Miss E. Stevenson

GCPH11-4a-36-29FirstYear1891-EStevenson (2)
Elizabeth in her first year at Girton, 1891 ©The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge[4]
Very likely to be Miss Elizabeth Stevenson, 61, (1872-1959) [1] an experienced teacher in Scotland and South Africa, and then Senior Woman Inspector of Schools for the London Country Council, a position we are told was created especially for her.[2] Her Times obituary correspondent wrote:

Throughout her career she won the devotion of pupils and colleagues and many will remember with gratitude the inspiration of her character and qualities-not least the incisive judgment and the refusal to compromise.”[3] 

Being a teacher adds to the likelihood, as she is seated with three others in education. But there may be other candidates and apart from being a distinguished woman of the time we have no strong evidence linking her to Lady Rhondda or the Time and Tide milieu.

puzzle-piece2-50 Do you have more insights that will give us conclusive proof we have the right candidate? Elizabeth ticks all the boxes as an outstanding woman, pioneering in her own right and standing for all the values of those at the dinner, but it would be very good to have that final piece of irrefutable evidence that she was indeed the Miss E. Stevenson on the guest list!


It is probable that she was seated alongside the senior gentleman at the table, Noel Brailsford, and then being seated with any of the others making their way in the world of education would have been appropriate. As a schools inspector she will have found a lot in common with the PE specialists on the table, perhaps just as keen to hear of their experiences and they of hers. This has emerged as a table of individuals almost all involved in education and the advancements for the rights of women.


In 1933 Elizabeth gave evidence to the Hadow Report on Infant and Nursery Schools , as did Jessie White, Table 17, who, given their shared interest in educating poorer children, in progressive teaching methods, and in teacher training, Elizabeth undoubtedly would have known. The report itself would not be published until December 1933. I suspect she might have been keen to learn about what was happening in the world of girls’ physical education.


Elizabeth was born in Madras, India, on 11th January 1872, the eldest child of Fordyce “Dycie” Stevenson née Watt and the Rev. William Stevenson (1839-1916) of the Madras Christian College.[5] At the time of her birth her father was a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland in Madras. From 1886 until his death he also acted as Secretary of the Women’s Foreign Missions of the Free Church and United Free Church of Scotland.  Elizabeth had five sisters (Isabella, Margaret, Mary, Grace and Dorothy) and two brothers (Colin and William).  The family returned to London in 1884-1886, during which Elizabeth attended the Highbury & Islington High School (Jessie White, Table 17, later taught at the school).  Her father then took up his new post in Edinburgh in 1886. [6]

Elizabeth’s relations have generously shared family recollections of Elizabeth’s seven siblings:

“Her sister Isabella studied classics at Edinburgh University, where she got a first class degree and married the professor, William Ross Hardie. Their two sons were both Oxford dons.

Sister Grace went to the Maria Grey training college where Elizabeth had taught and then travelled to Calcutta as a missionary. She subsequently married the managing director of P&O Lines in India and had 3 children.

Sister Dorothy qualified as a doctor at Edinburgh University in 1907. She practiced in Edinburgh, married and had a family, and as an old lady was living near Taunton, Devon, where Elizabeth died.

Sister Margaret taught at the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science, now part of Queen Margaret University College.

Sister Mary married young. It seems that the two brothers, Colin and William Abercrombie, were not academic and both escaped the family to travel abroad as teenagers! ” [6]

The Scotsman, 17th June 1912[7]
After education at Dumfries Academy, Ayr Academy, Highbury & Islington High School, and Edinburgh Ladies College, Elizabeth took the classical tripos in 1894 at Girton, Cambridge, one of the early students of Miss Katherine Jez-Blake and qualified with distinction for the Cambridge teachers’ certificate. This however was still the time when Cambridge did not award degrees to women, leading to the emergence of the so-called “Steamboat Ladies”, women who also took degrees at Trinity College, Dublin, who through an arrangement with Cambridge awarded degrees to students who studied there, allowing them to append the qualification B.A, etc after their names – as featured in the advertisement above for Elizabeth when head of St. George’s, Edinburgh.  However, Girton College archivist Hannah Westall notes that “whilst Elizabeth is listed as B.A. (T.C.D.) 1906, and listed in the Girton Review of Easter Term 1906 under those who took “Degrees at Dublin: On April 21st, 1906”, in fact she was also listed under B.A. “in absentia”, so it appears that she did not actually go to Dublin.”  In reality Elizabeth was already teaching in South Africa. [8] 

