English educator Dorothea Beale (1831-1906) was an instrumental figure in gaining acceptance for a more intellectual education for women. While principal of the Cheltenham Ladies' College in the late 1800s, she introduced courses such as history and physical geography into the traditional female-oriented curriculum and testified on the poor state of women's education for government commissions. Her ideas played a key role in launching reforms in women's education in England.
As the principal of the Cheltenham Ladies' College in England for almost 50 years, Dorothea Beale became a leading proponent of increased education for girls in the last half of the nineteenth century. Her educational reforms included expanding the curriculum for her students to include history, mathematics, and scientific concepts—a radical departure from the courses in needlework, music, and other domestic skills that were considered appropriate training for privileged young women at that time. Beale's beliefs that women should be educated so that they could be better wives and mothers and that women do not require the same educational opportunities as men appear extremely conservative by modern standards. But by winning acceptance for her idea that women could and should be familiar with more intellectual academic topics, however, Beale paved the way for later educators who would open the doors of learning even wider for women of all classes.
Beale was born on March 21, 1831, in Bishopsgate, England. She was one of the 11 children of Dorothea Margaret Complin and Miles Beale. The importance that Beale placed on education stemmed from her family's firm belief that women should be given the freedom to pursue higher learning. Her father was a surgeon who was a proponent of social and educational reform; he felt his daughters should be given the opportunity to enrich their minds with all manner of education available and that they should be able to choose any type of career they pleased. Her mother's family also had a commitment to the intellectual training of women and boasted several women writers, including the feminist author Caroline Francis Cornwallis.
Surrounded by such concerns and ideas, Beale set her mind on becoming an educator at a very young age. Instead of playing outside, she preferred to stay indoors and study during her free time. Another activity she enjoyed as a small child was pretending to be the teacher of a make-believe girls school. She was an intense child who combined her strong will and self-discipline with her family's heavy emphasis on religion, resulting in a mystical outlook that she held throughout her life. Beale believed that she had been chosen by God to fulfill a sacred destiny, and her calling was to teach. A religious figure that she claimed she shared a special bond with was St. Hilda of Whitby, a seventh-century nun who was known for her great knowledge.
Beale's own education, however, did not reflect her family's concern with learning. She was schooled by governesses in her home, but the quality of the instructors was poor and they were continually being replaced. She also spent short periods of time at a boarding school in England and a finishing school in Paris. The result was an unsatisfying education lacking consistency or depth. Her own determination carried her through these times, however. Interested in pursuing her talent in mathematics, Beale arranged to attend lectures at Gresham College and Crosby Hall Institution in London. After the opening of Queen's College, Harley Street, Beale and her sisters began attending classes there in 1848.
In keeping with her habits of hard work and intense study, Beale undertook a rigorous course of work at the college. She graduated from the school in 1849 at the age of 18 with certificates in six different areas: geography, mathematics, English, Latin, French, and German. Her high performance earned her an offer to teach at Queens; in accepting the position she became the first woman to hold a faculty post at the college. Her first assignment was as a tutor of mathematics. In the seven years she spent there, she later became a tutor of Latin and then head teacher of the school affiliated with the institution. During her stay, however, she became frustrated with the limited role that women faculty had at Queens. She also disapproved when the school began to lower its admissions standards. Unable to continue to compromise her own standards, she finally quit her job in 1856.
Beale soon found a new position as head teacher at the Clergy Daughters School at Casterton, where she began working in January of 1857. But this school was very disagreeable to her; she found the philosophical atmosphere to be very rigid and even the architecture of the building itself seemed to her to be unpleasant and unwelcoming. In addition, she was given strict guidelines on what she could teach. She was required to provide lessons in the Bible and Church history, ancient and modern history, physical and political geography, grammar and composition, English literature, Latin, French, German, and Italian. Beale had many ideas for reforms at the school, and she felt that her position of authority there should give her words some weight. She approached school authorities with the ultimatum that if her changes were not accepted, she would quit. Instead of giving in to her demands, the school fired her, and Beale left in defeat.
After these two failed ventures as a teacher, she returned to her family's home. There she did some teaching on a part-time basis and also began some writing projects. She produced two books in 1858, The Student's Text-book of English and General History from B.C. 100 to the Present Time and Self-Examination. Although she had suffered embarrassment and self-doubt for being unsuccessful in her first two teaching jobs, she did not give up faith in her chosen role as an educator. She realized that she could only fulfill her wishes in a place where she could give free reign to her ideas and abilities. Never again, she vowed, would she take a job that did not give her this level of independence and authority. With this renewed sense of purpose, in the summer of 1858 Beale joined 50 other applicants in seeking the position of principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College—the oldest private school for girls in England. She succeeded in winning the position and began an influential career at the school that would last for the next 50 years.
