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.
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
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’ https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/outline-of-the-london-orphan-asylum.
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.
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.
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.