Founder's Day assemblies usually delve into the life of Julia Huxley, the Founder of Prior’s Field, but in 2019 we wanted to pay tribute to Ethel Burton-Brown, who had the difficult job of taking over when Julia died at such a young age. The following text is taken from the script our Archivist wrote for our Founder’s Day Assembly in 2019.
This year our Founder’s Day assembly focuses on the remarkable life of our second headmistress, Ethel Ann Burton-Brown. As a result of the archive project, we have been lucky enough to receive some new information and documents relating to Ethel Ann which we are now able to share with you. We are particularly grateful to Micky Burton-Brown, Mrs Burton-Brown’s grandson, for sharing photos from his family album and personal reminiscences and we are delighted to welcome him to be part of our assembly today.
We must also thank Mrs Lizanne Milton and Mrs Elaine Sibley for undertaking archive detective work at Girton College, Cambridge, to find out more about Ethel Ann’s life there.
This school was opened on 23rd January 1902, so you might ask why it is that we mark Founders’ Day in June. The reason is that Ethel Ann Burton-Brown’s birthday was in June.
And, this was no ordinary birthday! Soon after she became Headmistress in 1909, Ethel Ann made her own birthday into a day of celebration and thanksgiving for the whole school. It became not just Mrs Burton-Brown’s birthday, but the School’s Birthday.
For many years, the school marked its birthday with a picnic tea in the rose garden as well as tennis, sports and a celebration dinner. Scarlet poppies, daisies and grasses festooned the dining hall to echo the school colours, which matched the Italian flag. There was a half-day holiday, the spectacle of teachers taking part in silly games at the girls’ command and an evening of dancing. There was the rare and wonderful treat of a magnificent iced birthday cake for the whole school to share.
So just who was Ethel Ann Burton-Brown and what led her to Prior’s Field? What was it about her character which so impressed Julia Huxley that she invited her to enter into a partnership to become joint Headmistress and entrusted her to take over as sole Head when she knew her health was failing.
She was born Ethel Ann Marshall in Hertford in 1868. Her father, the Rev. Charles Marshall, was Head Master of a boys’ prep school and all her earliest lessons were shared with the boys. Her mother was a daughter of Dr. Metham, of Devonport.
When she was old enough she went to Highfield School in Hendon where she was very happy, and where she worked with immense zest at every subject that she was allowed to learn. She wanted to gain all knowledge, to read all books, to learn all languages, but she also found time to practice—she played the piano with enthusiasm, and she sang. She learnt to sew and played tennis well.
In short, Ethel Ann was an outstanding scholar and she easily gained a place at Girton College, Cambridge.
Girton was the UK’s first residential institution offering university-level education for women. The College helped convince the world that women could thrive intellectually, studying the same subjects to the same level as men. Girton’s foundation was a bold step towards women’s full and equal participation in political, social and economic life; it was a pathway to widening participation and inclusion, and Ethel Ann was there in there in those pioneering days.
It was not an easy road these pioneers trod. Whilst they were allowed to study the same courses as men it was only in 1880, 6 years before Ethel Ann went up to Cambridge, that women were granted official permission to sit Cambridge University examinations.
At this time, when Ethel Ann and her contemporaries were full of youthful optimism and the desire to learn, there were still professors who would refuse women in their classes. So, the students had the added pressure of not really knowing that they would be able to attend classes and receive the education they were paying for!
Shockingly, women weren’t allowed to receive degrees at Cambridge until 1948.
Ethel Ann wanted to study Classics; it was typical of her character that the reason she gave for this was that she knew no Greek and wanted to learn it, but the authorities didn’t think that was a good enough reason, and persuaded her to take her second subject, History.
In one way this was fortunate, for some of the greatest men in Cambridge were then lecturing in History, and she often spoke in after years of all she owed them, in particular Professor Gwatkin, and Professor Creighton, afterwards Bishop of London, both of whom welcomed female students. These men were to become Ethel Ann’s close friends and counsellors for many years.
The culture and pioneering spirit of Girton, which went beyond just completing subjects and taking exams, must have impressed upon Ethel Ann. Not only did she commit herself fully to her academic studies, but she also played an active part in many of the co-curricular activities that were on offer. This is very much reflected in the approach to education which she brought to Prior’s Field, an ethos which we can all recognise today.
She was President of the College Debating Society, and when in March 1888, Newnham College came for an inter-collegiate debate, The Girton Review, reports that E. Marshall rose ‘with great zest’ to oppose the motion.
She was Secretary of the Historical Club and arranged readings and discussions on various historical topics.
She was almost certainly part of the Girton Fire Brigade Society which was very popular. In 1879 the Fire Brigade was founded by two students who had witnessed a nearby haystack go up in flames and realized the College would be vulnerable if a fire broke out. Trained by members of the London Fire Brigade, the Girton Fire Brigade was highly structured: a Head Captain was in overall charge, with a corps for each corridor, led by a Captain and Sub-Captain. The existence of the fire brigade is testimony to the determination of Girton women to meet any challenges that confronted them.
This photograph of the Society practicing drills is very reminiscent of what was carried out at Prior’s Field in the early years.
Sports clubs and teams quickly emerged at Girton, with lawn tennis an early favourite. By 1900 there were Girton clubs for tennis, hockey, lacrosse, golf, racquets, bicycling and cricket.
Women often performed better than the men at Cambridge, and Ethel Ann received a First in History, performing better than all of the men in her year. Though she was never officially awarded this distinction, here is the notice of her result in The Girton Review, July 1889.
