On October 6th 1815 the "New School of Industry for Girls" was opened in a cottage on Pinfold Lane, Godmanchester. The school was started by Mrs Hicks, a doctor’s wife from subscriptions and donations amounting to £11. 19.6p in old money. The newly appointed mistress was Mrs Cave, a thin, bent lady of florid complexion. She was to spend the next 29 years at the school receiving five shillings a week (about 25 pence in modern currency), she was also given financial assistance with her rent.

The girls, mostly from the poorer members of the community, were selected by the subscribers on the school committee and admitted free of charge. Much emphasis was placed on high moral standards and good conduct, attendance at church was compulsory twice on Sunday. These rules were strictly enforced, any girl not abiding by them was quickly expelled.

The curriculum consisted of reading, sewing, knitting and 'marking' this was the old word for embroidered samplers, writing was not considered necessary for the daughters of poor families whose future was to be that of a servant or maybe a seamstress.

One girl by the name of Mary Peacock was reprimanded for playing truant and threatened with expulsion, this apparently worked as on leaving at the age of thirteen she was presented with a gown and bible, and it was proudly stated that she had found a position of servitude, which although  sounding like a prison sentence was a reference to domestic service, perhaps there was little difference

These little girls seated in rows on long benches, produced some beautiful needlework, which was sold off a long with the garments they made to help subsidise the school. Life was very hard and treats few and far between. At Christmas, each child was given a penny to prevent them degrading themselves by begging on the streets. To celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert the girls were given a day off, along with plum cake and elderberry wine. This must have been a very happy and memorable event for these deprived children who ranged in age from eight years old to thirteen.

Mrs Cave retired in 1844 with a pension of seven shillings a week, along with permission to stay in the house provided for her. Sadly, she died shortly after retirement, she was undoubtedly devoted to her girls and had tried very hard to improve their lives through education, however limited. Since they are all long dead we are not to know if she was successful.

The "Girls School of Industry" closed after she retired, but another one opened some time later near the Town Hall , eventually moving again to Dove House Close. This was run wholey on Church of England prices with a separate school for infants.

Two other private schools for girls also existed in Godmanchester at this time, these were for the more affluent family’s. The Misses Smith (two sisters) ran an establishment at Farm Hall, and Mrs Butterworth ran a lady’s school on Cambridge Road. It would be interesting to know if they had a similar curriculum to that of the School of Industry. What would these girls all make of the education available to the modern girl, and the careers and high salaries that can be achieved. What a shame they had the misfortune to be born 150 years too soon.


Anne Sink