Plaque unveiled at York St John University, Lord Mayor’s Walk,  YO31 7EX  Friday July 6th 2018

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

York St John University

As foremothers of what would become York St John University, Winifred, Catherine and Mary Cruse, three sisters, played a significant part in the history of women’s education in the city and in the dioceses of York and Ripon. These three remarkable women made a big difference by simply expecting, and then fostering, equal levels of rigour and attainments between women and men in the field of education.

Education of women in Victorian York

The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales, known as the National Society, was founded by the Church of England in 1811. Nonconformism was growing in the industrialised areas of Britain and the established church sought to put the teaching of the ‘National Religion’ at the core of the education of the poor. The plan was ambitious; the aim was to establish a system of National Schools with at least one school in each parish. In line with prevailing Victorian values, the ‘labouring classes’ were not to be taught to better themselves, to cross class barriers, but to be content with their station in life.

In 1812, the Diocese of York established the York Diocesan Society (YDS) to further the work of the National Society in the northern provinces. It soon became apparent that there was a shortage of suitably qualified teachers to staff the large number of new schools required. A joint initiative of the dioceses of York and Ripon in 1839 brought about significant change in the educational landscape of both cities. Keen to address the acute shortage of teachers, the new committee of the two dioceses channelled donations to create a new Training School for Masters in York. This was ‘to remed[y] the existing defects in the Education both of the Poor and Middle Classes of Society’.

Provisions for schoolmistresses were also under active consideration. In 1842, the diocesan committee budgeted £100 to train ‘young women as schoolmistresses’ at 14 Monkgate under the guidance of Mrs Fearnley, the mistress of the Model National School for Girls in York, who was appointed in 1843. But the YDS was initially rather sceptical. In their view, it would take more than two decades to ‘prepare the way’ for a ‘scene of operation’ equivalent to the provisions made for the teacher training college for men which occupied premises at 33 Monkgate. An outbreak of scarlet fever in the men’s college accelerated this process. The death of a student who had contracted the disease meant that the premises were deemed ‘inadequate’ for male masters who were to relocate to Lord Mayor’s Walk. However, the premises were not deemed to be so for women trainees and the YDS made a resolution to create a ‘permanent establishment for the training of School Mistresses’ there.

Training College for Mistresses

In July 1846, the committee recommended the appointment of Winifred Cruse as the superintendent of the newly opened Training School for Mistresses in rooms vacated by the men’s college at 33 Monkgate. She was to receive a salary of £80 per year, whilst Catherine, her younger sister, was appointed assistant mistress at a salary of £35. Mary, the youngest, was in charge of assisting with household management to support the female trainees but was unpaid for the first few years of her residence. In opening this permanent college for women, the York Diocesan Society was responding to a recognised need for schoolmistresses. The Ecclesiastical Gazette noted in 1847 that the ‘demand for schoolmistresses is said to be greater than the supply in the ratio of ten to one’.

The college archives (now held at York St John University) offer no information on the backgrounds of these sisters or indeed their professional experience prior to teaching at Monkgate. Yet, as early as 1846, the minutes of the diocesan committee soon recorded that, whilst the overall responsibility for both male and female training schools was given to the Revd William Reed (formerly chaplain to the Bishop of Jamaica, born on the island), the latter gave wide authority to Winifred Cruse to lead what contemporaries called the ‘Female School’.

The archives also reveal the backgrounds of their first students who were, according to a survey of 41 female trainees in 1848, mostly from working-class families. Amongst them, there were the daughters of seven farmers, three joiners, two coopers, two butchers, two grocers, two clothiers, one watchmaker, one stonemason and one horse-dealer. Only three were daughters of professional men (a schoolmaster, a clergyman and an attorney). The records, unsurprisingly, do not give much information about the situation of their mothers.

Domesticity and academic attainments

Winifred Cruse designed a syllabus as strenuous as that of the men on Lord Mayor’s Walk. With the exception of Latin, classes closely followed the men’s curriculum, with lessons in history, geography, arithmetic, English, morals, theology and music, but with the addition of domestic training and chores from which male trainees were noticeably exempt. Her programme of study was also notable for maintaining the same rigorous schedules as for male students. A typical weekday would run from 6am till the gas was turned off at 9.45pm. After the rising bell, female teacher trainees had to strip their beds and turn their mattresses before the roll call at 6.45am. Morning service was at 7am after which two students would, in turn, prepare breakfast (tea with bread and butter to be served at 8) while the others had to tidy their rooms and polish their shoes. Classes would run from 9 to 12 in the morning and from 2 to 5 in the afternoon, only interrupted by singing exercises from 12 to 12.30 and a communal lunch at 1pm. This often consisted of a portion of beef or mutton, with potatoes, followed by a suet or rice pudding. Tea and bread were served at 5pm, prior to further study until 7pm. This could also include ‘industrial’ employments, such as sewing and housework taught by Mary Cruse. Tea and bread were offered again at 8pm, followed by prayers at 8.30pm before bedtime at 9.15pm.

The rules imposed by Winifred and Catherine Cruse were strict. 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. No student was to go into York without leave or to write a letter without their approval. ‘Strick [sic] adherence to the rules of the house’ was, according to Winifred Cruse, ‘the only means of ensuring comfort and regularity’.

Successive diocesan and HMI reports reveal that most of the teaching load fell on the Cruse sisters. Winifred taught humanities and religious subjects. She received very little help from the Revd Randolph for the latter as ‘he resided some four miles from the city and was therefore unable to perform his duty in a regular way’. In the early years of the Training School for Schoolmistresses, she also gave lessons on pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching. Catherine then took charge of this when a Practicing School was opened in a room at the back of the Monkgate house in 1852. Catherine also delivered lessons in arithmetic and writing up to that date, after which she co-organised courses on these subjects and music with visiting masters from the men’s college. The number of Queen’s Scholars coming out of the college progressed steadily over the years to achieve 30 by 1860 and, in 1854, a new assistant mistress, Miss Sampson, was recruited.

