A charter for girls’ education

“In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female. This is the Magna Charta (sic) of our womanhood. He committed the Gospel of Resurrection first to the lips of women! How little did those women understand their obligation to their true Emancipator.” This bold declaration was written in 1884 in the pamphlet to mark the 50th anniversary of the Society for Promoting  Female Education in the East ( SPFEE) which has  often been shortened to the Female Education Society. The women who were sent out by that society were among the pioneers of girls’ education in Africa, China, India and the Far East.

By the 1880s the main Christian missionary agencies had begun to recruit single women but when  the SPFEE was founded it was a very different story. Even the wives of missionaries were not recognised as official members of those agencies. It would  not be easy to prove that single women were capable of living and working in far away places.

Other ladies associations had been formed to support girls’ schools in the UK as well as overseas but the SPFEE became the largest and most successful sending out about 57 agents within the first ten years. The development of ladies’ committees owed a lot to the Quakers (See  The Quaker Inheritance) and the Christian Revival in the late 18th century.

Christian revivals liberate both men and women. In  Adam Bede George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) had her female revivalist preacher, Dinah Morris, state “It isn’t for men to make channels for God’s Spirit, as they make channels for the watercourses.”  But by the 19th century many were busy trying to contain that free, empowering Spirit.

This meant that the  SPFEE was faced with a fine balancing act. It was determined to send single women overseas but had to be careful not to be too different or it would lose the financial support from the Christian community that it so needed. There were very few role models in 1834 that the fledgling society could list in its appeals for funds and recruits. It could point to the success of Mary Ann Cooke Wilson in Kolkata  but quickly forgot Mary Christie Wallace and Maria Newell Gutzlaff.

The SPFEE desperately needed a success story and a woman who could inspire others to join the society.  It found that in their first agent, Eliza Thornton. During her time in Jakarta (1835-1846) Miss Thornton provided an excellent role model for the type of women that the SPFEE wanted to recruit.

In the early days the SPFEE called their recruits “agents” probably so that they would not offend anyone by appearing to send out missionaries – a role then reserved for ordained men.  The SPFEE recognised that several missionary wives  had helped to prove that it was possible to run schools for girls in India and among the Chinese in Malaysa but it pointed out those women had to spend a lot of time assisting their husbands and caring for their children.

Single women could, however, give their full attention to the task of superintending schools for girls. As Indian and Chinese girls were usually confined to their homes after puberty only women could carry out this work – and to the SPFEE men would be “manifestly incompetent” to select them. Only a Ladies’ Society could do that for : “Who but a woman can understand the heart of a woman, and enter into all her difficulties and discouragements, and bestow the tender consideration and the appropriate direction she requires? ”

The committee quickly developed its own methods of assessing and evaluating possible candidates, the emphasis being on creating an effective corps of single women. It wanted to be a distinct agency which fulfilled a specific purpose, focusing its limited funds on its goal of liberating girls through education. Firstly it was keen to have a united philosophy within this corps, and this was done by strictly adhering to the Evangelical creed. Candidates had to show that they regularly attended an Evangelical church and accepted its principles of faith. It was also very important that the recruits were sure that they had a definite call to the work, as well as having a what was seen then as a good education and teaching experience. All this had to be backed up by references about their spiritual life and temperament and if they had their own independent source of income.

The SPFEE was  therefore, carefully selecting middle class, pious women (often middle-aged governesses)  who were capable of superintending girls’ schools and training local teachers. The SPFEE wanted children to learn the Christian Scriptures and have the opportunity to come to faith in Jesus Christ besides learning other useful knowledge.

Those  accepted by the committee had to attend a period of probation at a British and Foreign School Society institution in London. This Society followed the Lancastrian monitoring system with its very systematic, carefully graded lessons and textbooks so that senior students (monitors) could teach younger pupils. This enabled one teacher to supervise the education of up to 300 children. During the probation  period the recruit was under constant assessment by three to four members of the SPFEE.

If a woman passed that test successfully the SPFEE would select a destination for her, pay for her outfit and the cost of the long sea voyage. It did later give grants but continued to expect its agents to become self sufficient as quickly as possible by running boarding schools for fee paying students.

The SPFEE was, however, determined not to become a missionary lonely-hearts dating agency. One of the rules carefully explained to candidates was that if they married within five years of being sent out by the SPFEE they would have to repay a proportional percentage of the cost of their travelling expenses and outfit. They also had to give the committee sufficient notice of their intended marriage so that a successor could be found. The committee was criticised for this and for insisting, especially in the early days, that when a woman married she could no longer be a SPFEE agent. But the committee replied that it was setting up a specialist corps called to a specific task. Its agents, it said, should be undistracted by other interests and be free to give their undivided energy to the task of female education in the East. For its part the SPFEE always kept a contingency fund available so that it could quickly repatriate one of its agents should her health fail.

By 1845 seven had married  within five years of going overseas with one not even reaching her assigned area of work. Several of those who got married set up schools and did receive assistance from the SPFEE.  A few agents paid the ultimate price: Miss Smith caught smallpox and died very soon after arriving in Bombay in 1839; Miss Carter, who was sent to India in 1835, got married and then died in 1839;  and Miss Shakerley died shortly after reaching South Africa in 1844.

Miss Hulk from Holland , who was sent to help Miss Thornton in 1840, was the society’s first non-British agent. By 1838 the SPFEE had an independent sister society in Geneva with an auxiliary in Strasbourg. Packages of fancy goods came from the continent as well as the 10 auxiliary societies and many working groups in England and Northern Ireland.   Some girls’ schools overseas were almost completely funded from  the sale of those goods which included children’s clothing and lace collars.

By 1884 the SPFEE  felt strong enough to openly state at during its Jubilee year that, through the means of education, it was first and foremost a missionary society. It described itself as a British pioneer and called for women to stand fast “in the liberty with which Christ has made them free”.

Its work came to an end in July 1899 when Rosamund Anne Webb died. She had been its secretary for 58 years. In its final newsletter it stated : “Our society was the parent and originator of all the Societies, and it is impossible for the smaller agencies to command the funds and interest once enjoyed.”  The Church Missionary Society took over the majority of its work –  24 missionaries and their work in Palestine, Japan, China (Hong Kong and Fuzhou) and India (Agra and Multan). The school in Singapore was handed over to the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society.

copyright Pip Land 2012

Footnote: For more about how new recruits were interviewed see Joy Bausum – following in Jemima’s footsteps


Minutes books of the Society for Promoting  Female Education in the East in CMS archives held in Special Collection at Birmingham University.

History of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, published by Edward Suter, London, in 1847 (quote about women interviewing women is on page 5)

George Eliot Adam Bede Penguin Popular Classics 1994 p95

Adam Matthew Publications: http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/church_missionary_society_archive_general/related%20organisations.aspx



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