Elizabeth had already experienced the prejudice of those against the advancement of women, as these two letters, which appeared together, in the London Evening Mail, in April 1897 reveal:



Sir,—ln The Times of April 19 a correspondent points out that in the list of graduates of the University of Edinburgh as printed in The Scotsman a young lady, Miss E. Stevenson, appears as “B.A. Camb. (certificate Classical Tripos).” In the absence of the secretary, who is abroad, I have been asked to explain that the young lady in question had nothing whatever to do with the form in which her name was entered on the list. The schoolmasters’ diploma which Miss S. received is granted only to graduates, and it was thought necessary at the office to show that she was virtually, though not technically, a graduate. The words in brackets, as quoted above, were intended, as, indeed, is evident, to show in what sense she was a graduate qualified to receive the diploma. A different form will be used, doubtless, in the official calendar, though I confess I am at a loss to see what the form can be unless, perhaps, A.B. in contradistinction to B.A.

I am &., S.S. LAURIE (University of Edinburgh).  33, Oakley-square, N.W., April 21.

TO THE EDITOR. Sir,—Your correspondent ” A ” in The Times of April 19 quotes from the Scotsman‘s report of the graduation ceremony of Edinburgh University my name, which appeared as “Elisabeth Stevenson, B.A., Camb. (Certificate, Classical Tripos).”

I wish to state that the announcement in the Scotsman was inserted without my knowledge and without any previous communication with me as to my academic status.

As soon as I saw the announcement in the Scotsman I wrote to the University authorities, requesting them to correct the mistake, but, owing to the absence from town of the secretary of the Senatus of Edinburgh University, the correction has been delayed.

I deeply regret this mistake, which would not have occurred bad I been consulted as to the terms of the announcement, but I think it hardly justifies the ungenerous use made of it by “A.”

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

ELIZABETH STEVENSON, Certificated Student,

Girton College, Cambridge.

26, Newbattle-terrace, Edinburgh, April 21.  Evening Mail, 23.4.1897 p8   [9]

The “offending” newspaper reference had been when listing, under the heading of DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS, those receiving the general and higher school diploma under the category of The Schoolmaster’s Diploma.

In Simon Somerville Laurie, who had himself established the University’s Schoolmaster’s Diploma, Elizabeth clearly had the right man on her side should she have needed any help when dealing with the anonymous writer to The Times hiding behind the anonymity of “A”.

“Laurie was widely recognized as Scotland’s leading expert on education …. a natural choice when Edinburgh University’s Bell Chair of Education  was created in 1876. One of his chief aims in this role was to bring the University and teaching training colleges closer together and, ultimately, to entrust the training of teachers to the University alone. He was convinced that teaching should be regarded as a profession like medicine or law, and that training teachers should enjoy the benefits of a liberal university education. It was also due to his influence that a Schoolmaster’s Diploma was instituted by the University. This was open to Arts graduates who had attended the University’s Education Class, taken a teaching training course at one of the church colleges, and passed an examination in the theory and practice of Education. The Diploma was recognized by the Scotch Education Department as qualifying the holder to teach in Scottish schools.” [10]

Finally, on this episode the someone offensive complaint in The Times, read as follows:



Sir, – In the official list of those who received the schoolmaster’s diploma at the recent graduation ceremony of the Edinburgh University, as given in the Scotsman of Monday, 12th inst., the following appeared:-“Elizabeth Stevenson, B.A., Camb. (certificate Classic Tripos).” Surely this is a little anticipatory. At all events, the manner of the announcement is not without instruction in connexion with the somewhat heated controversy now in progress as to the policy of admitting women to degrees, sham or otherwise, in a sister University.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,   A.    The Times, 19 April 1897

One could easily this of some alternative words to replace the standard tagline of “your obedient servant”, but we shall refrain.

