The Redoubtable Miss D

A significant chunk of the nineteenth century history of the School came under the leadership of Miss Sarah Louisa Davis. Appointed in 1862 and retiring in 1896, she led the School for 34 years. In her stature as a Head Governess, it is hard to comprehend that when appointed she was barely 21 years of age. At a time when there was little formal training for teachers and most of the teaching staff (at the School and indeed elsewhere) learned their craft at the chalk-face, so to speak, Sarah Louisa Davis was the nearest to a professional appointment for several decades. Indeed, The Morning Post in 1894 reported these comments from the Anniversary Festival:

From the inception of the School, the education of the girls was in the care of the Matron and this was deemed to be sufficient.

Original advertisement for the matron in the classified ads section of World on Oct 10th 1788

As the numbers on roll increased, the matron was assisted by pupil teachers but as they would have been only 15 years old, their experience of the world was somewhat limited. However, girls’ education was beginning to develop. In 1847, Queen’s College ‘became a pioneer in the field of women’s education and emancipation.’ (Wikipedia) At a similar time, moves to extend the education of RMIG girls by introducing French and Music were initially rejected (1848) but it was the beginning of the beginning of educational improvement. Its direct descendant, as it were, was the appointment of Miss Davis who, almost immediately introduced French and drawing classes.

Time to introduce a more personal note into our biography of Miss D. She was born in Hackney, in the rather delightfully named Paradise Fields, the middle of three daughters born to James and Sarah Jane Davis. Her first public appearance was the 1841 census where she is recorded as an unnamed baby aged 2 weeks. This would give her a birthdate of about May 24th as the census took place on June 6th. Her father was a schoolmaster, and if ever it were a case of ‘being in the genes’, it is with this family. Not only was father a schoolmaster but daughters No 1 and No 2 both became Headmistresses. The career of daughter No 3 is unknown as she ‘disappears’ for over 70 years after the 1861 census, apart from a brief reference in 1876 at her son’s baptism – in Russia!  Why she was there we may never know but it must certainly have introduced an air of exoticism into the family.

In 1851, Sarah Louisa and Esther are pupils in Hackney.

‘The New Gravel Pit Hackney Chapel School, founded in the 1790s, was considered highly benevolent and caring by the local community in its dealings with its pupils…’

By 1861, Sarah was an assistant mistress at

1861 census title page

Founded in 1813, it operated on very similar principles to RMIG. Its mission was ‘to afford maintenance, instruction and clothing to destitute orphans of both sexes, and to put them out in situations where they may have the prospect of an honest livelihood’

So her move to the Royal Masonic Institute for Girls the following year would been a geographical shift but a very familiar situation. It is not known how she was selected for her new role. It is possible she was recommended by the Headmaster of the Asylum as Miss Davis, in her turn, recommended many pupils for advancement. But a Head Governess she became and was catapulted into senior leadership above the Matron (Eliza Waterman Jarwood, some 30 years her senior) and the two assistant mistresses, Frances Souter (b 1833) and Mary Ann Kernot (b 1837). Frances is a governess in another London school in 1881, so Sarah Louisa’s appointment may well have arisen from a vacancy when Miss Souter moved on.

Sarah Louisa Davis

This official portrait of Miss Davis is undated but is surely a portrait of a woman in her prime and could perhaps be from about 1880. However, given her elevated status at the age of 21, it is hard to be exact about what her prime might be.

A group photo taken in 1886 shows the teaching staff of that time.

As is to be expected, the Head Governess is at the centre of the group.

Of greater insight into Miss Davis herself are her own words as she wrote a monthly report for the school governorship and we can ‘hear’ her voice in what she wrote.  Her summaries of the girls in her care are sometimes acerbic: she clearly did not suffer fools lightly, as the saying goes.

