Frances Mary Buss

Frances Mary Buss was a pioneer of women’s education and the first woman to use the title ‘headmistress’. She served as the head of the North London Collegiate School for Ladies until the end of her working life, and also founded the Camden School for Girls in 1871. Buss was active in campaigning for women’s suffrage and for equal educational rights, and established the Association of Head Mistresses, the Teachers’ Guild and the Cambridge Training College.

Family life

Frances Mary Buss was born in 1827 to artist Robert William Buss and his wife, also Frances. She was one of ten siblings, and at a young age she was sent to stay with grandparents, who enrolled her into boarding school. She showed a natural aptitude for learning and teaching during her primary education, and at age 14 Buss was already taking classes at her Hampstead secondary school. Aged sixteen, Buss was acting as unofficial head to the school on a regular basis, working alongside her mother who was also a teacher.

As a busy headmistress and patron of two schools, with numerous external interests including trusts, guilds and societies to attend, Buss never married or had children – though her large extended family produced many nieces and nephews, and girls from the family were often schooled under Buss. She dedicated her life to her passion – teaching – and her schools still honour this every year with a memorial day. On Founder’s Day, staff and pupils carry or wear a daffodil – Buss’ favourite flower – in memory of the nation’s first headmistress.

North London Collegiate School

At the age of eighteen, Frances Mary Buss enlisted the help of her mother and the pair secured a building in Camden Street. The North London Collegiate School opened its doors in 1850, and Buss served as the school’s headmistress from this date until her death in 1894.  The school provided day boarding only to young girls, as Buss emphasised the importance of family, and to this day it provides independent day education to girls aged 4-18.

The North London Collegiate School is one of the UK’s most successful educational facilities and it often takes a top three place in the exam league tables. Notable former students include fashion editor Anna Wintour, family planning advocate Marie Stopes, dentist Lilian Lindsay, and literary critic Dame Helen Gardner.

The school was the first in the UK to provide equal educational advantages for girls. Teaching was mainly handled by the Buss family in its early years – as well as Frances and her mother, father Robert and son Septimus served the school by art and scripture. Other family members attended the school as students, and some went on to provide their services as teachers.

The successful combination of family values and good academic education made the North London Collegiate School the perfect model for establishing other learning environments for girls, with schools as far afield as South Africa practicing Buss’ teaching methods.

Camden School for Girls

The Camden School for Girls was founded by Frances Buss in 1871, to provide education to girls who could not afford the public schooling offered at North London Collegiate. It provides secondary education, and has been a grammar school previously before adopting a fully comprehensive educational style by 1981.

The school has been attended by some very famous faces, including Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and comedienne Arabella Weir. Journalists Kate and Lucy Kellaway, actress Charlotte Coleman, physicist Athene Donald and politician Georgia Gould were also schooled at CSG.

Association of Head Mistresses and Hughes Hall

Frances Buss established a committee panel to represent female heads of educational facilities, having handed herself the title of ‘headmistress’, and other female educators including close friend Dorothea Beale were also setting up their own schools to provide educational for girls. The association was created in 1874 and Buss served as the president of the society until her death in 1894.

Buss also played an important role in the creation of the Teachers’ Guild in 1883, and she was one of the key supporters and founders of Hughes Hall, Cambridge – a dedicated facility for female students who wanted a career in education or academia. The teacher training college now admits both men and women, but is only open to mature students with most places reserved for postgraduate level study.

Suffrage and educational rights

Frances Buss, along with a number of prominent educators, took part in discussions of feminism and female voting rights at the Kensington Society, a discussion group also attended by Dorothea Beale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies. The group supported the suffrage movement but disagreed with the violent and disruptive methods some activist groups were using, instead preferring to focus on political lobbying and educational reform. The group were unsuccessful in their petition to the Government for the right to vote, but they did add to the growing pressure on politicians to reform the law and recognise the rights of female citizens. Along with direct activists and a change in public opinion, groups like the Kensington Society are credited with paving the way for voting reform in Britain.

Examinations for girls

Buss and Davis both achieved significant political victories in terms of education for girls, including ensuring that female students could take examinations and qualify for degrees. In 1863, the pair appealed to Camden’s council to allow girls to sit exams just like the boys, and 84 female students sat the local papers that year. 24 of these were North London Collegiate students, and 15 passed the exam.

More importantly, the girls proved that they could handle the stress of an exam and were capable of achieving good results – putting an end to arguments that academic tests could be harmful to female health and wellbeing. Following this experiment, the rules were relaxed and girls were permitted to enter exams under the same terms as boys.

Breaking down gender barriers in schools

By all accounts, Frances Buss ran a strict school with harsh punishments, but commanded real love and respect from her pupils regardless. Her emphasis on the girls being as good as the boys gave the school a real sense of camaraderie, with staff and pupils all ‘in it together’ to prove their worth as females in the educational environment. Buss’ school curriculum included domestic crafts and other ‘feminine’ pursuits, but also focus on academic subjects and sports.

Girls at the North London Collegiate School were expected to take part in physical activity, and the school had the first purpose-built girls’ gymnasium in the country. An annual sports day and a tug-of-war event were introduced by Buss, who felt that her girls should be healthy and hardened. Sports played at the school included gymnastics, swimming, hockey and athletics.

Though she had a reputation for toughness and a severe manner, Frances Buss was known to her pupils as a loving and dedicated teacher who gave her life to bettering young women’s educational chances, and who opened the door to a wider range of learning opportunities for girls in the UK. She founded two schools and several societies, and was a pioneer in girls’ education as well as a notable part of the suffrage movement.


Lead image: Portrait of Frances Buss in around 1882, via Wikipedia

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