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National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT) Collection: NUWT member focus

A guide to the National Union of Women Teachers Archive Collection and the variety of subjects covered in this.

Theodora Bonwick

Theodora Ellen Bonwick – 1876-1928   

The well-known struggle for women’s suffrage which reached its height in the early years of the last century was not the only campaign for women’s rights at this time.  Working women, particularly those in the professions and in public service, were establishing associations aimed at securing parity with men in employment opportunities, pay and pensions, and conditions of service.  Among them were teachers who, with the support of a number of male colleagues, set up a pressure group within the National Union of Teachers: the Equal Pay League.  A few years later this was renamed the National Federation of Women Teachers.   Although women outnumbered men in the NUT, and despite the election in 1911 of its first woman President, Isabel Cleghorn, very little progress was made towards securing official union support for the equal pay campaign. Finally the decision was taken to establish an independent organisation, and in 1920 the National Union of Women Teachers was formally constituted.

Photograph of Theodora Bonwick, member of the National Union of Women Teachers

Many of the early NUWT leaders had been involved in suffrage campaigns and were old hands at organising demonstrations and at public speaking.  A century on their views on social structures as well as their educational ideas and practices continue to offer much of interest.  This article outlines the life and career of one, Theodora Bonwick, a teacher with remarkably progressive ideas on both curriculum content and approaches to learning.   The sources on which it is based are the NUWT archive housed at the Institute of Education in London (including the Union’s periodical Woman Teacher, minute books and letters); the British and Foreign Schools Society archive at Brunel University; an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography contributed by Hilda Kean; the same author’s book “Deeds not Words, the Lives of Suffragette Teachers”; census returns and reports by inspectors of schools.  School log books are unfortunately either not available or not yet accessible for the relevant dates.

Theodora Ellen Bonwick was born in Shepherd’s Bush in West London on 27 December 1876; her three elder siblings had been born in Australia.  Her father, William, was a schoolmaster; her mother, Sarah, was an executive member of the Women’s Liberal Federation and active in the cause of women’s suffrage.  Sarah also supported the temperance movement and taught in Sunday schools.  The 1891 census shows the family to have been living in the Paddington area and Theodora to have been at school.  In 1896 she entered Stockwell College, established in South London in 1860 by the non-denominational British and Foreign Schools Society to train women teachers. She spent three years there, gaining both her teacher’s certificate and a London University BA degree. According to a report in the College records:

"Her character and conduct have been very good – an extremely good, intelligent and capable student of marked ability, and a very good, most intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful teacher, especially of older girls."

Her first teaching posts were as an assistant mistress in London elementary schools.  In 1912 she was appointed Headmistress of Enfield Road School for Girls in Hackney, moving from there in 1919 to take up the headship of York Road (later renamed York Way) Girls’ School near Kings Cross.

In the early years of the twentieth century Theodora followed her mother’s example, undertaking temperance work and Sunday school teaching.  In what must have been very limited spare time she pursued her interest in music, joining the Philharmonic choir.  Her voluntary social work was given up when she became involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage.  In 1905 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union established in Manchester two years earlier by Emmeline Pankhurst, and became Secretary of the branch in Hornsey, North London - the area in which the 1901 census places her. She was known as a popular speaker at open air meetings at Marble Arch and Highbury Corner but, unlike many of her fellow campaigners, she appears never to have been arrested and imprisoned.

Other organisations of which Theodora became a member were the London Teachers Association (LTA), the Woman Teachers Franchise Union (WTFU) formed in 1912, of which she was President in 1914, the London Lodge of Theosophists and, in 1915, the newly formed Association for Moral and Social Hygiene one of whose primary aims was to promote a high and equal standard of morality and sexual responsibility for men and women in public opinion, law and practice.

In February 1918 the London Unit of the NFWT was formed by amalgamating the Federation’s London branch with the WTFU.  Theodora was elected to the committee of the new organisation, but finding that membership of it was not compatible with her active role in the LTA, which favoured a more moderate approach to the issue of equal pay, she resigned from the committee.  She did, however, retain her membership of the London Unit and in January 1919 was chosen as one of two head teachers to serve on an Election Committee concerned with the coming elections to the London County Council.  Relations with some of her colleagues seem to have remained strained for several years, but by the later 1920s fences had been mended.  She served on the Central Council of the NUWT from 1925 onwards, and was elected Chairman of the London Unit to serve for the year 1928/9.  Sadly, she was unable to take up the position because of ill health.  On 28 September 1928 she collapsed on her way to a dinner organised by the NUWT to celebrate the extension of the franchise to all women over 21, and died five weeks later.

