Turbulent Scots: Flora Stevenson, 1839-1905

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Flora Stevenson, a philanthropist and education campaigner who has recently been announced as the next face on Scotland’s £50 notes.


A portrait of Flora Roche from around 1904 by Alexander Roche (Source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery).

It was recently announced that philanthropist, educational campaigner and suffragist Flora Stevenson is going to be the first woman featured on the Scottish £50 note. It is very unusual for a woman to be chosen to feature on British currency (apart from the Queen), so I wanted to find out more about the woman who has been deemed worthy of such an honour.

Flora Stevenson was born on 30th October 1839, the youngest of 11 children. Her father was a wealthy Glasgow industrialist; when he retired the family moved to Edinburgh, and Flora spent most of her adult life living at 13 Randolph Crescent in the West End with her 3 sisters. The Stevenson sisters were all active in the mid-nineteenth century Scottish women’s movement. They all supported women’s suffrage, and were founding members of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association which was founded in 1868 to campaign for higher education for women. Flora was also committed to improving education for society’s poorest children; as a child she started a class in her home to teach messenger girls basic reading, writing, and maths skills.

In 1863 Flora joined the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor as a district visitor, investigating the circumstances of charity claimants and assessing whether or not they were ‘deserving’ of support. She also joined the committee of the United Industrial Schools of Edinburgh, a voluntary body that organised schools for poor children. Flora believed that compulsory school attendance was central to improving the lives of poor children in big cities, but she was opposed to the state providing welfare support, as she believed it undermined the responsibility of parents to provide for their children. She argued that charities coordinating with school authorities was sufficient support.

A pupil from Flora Stevenson Primary School with the new £50 note (Source: Royal Bank Scotland/PA Wire).

In 1873 Flora was elected to the newly formed school board for Edinburgh. School boards were the first public bodies in Scotland which were open to women. As a result of her experience she was placed on the destitute children’s committee, where she was responsible for a scheme that gave food and clothes to poor children on the condition that they attended school. She also persuaded the school board to set up a day school for truants and juvenile delinquents, which was the first of its kind under the control of a school board. Flora’s expertise in this area was well respected; she served on several committees advising the government.

Flora’s belief in women’s rights carried over into her educational philosophy. She believed that girls and boys should be treated the same in education, and argued against the school board’s policy of giving girls 5 hours less teaching than boys every week so they could practice needlework. She believed that boys should be taught household management as well as girls, and that unmarried female teachers should receive equal pay.

Flora’s dedication to Edinburgh’s education system was respected and acknowledged. In 1899 a new primary school in Craigleith was named after her, and in 1900 she was unanimously elected to the Chair of the Edinburgh school board. In 1903 she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh, and two years later she was given the Freedom of the City in recognition of her service to Edinburgh’s philanthropic institutions and the school board. When she died in September 1905, thousands of schoolchildren lined the route of her funeral. She is buried with her family in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.

I may not agree with all of Flora’s politics – she was opposed to Irish Home Rule, and I find her perspectives on state welfare questionable – but there is no doubt that she was a formidable woman, who dedicated her life to public service at a time when women weren’t really supposed to do that. Hopefully her inclusion on the £50 is just the latest step in a long journey to properly acknowledge the contributions that women have made to society throughout history.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Stevenson, Flora Clift.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46826 [Subscription required to access].

National Records of Scotland. “Flora Clift Stevenson (1839-1905).” No date, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-a-z/stevenson-flora-clift

Wikipedia. “Flora Stevenson.” Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Stevenson

Young, Gregor. “First Woman to be Face of New Scottish £50 Note.” The National. Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at https://www.thenational.scot/news/19400827.flora-stevenson-first-woman-face-new-scottish-50-note/

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