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Gentle education

22 April 2016

Michael Wheeler on a teaching pioneer like Misses Beale and Buss


courtesy of the armitt Museum. Photo © dayve ward, 2014 

Inspiring: Charlotte Mason at Ambleside, 1901, by Fred Yates. From the book

Inspiring: Charlotte Mason at Ambleside, 1901, by Fred Yates. From the book

Charlotte Mason: Hidden heritage and educational influence
Margaret A. Coombs
The Lutterworth Press £25


AMBLESIDE is not all Wordsworth and Wainwright. Two gifted women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras also have a presence in the town. “The Armitt”, a small museum, library, and gallery in Ambleside, originated in a remarkable library donated by Mary Louisa Armitt in 1909. Today, this is also the archival centre for the study of Miss Armitt’s friend Charlotte Mason, whose famous House of Education was established in the 1890s on a beautiful site just up the hill. Today Miss Mason’s buildings are part of the University of Cumbria, which honours her world-wide reputation as a visionary educationist.

From troubled beginnings, Mason made her way as a trainee pupil-teacher, first to teaching children, then to teacher training for gentlewomen, and finally to running her own training college and founding the Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU). She edited a long-running monthly journal, Parents’ Review, and published educational books, including her Home Education series, and a devotional work in verse, The Saviour of the World, in six wearisome volumes. Indifferent health meant that her periods of teaching were frequently interrupted by periods of convalescence. She died on 16 January 1923.

Mason was an inspiring lecturer who emphasised the need for parental involvement in the education of their children, who should be encouraged to explore the world imaginatively. Although not an original thinker, she takes her place among her more high-powered educational colleagues such as Frances Buss, Dorothea Beale, Anne Clough, and Emily Davies. Her grave in St Mary’s churchyard, Ambleside, is between W. E. Forster’s memorial and the graves of the Arnold family.

Margaret Coombs is a sociologist and social historian who specialises in the 19th century and has clearly researched Mason for many years. She offers a comprehensive and splendidly illustrated account of her subject, carefully recording the influence of the clergy, who had such a controlling interest in education in Mason’s time. Of particular interest is the section on her work at Bishop Otter Memorial College in Chichester, which reopened in 1873 as a training college for young ladies.

Coombs’s exhaustive research reveals new material relating to Charlotte’s illegitimate birth on or around 1 January 1842. Her father, Joshua, was a Quaker merchant who left for Sydney unaware that the much younger Margaret Shaw, a Roman Catholic, was pregnant. Two years later, he returned from Australia and made Margaret his third wife. By the end of the 1850s, both parents had died, leaving Charlotte to find her own path.

Coombs shares all her findings with us, devoting more than one chapter to the Mason family, for example. Written on the “vacuum cleaner” principle that everything goes in, the book cries out for judicious pruning as well as stylistic editing: there are far too many rhetorical questions and “may have beens”. For the historian of education, however, there is gold to be sifted here.


Dr Wheeler was formerly Professor of English at Lancaster University and an assessor at Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside.

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