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/

Protest Stickers: Edinburgh 2

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This is one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the end of 2019 I went on a last-minute trip to Edinburgh. It was great to explore the city, and it also meant I got to add to my protest sticker collection! There are a range of topics on protest stickers that often crop up in in big cities, including: gender, working relations, vegetarianism, housing conditions, elections, and Brexit. There are also specific local issues, which you don’t tend to find anywhere else. In Edinburgh, examples of these are: working conditions at the Fringe Festival, the use of public land for events which profit private companies, and Scottish independence.

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Fair Fringe is a campaign to improve the wages and working conditions of people working for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They are asking Fringe Employers to sign a charter guaranteeing they will give their employees certain working conditions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Edinburgh is famous for several public events, including the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, a Christmas Market, and Hogmanay. As these events have expanded, tensions have increased between organisers and local people, who often have to put up with significant inconvenience and restrictions on their movements around central Edinburgh. Some feel that the city doesn’t get enough benefits from these events. I think this sticker is referencing those ongoing debates (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Like most big cities, the cost of housing in Edinburgh is high, and increasing all the time. Living Rent is a tenant’s union which campaigns for tenant’s rights across Scotland, including calling for a nationwide rent cap (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The campaign for a second referendum on Scottish Independence has been boosted by Brexit, and it was the topic of quite a few protest stickers in Edinburgh. This sticker is responding to the argument that Scotland wouldn’t be able to make it as an independent country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Just in case the Yes campaign wasn’t patriotic enough, this sticker takes it one step further! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The image on this sticker has faded so it’s quite difficult to make out, but the text is very clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker incorporates anti-fascist symbolism and design style with the transgender flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker, on the other had, is rather sarcastically criticising the transgenderism. This debate has split the feminist movement in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In December 2019, university staff around the country went on strike over working conditions and changes to pensions. The Autonomous Design Group designed these stickers in solidarity with those on strike in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I found this sticker outside one of the University of Edinburgh’s buildings. It is also probably left over from the strike. Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998, but there are still some who oppose them. VCs, or Vice Chancellors, are the most senior people in the university hierarchy, so they often become the focus of opposition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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I’m guessing that this sticker is from before the General Election on the 12th of December. It is comparing Boris Johnson to Pinocchio, who’s lies famously got him into trouble (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker looks quite old, but it could just be that paper stickers don’t tend to last as well as other materials. Boris Johnson only agreed his Brexit deal with the EU in October 2019, so the sticker can’t be more than a few months old (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sometimes, you have to take a sticker’s location into account in order to appreciate it fully  (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is really interesting because I have seen quite a few stickers in various places calling for solidarity with Hong Kong since the latest round of protests started there in mid-2019. I have only seen this anti-solidarity stance in Edinburgh however. The graffiti is referring to the fact that the Extradition Bill which kick started the protests was in response to a woman from Hong Kong being murdered by her partner in Taiwan. Most people don’t know this however, and the Extradition Bill was almost universally criticised as an attempt by China to gain more power over Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising vegankit.com, a website that offers advice and guides on eating and living vegan. It isn’t clear who is behind the website though. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.


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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.

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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!)

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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