Ready to go Miss?

Today’s post is about the result of a conversation in the very late 19thc between Miss J.S. Turner “a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society and a well-known trainer and lecturer in horticulture” and Mrs Evelyn Cecil, who is probably better known as Alicia Amherst the pioneer garden historian.

The discussion concerned  the training of women in horticulture, but unlike the settlement at Bredon’s Norton which I wrote about a few weeks back, it was not aimed at women who wanted to earn their living as Independent gardeners, but at those who wanted to emigrate.[ And that’s before Brexit]

Mrs Cecil suggested that “one of the great wants of our colonies was well-trained  lady-like girls who would make good wives.” Miss Turner’s “idea of a way out of the difficulty was to establish a training school where ladies could be made familiar with the old-fashioned farmhouse life.”  And early in 1907 their efforts resulted in the opening of Arlesey House Country and Colonial Training School for Ladies.

From The Girl’s Realm, 1907

The conversation was reported in an article in The Girl’s Realm in 1907 [pp.968-972], and there were also articles about the project in other magazine and newspapers, as well as in Every Woman’s Encyclopedia of 1910.  The quotes in the text come from these sources although it has proved too complicated to specify each one more precisely. 

The school was “splendidly situated”  at Arlesey, then just a small village on the Bedfordshire Hertfordshire border between Hitchin and Biggleswade “in a rambling farmhouse of the  cheerful, old-fashioned type, standing in about four acres of ground.”  The “full course of training extends  over two years, but students can enter for one year at ordinary fees, and a shorter course may be arranged for at special terms.”  The school’s patron was Lady Frances Balfour, a prominent campaigner for women’s rights, and Alicia Amherst served on its management committee.

Butter Making By Hand                                      From The Girl’s Realm, 1907

Life  “resolves itself into a simple and very pleasant affair at Arlesey, and, in spite of early hours and plenty of hard work, mealtimes are always very cheery.”  For “outdoor recreation in the winter the girls can play hockey, and in the summer tennis and croquet. An admirable lawn was levelled and laid out by the students” in 1909.  There was also “an excellent library and a good piano in the students’ sitting-room [to] provide plenty of recreation for the long winter evenings.”


The Principal was Miss Turner herself.  She had previously been superintendent of the Glynde School of Gardening and supervised  “every detail of the entire daily work at Arlesey House. She was “an ardent advocate of emigration for girls of the upper classes” and firmly believed that  a “well-educated young gentlewoman, equipped with a thoroughly practical preliminary training for colonial life and able to work for herself” would always find “a place ready and waiting in our possessions beyond the seas.” But it was not just as  a gardener or farmer because  “Such a girl, if she takes a post as mother’s help, will prove a real help and, when she marries, will be a true helpmate to her husband.”

“In colonial life the girls will be called upon to mak bush fires”  from The Girl’s Realm, 1907.

“Students are taught the care of cows and other animals”, from The Girl’s Realm, 1907

Arlesey House was not a holiday camp.  “No servants are kept at Arlesey with the exception of a single maid to do the roughest work, and a garden boy” because “one point of the training is that everything is done by the students”.   It meant they “enjoyed a rough country life and “took it in turns, week by week, to act as gardeners, housemaids, or cooks, and the whole work of the farmstead, both inside and out, with its pig-styes, poultry farm, bee-hives, orchard, greenhouses, cucumber frames, and kitchen and flower garden, covering some four acres of ground, is carried on entirely by the girls themselves”.

“Bee culture is a prominent part of colonial life”  from The Girls Realm 1907,

As a result the garden was managed on “thoroughly comfortable but economical lines” with  “no labour wasted merely for the sake of learning how this or that task or duty should be performed; there is always some definite object in view.  The girls learn to utilise every scrap of ground for some practical and, if possible, lucrative purpose, so that both garden and farm may at least pay their own expenses.”

from Everywoman’s Encyclopedia, 1910

This meant “even building their own glass-houses and forcing frames from sleepers or available lumber, such as one would expect to find on rough colonial land.” At the same time “the shady corners of the garden are utilised for planting a goodly supply of bulbs in early autumn. The flowers then are cut and sold in the early days of spring.” The same happened with vegetables such as “the potato bed – which the students are seen hoeing so energetically in the illustration – every care and precaution  taken to make the crop a success, with the consequence that Miss Kitson foresaw a harvest worth some £20 from that one piece of work alone.”

“Tree lopping is taught as a useful feature of colonial life”, from The Girl’s Realm, 1907,

To do all this “the girls wear the most business-like garb. In the garden they may be seen in very short skirts, shirts with the sleeve: rolled up to above the elbow, and the thickest of garden boots, each carrying on her own special work for the day with youthful vigour and enthusiasm quite delightful to see.”

“The primitive well’, from The Girl’s Realm, 1907.

But it was not all hard physical work. “Nothing is more helpful to students than an occasional object lesson in successful gardening, and the Arlesey students have the advantage of visiting the various famous gardens in the surrounding neighbourhood from time to time, for Miss Turner receives many invitations for herself and her pupils to spend an afternoon in some beautifully kept old-world or modern garden. Here the girls can study aspects, soils, ferneries, orchid-houses, and the thousand-and-one things appertaining to garden lore, as carried on in other and different surroundings.”

