A single-minded pioneer of women’s education, educational reformer, campaigner for women’s rights including the right to vote, and an authoress, Dorothea Beale was born in London but made her biggest impact by far in the Cotswolds where she revolutionised the education of middle-class girls, ultimately to the benefit of all.

Born at 41 Bishopsgate Street on March 21, 1831, Dorothea was the third daughter and fourth child of surgeon Miles Beale and Dorothea Margaret née Complin, who’d end up having eleven children in total. Luckily for Dorothea, her Gloucestershire father was actively interested in education and the social issues of the day. Her mother, of Huguenot extraction, was a first cousin of Caroline Cornwallis (1786-1858), a scion of a junior branch of the famed military family, but a published authoress and therefore a considerable influence on Dorothea. Educated partly at home by indifferent governesses and occasionally at boarding school replete with parrot-fashion rote learning, Dorothea would also attend lectures and show a particular aptitude for maths, geometry and algebra.


A lot of her learning was self-taught, though. She read anything she could lay her mitts on, including Euclid, clearly having a desire to learn and educate herself, something that would have been encouraged by her enlightened father at a time when most women were expected to serve their time in domesticity, as companion and mother, or perhaps in domestic service if they were less fortunate of circumstance, but not really to forge professional careers for themselves. Aged 16, in 1847, she began attending a school for English lasses in Paris, along with two older sisters, that is until another revolution in France (1848) put paid to that with the school being closed. She’d return home, helping her younger siblings with their learning, including in Latin, the first steps in a future career in teaching. She’d then become one of the first students at the newly-formed Queen’s College in London, moving on to be a maths tutor there in 1849, when she was still only 18. Come 1854, she’d become head of the school that was attached to the college. This was a young lady who was heading places.

In 1856, Dorothea published an anonymous piece in which she supported an institute in Germany, her visits to this and other women’s colleges on the continent informing her just how far behind we were in this country. The following January she’d become head of a school for the daughters of clergy in Westmorland, although her outspoken belief in the need for reforms would see her depart by mutual consent within the year. In a reactionary setting, she’d argued that discipline of pupils could be fostered through rewarding good behaviour and hard work, rather than just punishment. Her views were rather too revolutionary for the place and the time. She’d still establish a scholarship in 1858 for these students to be able to attend Cheltenham, a place that was to feature heavily in her life. Beale continued teaching her maths, and also Latin, whilst also publishing an aid for teachers, her Students’ Text Book of English and General History from BC 100 to the Present Time. It sounds like the way history used to be taught, indeed the way this particular historian was taught, from start to finish, from dinosaurs to modern-day cavemen, with everything in the correct order.

Great British Life: Cheltenham Ladies' College. Dorothea Beale, the educational reformer and advocate for women's rights, including the right to an education, was the second principal. Cheltenham Ladies' College. Dorothea Beale, the educational reformer and advocate for women's rights, including the right to an education, was the second principal. (Image: Cheltenham Ladies' College)

From 1858, Dorothea was the second principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, at the age of just 27. It was on June 16 that she was chosen from 50 candidates to take over at what was the earliest girls’ proprietary school in England, which had been opened a few years earlier in 1854. Cheltenham would host the rest of Beale’s educational career, but the start was not auspicious with just 69 pupils and £400 capital behind it, and Dorothea’s first couple of years were problematic, but this was to be the place where she’d play out to fulfilment the beliefs she’d first fostered in Westmorland. Discipline would be maintained not by petty rules, or a strict uniform policy, but on incentivising work and creating an atmosphere conducive to learning, which included an almost Trappist adherence to silence. Importantly, the parents gradually came on board.

