Turbulent Londoners: Elisabeth Jesser Reid, 1789-1866

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The twelth Turbulent Londoner is Elisabeth Jesser Reid. She was the founder of Bedford College, which is now part of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, my university.


ElisabethJesserReidCropped528x352

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a formidable woman (Source: Royal Holloway, University of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a social reformer, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s education. Known as single-minded and tactless, she used her relatively privileged status as an independent widow to further the causes she believed in. This included founding Bedford College, one of the first venues of higher education for women in Britain.

The second daughter of wealthy Unitarian ironmonger William Sturch and his wife Elisabeth, Elisabeth Jesser Sturch was born to a life of relative privilege on the 25th of December 1789. In 1821 she married John Reid, a physician. Dr. Reid owned land on the River Clyde in Glasgow, which became valuable as the port expanded. When John died only 13 months after their marriage, Elisabeth was left with a large, independent income. Historically, widows with an independent income have enjoyed more freedom than other women, being beyond the control of both father and husband. Elisabeth used her freedom to fight for the causes she supported.

Elisabeth was a social reformer. She used her money to support benevolent schemes set up by women, such as Harriet Martineau’s project to enable the poor in the Lake District to buy their own homes. She also sponsored the studies of pupils who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Another of Elisabeth’s passions was abolitionism. She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, where she met female American delegates who had not been permitted to speak, such as Lucretia Mott. She was a member of the Garrisonian London Emancipation Committee, the British branch of an anti-slavery group that held progressive views on gender and racial equality.

Bedford foundation plaqur

A plaque in Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, commemorating the foundation of Bedford College (Source: Plaques of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid is best known for her role in the development of female education. In 1849 she founded Bedford College, with a loan of £1500, which she converted to a gift in 1856 when the college was experiencing financial difficulties. The college was first located at 47 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, moving to Regent’s Park in 1874. Although not the first college for the higher education of women in Britain, it was the first that believed in education for purposes other than vocational training. Bedford College aimed to enable women to improve themselves as they wanted to, not just gain the skills to become a governess.

This philosophy was radical, and Elisabeth was frustrated by the lack of support she received, particularly from prominent men. She expected hundreds of applications when the college opened, and was bitterly disappointed to receive only around a dozen. Nevertheless, she persevered, insisting that 3 Lady Visitors were included in the governing body, which was the first  time women officially shared in controlling the direction of a British institution. She used her social connections to get respected scholars to teach at the college, and eventually the college became successful. Notable early students include  novelist George Eliot, feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, and Sarah Parker Redmond, the first black woman to do a lecture tour in the UK on the topic of slavery. Bedford College became part of the University of London in 1900, and merged with Royal Holloway in 1985, to become Royal Holloway and Bedford new College. In this form it is still going strong today, with over 8000 students (and a wonderful geography department!)

Graduation Photo of Marian Sherrett

The graduation photo of Marian Sherrett, who graduated from Bedford College with a first class German BA Honours degree in 1886. This photo is held by the archives at Royal Holloway, which holds archival sources about Elisabeth Jesser Reid and Bedford College (Source: Royal Holloway Archives).

I feel a personal connection to Elisabeth Jesser Reid because of the happy and fulfilling times I have spent at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, but even without that I would admire her as a headstrong and opinionated woman who did not let her relative freedom go to waste. She used her wealth and independence to make the world a better place, and she fought hard for what she believed in, significantly advancing women’s education.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Black History Month: Garrisonian Abolitionists.” Oxford University Press Blog. Last modified 27 February 2007, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://blog.oup.com/2007/02/black_history_m4/ 

Anon. “Elisabeth Jesser Reid: Pioneering Education for Women.” Royal Holloway, University of London. No date, accessed 27 February 2016. Available at  https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/aboutus/ourhistory/elisabethjesserreid.aspx

Anon. “Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13 January 2016, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jesser_Reid

Anon. “History of Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Reflex Managed Offices. Last modified 9 September 2015, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.reflex.london/history-of-elizabeth-jesser-reid/

Colville, Deborah. “Bloomsbury People.” UCL Bloomsbury Project. Last modified 7 April 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/individuals/reid_elisabeth_jesser.htm

Oldfield, Sybil. “Reid [nee Sturch], Elisabeth Jesser.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified May 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/37888 (This website is behind a paywall, I had to use my Royal Holloway login to access it).

Pakenham-Walsh, M. ‘Bedford College, 1849-1985’ in Crook J (ed.) Bedford College University of London- Memories of 150 Years. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College: Egham, Surrey (2001): 13-46

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One thought on “Turbulent Londoners: Elisabeth Jesser Reid, 1789-1866

  1. Pingback: Turbulent Londoners: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891 | Turbulent London

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