York Civic Trust plaques

Winifred, Catherine and Mary Cruse

Pioneers of women’s education at the York and Ripon Teacher Training College for Women (now York St John University) from 1846 -1862

Plaque unveiled at York St John University on July 6, 2018

Education of the poor, in Victorian times, wasn't seen as a way of helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds rise in the world. It was about teaching the 'labouring classes' to be content with their lot.

If that was true of working class men, it was doubly true of working class women. In 1850, in a letter to the education committee of the Privy Council in London, the York Diocesan Society criticised the 'Training School for Mistresses' in Monkgate for raising the standard of education of young women training to be teachers too high. These women were, after all, intended to 'educate those who will be, for the most part, domestic servants, or will occupy some subordinate position in life', the letter pointed out.

All the more credit then to Winifred Cruise, the training school's superintendent, for insisting that women deserved to be educated to the same standard as men.

A Training School for Masters had been set up in York in 1941 by the dioceses of York and Ripon. Based at 33 Monkgate, it was intended to supply teachers for the new network of 'National Schools'.

The premises at Monkgate soon proved inadequate for the new men's training college (an outbreak of scarlet fever didn't help), and it quickly relocated to Lord Mayor's Walk (today's York St John University). The damp, draft building they left behind was thought to be perfectly acceptable for the Training School for Mistresses set up in 1846 to train female teachers, however.

The first superintendent of this new training school was Winifred Cruse. She brought with her her two younger sisters - Catherine, as an assistant mistress, and Mary, who helped out with household management.

We know very little about the Cruse sisters before they arrived at the college. But we know quite a bit about their first students. Of the 41 trainees, all but three were from working class families. They included the daughters of farmers, joiners, coopers, butchers and clothiers.

Winifred imposed a strict regime. Students had to get up at 6am, strip the beds, then attend roll call before morning service.

Two students would then prepare breakfast (tea with bread and butter) while the others tidied their rooms. Classes ran from 9am to 12noon and from 2pm to 5pm, only interrupted by singing exercises and a communal lunch - of beef or mutton with potatoes - at 1pm. Tea and bread were served at 5pm, before further study until 7pm.

There were strict rules on dress and behaviour, too. Clothing had to be plain; students were required to wear ‘high dresses with neat collars’ and accessories such as ‘ringlets, flowers, veils, flounces and ornaments’ were prohibited.

Despite the strict regime, the curriculum the young women trainee teachers followed was surprisingly progressive. Lessons included geography, history, arithmetic, English, morals, theology and music, together with domestic training. Winifred also gave lessons on the method and practice of teaching.

Winifred appears to have been a bit of a contradiction, however. While insisting upon the highest educational standards, she seems to have been willing to accept the poor quality of the training school's accommodation - even, in 1847, declining an offer of £500 to renovate the premises.

In 1852, there was a scandal. The Cruse sisters were accused of being Tractarians - High Church members of the Church of England who wanted closer links with Roman Catholicism. Winifred was accused of spreading 'extreme views', and called before a board of inquiry. Despite a media frenzy, she was exonerated in January 1854, and continued as the training school's superintendent.

She remained in post for a total of 16 years, retiring only in February 1862 when she became ill. She died near Bristol in 1868.

Stephen Lewis

For the stories behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit wwwyorkcivictrust.co.uk