Mrs Jessie White

1893 group (3)
Jessie White at Newnham College, Cambridge, 1893[2]
Jessie White DSc. Lond., B.A. Birm., 67, (1865-1968) was a Montessori specialist and headmistress. An author on Froebel and Montessori, she was not afraid to challenge the pioneering Madame Montessori, whilst also championing her methods.[1] A widow since 1914 (her husband had been the Editor of the Yorkshire Herald) she did not have children. The eldest of six children of a Birmingham hardware merchant, who all established themselves in the world: in manufacturing, in the church, in the law or raising families. Making the most of the benefit of a good education, Jessie became one of the first women to qualify as a doctor of science.[3] A truly innovative educationalist, marrying science and the understanding of the process of learning, taking others’ pioneering work to another stage. Coincidentally, Jessie and the American born Anabel Douglas (Table 4), one year her senior, who went on to be a headmistress,  both studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, at the same time, 1890-1893. And perhaps she had a word with Elizabeth Stevenson, who once studied at Highbury and Islington School.


Jessie would have been an excellent companion for any of the young guests who were embarking on a career in teaching (for example Gwendolen Harrison  or Marian Hodson.


Looking for the opportunity to engage with any of the innovative people at the dinner. Maybe a chance to catch up with her Newnham contemporary Anabel Douglas?


Jessie Charles was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham in the spring of 1865 (baptised on 28th May), the eldest of the six children born to Eliza Hutton Goode, (1837-1902) daughter of a brush manufacturer, and the Londonderry born Andrew Charles, (1833-1910), draper and hardware merchant, son of a gentleman. Jessie’s eldest brother Andrew Douglas became a needle manufacturer, her second brother Arthur, a Church of England clergyman, and third brother Thomas Hessin, a steel pin manufacturer before becoming a barrister at law. Her two sisters, Lilla Jane (1930 – 1950) and Leonora Margaret (1877 – 1940) both married surgeons.

Jessie married Robert White, journalist, on 17th October 1898, in Edgbaston. Robert, born 1863 in Carrickmacross, Monaghan, Ireland, son of a farmer, became Editor of the Yorkshire Herald. They had no children.

After a private education. Birmingham, in 1882 Jessie was one of the earliest students to enter Birmingham’s Mason College.  From its establishment in 1880 it was to be open to women on exactly the same terms as men and in its first year took on 229 men and 137 women.[4] Jessie and one Constance Naden were the first two women to join the college’s Chemical Society. A bust of Constance (who died young) is in the University of Birmingham archives room.

After Mason College Jessie went to Bedford College, London, on a scholarship, and passed the external London B.Sc. (Hons.) in Mental and Moral Science in 1887.  Jessie later confessed (in a 1937 interview when promoting her latest book) that she liked Mason so much that after six months at Bedford she returned to Birmingham (from where I assume she took her London degree).  Not that Mason College was perfect, it seems, as she remarked in a 1937 interview:  “There were about 500 students in those days, she told me, of whom by far the greater number were men. A tennis club was one of the earliest mixed social activities, but the men were not flatteringly anxious to invite the women to play with them.[5]

1893 group (2)
Anabel Douglas (top left) and Jessie (bottom right) in their final year Newnham College photograph, 1893[7] 
At the same time as Anabel Douglas (Table 4), Jessie entered Newnham College, Cambridge in 1890, a Cobden Scholar 1891 & 1892. After completing Part 1. of the Science Tripos in 1893, Jessie continued her studies in Breslau and Leipzig, a Marion Kennedy student, and passed the D.Sc. (London) Examination in Mental and Moral Science in 1898.[6] Marion Kennedy was a founder, benefactress and Hon Sec. of Newnham, a supporter of women’s suffrage. The first recipient of her postgraduate studentship was Philippa Fawcett, in 1888.[8]

In 1898 she also took up voluntary social work.[9] She then became a science teacher in a secondary school.  The 1937 interview elaborated further: “It was this science teaching which gave her her real interest—for she found that many of the children whom she was teaching had a very poor grounding, and no idea of applying their knowledge.  That discovery interested her in Montessori work, and it is for her connection with this work that Dr. White has become best known to educationists throughout the country.[10]

In 1901 she was living at Slane Cottage, Cowley Road, Oxford (from University of London Student Records) and was a Moral Science lecturer at the time of the 1901 census, when a visitor with her husband Robert (and brother Thomas) in Weston-super-Mare – they were staying with her sister Lilla Jane and her family.