On educational issues Theodora held progressive and at times contentious views.  For instance, she was in favour of sex education in schools, feeling that knowledge and self-awareness provided pupils with greater protection than the law could.  As early as 1917 she was delivering lectures on the subject to colleagues: a flyer in the archives at the Institute of Education, headed National Federation of Women Teachers, announced that Miss Bonwick B.A. would repeat her series of four lectures on Sex Training at Water Lane Higher Elementary School, Stratford, during October.  The four topics listed were: “Its Meaning and Importance”, “Whose Responsibility?”, “Some Practical Suggestions”, and “Difficulties and Problems for the Teachers”.  A press report of the concluding talk refers to the attendance of an HMI and the local Assistant Medical Officer.  With the support of parents, Theodora introduced sex education into her own school in Hackney, but failed to convince the LCC that it should form part of the curriculum in its schools.  She also wanted the subject to be included in the training of teachers.  Another pioneering NUWT member, Edith Cooper, shared Theodora’s belief in the value of the subject, and taught it in her school in Birmingham.

The London Metropolitan Archives hold a series of reports by inspectors on both the Enfield Road and the York Road schools.  Most of these relate to periods before or after Theodora was associated with them, but for each there is one full report dating from her time as Headmistress, the later one being especially interesting for its critique of her methods and their outcome, in particular her introduction for older pupils of individualised teaching in accordance with the Dalton Plan.

The Hackney school, early reports indicate, opened in 1894; it had three departments, for boys, girls and infants, each with its own staff and each able to accommodate some 350 pupils. In 1898 reference is made to food and clothing being provided for the very poor, but three years later it is said that cases of extreme poverty were rare.  Over the years the girls’ school received praise for its state of efficiency and the behaviour of the pupils.  The upper Standards enjoyed lawn tennis, and in 1901 the girls began to be taken swimming.  An annual flower show was a special feature of the school. The only serious problem referred to was the lack of sufficient heating; this was held responsible for illness among the teaching staff.

The report on visits in 1914 by the District Inspector, Mr Bray, when Theodora was in charge, stated that the neighbourhood was a fairly good one.  There were eight classes, one in the hall, with some specialism in singing, drawing and history.  The inspector found much good work on the whole, while identifying some weakness in arithmetic in two classes.  The syllabuses were generally well drawn up, indicating a “sound grasp of the needs of the children”.  Drawing, especially nature painting, was very good indeed throughout.  It is interesting that the standard of needlework, praised in the report for 1905, was not considered entirely satisfactory, perhaps an indication of the Head’s feeling that “domestic” subjects should not be given priority.  The inspector noted definite attempts to interest parents in their children’s education, by means of Open Days, invitations to the annual flower show and special conferences.  He noted that the Headmistress impressed on each girl leaving school the importance of following up her education and that she gave special talks to leavers and to old scholars who had left recently. The tone and discipline were, he reported, commendable.

Early in 1926, some six years into Theodora’s headship, a team of three LCC District Inspectors visited York Road Girls’ school.  It was said to be in a good building, situated among streets of a “mean, though hardly squalid, kind”.  Many of the children were poor, but not of the poorest. Proximity to Kings Cross determined the type of employment of a large number of the fathers; the majority of mothers also worked, for part or the whole of the day.

Reference was made to the school being distinguished from many by being organised in its upper half on the Dalton Plan of monthly assignments, private study and specialist teaching.  The team had sought to determine whether this method had justified its introduction into a school of this kind.  Their conclusion was “Yes”, though they did question whether an equal amount of enthusiasm would not have achieved equally good results with another system.  They considered it to be suitable for some subjects, such as arithmetic, science and physical geography, but not for physical education or for subjects involving “inspiration and aesthetic factors”.

Regarding individual subjects some of the verdicts were very positive.  On music mention was made of the school choir having won many trophies, while life and vivacity was found in the teaching of art.  The good speech of many of the children was commended, as also the decidedly good composition and spelling. The teaching of geography, which the inspectors felt lent itself admirably to the Dalton assignments, included monthly lantern lectures and visits to “high class kinema shows” such as those on Livingstone and Cape to Cairo (the railway?).  Results in science and hygiene were found to be distinctly above average.  Some reservations were expressed only in respect of arithmetic in which testing produced satisfactory but by no means remarkable results, and history, considered to be suited to the Dalton Plan to a limited extent only.  It was felt that a better textbook was needed, also supplementary historical reading and reference matter, and a set of historical atlases.

