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The Avonbank School

Norma Hampson is a long-standing volunteer at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive and has written this blog to share details from her current project: listing visitors from the early Birthplace visitor books, specifically, those of the Avonbank School, some of whose members include author Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell, and Effie Gray (former wife of John Ruskin).

Norma Hampson
Avon Bank 1

On the 3rd April 1858, several pupils from Avonbank School and their teacher Miss Helen Ainsworth visited the Birthplace and signed the visitors’ books. A further three pupils, the Misses Miles, visited a few days later.

Visitor Bank

The property was at this time in the ownership of Thomas Battersbee, of Kingston-upon-Hull, a captain in the Royal Engineers, but had been leased from him to Maria, Anne, and Jane Margaret Byerley, spinsters of Stratford-upon-Avon to hold for fourteen years at £150 per annum. Miss Byerley (a niece of Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame) had opened a school in Warwick in 1810 which moved to Barford in 1817 and then to Stratford-on-Avon in 1822. This was half way through the school career of Elizabeth Stevenson, better known as the famous writer Mrs Gaskell. She left the school in 1826. It was during this period that one of the pupils drew a charming sketch of Avonbank.

Pencil Sketch of Avonbank School

The Census of 1841 records the household as follows:

Maria Byerley | head | 40 yrs | governess

Jane Byerley | sister | 40 yrs | governess

Mary Ainsworth | 40 yrs | governess

Alicia Ainsworth | 30 yrs | governess

Annabett Lye | 20 yrs | assistant governess

Susan Lye | 15 yrs | assistant governess

Mademoiselle Smith | 20 yrs | assistant governess (French)

There were thirty-nine pupils listed (only four of whom were born in the county of Warwickshire). Four gave their place of birth as Scotland: one of these was Euphemia (Effie) Gray, aged thirteen years.

In 1848, Effie Gray married John Ruskin, the eminent Victorian art critic. The marriage was never consummated and by 1854 was annulled. In the same year, she married the artist John Everett Millais.

In June 1841 the lease for Avonbank was assigned to Mary, Harriet, Alicia, and Helen Ainsworth who continued to run the school until 1859, when Miss Mary Ainsworth died and her sisters decided to leave the area.

The census of 1851 records Miss Helen Ainsworth as head, a French teacher born in Paris, a German teacher born in Dresden, and 28 pupils.

The property was put up for sale by auction at the Red Horse Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon on 20 August 1860 and purchased by Charles Edward Flower from the Battersbee family for 2000 guineas.

According to an entry in Sarah Flower’s diary on 30 September 1860:

the following day a visit from Miss Lander and Miss Smith who after seeing the place agreed to take it for two years so we had very quickly bought it and let it within two days’

It would appear that the two ladies were keen to continue the well established girls’ boarding school. However, by the census of 1861, only eight pupils remained. The head was Miss Martha Smith, seen in the image below with her pupils and staff in 1866 just prior to the demolition of the building.

Pupils and Teachers at Avonbank School
Miss Martha Smith & her pupils and staff, 1866

The architect F.C. Penrose was commissioned by Charles Edward Flower to design ‘very modern villa’ which was built by Mr. Clark of Warwick in 1867.

The only surviving part of Avonbank School is the oval part of the orangery, designed by Henry Hakewell, which was moved from the eastern façade of the house where, in Miss Byerley’s time, it had formed part of the large schoolroom. It now forms the rear part of the building used for some years as a Brass Rubbing Centre.

Norma will be sharing more discoveries from the visitor books with us as she continues with her project.

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