Budget constraints

The YDS was entirely dependent upon voluntary donations to carry out its work to educate the poor and was frequently short of funds. Inspection and examination reports reveal the constraints this shortage put on the Cruse sisters. They had to make do with inadequate premises and limited staffing. The building on Monkgate was both draughty and damp; an insalubrious situation which had motivated the move of the men’s college to Lord Mayor’s Walk in the first place. When it was agreed that the female students’ bedrooms were in dire need of redecorating, the committee declared ‘that only such whitewashing should be done as seemed absolutely requisite for the health of female pupils, and in any case the cost must not exceed £5’. Winifred Cruse thus made the resolution to whitewash all the walls except those in her own rooms which were papered. She made other frugal, yet meaningful, changes, petitioning for a grant of £5 to provide students with a table in each bedroom and another of £10 to fund a ‘teacher in linear drawing’.

Her aim was to achieve relative comfort. Indeed when, in 1847, the committee did approve a budget of £500 to renovate the premises, Winifred declined and continued to press for more minor improvements. She lobbied for the inexpensive provision for the training of schoolmistresses which stood in stark contrast with the efforts made to improve the conditions of men on Lord Mayor’s Walk. Far from concealing this inequity, Winifred embraced it. It is difficult to know why she did so; she might have internalised the contemporary notion that women had to be ‘modest’. This was, after all, what the Committee of Privy Council for Education regarded as the role of the Lady Superintendent who was expected to ‘look upon the formation of womanly character, the inculcation of habits of neatness and economy, the discouragement of all tendencies of vanity, love of dress, the establishment of fixed principles resting upon a basis of religious conviction, as the most important of all objects’.

However, Winifred had already deviated from this line in offering variety in academic tuition and classes in pedagogy which were not regarded as a priority by the committee. In fact, in May 1850, in a letter to the Committee of Privy Council in London, the YDS critiqued the efforts of the Monkgate college ‘to raise to so high a standard the instruction of Females who are intended to educate those who will be, for the most part, domestic servants, or will occupy some subordinate position in life’. ‘The nervous system of young women’ and their ‘humble class of life’ were deemed unequal to the strain. But the Committee of Privy Council rejected their request and emphasised the need for ‘a common standard’.

What is certain is that Winifred Cruse’s position on budgeting for renovation was criticised in HMI evaluations which regularly condemned the state of the buildings throughout her 16 years as superintendent. The challenges of the Monkgate premises coupled with the rapid increase of students from three to 33 between 1846 and 1848 meant that the superintendent also struggled to secure regular lodgings for trainees. In January 1848, after complaints from the Bishop of Ripon about the state of female accommodation, trainees were moved to St Maurice and Holy Trinity churches. However, the poor conditions of the buildings at Monkgate were such that ‘the attendance of the Pupils was discontinued during the winter months’.

A trial for heresy

The Cruse sisters received unwelcome notoriety in 1852 when they became Tractarians. Also known as the Oxford Movement, Tractarianism gathered High Church members of the Church of England who wished for a closer alignment with Roman Catholicism in the 1830s and 1840s. After a rumour had spread that the Revd Reed and his successor, the Revd Hodgkinson, along with Winifred Cruse were spreading the ‘extreme views’ of Tractarian doctrine, the Superintendents were accused of ‘erroneous teaching’. In December 1853, the diocese asked the Archbishop of York to hold a full enquiry which meant that, in effect, Winifred Cruse and the Revd Hodgkinson were on trial for heresy. The affair caused a stir in the clerical city of York, particularly as the local press, including the Yorkshire Gazette, relished reporting on the incident. However, they were both exonerated in January 1854. Winifred Cruse was able to prove the derisory nature of the charges pressed against her, making references to the constraints mentioned above and the restricted places for schoolmistresses in the area. Hodgkinson also emerged with credit but with a fine. He resigned shortly after.

‘Broken health’ and last traces

Whilst two principals took their talents elsewhere during the first 12 years of the Training School for Men, Winifred Cruse, on the other hand, remained in post as Lady Superintendent until the move of the female college to Ripon in 1863. In recognition of her work, the college increased her salary by £20 in 1859, the equivalent of one fifth of the pay received by the principal of the men’s college. Yet, her dedication was not without some consequence on her health. In February 1862, the committee reported the ‘severe and alarming illness of Miss Cruse’. In April, she resigned after 16 years of service, having ‘lately been visited with a severe and dangerous illness’. Saddened by the news, the York Diocesan Society wrote that ‘she had been eminently successful in her influence on the young persons entrusted to her charge and had been instrumental in rearing an efficient painstaking and conscientious body of teachers’. There is no evidence that Winifred received a pension. All we know is that she died near Bristol in 1868. Her sister Catherine had resigned much earlier, in 1858, ‘due to broken health’. This had led to the closure of the Female Middle School of which she was in charge with visiting masters from the men’s college. It is hardly surprising to find that, having witnessed the health of her elder sisters decline, Mary refused to join the new college in Ripon.



Gordon McGregor, Life more abundant, York St John University 1841-2008, A Study of Policy and its Absence (York, 2009)

Alice Margaret Wilkinson, Ripon College 1862-1962, The First Hundred Years (Ripon, 1963)


The archives of the men’s and women’s teacher training colleges are held in the archives of York St John University,



© Dr Elodie Duché, Dr Kaley Kramer and Dr Anne-Marie Evans