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Biography of Florence Kate Firth (schoolmistress)


When Caroline Cooper the owner of a private Ladies' School at Malvernbury in Great Malvern, England, died in 1873, the business was acquired by Miss Janet Leighton.

Janet Leighton moved the school first to a house named Oak Hill on the corner of Albert Road and Clarence Road, and then about 1884 to a larger house named Lawnside at the northern end of Albert Road. She changed the name of the school to Lawnside and it became a famous British school for girls.

At some stage, and we don't know exactly when, Janet Leighton established a business partnership with Miss Florence Kate Firth which was dissolved in 1898; Florence Kate Firth became the next Principal of the school until she retired in 1908.

We have attempted in this story to tell you a little more about Miss Firth's background and family life.

Early life

From the census returns and BMD we think that Florence Kate Firth was born in Westminster London about 1852, the daughter of Dr William Henry Firth and Elizabeth Mechen. Her father, a General Practicioner, died in 1856 aged only 46 years and the family was left destitute.

In 1861 and 1871 Florence's mother Elizabeth was living her brother, bank clerk George Penson Mechen and his young family, while Florence and her two siblings were placed in the London Orphan Asylum, Clapton, in the parish of St John's Hackney.

By 1871 Florence was learning a trade and had become a 'Governess Pupil' at the orphanage.


The 1881 census records Florence as a schoolmistress in the town of Radipole near Weymouth. By 1891 aged 39 years she was the headmistress of a High School, living in the Walcot district of Bath. Possibly this school was Bath High School for Girls' founded by the Girls' Public Day School Company in 1875 to provide an education for girls of all classes aged between 11 and 18 years.

Sometime after, Florence Kate Firth went into partnership with Janet Leighton the headmistress of Lawnside School in Great Malvern. Then in 1898 'The London Gazette' of July 8th announced the end of the partnership, presumably because Janet Leighton intended to retire:

Notice is hereby given that the partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned Janet Leighton and Florence Kate Firth carrying on business as boarding school Principals at Lawnside Malvern under the style or firm Leighton and Firth is dissolved by mutual consent as and from the 1st day of May 1898. All debts due to and owing by the said firm will be received and paid by the said Janet Leighton. Dated this 30th day of May 1898.

Janet Leighton

Florence Kate Firth

Janet Leighton and later her family continued to own the school building which must have been leased to Florence, who we are guessing had no capital.

The 1901 census records Florence as Headmistress at Lawnside. One of the other schoolmistresses was her niece Hilda Howell, aged 24 years, the daughter of her sister Rose Emily who had married cook and confectioner Valentine Harry Howell.

The history of Lawnside (ref 1) contains accounts by former pupils of Florence's headship at Lawnside from 1902 to 1908.  She was said to be 'short and slender, an active Headmistress who made her presence felt wherever she went'.

Florence Kate Firth continued as headmistress at Lawnside until 1908 when she in turn retired and the business was jointly taken over by Madame Laura Robinet who retired in 1918 and Miss Gertrude Harman who retired in 1925.

The 1911 census records Florence living in London at Marlborough Mansions, West Hampstead; she gave her occupation as retired head of a private school and her age as 50, but actually she was 58 years old.

Florence lived to a good age and died at Apsley House, Sydney Buildings, Bath on 11th Jan 1942 aged 89 years; her death was reported in the Bath Chronicle. Her niece, Hilda Howell, was one of her executors as was Arthur William Stokes the husband of her niece Gwendoline.

So it would seem Florence made a good life for herself after being plunged into poverty following the death of her father, helped by the education she received at the London asylum for orphans at Clapton which was built and funded by public subscription; the foundation stone had been laid by Frederick, Duke of York in 1823.


Florence was the youngest of four children.

Her elder sister Rose Emily Firth married at London in 1875 cook and confectioner Valentine Harry Howell. The couple had three children, Hilda Howell (1876 - 1966) who became a teacher, Godfrey Valentine Howell (1878 - 1939) who in 1911 was a civil servant working at Somerset House, and Gwendoline Howell born in 1880 who married civil servant Arthur William Stokes.

We suspect Rose and her husband fell on hard times for it looks like Valentine and his son Godfrey were admitted to the Fulham Road Workhouse in 1885 and he died in 1889. We don't know what happened to Rose.

Florence's brother William Henry Firth (1850 - 1912) married Annie Maria Burkett at St Luke's Chelsea in 1890; they had no children. The 1911 census records his occupation as a manufacturing chemist's clerk.

Her brother Walter Sidney Firth died an infant.

Nephew and nieces

So it appears Florence was only survived by the children of her elder sister Rose Emily.

Hilda Howell

Hilda the eldest was staying with her grandparents in 1881 when she was five. In 1891 she was a pupil teacher at the Orphanage of the Sisters of Bethany attached to St Clements Church Boscombe which lies on the south coast between Christchurch and Bournemouth; there were about 100 orphans there.

By 1901 she had joined her Aunt Florence at Lawnside school in Great Malvern, but she was not at Lawnside after Florence retired.

The 1911 census records Hilda Howell aged 34, but giving her age as 29, living with the Gower family at Cranleigh, 32 Deerings Road, Reigate in Surrey. Her occupation was recorded as High School mistress (assistant) church school.

Godfrey Valentine Howell

The 1891 census records Godfrey aged 15 years boarding with the family of accountant James Baddely Webster in Shrewsbury. In the household was James' sister-in-law Caroline Sims a certificated schoolmistress.

In 1901 Godfrey was living with his sister Gwendoline at 111 Ebury Street in the parish of St George's Hanover Square. He is a Civil Servant 2nd Division Clerk, and she is a student at a teacher training college. They must have been reasonably well off as also living in the household were Allan Gordon a retired Captain in the army, Rosina James a housemaid, Ellen Wade a kitchenmaid and Lucy G Service the housekeeper.

By 1911 Godfrey had married Alice Elizabeth Turner and the couple went on to have two sons.

Gwendoline Howell

In 1891 Gwendoline aged 11 years, like her sister Hilda, was at the Orphanage of the Sisters of Bethany in St Clements Road, Boscombe. The orphanage was associated with St Clements Church which was dedicated in 1873. In 1901 she was a student at a teacher training college, living with her brother Godfrey in London as mentioned above.

About 1908, Gwendoline married Arthur William Stokes who in 1911 was recorded as a Civil Servant with the Inland Revenue. They had two children.


  1. Lawnside, the history of a Malvern school, compiled by Mary Dixey and Duseline Stewart, Lawnside Old Girls' Association, Malvern 1996
  2. Census of England and Wales
  3. Index of Births Marriages and Deaths
  4. National Probate Calendar
  5. Wikipedia

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