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Biography of Janet Leighton (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 Janet Leighton's background and wider family.

A delightful book, The History of Lawnside (ref 1) suggests Janet Leighton may have been a cousin of the famous painter Lord Leighton, but we have found no evidence supporting that.

Early life

From the census returns and BMD we deduce that Janet Leighton was born in the parish of Chelveston cum Caldecot in East Northamptonshire about 1837. She was baptised on 27th June at the parish church and her parents were recorded as Andrew Leighton, a farmer and Ann.

Andrew who was born in Scotland and Ann had seven children who survived to full age, Janet, David, Helen, Annnie, Margaret, Jane and Andrew William.

Janet's mother died in 1858 and her father in 1868.

School mistress

The 1871 census records Janet aged 33 years living in Bedford. She is described as the Principal of a Ladies' School and with her are her sisters Margaret and Jane.

By 1881 Janet Leighton had acquired Caroline Cooper's school at Malvernbury and moved to Oak Hill in Albert Road. She is described as the Principal of a Ladies' School aged 43 years. The teachers were Frances E Foster a governess, Maria M Goetz a French teacher born Germany, Maria E Sibley and Margaret Kendall. There were 19 pupils.

The 1891 census records the school at Lawnside. Janet Leighton is recorded as a school mistress and Principal. The other staff are Esther Kingdom an assistant English teacher, Maria Goetz a teacher of French, and Harriett Bouditton assistant teacher.

While  at Lawnside, sometime after 1891, Janet Leighton went into partnership with Florence Kate Firth until 1898 when The London Gazette of July 8th recorded:

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

In 1898 it appears Janet Leighton retired and moved to London to live with her brother David in North Finchley where she died on 11th February 1915. The National Probate Calendar records she left effects of 9,314 a considerable amount in those days. Her executors were her brother David, sister Jane and her brother in law Rev John Irby Farr.

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

Connection to the art world

The history of Lawnside (ref 1) relates the school was closely associated with the 'arts' and the school doctor, Medical practitioner Charles Harry Hanger East, was a nephew of the Victorian landscape painter Sir Alfred East (1844 - 1913), who was appointed president of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1906.

Madame Laura Robinet, who was a Principal of the school in 1911, was the wife of French painter Paul Robinet.

Whilst many painters such as David Bates would have visited Malvern to paint in the countryside so far we have found no connection or family link between Janet Leighton and the painter Lord Frederick Leighton.


Janet's brother David Leighton (1841 - 1923) married school mistress Lizzie Helen Clarke at Northampton in 1864. In the census he is decribed as a Manchester wharehouseman and later as an agent for a cotton manufacturer. In 1911 Lizzie is a patient at the St Andrew's Hospital for mental diseases in Northampton and David is living in Finchley with his sister Janet. They had no children.

If we have it right, Helen Leighton (1845 - 1918) married an American, Thomas Messenger Drown (1842 - 1904). Their marriage on 31st August 1869 was reported in the New York Evening Post. Thomas Messenger Drown was a prominent analytical chemist and metallurgist in his day and was an honorary member of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers. Helen is recorded living with her sister Annie in Torquay in 1891 and at Leamington Spa in 1911 where she died in 1918. The couple had no children.

Margaret Leighton married clergyman Rev John Irby Farr (1849 - 1932) at Bedford in 1875. They had one daughter Helen Leighton Farr (1879 - 1954) before Margaret died in Wales in 1880. After Margaret died, her sister Jane Leighton joined Rev Farr's household to look after her niece. In 1911 John Irby Farr was headmaster of the County School Llanrwst, in Wales.

Andrew William Leighton (1853 - 1879) was admitted to the medical register on 10th March 1879. His address was that of his brother-in-law Rev John Irby Farr and his qualification - Licenced Society of Apothecaries London 1878. Sadly a death announcement in the Evening Post, Wellington, New Zealand  on the 25th August 1879 suggests Andrew died of tuberculosis at the residence of Dr Leighton Kesteven, of Willis-street aged only 26 years. The newspaper suggests Leighton Kesteven was a cousin but so far we have found no evidence to support that.


So it would seem that Janet Leighton was survived by just one niece - Helen Leighton Farr, who did not marry, and so that branch of the Leighton family came to an end. Helen appears to have inherited the house of her aunts Helen and Annie at Leamington Spa where she herself died in 1954; her executors were Reginald Percy Farr, retired civil servant, John Reginald Farr (1917 - 1997), Major HM Army, and Michael Farr, MBE, Captain HM Army, her cousin and nephews.

Reginald Percy Farr, a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers was the son of Helen Leighton Farr's uncle Tom, a tea planter in Ceylon.

Here is a quotation from the Durham Record Office about Helen's nephew Michael:

Captain Michael Farr, MBE (Ref: Farr D/DLI 7/208/12-201) 2nd Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry. Entry in McGregor; born, 6 September 1918; served Second World War, British Expeditionary Force; captured at St. Venant, France, 27 May 1940; as prisoner of war made numerous escape attempts; imprisoned in Colditz, Germany, 1943 - April 1945; awarded the MBE, for gallantry in the field, 1946; died, 1993.

Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers, Security Officer at Colditz Castle during the Second World War, presented his records of the Castle and its inmates, to Captain Farr in 1973.



  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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