After three years’ teaching in Scotland, in 1900 Elizabeth was appointed vice-principal of the Good Hope High School for Girls, Cape Town. In 1904 she went to the Maria Grey Training College as lecturer on methods of teaching history and classics and in 1906 was appointed headmistress of the Collegiate School for Girls, Port Elizabeth.

Sixth Form at St. George’s: might it be Elizabeth seated, centre? [11]
In 1911 Elizabeth returned to Scotland, becoming headmistress of St. George’s School for Girls, Edinburgh, and its associated teachers’ training college. The school, where Elizabeth had earlier trained herself, was the first Scottish day school for girls which taught students all the way up to university entrance level.

Headmistress at St George’s [13]
A recent study of the war time exploits of the St. George’s alumnae has given its own reflections on her tenure at the school, where she was the last of the headmistresses “known to be in accord with the founding principles.”  After her departure from this progressive school “St. George’s became a respectable part of Edinburgh’s establishment”. [11]  Many St George’s Old Girls served during the war as doctors and nurses in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, established by Dr. Elsie Inglis, a friend of Sarah Mair, the founder of St. George’s. “The school helped to raise money for hospital beds in France and for its own VAD hospital for soldiers at Churchhill in Edinburgh. The new school hall was a hub of activities for the war effort, from sewing circles to lectures to fund raising performances.”[12]

Elizabeth herself noted during the war (which lasted for half of the time she was headmistress), that “It is among the girls and women especially that there has been a change in the outlook on life and a recognition of fresh duties and opportunities.”

During Elizabeth’s tenure the school moved to the premises it still occupies today. [13]

In 1920 Elizabeth moved to the London County Council as a divisional inspector and was a senior woman inspector from 1929 till her retirement in 1935, advising on education of girls in all types of schools. A recent thesis has sought to shed a little more light on Elizabeth’s work:

“For many women few details of their careers seem to have survived. An example discussed here was
E. Stevenson; although her name recurred in documentation and she was a member of the NSA, no
account of her work seems to have been written. This exemplified the difficulty of tracing the impact of
influential women.”

“Unlike HMIs, LCC inspectors were not debarred from Council membership. Gwendolen Sanson was a
long-serving Inspector for Infants Methods; in 1935 Sanson, together with Senior Woman Inspector [SWI] E. Stevenson and a male inspector, A.W. Pegrum, inspected the Burghley Infants School, under the headship of Frances Roe; their report is discussed in Chapter Seven. Sanson, with Stevenson and Philip Ballard, was a witness for the National Association of Inspectors of Schools to the 1933 Consultative Committee.” [The Hadow Report Ed.]  Ruth Fletcher succeeded Stevenson as SWI in 1935; like Stevenson, Fletcher had been a District
Inspector.” [14]


The eldest guest at Table1, at 61, Elizabeth was two years off her 1935 retirement. At the time of the 1939 census she was living at 131-135 Kennington Road, Lambeth, listed as a retired Inspector of Schools. After retirement she travelled in Africa and the Far East, and volunteered during the WW2 at R.A.F. Halton, Bucks “where she organized with characteristic enthusiasm and imagination a patients’ library of unusual scope[15]. She died on 15th July 1959, aged 87 at Lynchfield Hospital, Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, probate to her nephew, William Francis Ross Hardie, President Corpus Christi College, Oxford, the son of her sister Isabella Watt.[16]

She has all the distinctions to be at the table, including having an obituary in The Times. Her distinction was underlined by a correction sent to The Times a little later, by one “GL”, worth quoting in full:

“G. L. writes: – Your correspondent’s notice published on July 21 contains a factual inaccuracy. Not more than a dozen appointments to the rank of L.C.C. divisional inspector were made during the 40 or so years this rank existed, and no woman was included among their number. Miss Stevenson was one, I another, of a small group of district inspectors appointed in March, 1920. Her strong sense of mission led her to choose to work in a district in the East End, where she remained for the longer part of her service. In his wisdom that unique Chief Inspector, Dr. F. H. Spencer, had the post of Senior Woman Inspector created so as to provide scope for and recognition of Miss Stevenson’s abilities. She was a good colleague and filled-this post with dignity and credit”.[17]