“Feeding the pigs”, from The Girl’s Realm, 1907,

As a result of all this it was ” easy for a student to acquire a thorough horticultural training” especially as  “for skilled gardeners there are great openings for women in the Colonies.  Student are also prepared for the Royal Horticultural Society.  But as you might expect “there was no attempt to train the girls in the use of the more modern appliances for gardening and farming which are available in the precincts of education, as  many of the up-country colonial farms are started on virgin soil and at such a distance from a centre that a comparatively primitive style of farming has to be followed.”

“Churning by hnad”,f rom The Girl’s Realm, 1907,

IN summary There was “practical instruction” in every branch of work “likely to be useful to ladies who venture with the ever-increasing stream of people going to our colonies beyond the seas.” Miss Turner “neglected no detail in teaching her pupils  everything that will of some use to them when far from civilisation.”

It was ideal from “a health point of view, the out-door work and exercise providing a splendid appetite for such plain foods as one would expect to find on a distant farm.” It also allowed the successful woman ” to meet with perfect equanimity a feature of colonial life which, to the untrained girl emigrant of gentle birth, is often one of its chief hardships”… which was ” not merely th absence of any but the roughest domestic servants, but often the impossibility of getting any ” hired help ” at all!

from ‘Women’s Employment’, published by the Central Bureau for Employment of Women, 15 Nov 1912. Warwick University Modern Records Centre

Did the idea work?  Well … there certainly seems to have been some interest in ‘graduates’ of the school in taking up work placements.  Arlesey  had links with  New South Wales where “suitable students can be sent out to a small farm – mainly poultry and dairy – at Yarraford, Glen Innes, belonging to Miss Brace, who will take pupils who have a certificate of proficiency in cooking and dairy-work; but someone must deposit or guarantee their return fare – about £25 – should they not prove suitable…. On arrival Miss Brace helps them to find work or to take up land of their own.”

I was obviously intrigued to know more about how this worked, and in the process discovered and contacted  the Glen Innes and District Historical Society who have been been  very helpful in doing research locally.  So, thanks to them, I’m hoping to be able update this with more about Miss Brace and the New South Wales connection soon.

But it was Canada that seems to have been Miss Turner’s main focus. “In Canada, Miss Binnie-Clarke receives pupils on her homestead in much the same way, and the expenses of the journey to Canada or British Columbia are from £15 to £20.” The Bystander  [16.9.1908] reported that in the summer of 1907 the Canadian Govt “sent over a woman representative, Mrs Simpson Hayes, to arrange for the emigration of hundred of gentlewomen to Canada.”

[For more on emigration etc to Canada see Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, 2016]



from The Daily Telegraph December 4, 1915

By 1914 the college had outgrown Arlesey, and Miss Turner and her deputy Miss Kitson were working with their advisory committee to raise mony to build a suitable new building from scratch. They also looked at several small estate within easy reach of London, and in the process discovered Huntsmoor Park at Iver in Buckinghamshire. “True the place had been unoccupied for six years, and to describe the grounds as neglected would convey no idea of the rank luxuriance of weeds, undergrowth and wood that had sprung up… still the possibilities were there, and both ladies, with the eyes of faith, saw what could be done.”  It had potential  accommodation for 20 students, and graduates, it was reported, were in high demand and all found employment either in Britain or in the colonies and dominions.

from The Daily Telegraph, January 7, 1919

The school was renamed in honour of Donald Smith, later as Lord Strathcona ,a Scots Canadian who had become   Canadian High Commissioner to Britain [amongst amny other things] and had recently died.  He was a prominent proponent of the women’s emigration movement and his daughter  became the school’s president.

It was successful as can be seen from the cutting from the Telegraph, and Miss Turner was able to expand by buying an adjoining farm giving the school around 100 acres. Unfortunately she became ill and had to retire so in July 1923 it was announced that the school was to close, as Miss Kitson felt unable to continue single-handed and preferred to “remain with her former chief”.  By then 1250 students had passed through the school, “many taking their skills to remote corners of the Empire.”

What surprised me most when I started investigating this was that Arlesey was not unique by any means.  As early as the 1860s it was widely thought that Britain had a gender imbalance. The government had been encouraging emigration – to populate the the colonies and to reduce demographic pressure at home. But it was largely men who had gone, and although some had taken their families their were estimated to  be more than a million unmarried women left at home.  The Female Middle Class Emigration Society  was  founded as early as 1862, followed by the Colonial Emigration Society and In 1889 the  British Women’s Emigration Association .  They all aimed  to train genteel women for employment abroad and between them they assisted about 20,000 women to emigrate before 1914.

I was even more amazed to discover these societies lasted in various guises until 1964!  More on this and some of the other training schools in another post one day in the not too distant future.

This is not directly related to Arlesley / Strathcona but I couldn’t resist using it!

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2 Responses to Ready to go Miss?

  1. Pingback: Oronsay | The Gardens Trust

  2. Twigs Way says:

    Frances Viscountess Wolseley at Glynde School for Lady gardeners also recommended the colonies as a future career route for her students (amongst other careers in gardening), and includes advice on clothing etc in her books including In a College Garden (1908). She also wrote on other gardening schools in England and abroad who were training students with similar aims. One day I hope to write a biography of Frances Wolseley.

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