By 1863 the head count had risen to 126, getting on for twice as many, and the college’s survival and future prosperity was really assured from that moment on. By the mid-1860s Dorothea’s positive impact as Principal was acknowledged and she gave evidence before a schools’ enquiry commission in 1865. The publication of its findings, in 1868, was another fillip for the cause of girls’ education in England. To disseminate the information, Beale published Reports on the Education of Girls With Extracts from the Evidence, including her own preface, which came out in 1869. It laid bare the fact that there was still a long way to go before girls received a decent education in this country. Beale’s experiment at Cheltenham had never intended, in her mind, to promote social equality, however, it’s more than possible that her successes, in proving what was possible, helped generate a trickledown educational effect.

Great British Life: St Hilda's College, Oxford, which began life as a teacher training establishment in Cheltenham.St Hilda's College, Oxford, which began life as a teacher training establishment in Cheltenham. (Image: Cheltenham Ladies' College)

In 1873, the school completed a move into its own, dedicated buildings, these being enlarged three years later by which time the number of pupils had snowballed to 310 and would reach 500 a few years later in 1880, the same year that Dorothea founded a school magazine, The Cheltenham Ladies’ College Magazine, which she’d edit until her death. An earnest churchwoman who believed God had singled her out for teaching, Dorothea continued to oversee all this expansion. The buildings kept pace with the admissions, with more being added over nearly a quarter of a century, between 1882 and 1905, the year before Dorothea’s death.

As principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and staunch advocate of higher education for women, Dorothea also sponsored/founded a teacher training college, St Hilda’s Hall, Oxford, in 1893-94. This had first opened as a college in Cheltenham in 1885 and it was Beale who was instrumental in both that initial opening and its gradual transfer to Oxford after she purchased suitable land in the city in 1892, the two establishments joining forces as an Incorporated College. Dorothea’s maturing views on girls’ education were set forth in a later tract of hers, Work and Play in Girls’ Schools (1898). One thing she didn’t favour was organised sport, regarding it as a distraction from serious learning. It seems that hockey was one game she found particularly difficult to fathom although she did acquiesce, purchasing a large field in the end, with hockey sticks whirling about from around 1890. She also didn’t like competition, feeling that it advantaged winners and disadvantaged losers, so there were no games against other schools, not were there any prize days. In many ways she sounds very modern.

Great British Life: Dorothea Beale’s £100 stock in the Incorporated Cheltenham Ladies’ College Guild Settlement in London, dated November 1897Dorothea Beale’s £100 stock in the Incorporated Cheltenham Ladies’ College Guild Settlement in London, dated November 1897 (Image: Clubrow)

She’d later become a suffragist as she took her advocacy of women’s rights to a broader church than just education and would become vice-president of the Kensington Society, a women’s discussion group. Despite acquiring deafness, Dorothea’s contribution to the cause of women’s education, both in Cheltenham and further afield, remained undimmed and she was recognised with the honorary freedom of the Borough of Cheltenham (1901), which was some accolade as these ‘freedoms’ were normally a male preserve. She also received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh (1902), again a rarity at that time for a woman.

Dorothea Beale died in Cheltenham in a nursing home on November 9, 1906, aged 75. Her ashes were buried in a vault within Gloucester Cathedral. She’d never married and therefore had no children. Dorothea’s biography has deservedly been written more than once, namely by E. Raikes (1908) and E.H. Shilitto (1920), but also in J. Kamm’s aptly-entitled How Different From Us (1958); how different indeed.

Great British Life: Memorial to Dorothea Beale in Gloucester Cathedral. Memorial to Dorothea Beale in Gloucester Cathedral. (Image: Andrew R. Abbott)


1831 – Birth of Dorothea Beale in London (March 21).

1847 – Attends school in Paris, an adventure cut short by another French revolution.

1857 – Teaches clergymen’s daughters in Westmorland, a short lived, unhappy venture.

1858 – Becomes second Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

1880 – Cheltenham’s headcount attains 500 and Dorothea founds/edit the college magazine.

1885 – Founds the first St Hilda’s College, in Cheltenham, to train new teachers.

c.1890 – Field hockey begins at the College despite Dorothea’s dislike of such games.

1906 – Death of Dorothea Beale (November 9) aged 75.


Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1974)

Encyclopedia.com website

Britannica website