives: when they were christened, when they married and when they were laid to rest‘ [3]

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Teresa Billington-Greig. Suffrage Campaigner. Image courtesy of LSE Library click here

Unlikely pairing? Suffrage campaigner talks equality to Woolwich Arsenal workers

Teresa Billington, a huge suffrage pioneer campaigned outside Woolwich Arsenal on the 13th July in 1906… but how did this campaign happen? The Woolwich Gazette reported that a Woolwich Arsenal employee’s wife was serving 6 weeks in prisonin an offence in connection with the agitation for the vote for women‘[4]. Not only does this champion Woolwich’s direct involvement in the suffrage movement, but also demonstrates working class women (and men’s) huge and understated contribution to the struggle for women’s enfranchisement.

Billington, in her address to the workers, spoke of the unfair sentences given to the female working class campaigners. Below is a brilliant segment of her speech as reported by the Woolwich Gazette, emphasising the suffering of working class women and why they were drawn to the controversial suffragette movement…

“We must have the vote at once. Our industrial position is so bad that we cannot wait. Our social conditions are so bad that we must do something to ameliorate them. All the questions that affect men so much, affect us too, but until we have the political power, we cannot tackle these questions” -Teresa Billington [5]

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Pro suffrage postcard aimed toward working class women. Courtesy of LSE Library click here

Woolwich during the time of the suffrage movement was considered a heavily working class district of London. Yet, their involvement in suffrage was so profound, which definitely does highlight the influence the suffrage movement had on the lives of even the poorest. Fighting for suffrage did not just concern the middle class Pankhursts, but also the working class Knights’ of Woolwich Arsenal. 

[1] Page 4, Friday 1 February 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[2] Page 7, Friday April 5 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[3] Page 7, Friday April 5 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[4] Page 5, Friday 13th July 1906, Woolwich Gazette, British Library Newspaper Archive

[5] Page 5, Friday 13th July 1906, Woolwich Gazette, British Library Newspaper Archive