June 2011 Meeting Report
Speaker - Rowena Edlin-White
The June meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held on Friday, 3rd June in The Centenary Lounge, Keyworth. A smaller than usual audience had turned out to listen to Rowena Edlin-White talk about “Grace's Diary; The Journal of Grace Jane Dexter 1884 - 93. Life and aspiration of a young teacher in Nott'm & Derbys”. Rowena began by quoting the first line from the book The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley, thus ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. Rowena went on to say that diaries are evidence of that ‘country’ and that they are the passport into that country. Diaries can be an invaluable source of material for historians, especially those involved in family history.
The diary that tonight’s presentation was about came into Rowena’s possession some six years or so ago. It had been languishing in an attic in a house in Hull for some 50 years. Fortunately, however, a cousin of Rowena’s father knew of its whereabouts and he delivered it safely to Rowena. Rowena and Grace are actually related, albeit rather tenuously, Grace Dexter was an aunt of one of Rowena’s grandmothers. During her life Grace, it seems, was something of a celebrity in the family having actually met Florence Nightingale! The diary of Grace gives an incredible insight into the thoughts, emotions and aspirations of a young woman growing up in late Victorian Nottinghamshire.
Grace’s father was employed in various occupations during his life. One of these was as a teacher, he taught at the Board School in Melbourne, Derbyshire. The 1851 Census also lists Grace’s mother as a school teacher “of ladies”. Grace was born in 1865 at Caroline Street, St Annes. She was born into a “grieving” family, that is to say the family had recently lost 3 children. A fourth died shortly after Grace was born. These deaths effectively took the ‘middle’ out of the family leaving Grace with just two siblings, a sister aged 13 years and a brother aged 10 years. By the time that Grace was a toddler these two children had got jobs leaving Grace the only child at home. As her parents had further children the end result was that she came to be treated as an only child.
Grace began to write her diary in 1884 when she was 18 years old. By then her family were living in Burton Street, Sherwood. Her father was a plumber and painter and the family lived in rooms over a shop from where the business was conducted. One of Grace’s main ambitions was to become financially independent. This was no easy feat for a woman in Victorian England.
Grace’s diary begins on 2nd February 1884 with these opening words; “I resolve today to begin to write this diary to express my thoughts and feelings in it which I have longed to do for some time. I will begin with a short sketch of my life. I was born 15th September 1865, my parents at that time were very poor. However, as I grew older family circumstances altered for the better and we began to live comfortably, though not in affluence. My childhood was a very happy one but home was not what it might have been. I mean that it was not always peaceable. When I was 14 years of age I decided that I wished to be a teacher and to this end gained employment in that capacity. However, in my early career, I found the work very difficult, the children were often unruly and I had poor control over them, (Grace was employed in a Sneinton Board School). She had never been in such a school before; it is believed that her parents taught her at home. Presumably after having lost so many children through illness Grace’s parents were loath to expose her to the risks associated with exposure to so many other persons.
Grace enjoyed her teaching work and thanks to hard work progressed very well but after only three years she had to leave due to ill health. It was because Grace threw herself into her work with such vigor that her health suffered. If fact, her doctor informed that if she did not give up teaching she might ruin her health permanently. Reluctantly Grace acquiesced to medical advice and with sadness left the profession. However, once her health had returned Grace went back to teaching. For some reason it took her over 13years to fully qualify in her chosen profession, a long time by anyone’s standards, and then at several different schools.
Grace’s life then seemed to be a constant struggle to achieve ‘perfection’ in life. Her religion, the whole family were staunch Baptists, was the bedrock of this struggle and time and time again it was her unshakeable Christian beliefs that sustained her through difficult times. This quest to be ‘perfect’ led her to be quite melodramatic in some of her diary entries. Grace was constantly full of self-reproach for failing to attain the incredibly high standards that she set for herself. A possible cause of this might be found in the books that she read. One such book, a particular favourite of Grace, was ‘Stepping Heavenward’ by Mrs. Elizabeth Prentiss. Books like this gave impressionable young girls like Grace some very lofty, (and largely unrealistic), ideals to which they should aspire. The book became the role model for Grace to base her own life on. An example of this can be found with the sad death of Grace’s sister-in-law. Her elder brother, John, had married in 1887; his wife’s name was Maria. Sadly Maria and her new baby died shortly after the child was born. Maria was consumptive and this clearly was a contributory factor in the death. However, the fortitude and ‘suffering’ with which Maria bore this trial impressed Grace no end.
An underlying thread in Grace’s family life was the constant desire to ‘better’ themselves. This was a common theme in many a Victorian’s life. For those that desired educating there were all manner of classes, self-improvement groups and libraries springing up all over the place. The Mechanics Institute is one such example of where self-motivated people could go and acquire knowledge that, with luck, might improve their lot in life.
Grace’s father seemed to be constantly attempting to better himself. By July 1885 Grace’s father has become a traveller for a timber company owned by a Mr. Wharmby. This required Grace and her parents to relocate to the company’s mill, which was at Whatstandwell. Grace approved heartily of the move into the countryside with all its attendant attractions though she was sad to leave the day and Sunday schools that she attended in Nottingham. It wasn’t too long before Grace had obtained yet another teaching post. This time at the Lea School where she taught the 4th Standard. Her opinion of the children there was that the country children were less generous than those from the town that she had previously taught.
