Mary Russell Mitford attempts to improve Education for local village girls

Mary Russell Mitford

There is a book in Spencers Wood Library called Records of a Friendship between William Harness and Mary Russell Mitford.  The book is based on correspondence between the two.  For the last four years of her life, Mary had moved from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield.  Having been always keen on village education, Mary had wanted to establish a school for the local girls.  She had already suggested a scheme for creating a rural Library whereby her friend, Mr Lovejoy, a book seller of London Street, Reading would travel around the villages with books, but this didn’t come to fruition. Mary then set out her ideas in a statement to William Harness and should anything come from it then he should be prepared against the evils to come from it.  Mary said that girls would rather work in the fields for 2 or 3 days a week with tea, bread and butter than be comfortably housed and fed in decent servitude.  The local rich would also prefer this as girls were cheaper than boys to hire.  The way to overcome this was education, advocating household work.  Religion was also required whether they were dissenters or churchmen and they must attend Sunday Service.  The girls also needed to know about the wider world and English history.  Mary, though, deprecated singing including hymns.

Other friends came to help in the scheme namely Charles Kingsley of Eversley (living at Farley Hill) and Hugh Pearson, the Rector of Sonning.

Just as Mary had written this, Mr Watson, the curate made his appearance to announce that he had received nearly £1000 in relation to the Russells, of Swallowfield Park, little school scheme which Mary scathingly called a Dame School.  Mary said that the school could just as easily be built in Shinfield for the girls there.

The Russells’ school went ahead, opening in December 1854 as Mary indignantly describes it being built over an old dunghill of a farmyard which they had taken into their Park and will make it serve as a lodge.  ‘They had only an ignorant young woman and Miss Priscilla for teachers, took none but small children, make them pay so much per week, clothe them in a shabby uniform and make them pay for it!’  (Mary had imagined a school for all ages including an evening school for adults.)  It was shortly after, in January 1855, that Mary died.  There was some talk of naming the school after Mary but no, it was called Sir Charles Russell School. A proposed school in Three Mile Cross that didn’t materialise was also to be named after her.  Although, when Ryeish Green School opened in 1908, that too, was suggested to be named after her.  Neither did that materialise.

Margaret Bampton    March 2020.