They died too young

From its inception, the School took great care over the health and wellbeing of its pupils. There are numerous examples of extensive medical treatment being undergone with no question of any cost to the patients concerned – and this long before the NHS was even dreamed of. Inevitably, though, there were fatalities and this series attempts to give them a brief glory that their short lives failed to give.

Louisa Margaretta Willis (1838-1850) died aged 11. The family home at the time of her petition was 115 St Martins Lane, Holborn and the application gives her father’s name as James Willis, Public House keeper (business failed); she had one brother and one sister. It seems possible that her mother was Jane and that her siblings were Annette & James. She was accepted at the school on 14 October 1847 and the Chelmsford Chronicle of 22 October 1847 confirms her election along with five other pupils. Louisa probably did not have any connection with Chelmsford and the fact that a provincial newspaper reported the election is an indication of the nationwide interest that was taken in the school in London. As her death record is for the Holborn district, we know she did not die on school premises. She was buried at St Luke’s, Chelsea on March 25 1850 with her address recorded as Bedford Row, Bedford St. Why, then, she was buried in Chelsea we may never know.

St Luke, Chelsea
St Luke, Chelsea

Fanny Susan Woolnough died aged 16. Both of her parents also died young: her father 1821-62, her mother 1815 -1862 (so Fanny was orphaned before she arrived at the school). She had four sisters – and one of them died aged 4. Without further medical history we cannot be certain but there does seem to be a faulty gene somewhere. A younger sister who also attended the school disappears without trace after 1861 so we don’t know if she died young. Fanny probably left school in her 15th year (the records don’t say but this was the norm for the time) and died the following year in Ipswich.

Fanny Gertrude Williams left the school in 1894 and died in 1896 in Bristol. Her father had also died relatively young, being only 40. He was a farmer but in the last census of his life is described a formerly a farmer which possibly suggests that his death was not sudden but as the result of an illness.

Elizabeth Ann Tombleson (b.1832) “died in the house [i.e. the school house] of consumption and was removed for burial by her father Tuesday 12 June 1844.” Thus the school records bracket her short life. Her mother also died relatively young (41) but the cause of death not at this stage known.

The school house in 1844
The school house in 1844

Selina Tagart 1847-1864 is another who did not live long after leaving school. Both she and her sister, Louisa, were pupils but whereas Louisa lived to the ripe age of 84, Selina died aged just 17 in her home town of Oxford.

Cecilia Catherine Stephens was born in 1900 and developed phthysis in 1915. She was treated at the City of London Hospital for diseases of the chest. “By the mid 19th century living conditions for the urban poor were overcrowded and squalid.  Pulmonary tuberculosis, also known as phthysis, consumption and the ‘white death’, was endemic and was responsible for 20% of all deaths, twice as much as any other cause” ( Cecilia was at the school in the 1911 census and died on the 6th Feb 1916, just 15 years old. Her death is registered as Bethnal Green so presumably at the hospital at which she was being treated which was at Bonner Road, Victoria Park, E2. “Following the Insurance Act, 1911, which required that local authorities established sanatoria for their tuberculous patients, the Hospital became the TB clinic for the Boroughs of Bethnal Green and Hackney in 1912” (ibid.) Originally built in 1855, the hospital in 1994 became part of the Royal Hospitals NHS Trust and in 1999 this was renamed the Barts and The London NHS Trust. For information about the treatment at the time Cecilia was there see the website Lost Hospitals of London (

Margaret Emma Hester Sims 1884-1902 is another who did not survive long in the outside world. She left school in 1900 and returned to her home in Shepton Montague, Somerset. Her death on 6 May is registered in this area so it is presumed that she died at home (Wood Cottage, Shepton Montague). She was buried on 10 May 1902 at St Peter’s church, the headstone reading ”Age 17 years and 9 months. Daughter of Alfred and Emma Jane.“ The fact that her age is recorded so exactly may reflect the family’s view that she died before she had had chance to live.

Grace Eleanor Simmonds left school in 1883 described by the Head Governess as “a good girl but not clever…” Just three years later she was dead, aged 17. One wonders if the writer of the report felt some twinges of guilt later.

Beatrice Alice Seaton, one of two sisters who were pupils, was accepted at the school in 1870. In 1874, a reference in the Head Governess report to the House Committee indicates that she is a suitable girl to take advantage of music lessons (which presumably required permission as there was an additional cost implication). The fact then that she died aged 11 in the same year would strongly suggest that the death was both sudden and unexpected. The death is registered in Wandsworth (whereas she hailed from Hull where her father had been a sailmaker and ran a ship cleaning company before his death) so she must have died at school. The sister who was also a pupil (there were 4 more at home) went on to live to 84 years of age.

The dispensary at Clapham
The dispensary at Clapham

Florence Eleanor Relph’s death certificate gives her usual residence as the school so she was clearly another pupil who died there (1888). But, at that stage in the school’s history, all pupils were boarding and the school holidays were few and far between. If the death were as a result of illness, it is highly likely that any deaths would happen in the school infirmary. It is only those whose deaths might have been anticipated that may have gone home to be with their families. Florence’s death in 1888 came amongst all the celebration of the centenary of the school and it might be easy to overlook her death except that all the records show that the Matron and the medical staff always strove to take the greatest care of any of the girls in their charge and, if death were to be their lot, to make it as comfortable as can be. Nevertheless, to die at 13 is such a waste of a life.

Florence Redgrave was one of two sisters who came to the school as pupils. Florence, sadly, died probably just after leaving school at sixteen. The death record is for the area in which she was living after leaving school (Ipswich). Both girls were accepted as pupils in 1862, most likely on account of their father’s failed business (he was declared bankrupt in 1859) but his death in 1865, described as being “after a long affliction”, occurred when he was 49, still relatively young. Florence’s sister went on to become headmistress (or Head Governess as it was then called) of the school and her name can be found at the top of the Honours Boards in the corridor. Interestingly, and one wonders if coincidentally, Emily (the sister) had to curtail her career when her health broke down and she was forced to resign as Head in 1900. As she had by then been working at the School for 31 years, she retired with a pension of £100 pa and lived for another 27 years. Presumably once the strain of her job had been removed from her, her health was able to recover somewhat.

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