In July 2006 we paid tribute to Elsie Day a pioneer of girls’ education and the first headmistress of The Grey Coat Hospital (now a successful girls’ comprehensive).
Elsie Day (1849? – 1915)
Headmistress of ‘The Grey Coat Hospital’ from 1874 to 1910
On June 3rd 1874, aged 25, Elsie Day was appointed as the first headmistress of ‘The Grey Coat Hospital’ a former charity school that was in the process of becoming a day school for girls.
During her first year, due to an oversight, the school continued to take boarders, known as Foundationers, and it was in this area that Elsie Day first made her mark.
She soon realised that, despite its former status as a charity school, the children were ill-treated as a matter of course. She described the prevailing attitude as ‘anything was good enough for the Foundationers and nothing too good for those who should have cherished them’. When she informed a supplier that she couldn’t afford cream and chickens for the staff, she was told that it was usually put down in the accounts as milk for the children.
Before her arrival, pupils had been known by their numbers. She called them by their names, a change that cost nothing but must have meant a great deal to the children. In turn she told them to call her ‘Madam’.
She increased their comfort in many other ways. Much to the dismay of the cook, she insisted that the children should be served the same food as the headmistress and staff. She further antagonised the cook, a tall strong woman, by forbidding her to use the girls as kitchen maids.
Although the school employed a laundry maid, it is difficult to know what she did before the new regime for she was reluctant to do any laundry. The bedding in the dormitories was filthy but was covered by spotless counterpanes whenever there was a governors’ inspection.
Worse still the girls’ stays and black petticoats were passed down from child to child without ever being washed. The laundry maid was shocked when asked to wash them insisting that they’d never been washed in the seven years that she’d been in the school and she threatened to resign.
As in so many cases, Elsie Day’s quiet authority and refusal to compromise on standards won the day. Despite their threats to resign, both the laundry maid and the cook did as they were asked and both remained at the school.
The following year the boarders left and the Grey Coat Hospital became a girls’ day school. The first Grey Coat girl passed the Cambridge local examination in 1875. By 1880 the governors had been persuaded to allow girls to stay on at the school beyond the age of 15 and in 1891 the first Grey Coat girl passed the London Matriculation.
Elsie Day must have been very proud of her girls’ academic achievements for she recorded examination successes on large wooden boards placed on the walls of the hall.
She was tireless in her service to the school and has been described as one of the pioneers of girls’ education. In 1899 she became President of the Headmistresses Association and in 1902 she wrote ‘An Old Westminster Endowment’, a history of the school (now out of print).
For Elsie Day it was significant that the school’s initials (GCH) also stood for Generosity, Courtesy and Honour. How far she was successful in developing these characteristics in her pupils we’ll never know, but it’s clear that she possessed them in abundance.
She retired in 1910 having served as headmistress for 32 years. During her time at the school an outsider had remarked that the Grey Coat Hospital was ‘Not a school, but a large family’. When it’s remembered how dreadful the conditions were before she arrived, it is little wonder that ‘Madam’ was remembered with affection by her former pupils.
*Very little is known about the early life of Elsie Day. If anyone has any information they are
willing to share please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or write to: her-stories.co.uk, PO Box 786, Hebden Bridge, HX7 5WP