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).
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.
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