After Girton, Ethel Ann married Frederick Hewlett Burton-Brown, a medical doctor, who had had a glittering career at Charterhouse and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. She had wanted to break off the engagement, but her family would not let her, and the marriage went ahead. Immediately after, Ethel Ann was taken to India where Frederick secured a position with the Indian Army Medical Service. Those were days when women followed the paths of their husband. We can only imagine how daunting this must have been for a young woman in her early twenties to go to the other side of the World, away from everything she had been used to. But such was Ethel’s character that she determined to make the most of the situation.
They were sent to many out of the way places and there were many difficult journeys. Ethel Ann gained a quite unique knowledge of the lesser known parts of Northern India and wherever she went she insisted upon seeing and learning what she could of native life. She was thrilled by the interesting customs she encountered. Ethel Ann was frustrated by the attitudes of others who thought it inappropriate for her to enter an Indian house and meet Indian women.
Her first two children were born in India, Beatrice, who later succeeded her mother as Headmistress of Prior’s Field and Margaret, who tragically died in infancy.
After India came a year or two in London. Ethel Ann found a new outlet here for her energy and human interest, in social work; she worked for Women's University Settlement in Southwark. The Settlement was founded by women from Girton and other women’s colleges. Its objective was to "promote the welfare of the poorer districts of London, more especially of the women and children, by devising and advancing schemes which tend to elevate them, and by giving them additional opportunities in education and recreation".
Ethel Ann had a warm and sympathetic heart and clearly had a great passion for this work. She brought this philanthropic work to Prior’s Field by encouraging the girls to support good causes in any way.
In 1896 Frederick bought a medical practice in Rome. Italy and especially Rome, were full of inspiration to Ethel Ann. Everyone of interest came to visit the Burton-Brown’s in Rome. Ethel Ann was a good conversationalist, and we can imagine how she enjoyed the talk of all those wise and learned men of every nation. The renowned archaeologist Giacomo Boni, was a great friend from the first days. She watched him excavate the Roman Forum and wrote the first guidebook in English to the new excavations. Here it is! [Hold up blue book]
Friends who came out to Rome insisted on being "taken round" by her, and so she began to lecture on the ruins and in museums. She took every opportunity to get to know Italy and it was during those years, that she laid the foundations of her knowledge of Italian painting.
It was in Italy that her twin boys, Christopher and Theodore were born. Christopher was Mr Burton-Brown’s father. There was also another son, who was born in Italy who sadly died in infancy.
But the Roman life could not last forever and in 1904, Frederick was forced to give up his practice. The family moved back to England, to London where he unsuccessfully attempted to set up various medical practices. Things got so bad between Frederick and Ethel Ann that a judicial separation was drawn up. Frederick left the family and moved abroad.
Ever resourceful, Ethel Ann realised that she had the skills to become breadwinner for the family.
She took up lecturing seriously. She lectured to learned bodies and to parties in the National Gallery and British Museum. She lectured in Cambridge on the recent excavations in the Roman Forum and was given the honour of being made an Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge Classical Society and the Royal Historical Society.
Her lecturing was very popular, and she was asked first to one girls' school, then to another, and in 1905 she came first to Prior's Field to lecture about Italian pictures. Her first talk was given in the girls’ hall, now the staffroom, by the light of a feeble oil lantern. Such was her knowledge of Italian paintings and Greek sculpture that these lectures became a weekly event at the school and were an inspiration to all who heard them.
Mrs Burton-Brown followed up her lectures by taking parties of senior girls to London to visit the National Gallery, the British Museum and other places of artistic interest. She became a close friend of Julia Huxley who took her into partnership as joint headmistress in April, 1906. The two women had the same values and they strove to ensure that academic excellence at Prior’s Field went hand in hand with social courage, and a sense of responsibility to care for others. These are the values to which we all aspire today.
The school became Ethel Ann’s life for the next two decades.
The poor relationship with her husband and the scandal that would have caused in those days, must have made life very hard for her, but had this not happened, she would never had come to Prior’s Field.
The following words were written by the one who perhaps knew Ethel Ann the best, her daughter and successor as Prior’s Field Headmistress, Beatrice Burton-Brown.
‘Looking back on life with Mother how can I write all I feel and the little things I remember - warmth first I think, & love; a golden spirit enclosed in a hard hard life, always longing to be free & soar to heights of scholarship and knowledge, but kept down by successive disasters and responsibilities. Looking at pictures and even more encouraging others to look at them was food for her spirit. What fun she could be too! I remember one train journey, perhaps I was 8?, from Bologna where we had been staying with some old friends in their hotel. We were always poor, our train lunch that day was grapes & bread - but some quirk from the past makes me remember it as such fun. What did we talk of? We were always happy together. But she could rage with fury, her temper was often fierce. She used to tell me off with no uncertainty. We loved each other very very dearly and she was my greatest friend. She was a truly great woman'
Prior’s Field provided a sanctuary for Ethel, a place for her to flourish and share her talents. Her determination, joy in learning, ambition for women, live on at Prior’s Field now. She was an inspiration to generations of Prior’s Field girls and she is an inspiration to all of us here today.
Ethel Ann Burton-Brown died in 1927 and is buried near Julia Huxley at Compton. The writing on her simple gravestone reads:
"ETHEL ANN BURTON-BROWN OF PRIOR'S FIELD”
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