[The] “youngest pupil teacher, is leaving at Christmas, an uncle & aunt having offered to provide for her entirely; she has been somewhat unsettled and Miss Davis does not regret parting with her” (1887)

Two years later she wrote of another pupil teacher, Ruth, who had failed an exam she was expected to pass: “With proper application and care on her part it would not have happened as she passed last year and this time was expected to take honours”.  Miss Davis expressed “her great disappointment in the girl as she was clearly capable of the work and ought to have at least achieved a pass.” The comments suggest that the recalcitrant girl had probably had a very uncomfortable interview with Miss D as she was to be put on “probation as a pupil teacher and if she does not prove an energetic and intelligent teacher, she must leave.”

Then to ram the point home even more, Miss D proceeds to ask the Governors if they would provide as a reward a little treat for those who pass.

“They are girls who keep close to study [one can almost hear the unspoken words ‘unlike Ruth’] and … Miss Davis feels they deserve some reward.”

Of another pupil, Miss Davis did not mince her words at all.

[She] “is a girl of power & influence but unfortunately not of a nature to be of benefit to those with whom she associates. Miss Davis cannot say that she has at all been a good girl, 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.”

But lest we think that Miss D had just got out of bed on the wrong side the day she wrote that, the pupil of whom she was writing remained somewhat fiery all her life it would seem. In 1928, for example, she appeared in court on a libel case the upshot of which was that the judge ordered her retained in custody for two weeks as she had caused a grievance and “You have not expressed to me one word of real regret or apology for your conduct”.

At the age of 60, she had another court appearance for ‘stealing’ a parcel from a car because

Perhaps we might judge Miss D’s assessment of her rather unruly pupil a little more kindly after this!

Miss Davis’ tenure as Head Governess was only occasionally interrupted by absence. In 1883, she had an absence of six months. Such was the respect she had earned from the School governorship that £50 was granted to her in in October 1883 ‘partly to reimburse her for the heavy medical expenses incurred by her late severe illness.’ Although she clearly recovered enough to return to post with as much vigour as ever, there were other briefer absences following this, known only when her deputy signed the monthly reports. In 1895, The Graphic, an illustrated newspaper, was given access to the School and subsequently published some images amongst which was a view of Miss Davis seated in her sitting room.

Here she is shown deep in thought with her feet on a little footstool. What she was thinking about is of course unknown but it should be noted that the following year she advised the governors that she wished to retire, a resignation they were reluctant to accept but one which, perforce, they must. This is not just colourful interpretation. The Cheltenham Chronicle of 11th July 1896 carried the following item:

In 1896, Miss Davis’ salary is recorded as being £225 pa which means that she retired on full pay. If ever there was a marker of the respect she had earned it was this.

In 1901, the census records her living with her older sister Esther, also a retired Headmistress, at 52 St James Rd, Tunbridge Wells.

This image is not actually No 52 as that property on Google Earth Street view is obscured by a large hedge in front of it. However, all the houses in that vicinity appear to be the same style so this view of a property further down the street must suffice.

In 1907 news came that Sarah Louisa Davis had died, her probate being granted to her sister who herself died the following year. Miss Davis’ funeral took place at the local church but this does not have a graveyard so it is unknown where she is buried.

Kent & Sussex Courier 08 February 1907


Miss Davis’ legacy to the School was manifold. By the time of her death, two other Head Governesses had come and gone but by 1911, another was waiting in the wings (Bertha Jane Dean) who would become in her turn as esteemed as the redoubtable Miss Davis.

Curious Connections

Undertaking historical research work into early pupils of the School is like unravelling the best detective story!

Sampler names
1838 sampler

Researching the names of pupils embroidered on a sampler listing pupils in 1838, E Zurhorst (marked) turned out to be Eliza Clarissa Zurhorst. As she was not listed at the School in the 1841 census, it meant that she had left school by then which gave her a birth date of around 1823. The name was unusual enough to be fairly sure that the Eliza who was baptised at Hackney St John in August of that year was the right one. The parents were Frederick William and Ann Judith Zurhorst.

The early registers[1] of the School then revealed another Zurhorst, this time Rosina Matilda born in 1815. The register confirmed the names of both parents so even if the baptismal record for Eliza had any doubt attached, the school register clarified the connection.