In 1907 Jessie published her book The Educational Ideas of Froebel, when she was “the late Vice-Principal of the Home and Colonial School Society’s Kindergarten Training College” at Highbury. She also lectured at the Ladies College, Cheltenham.[11] [12] [13]

Jessie’s 1907 book on Froebel

Jessie worked for the introduction of the Montessori Method into the UK and was the Hon. Treasurer and organiser of the Montessori Society from 1914 to 1920. She started the Children’s Home, St Bartholomew’s and at one time was its Directress; and taught at the Montessori School, Gray’s Inn Road (the Mayo School, following Pestalozzi methods).[14] The Mayo School was a girls’ school that had come out of the Home and Colonial Society educational training programme. When space became restricted it transferred to Highbury in 1894.[15] [16] In 1905 or 1906, at the time of writing The Educational Ideas of Froebel, she was the former Vice Principal of the Home and Colonial School Society’s Kindergarten Training College at 14 Highbury Hill, N.[17]

Jessie was a Member of the O’Seas League and of the London University Club. Her address in Who’s Who was listed as Auto Education Institution at 46 Great Russell Street.[18] From that address Jessie would advertise her educational equipment and services.

Jessie made a significant contribution in her 1914 paper Montessori schools as seen in the early summer of 1913, where she stressed how schools varied with the personality of the individual teacher directing the class. She had visited Madame Montessori in Italy during 1913. [19]

Reprint of Jessie’s 1914 paper on Montessori schools

At the time of this important point in Jessie’s professional life her husband Robert died, on 10th April 1914, at the Amberley Hotel, 39 Tavistock Square, aged 51 (probate to his brother in Ireland).

The suffrage paper The Vote ran a full column by her, on her teaching methods (2nd April 1920) and in 1922 she wasn’t afraid to criticise even the founder of Montessori, at a meeting of the “Auto-Education Allies”:

“Now that the system has been before the world for over a decade, it is time we are quite clear and agreed on what is meant by the Montessori method, which does not change from time to time like the philosophical views of, say, Mr Bertrand Russell”.     “Dr Montessori has not helped matters, for while she demands that teachers should subscribe to her principles, and seek to adopt her method in its entirety, she has continually created the impression that those who understand her ideas can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that, though the inadequate understanding of the rest equips them for directing children, it does not suffice to fit them to hand on a knowledge of her method to other teachers.”

A quite modern thesis refers to the Hungarian musician Kodály, in reference to Jessie’s 1914 book as follows:

“Even Jessie White, herself a former Vice-Principal of the Home and Colonial Kindergarten Training College, observed: ‘To me the unnatural behaviour of some of the Froebelian teachers I have seen has always been unattractive. I hate to see them singing their silly little rhymes and looking foolish over gestures which the children ape, not with the natural imitativeness of childhood, but with the imitativeness of command.’ ”. (White 1914, 182)[20]

In 1931 Jessie was impressing the Duchess of Atholl at the Imperial Institute:

“Parents as Teachers. When the Duchess of Atholl opened the exhibition of mechanical aids to learning at the Imperial Institute, the stand in which she was most interested was that of auto-education, whose sponsor is Dr. Jessie White, B.A., of Birmingham.  Kindergarten training, particularly on Montessori methods, has hitherto been for the children of parents in a comfortable financial position, but Dr. White has the less fortunate people in mind, and has brought out toys and other sense-training material designed on Montessori lines in cheaper material, and at half the cost of the Montessori educational guides.  The Duchess said she thought Dr. White’s scheme of a correspondence course for parents, that they not only amuse the toddlers of two years, but instruct them at the same time, will be of the greatest help to the future education of the children.[21]


She continued promoting her brand of Montessori education and offering advice around the country: at the very beginning of 1935, on 3rd January, at the North of England Education Conference at Morecambe: “Dr Jessie White, of London, said it had been acknowledged that the best age to learn to write was between four and five. It was marvellous what children between two and eight could do without being really taught at all. Teachers were just there to provide the things children wanted and to give encouraging words.)[22] Citing her Montessori experience she said “It’s marvellous what the children can do quite naturally and without any strain.”[23]

