Heritage: Frances Bardsley - the feisty feminist behind all-girls secondary school

PUBLISHED: 15:00 10 September 2017

Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls students celebrating their A-level results this year. Picture: Ken Mears

Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls students celebrating their A-level results this year. Picture: Ken Mears


As schools reopen for the new term, Prof Ged Martin focuses on the woman who gave her name to one of the borough’s best

Say “Frances Bardsley”, and people think of Havering’s lively all-girls secondary school.

Miss Bardsley herself is forgotten.

Frances Beatrice Bardsley graduated from London University in 1895, and trained as a teacher.

That sounds an obvious career path to us, but it was revolutionary for a woman at the time.

She’d been born in December 1871. Her father was rector of Spitalfields, a handsome church in London’s poorest quarter.

Young ladies like Frances had generally had governesses, who taught them needlework, music and drawing, nice but vacuous skills that prepared them for the marriage market.

But she went to North London Collegiate, one of the first schools to give girls an academic education.

It was the project of pioneer feminist Frances Mary Buss. (She even coined the term “headmistress” for herself.)

With Dorothea Beale, of Cheltenham Ladies College, she provided a new role model for women, an alternative to marriage. “Miss Buss and Miss Beale / Cupid’s dart do not feel.”

Miss Bardsley’s four brothers studied at Cambridge and Oxford. Those sniffy universities allowed women to study, and even take exams, but refused to grant them degrees!

But London University’s BA was open to all.

Frances Bardsley probably struggled at Royal Holloway College. Her parents died during her first year. For a time she may have studied part-time.

She gained a disappointing Third Class Honours in her specialist subject, English. But her enthusiasm for literature survives in the Frances Bardsley school motto, “Gladly lerne, gladly teche”. It’s Chaucer, and in his spelling!

In 1896, she studied classroom techniques at the Cambridge Training College, now the university graduate college Hughes Hall.

Its principal, dynamic Welshwomen Elizabeth Hughes, recommended her for a job at a new school near Swansea.

In 1901, Frances Bardsley won a travelling scholarship. She spent “several months” visiting schools in France and America. She was obviously a high-flier.

By 1904, she was teaching at Bolton High School for Girls, a respected institution in Lancashire.

In 1906, Essex Education Committee decided to give Romford a high school for girls.

Frances Bardsley beat fifty applicants to become first headmistress of Romford County High School for Girls.

There was no building. For four years, Miss Bardsley operated from a house in Romford’s Eastern Road.

In 1910, the school acquired premises in Heath Park Road. The County High moved again, in 1935, to another site, a former a garden centre in Brentwood Road.

The two schools were merged in 1972-3, and named in her honour.

In 2004, the Heath Park building became housing, called Academy Fields. Ironically, Frances Bardsley never taught at today’s Frances Bardsley – she’d retired before it was built!

At the official opening of the Heath Park Road building in 1910, she defined her school’s objectives.

“They tried to develop the bodies, the characters, and the brains of their girls harmoniously.”

Radical stuff in days when women weren’t allowed to vote!

Miss Bardsley was well connected with feminist networks.

Guests at Prize Days included her Cambridge mentor, Elizabeth Hughes, and Dr Sophia Bryant, the first women in Britain to earn a science doctorate.

In 1916, Miss Bardsley spoke of “the difficulties caused by the war”. She enrolled as a Red Cross nurse, probably to teach first aid to her girls.

When Frances Bardsley died in 1952, she left one more surprise.

Three of her brothers had become Anglican clergymen – a vocation only open to men.

Frances Bardsley couldn’t see why women were excluded.

She bequeathed her house, in Manor Way (near The Drill in Gidea Park), to be used as “a parsonage house for women clergy if and when the Church of England shall open its ministry to women”.

It took forty years for this visionary idea to come about. England’s first Anglican women priests were ordained in 1994. Frances Bardsley was ahead of her times.

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