Register name
Extract from school register

It was unusual for two sisters to attend the School. Indeed the rules had been very clear that only one daughter was to be granted a place. Furthermore, both parents were alive throughout the time their daughters were pupils and for some time afterwards. There was no rule that the father must be deceased before a girl could be admitted to the School but there was a clear rule about indigence so, if Frederick was still alive during and after his daughters being at the School, his indigence must be in terms of income or family circumstances. As the layers of the Zurhorst story began to peel away, it revealed another connection with the School that was rather unexpected.

Eliza and Rosina were two of the 18 children of Frederick and Judith. Yes, you did read that correctly. Eighteen!

Zurhorst children

It is not known where the Zurhorst name originated. Frederick William was born in Ireland and his father Hermann had arrived there from Rotterdam but it is not known if he was actually Dutch. It would appear, however, that Frederick William spent the majority of his life in Britain. He married Ann Judith Williams on 12 Oct 1801 at St Botolphs, Aldgate where he gave his residence as Portsoken. This is an area of London next to the parishes of Spitalfields, Stepney, and St. George’s in the east, its name suggesting that it was originally a trading post by the gates to the City. Ann Judith lived in Spitalfields. That the Zurhorsts continued to live in this area is shown by the baptismal place for their many offspring and also that Frederick William was granted the freedom of the City in 1815.

Portsoken Ward

Image of Portsoken Ward from[2]

He was a member of the Lodge of Peace and Harmony as was the father of Patience Smith (previous posting, which also featured St Botolphs). His trade was given variously as a shipping agent or a broker. He is listed in London trade directories of the time which might suggest a growing prosperity. More unusually, Ann Judith was also in business as she traded in ready-made linen. This might suggest an entrepreneurial couple but for that rule at the School about indigence which gives a different slant. Of course, it is possible that simply because of their very large number of siblings the girls, Eliza and Rosina, became eligible for Masonic support.

Other documents indicated that Fredrick was in business with his wife. The evidence suggested that the pair probably ran a linen warehouse on the banks of the Thames.[3]

The ‘other documents’ are not identified in the article. This might suggest an entrepreneurial couple but for that rule at the School about indigence which gives a different slant. Perhaps Frederick William became involved in the linen warehouse because his ship brokering business was not bringing in the income it once had. Of course, it is possible that simply because of their very large number of siblings the girls, Eliza and Rosina, became eligible for Masonic support.

The reference to the programme Who Do You Think You Are, and specifically to the Sheila Hancock episode is the first half of the curious connection but let us look at the stories of Eliza and Rosina first.

Eliza was born in the year that Rosina entered the School – 1823. Baptised at St John’s, Hackney, she will have come to the School probably after her older sister had left it although it is just possible that they were both there for a brief time together.

St John's
Hackney St John

St John’s Hackney image from Wikipedia attributed to K B Thompson

Of her time at the School there is no information but she left between 1838 and 1841 and the first reference to her after school is with her parents in St Peter Port, Guernsey in 1841. No address is cited in 1841 but in 1851, by which time Ann Judith had died, it was given as 4 Mount Row, St Peter Port.

House in Mount Row
Mount Row with house

The aerial view above is courtesy of Google Earth and the image of a house in Mount Row is from an online property sale. It is probably not No 4 but gives an idea of perhaps the sort of house they occupied.

Thereafter Eliza disappears from the records until we find her death in 1896 in West Ham. The probate adds a curious note as it lists her as ‘Zurhorst otherwise Harris’ but records her as a spinster of 69 Chichester Rd, Leytonstone who died on 2nd November 1896. It is unclear from this why she should have the two surnames but there is a fleeting glimpse of an Eliza C Harris of the right age as a visitor to a house in Jamaica Street, Mile End Old Town. The probate was granted to Lemprière Hughes Renouf, civil servant. [Nope – no idea!] The name may suggest a continuing association with the Channel Islands and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that, much later and entirely unconnected, there is another Renouf association with the School!

Rosina, on the other hand, perhaps because she stayed on the mainland, is more easily traced.

She had joined the School in 1823 when the family residence was Down Terrace, Hackney.