In 1937, at the same time of year, same conference, this time at Harrogate, Jessie was still pursuing novel ideas. In a discussion on speech training, “Dr Jessie White, of London, suggested that more modern appliances might used. Dictaphones, for instance, could used to record a child’s voice and the record could sent to the examiners.”[24]

Also in 1937 she had a new book, which was the reasons for the interview quite above, and continued here: “It was in connection with this, too, that she came to see me, for she has just written a new book, ‘The Nursery Class’, dealing with the early education of children. Everyone knows the emphasis laid by Dr Maria Montessori on the correct equipment for applying her method, and on this subject of educational apparatus Dr. White had several things to say.  As a scientist she learned the importance of accurate apparatus.  Now, as an educationist, she says that educational apparatus is just as important as scientific apparatus.  It should be as carefully made and as carefully used.”[25]

“For some years she ran a Montessori school in London, the Children’s House, and she also made apparatus for other schools.  So impressed was one parent by Dr. White’s methods that she sent for the apparatus all the way to Rhodesia, had it carried for miles on the heads of native porters so that she could give her small son his first lessons with it.” [26]

Jessie was the Vice-Chairman L.C.C. Committee of Representative School Managers until 1939 and for some years was Sec. Sch. Nature Study Society and Sec. Psych. Society of Teacher’s Guild.[27]  

Jessie died aged 93 on 7th April 1958, when resident at 86 Monument Lane, Rednal, Bromsgrove, Worcs.[28] Probate was granted to her nieces Katherine Bridget Wilson (daughter of Lilla Jane) and Margaret Lilla O’Hara Holness (daughter of Leonora Margaret).


[1] Mrs Jessie White, Hutchinson’s Woman’s Who’s Who 1934, Hutchinson & Co. London. and in Women’s Who’s Who 1934-35.

[2] Photograph kindly provided from the archives of Newnham College, Cambridge, with many thanks to Archivist Anne Thomson.

[3] Birmingham Weekly Post, 11.4.1958 p2

[4] Jordan, A. (1993) The Mason Science College: A Sketch. Mason College Magazine 1(2): 33-35 cited in Rayner-canham, Marelene, Rayner-canham, Geoffrey, Pioneering British Women Chemists: Their Lives And Contributions, World Scientific, 30 Dec 2019 p196 n88.

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26.2.1937 p10

[6] Much of this is drawn from Rayner-canham, Marelene, Rayner-canham, Geoffrey, Pioneering British Women Chemists: Their Lives And Contributions, World Scientific, 30 Dec 2019, citing White, A.B. (ed.) 1981. Newnham College Register, 1871-1971, Vol.II, 1924-1950. 2nd Edn., Newnham College , Cambridge, p104.

[7] Photograph kindly provided from the archives of Newnham College, Cambridge, with many thanks to Archivist Anne Thomson.

[8] Marion Kennedy

[9] The Times, 10.4.1958

[10] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26.2.1937 p10

[11] Caroline Vollans, Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting, Routledge, 2017

[12] Jessie White, The Educational Ideas of Froebel, 1907

[13] On a personal note, my mother, the younger daughter of Rev. J.T. Rhys trained for her very innovative teaching career at Froebel College, Roehampton – the publishers of the online version of Jessie’s book.

[14] Home and Colonial School aka The Mayo School

[15] Highbury Hill House school archives at London Metropolitan Archives.

[16] Jessie White’s 1913 book cover in reprint

[17] History of Highbury Fields School accessed online 13.1.2018

[18] Source: correspondence from Angela V. John

[19] Jessie White’s 1913 book cover in reprint

[20] Susan Evelyn Kendall, The Significance of Innovatory Ideas and Enduring Values in Music Education, Submitted in part-fulfilment of requirements, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, in the University of York, Department of Music, September 1989

[21] Nottingham Journal, 26.9.1931 p58

[22] The Scotsman, 4.1.1935 p6

[23] Morecambe Guardian, 4.1.1935 p7

[24] Yorkshire Post, 9.1.1937 p9

[25] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26.2.1937 p10

[26] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26.2.1937 p10

[27] Newnham College Register, with thanks to Archivist Anne Thomson

[28] The Times, 10.4.1958

This post was substantially updated on 15th May and 30th June 2020

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