Elizabeth’s complete qualifications and career path, for anyone still doubting her abilities, reads as follows: Girton I89I–94; College Scholar; Class. Trip., Pt I, Cl. III, div. I, I894; St George’s Tr.Coll., Edinburgh; Camb. Cert. in Educ. with distinction I896; Schoolmasters’ Dipl., Edinburgh Univ. I896; B.A. (T.C.D.) I906. A.M., St Margaret’s Sch., Polmont, I896–99; Vice–Principal, Good Hope H. Sch. for Girls, Cape–town, I900–03; Lecturer, Maria Grey Tr. Coll. I904–05; H.M., Collegiate Sch. for Girls, Port Elizabeth, S. Africa, I906–I0; H.M., St George’s Sch. for Girls and Principal, St George’s Tr. Coll., Edinburgh, I9II–20; Insp. of Schools, L.C.C. I920–35 and Sen. Woman Insp. I933–35.[18]

Her Girton Scholarship was for Modern Languages, for 20 Guineas per year.[19]

A respectable biography of Elizabeth is long overdue.  Janet Laurie, Elizabeth’s “first cousin, twice removed”, contributing extensively to this review writes “she was probably a force of nature, someone working on many fronts, always seeking new challenges and fresh battles to fight. A doer rather than a writer. A person definitely wanted on your side, but possibly exhausting to be around!

She was on a lively table!


[1] Reference to Miss E. Stevenson, Senior Woman Inspector for the LCC, for the National Association of Inspectors of Schools and Educational Organisers.

[2] Miss Elizabeth Stevenson, The Times, 21.7.1959, page 8

[3] The Times, Obituary by A Correspondent, 21.7.1959

[4] ©The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge. Not for reproduction without permission. With many thanks to the college archivist, Ms Hannah Westall.

[5] The Times, Obituary by A Correspondent, 21.7.1959

[6]  With many thanks to the contributions to this “biography” from Elizabeth’s “first cousin, twice removed” Janet Laurie, not least including family recollections, reports from St. George’s, and further research with the help of Ms Hannah Westall, the archivist at Girton College.  The family notes are drawn from the book ‘In the Shadow of Stirling Castle: a genealogical history of the Stevensons of Logie, Lecropt and Findo Gask’  by David F. Stevenson.

[7] The Scotsman, 17.6.1912 ©JPIMedia Ltd, accessed from BritishNewspaperArchive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

[8]  Girton Review 1906, courtesy of Ms Hannah Westall, the archivist at Girton College, Cambridge.  

[9]  Evening Mail, 23.4.1897 p8. 

[10]  Sourced from the  University of Edinburgh website : Our History, Simon Somerville Laurie 1829-1909, accessed 15.6.2021.

[11] Sourced from Seán Morrow, “The Fires Beneath: The Life of Monica Wilson, South African Anthropologist”, Penguin Random House South Africa1 Jun 2016, the quotations referencing Nigel Shepley’s ‘Women of Independent Mind: St George’s School, Edinburgh and the campaign for women’s education’. Edinburgh, St George’s School, 2008. pp 84-85. Research and reference contributed by Janet Laurie. 

[12] St. George’s School for Girls; What did St. George’s girls do in the Great War?  The website identifies this as a sixth form photograph but compared to another sixth form photograph on the website they look more like staff: perhaps trainee teachers?

[13]  St. George’s School Old Girls Association magazine, The OGA December 2012. No longer available online.  Permission being sought. 

[14]  Jane Read, University of Roehampton Doctoral thesis (awarded 2012): The Froebel Movement in Britain 1900-1939.  Research and reference contributed by Janet Laurie. 

[15] The Times, Obituary by A Correspondent, 21.7.1959

[16] A personal element of interest here, as Hardie was the President who interviewed me when I applied to go to Corpus – it was a memorable interview with a technique I used thereafter myself.

[17] The Times, July 1959

[18] The Girton Register, Volume 1, printed 1948.

[19] Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 31.7.1891, p12

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