For centuries, genteel girls and those of the ‘middling sort’ were educated at home, usually by their mothers or governesses, but in the latter part of the 18th century and into the early 19th, the number of girls’ boarding school proliferated. Not only were they seized on by aspirational parents eager to enhance their daughters’ accomplishments but they were also offered a new opportunity to lone, or otherwise unsupported, educated women: a career and an income.Share
The reasons for the popularity of these private fee-paying schools with parents are much as they are now: standards and social aspiration. Their daughters could learn refined skills such as harp-playing or figure-dancing in an environment where they would brush shoulders with their social superiors. A boarding school education was an investment. It increased a girl’s value on the marriage market and, should the worst happen (that is, she did not marry or the family’s finances collapsed) at least she would be able to support herself. She would have acquired an education that would enable her to find work as a teacher.
Of course, there was a huge range in the quality and type of education on offer. In the middle of the 18th century, the basic curriculum might be reading and needlework, but by the early 19th century grammar and literature (English and French), history and geography were on the curriculum. Often specialist teachers were contracted in. It was not unknown to offer Italian, classical mythology, natural philosophy, or household skills such as pickling, preserving and pastry-making. The annual cost of a boarding school education would be in the region of 12 to 20 guineas but that could rise to 80 to 100 in London or Bath, with additional subjects charged separately. (Read more.)