Boarding schools

Early nineteenth-century England was a class-ridden society and nowhere was this more evident than in girls' education. Middle class girls were not expected to seek paid work of any kind. Their education was to be ornamental or showy in character, such as would attract a husband. It was called 'superior' compared to the limited curriculum available to the 'lower orders' of society. In reality the only superior aspect of this education was the emphasis on music, singing, dancing and a smattering of French or German.

In the 1830s there were many small boarding or day schools for girls run as private enterprises. They charged high fees and claimed to inculcate ladylike accomplishments in their pupils. Brighton alone had 100 such schools in the 1830s. It was to one of the most expensive of these boarding schools (run by Miss Runciman and Miss Roberts) that Frances Power Cobbe was sent, aged 14 years, from Dublin in 1836. She had been educated at her home, Newbridge House, Donabate, by a governess, as was usual for girls of her class. There were 25 or 26 girls in the school when Frances arrived and the bill for the two years she remained there came to £1,000. The basic fee was £120 per annum, and the remaining costs were all the 'extras' which had to be paid for.

In her autobiography (1894) Frances paints a very vivid picture of this fashionable boarding school where,

Everything was taught us in the inverse ratio of its true importance. At the bottom of the scale were Morals and Religion, and at the top were Music and Dancing ... The din of our large double schoolrooms was something frightful. Sitting in either of them, four pianos might be heard going at once in rooms above and around us, while at numerous tables scattered about the rooms there were girls reading aloud to the governesses and reciting lessons in English, French, German and Italian. This hideous clatter continued the entire day till we went to bed at night, there being no time whatever allowed for recreation, unless the dreary hour of walking with our teachers ... could be so described by a fantastic imagination.
Quoted by Mary Cathcart Borer in Willingly to School, London, 1976, p. 239.

At the end of two years of this 'mass of ill-arranged and miscellaneous lessons' of the 'shallowest and most imperfect kind' Frances had learned practically nothing. It was not until she was home again in Ireland that she began to study and educate herself.

Most middle-class girls fared little better than Frances and some a great deal worse. The majority were educated at home, while their brothers were sent away to boarding schools where their characters would be shaped in accordance with the public school ideal for boys:

This gender difference in middle-class education was justified on the grounds that their future lay in different directions: boys had to be prepared for the public world, whereas their sisters should be educated for home life. As Elizabeth Sewell, an influential writer of the Victorian age put it in 1865,

The aim of education is to fit children for the position in life which they are thereafter to occupy. Boys are to be sent out into the world to buffet with its temptations, to mingle with bad and good, to govern and direct. The school is the type of the life they are hereafter to lead.

Girls are to dwell in quiet homes amongst a few friends; to exercise a noiseless influence, to be submissive and retiring. There is no connection between the bustling mill-wheel life of a large school and that for which they are supposed to be preparing. This alone is a sufficient reason for supposing ... that to educate girls in crowds is to educate them wrongly.
Quoted by June Purvis, A history of women's education, London, 1991, p. 65.


  1. The education of _____ class girls in early nineteenth _____ England was to be ornamental in _____, such as would attract a _____.

  2. Describe briefly the ornamental education available to middle class girls in the early nineteenth century.
  3. Public schools for boys in England placed emphasis on the Classics as the basis of a ____ education, discipline and training for _____ and a spirit of _____ ____ in ____.
  4. What were the main aims of public school education for boys?


  1. Research the career of Frances Power Cobbe.

  2. Compose an imaginary letter Frances Power Cobbe might have written home from her boarding school in Brighton to her parents at Newbridge House, Donabate, Co. Dublin.

  3. Organise a class discussion on the theories of Elizabeth Sewell concerning the education of middle-class girls in nineteenth-century England taking into account the reality for those girls who did not 'catch a husband.'

  4. Organise a class discussion on the theories of Elizabeth Sewell concerning the education of boys in nineteenth-century England.

  5. Research the aims of modern second level education in Ireland.
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