Smaller houses called Down Terrace, some occupied by tradespeople, lined part of Back Lane (later Clarence Road) by 1821.[4]

A report in 2013[5] gave the information that this terrace, renamed Amhurst Terrace, was having to be demolished as cracks in the building had been reported by members of the public.

Gibbobs Building
Amhurst Terrace formerly Down Terrace

Image from courtesy of Nick Perry.

Rosina left School on 23rd September 1830, ‘delivered to her mother’ at 13 Retreat Place, Homerton. Although Retreat Place still exists, it comprises C20th blocks of flats today. In 1830 it was an area which, once respectable, was beginning to slide downhill in terms of gentrification.

Rosina married John Butter Petrie, a dock clerk at the West India docks, on 31 Oct 1837 at St Mary Stratford Bow and between 1839, when their firstborn arrived, and 1878, when John died, they lived in the Bethnal Green/Hackney/St George in the East/Poplar district at various addresses. In 1881 the widowed Rosina was living with one married daughter (Jane, who married Alfred Zurhorst, her cousin and son of Hamnet – see 5 paragraphs further on!) and another married daughter (Clementine) was also there with her son. The names of the daughters were all from John’s side of the family. His mother had been Helen Butter before she married and Helen Ann Petrie (the firstborn) in 1851 is living at the home of Clementine Anderson, her aunt. Jane Zurhorst nee Petrie, also called her own daughter Clementine as did older sister Helen who had married Harry G Montiguani in Scotland. (And you thought quadratic equations were difficult!)

After John’s death, Rosina found life more challenging and in 1889 was admitted to Bromley House, part of the Workhouse, described as ‘destitute, widow of John; admitted from Poplar’. In 1891 she is listed as a patient in Poplar and Stepney Sick Asylum, the buildings of which were finally demolished in 2008. [For more information about the Workhouse see This fabulous website is the work of Peter Higginbotham on the workhouses of Britain and contains a wealth of information.]

The Poplar and Stepney Sick Asylum
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The Poplar and Stepney Sick Asylum, Bromley-by-Bow: the street facade. Wood engraving, (c.1870?).
1870 after: Arthur Harston and Christopher HarstonPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Asylum map
Map giving outline shape of Asylum

It seems very likely that a death record of 1894 is that of Rose Matilda although the second forename is given as Martha. No further records for her are traced after this date. There is no probate but that is hardly surprising if she were destitute.

So the story of two Zurhorst daughters is encompassed by the nineteenth century and might have stayed there but for the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are. The episode featuring the Zurhorsts was that for Sheila Hancock who had in her possession a portrait known as Madam Zurhorst.

Madam Zurhorst
Ann Judith Zurhorst nee Williams

The story outline of Sheila’s ancestry can be read on or which establishes her as great-great grandniece of Eliza and Rosina – her direct ancestor was the girls’ brother Hamnet whose son Rosina’s daughter married. So Sheila Hancock connects to the School through her ancestors – but also, because she was married to John Thaw, there is a further curious connection.

Married actors
Sheila Hancock and John Thaw

Image from

In 1991, John Thaw was at the School filming an episode of Inspector Morse, during which time two other pupils, Shezel and Mandy, interviewed him for the School magazine, which means that four pupils are involved in this story!

Morse being made
John Thaw filming Inspector Morse at the School 1991

Images from School magazine Machio

So from Rotterdam, via Ireland, London, the Channel Islands and Scotland and finally to Hertfordshire, the story of the Zurhorsts, Eliza and Rosina in particular, has some very curious connections between the nineteenth and twentieth century worlds and the School!

[1] GBR 1991 RMIG 3/2/1 Library & Museum of Freemasonry

[2] John Noorthouck, ‘Book 2, Ch. 25: Portsoken Ward’, in A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark (London, 1773), pp. 663-665. British History Online [accessed 13 January 2017].


[4] ‘Hackney: Clapton’, in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10, Hackney, ed. T F T Baker (London, 1995), pp. 44-51. British History Online [accessed 17 January 2017].