Beale was an imposing figure on the campus of Cheltenham, invariably appearing in a black wool dress adorned with only a white scarf. An energetic, authoritative woman, she expected her teachers and students to share in her vision of education as a sacred duty and gift. She engaged in both teaching and administrative duties at the school, which at the time of her arrival was suffering from low enrollment and insufficient funding. Beginning with only 69 students, Beale managed to double that number within four years and secure adequate financial support for the school. With these matters in hand, she was able to concentrate even more fully on implementing the educational ideas that she had been developing her entire life.
In the classroom, Beale rejected the established idea of simply feeding required information to students. Instead she sought to instill a desire for knowledge that would guide a woman throughout her lifetime. She altered the subject matter of classes as well. Rather than focusing solely on the social and domestic skills expected of young women of wealthy families, such as drawing, needlepoint, and playing the piano, Beale introduced more rigorously academic courses. She established classes in English history, German, and physical geography, using the geography course as a subtle means of including mathematics and scientific concepts into the curriculum. Beale understood that her methods could be seen as controversial, because at that time it was thought unnecessary, even unhealthy for girls to partake in serious studies. But she attempted to reconcile her new ways with public opinion by stating that a well-educated woman would make a better wife and mother than an uneducated one.
Beale experimented with a number of other innovative ideas at Cheltenham. She stressed the importance of a teacher's personality, disposition, and religious character in the success of education. This philosophy of becoming personally involved with the process of education was exemplified by Beale's own practices as principal—she took on the responsibility of supervising the boarding homes runs by the school and she insisted on personally evaluating every student on a weekly basis. To encourage a sense of discipline in her students she instituted a rule of silence during lessons, and to facilitate the appreciation of learning for its own sake, she did away with all competitions and prizes.
Beale's success at reforming Cheltenham into a financially viable and forward-looking educational institution began to draw attention. In the 1860s, she was invited to testify on the state of women's education as part of a study by the British government's School Inquiry Commission. In her presentation for the commission, she described the appalling ignorance of middle-and upper-class young women who received the typical education allotted to girls at the time. In one example, she stated that among a group of over 100 girls taking an entrance exam, not one had been familiar with the concept of fractions, less than five could conjugate the French verb "to be, " and one girl was certain that the fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer had lived only 100 years earlier. Her testimony and her rationale for improving women's education during this forum had an invigorating effect on education reforms in the country. But Beale's ideas for change continued to have a somewhat limited scope. While noting the necessity for improvement in the area of the quality of women's education, she did not argue that women should receive the same kind of training as men, because she felt that the different roles awaiting them in life did not call for such parity. She also displayed the prejudices of her class and did not concern herself with access to education for lower-class women. After the Commission released its findings based on the evidence presented by Beale and other female educators, she published an edited version of the report prefaced with her own introduction. The work appeared in 1869 as Reports on the Education of Girls, with Extracts from the Evidence.
The Cheltenham Ladies' College and Beale's reputation as a leading educator continued to grow throughout the rest of the 1800s. By the end of the century, the school had expanded to hold more than 1, 000 students on a complex that covered 15 acres and included 14 boardinghouses. In addition, a 7, 000-volume library had been constructed and a new department, St. Hilda's College, had been added to provide a kindergarten and secondary school. Beale herself became an active participant in a number of professional organizations and activities. She served as president of the Head Mistress Association from 1895 to 1897 and she continued to serve as a witness on education for various commissions. She founded an annual tradition of a teachers' retreat known as Quiet Days. She also returned to writing to support her efforts, producing such titles as Home-Life in Relation to Day Schools (1879), A Few Words to Those Who Are Leaving (1881), Work and Play in Girls Schools (1898), and in tribute to her greatest success, History of the Cheltenham Ladies' College, 1853-1901 (1904). Her reform work brought her into contact with a number of other women in education, forming a close-knit network of personal and professional support. One of her closest colleagues was Frances Mary Buss, an educator at the North London Collegiate School.
In her later years, Beale received recognition and honors for her accomplishments and example in the field of education. She was awarded the freedom of the borough of Cheltenham in 1901, and the University of Edinburgh presented her with an honorary doctorate in 1902. Although deaf and in poor health toward the end of her life, she continued to work until only a few weeks before her death. Beale died from cancer on November 9, 1906. Her ashes were interred at Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral, and a memorial service was held for her the following week at St. Paul's Cathedral. At her memorial, the educator was remember as a great woman whose religious inspiration had infused all those around her. Perhaps her greatest contribution was the ideals and knowledge that she had instilled in her own students. Many teachers trained at Cheltenham went on to play an important role in continuing the education reforms in England's girls' schools that had first begun with Beale's pioneering innovations.
For more information see Digby, Anne, and Peter Searby, Children, School, and Society in Nineteenth Century England, Macmillan, 1981; Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan, The Old School Tie: The Phenomenon of the English Public School, Viking, 1978; Kamm, Josephine, Hope Deferred: Girls' Education in English History, Methuen, 1965; Kamm, Josephine, How Different from Us: A Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale, Bodley Head, 1958; Kamm, Josephine, Indicative Past: A Hundred Years of the Girls' Public School Trust, Allen and Unwin, 1971; and Raikes, Elizabeth, Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham, Archibald Constable and Co., 1909.