Heritage: Rainham’s cross-dressing feminist Mary Benton challenged gender roles

Newnham College, University of Cambridge where Mary Benton studied. Picture: PA

Newnham College, University of Cambridge where Mary Benton studied. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin looks at the career of Mary Benton, the cross-dressing headmistress called “the brigadier-general”

Mary Benton was born in 1855 at Wennington, Rainham's twin village.

Her prosperous father, Aaron Benton, farmed 250 acres at East Hall, employing sixteen labourers. Around 1859, the family moved to nearby Lenthorpe House, still standing in the fields opposite Wennington's church.

Mary's mother died when she was very young. She was brought up by a young governess, Emily Pollett from Dagenham, who later ran her own school in West Ham. Emily seems to have inspired Mary with a love of learning.

When Mary was nine, she was sent to an academy for girls in Ramsgate, to learn "ladylike" skills that would attract a gentlemanly husband. She disliked the curriculum: marriage was never on Mary Benton's agenda.

Aaron sent her to another school, in Germany - an adventurous move for a farmer's daughter, especially so soon after the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War.

Then she worked as a governess in France. By the age of nineteen, Mary was fluent in both German and French. But she still yearned for more a structured education.

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Two women's colleges had recently opened alongside the men-only Cambridge University. One, Newnham College, welcomed students without formal school qualifications. In 1875, Mary Benton enrolled.

The principal of Newnham, the kindly but muddle-headed Miss Clough, depended upon a handful of sympathetic male dons. They supported female education but didn't want to rock the gender boat. Newnhamites should be discreet and feminine.

Mary Benton was a challenge. She adopted masculine attire, despite Miss Clough's pleas that Victorian opinion was shocked by cross-dressing.

Mary Benton's attempt to organise a cricket match - a men's sport - was vetoed by a flustered Miss Clough, who claimed it would injure the grass.

After one year, Mary left to become a teacher. New independent schools were springing up, providing academic training for girls. One of them, South Hampstead High School, hit problems after moving into modern premises in 1882.

It needed a headmistress who could supply firm leadership. In 1886, Mary Benton got the job. She filled the role - for 32 years.

Short, thickset and determined, she wore a tailored trouser suit, with shirt, collar and tie. Younger girls were scared of "the brigadier general", but older pupils found her a lifelong friend.

Her standards were high. Insisting that there were no "girls' subjects", she encouraged her students to study science. Many went on to take science degrees, something revolutionary a century ago.

Girls also had to study three languages, until a parents' revolt forced her to drop German in 1917. Miss Benton did not welcome parental involvement. She received complainants standing up: if they weren't invited to sit down, awkward interviews were soon over.

The headmistress reserved a chair in every classroom, so she could drop in and intimidate staff and students alike. She taught scripture - probably a legacy of Sunday services in Wennington church - but her main subject was geography.

A familiar sight in the corridors was this small woman carrying a huge globe.

Naturally, Mary Benton supported wider feminist campaigns. In 1909, she signed a memorial from 200 headmistresses asking prime minister Asquith to give the right to vote to "properly qualified women". Officially a Liberal but actually a male chauvinist, Asquith refused even to meet the signatories.

She backed one of her teachers who was imprisoned in Holloway for violent suffragette activities.

Mary Benton retired in 1928, and settled in the New Forest, where she reportedly took control of the nearest village. She died in 1944.

Aaron Benton had died in 1879, and was buried at Wennington. Nowadays East Hall Farm is mostly used for gravel extraction.

Today, Newnham is one of three women-only colleges at Cambridge University. A century and a half on, Britain still needs confident women in leadership positions, the classic Newnhamite role.

If you're female and planning to do well, really well, in your GCSEs, think about applying to study there. Just say Miss Benton sent you.