THE discovery of the logbook of a Victorian headmistress provided a unique glimpse into life at a 19th century girls’ school in Bolton — now her notes have been been turned into a fascinating new book. Saiqa Chaudhari reports.
THE carefully handwritten logbook of Fanny Eliza Johnson reveals a life very different to that of today’s 21st century education system.
She notes the coal fires, the cook with diphtheria, children dying of infectious diseases and the pupil who was one of only two surviving children from a family of 10.
Yet many of the struggles at Bolton High School for Girls, during her time as headmistress from 1888 to 1893, were very much the same.
There were petty squabbles between pupils, complaints of too much homework and parents taking children on holidays during the school term. Her notes also display amusing flashes of exasperation and wry humour.
Now, retired English teacher Veronica Millington has written her first book — A Thoroughly Modern Victorian Headmistress — after spending a year poring over Miss Johnson’s archives, which included notes on the letters and visits from parents, as well as her own responses to them.
Mrs Millington wrote the book after being approached by the school’s senior librarian, Linda Frew, who wanted to “do something” with the school’s archive material.
She said: “I had just retired and, knowing that I enjoyed that kind of research, she asked me if I would have a go. I didn’t have to think twice about it.”
“The book took me about a year to write. That may sound ridiculously fast but, thanks to the amazing records in the school archives, I really did have a head start.
“As for Fanny Eliza’s personal story, most of that had to be researched from scratch but the detective in me relished the challenge. And, once I’m on the trail of a story, I don’t mind sticking at it morning, noon and night.
“The whole process was thoroughly enjoyable and I was also extremely lucky in that all the people and organisations I approached were very helpful indeed.”
The book gives a vivid portrait of both a school and its headmistress at a time of great social change, struggling for survival while pushing the boundaries of women's education.
It draws the reader into a wider world of burgeoning campaigns to secure equal rights for women — and of a population still beset by infant mortality and diseases.
Mrs Millington also delves into more detail about the history of Bolton High School for Girls — now Bolton School Girls’ Division — and discusses the foundation of the school, and the changes it went through before, during and after Miss Johnson’s time as headmistress.
Sue Hincks, head of the girls’ division, said: “This book gives a fascinating insight into the life of a very special woman, who made a significant contribution to education in Bolton and beyond.
“During Miss Johnson’s time as headmistress the girls' school moved to the Park Road site, and was opened by Millicent Fawcett, a kindergarten was established — which boys were allowed to attend — and the Past and Present Club, the forerunner of our Old Girls' Society, was founded.
“It was a fascinating time of great change at the school.”
Fanny Eliza Johnson: A Thoroughly Modern Victorian Headmistress is available online by clicking here.