When she was bad …

curl lines

The rhyme above, which we think of as a nursery rhyme, is part of a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Poems of Home III. Fun for Little Folk. Longfellow’s son said of this poem: “It was while walking up and down with his second daughter, then a baby in his arms, that my father composed and sang to her the well-known lines” http://www.rhymes.org.uk/a116-there-was-a-little-girl.htm

In the School’s Head Governess reports of the late nineteenth century (Library & Museum of Freemasonry A11943 GBR 1991 RMIG 1/2/2/4/1), Miss Davis was in the habit of giving what amounted to a valedictory comment in her monthly report for each girl due to leave that month. The phrase most commonly used (355 times in fact) is ‘she has been a good girl’ which she qualifies sometimes with additional adjectives such as superior, exceptionally, very or particularly. As sometimes what follows this phrase does not entirely seem to fit the description of ‘a good girl’ we have to assume that the phrase meant something different to Miss Davis (and presumably the Gentlemen of the Committee for whom she was writing the report) or was simply a stock phrase used whilst she collected her thoughts. For example, there are pupils described as a good girl but of whom it was then written that she has ‘made fair progress … with no particular distinction’ or even ‘not clever being only in the 3rd class’ or ‘a good girl but still a child’. ‘Good’ appears to have a flexible meaning ranging from highly praiseworthy or deserving through to the usage where one expects (and finds!) the word ‘but…’ following, and then something not quite as valedictory. ‘She is a very good girl and deserving of help’ was together with ‘lacks the necessary spirit in sharpness to make a good teacher’. Or the rather odd comment that a pupil had been a good girl and made fair progress and ‘is likely to do well in the colonies’. As this last is the only comment of this kind, and the pupil in question was the daughter of a soldier, had been born abroad herself (as had most of her siblings), one can here assume that the pupil was leaving the school to go overseas rather than that Miss Davis was somewhat unflatteringly saying that only fair progress was good enough for the colonies!

sulky sal

Of one pupil, Miss Davis wrote something that many of us can empathise with when she says she ‘is not naturally fond of school work or very willingly amenable to school routines’ and she clearly felt that the pupil who was ‘succeeding in her subjects through sheer perseverance’ was worth the comment as was the pupil who apparently had ‘little ability but by perseverance has done fairly well’. Those who tried, earned her praise, however faintly expressed, whereas those who did not make enough effort to improve, in her view, deserved comments such as ‘There has been much to correct in her character and she has at times given much trouble’ if then adding (begrudgingly?) ‘she has improved and has given no trouble this half’ [year]. Of another, she wrote that she was ‘a girl of dangerous fancies & is highly passionate; she is improved of late & has striven to control her temper; but she requires to be under constant good & careful influence’ and she urged that her ‘future should be carefully guarded by those with whom she lives.’ Whether this happened we can only guess. In the next census we find her employed as a draper’s assistant and then, ten years later, she married a musician – on paper, a fairly average post-education life with no apparent indication of the ‘dangerous fancies’ of former years. Unless marrying a musician counts!


Being a good girl clearly meant something to Miss Davis that has not entirely been conveyed through history as so many of the pupils are described using it even if what follows is damning with faint praise. Had she never written in any other style, it could have been shelved as a word such as ‘nice’ – i.e. one whose import has become so diluted as to be meaningless. However, and this is the connection with the Longfellow poem, sometimes she lets rip, so to speak. Of one pupil she wrote that she regretted to say that ‘she has not been a good girl’ before going on to make the following comment:

‘… she has been exceedingly tiresome throughout her whole time in the school, not caring to please or trying to improve and giving a great trouble to all who have to deal with her.’

Furthermore ‘her conduct has been systematically and persistently tiresome throughout her whole career in the school’ and Miss Davis recommends that she should be dismissed at once. ‘As she will be 16 in the holidays, there seems little point in her travelling from Southsea for one week to be dismissed in August. Her leaving at this time may have a salutary effect not only on herself but on others.’


Of another she wrote that she was: ‘a girl of power & influence but unfortunately not of a nature to be of benefit to those with whom she associates’ and that she ‘has always been difficult to manage, evincing a most spiteful & trying temper and instead of improving as an older girl has been lately most independent about observing the rules of the school.’ Definitely shaping up to the ‘horrid’ end of the girl with a curl spectrum! In fact, this pupil in later life could be described with the modern word feisty so she didn’t change much. In 1928, she was charged with libel for having called someone a ‘blackguard’ and she was retained in custody for a month as “You have not expressed to me one word of real regret or apology for your conduct…” even though the Recorder recognised that she had been treated badly. Nor was this the last time she had a run in with the authorities. At the age of 60, and described moreover as an invalid, she stole (deliberately, she maintained) an item from a car parked near her home.

newspaper article
‘Why she stole’ – from the newspaper report

Her protest cost her a £30 fine but her behaviour seems entirely in character. Plus ça change. Interestingly, the one photograph we have of her, she does appear to have curly hair …


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