As mentioned earlier one of Grace’s claims to fame was that she was acquainted with Florence Nightingale. This came about as follows. Florence had been born in Derbyshire not far from where Grace now taught. Florence was no longer directly involved with nursing, she had ‘retired to her couch’ in London. From there, via a confidante named Mrs. Lushington, she liked to keep abreast with developments in her birthplace. It came to the attention of Florence that Grace was a new teacher there and she asked Mrs. Lushington to invite Grace to London to see her. This was duly done. Grace was ecstatic; Florence Nightingale had been a childhood heroine of hers. Grace travelling up to London and arriving at St Pancras Station, from there she went to stay with Mrs. Lushington. Firstly Mrs. Lushington took Grace to Westminster Abbey where Grace was overwhelmed by the splendour and grandeur of the place. An invite to see Florence duly arrived shortly afterwards and Grace and Mrs. Lushington set of in a carriage and pair, escorted by a footman. Grace found Florence very knowledgeable and ‘charmant’. The conversation gat round to the Crimean War, the source of Florence’s fame, and before long Grace was entertained by Florence reading Tennyson’s stirring work, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Grace was absolutely smitten by the occasion, she stated that it was the most enjoyable experience of her life and would continue to hold that view for years to come. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to state that the experience affected her for the rest of her life. She certainly ‘dined out’ on reminiscing the episode until her dying days. Indeed, so much was Grace affected by Florence Nightingale that, many years later, she left a bequest in her will to The Florence Nightingale Hospital.
One thing that Grace was exposed to whilst in London was the immense disparity in the lives that the well-off and the very poor lived. Whilst Grace was in London there was a very heavy snowfall. The snow fell that thickly that ordinary life was severely affected; the very poor found it all but impossible to scrape a subsistent living. Food shortages followed and then the poor began to riot against the conditions that they found themselves forced to bear. Grace, being a devout Christian, was much affected by the plight of the poor and was keen to do something to alleviate their suffering.
When Grace returned home and took up her teaching career again, but with little success. Her headmaster was constantly chastising her for her lack of control over her classes. Indeed, poor Grace was demoted several times until eventually she was little more than a classroom assistant. One of her problems was that she was opposed to corporal punishment. In the school environment of Victorian England this made her a soft touch for the type of pupil that she had to teach. Eventually Grace resigned from school, no doubt to the relief of her exasperated headmaster.
Close neighbours of the Dexter’s were the Myer family. One of their children was a girl of Grace’s age named Lucy. The pair spent many hours together and went to concerts, recitals, and services together until Grace, once again, returned to teaching. This time her position was back in Nottingham, at the St Peter’s Board School. The school was in a very poor part of Nottingham, nevertheless Grace earned the princely sum of £40 per year and this made her self-supporting. This was a source of great pride to Grace. However, for her £40 Grace had to teach a class of 87 pupils. Not only that but she was responsible for collecting the fees, in her own time, from the parents of the pupils. For some parents paying the meagre fees was a real struggle. Grace was much affected by how harsh the conditions were that these people were subject to. One thing however that was improving was the degree of control that Grace was beginning to have over her pupils. Not only that but there was a period of 3 weeks when, due to an outbreak of influenza, Grace was in soul charge of the whole school. This situation was so remarkable that it was reported in the local newspaper.
However, since Grace’s visit to London and her exposure to the problems prevailing there, it had been an ambition of hers to teach there and try to help in her own small way to improve the lot of the poor there. This she finally managed to do being employed in the Abbey Board School in West Ham. This school was one of the largest in the country at that time. It was a great wrench for Grace to leave her family behind in Derbyshire. It was whilst in London that Grace met her future husband, a furniture dealer named Herbert DuPris from Mile End. The couple was married at Duffield Baptist Chapel in 1901, although it seems that the couple had known each other for over 10 years. One reason for this delay might well have been Grace’s reluctance to give up the life that she had carved for herself through so much diligence and hard work. Had she married earlier she would have had to give up her career, married women were not allowed to teach at that time.
Grace had a very happy marriage though there were no children resulting from the union. Herbert died in 1945 leaving Grace heartbroken. Grace lived on until 1963 dying when she was 98 years old. It seems that Herbert had been a very successful businessman and the couple enjoyed a very comfortable living. All in all Grace lived a very full, rewarding and interesting life. Hers is a classic tale of a life born into a typically poor Victorian family in Nottingham who, through their own hard work, ambition and determination took advantage of the chances that were there to be had and raised themselves above their beginnings. By the time that Grace died in 1963 she was living in a world far removed from that that she had known as a child. There appeared to be little in comparison between the two eras but some things remained timeless. The love and importance of family and friends and the desire to help those less fortunate than herself were things that never changed through Grace’s long life.
Thanks to the diary that Grace kept, and the fact that it had survived to the present day, it was possible for us to have a glimpse into a world that has disappeared and to have a real sense of that world and how it affected and shaped Grace’s life. Many thanks to Rowena for giving us such an entertaining, informative and worthwhile presentation.