The conclusion drawn was that the Dalton Plan undoubtedly called forth the efforts of the children and increased their grasp of “intellectual, factual and routine” subjects.  On the negative side, there was an increasing burden on teachers in marking exercises and keeping records, and possibly also a heavy burden on weaker children.  Too much reliance, it was thought, might come to be placed on the authority of a particular textbook.  Overall the tone of the school was considered excellent.  Mention was made of the Headmistress’ weekly lesson at Assembly, discussing moral and civic topics.  The final paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

"Unquestionably the school is not only a civilising influence in the neighbourhood, but a place where an experiment, interesting for all London, is being carried on by a zealous staff and an enterprising and devoted head teacher."

That her undoubted qualities were recognised by both colleagues and the education authority is demonstrated by her appointment to the Committee of Examiners for County Scholarships, and as Chairman of the Head Teachers Consultative Committee.

The reference in the inspectors’ report to “high class kinema shows” forming part of the geography syllabus reflects Theodora’s concern with the general lack of suitable films for children.  Together with other NUWT members, she campaigned for the making of instructive and of entertaining films, organising systematic visits to cinemas in order to collect information about the nature of films that children were viewing.  She favoured the institution of special performances for them, as well as the showing of educational films in school time.  She also encouraged theatre visits by schools.  In 1928 she attended the second educational film conference at The Hague, where she was the sole British representative.

Even before that year increasing ill health appears to have curtailed her activities. In a letter in the NUWT archives dated 3 October 1927, replying to an invitation to contribute to a projected historical booklet on the Union, she wrote that she was unable to do so for a number of reasons, adding “my memory has, alas, made no appreciable step towards improvement during or since the summer holiday”. After her collapse on 28 September 1928 she was admitted to the Woodland Nursing Home in Crouch End Hill, Hornsey, where she died on 10 November. At her funeral service on the 17th, which the NUWT organised, the hymns included “The Lord is my shepherd” and “He who would valiant be”. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, all the flowers received being donated as she had requested to Poor Law infirmaries in Highgate, a workhouse in Islington and to Holloway Prison, where so many suffragettes had been imprisoned. 

After Theodora Bonwick’s death the NUWT established a Memorial Fund in her name, the object of which was to establish a school journey hostel for the study of history, geography and nature.  A site was identified in Buckinghamshire and plans drawn up.  In addition to contributions from individuals, ways of fundraising included a display of films for children, a performance of “Twelfth Night”, and a broadcast appeal on the “Week’s Good Cause”.  The money collected was, however, insufficient to meet the high cost of the project and a meeting of subscribers took the decision to delay it, and to invest £1000 of the £1100 collected so far, using the annual interest to help finance school journeys.  Schools were invited to apply for grants, and many were allocated small sums.  The hostel plan was never carried out, but the fund continued to provide assistance to London children up to the 1950s.  The Memorial Fund was administered by Beatrice Isaac, an active member of the NUWT, who followed Theodora as Headmistress of York Road School.  At the school a memorial fund to which pupils, parents, school managers and LCC members and inspectors subscribed was used to buy a “magnificent combined gramophone and wireless cabinet”. 

Theodora would surely have been pleased with the ways chosen to remember her.  One commemorated her dedication to fostering the well-being of children and to broadening their range of experience, the other her passionate love of music.  Tributes at the time of her death referred to these and many other qualities.  A member of staff at York Road praised her gentle ways, kindness and wonderful personality.  Louisa Lane, one of the founders of the Equal Pay League, wrote of her “fine character, noble spirit, enthusiasm and work for children”, which “won the admiration of all who came into contact with her”, and of her “life consecrated to the good of others”.  In 1951 Beatrice Isaacs contributed an article on Theodora Bonwick to a series on NUWT pioneers published in “Woman Teacher”.  Among many campaigns in which Theodora had participated, one was listed that has not previously been mentioned: her work for the more humane treatment of animals.

Many of Theodora’s educational ideas, queried at the time, became widely adopted later on, especially her encouragement of independent learning and the use of a wide range of resources in teaching; it seems likely that she would have gladly embraced the opportunities offered by new technology.  But, as someone who disliked the idea of working for prizes either in lessons or games, preferring that children should work for the joy of achieving something rather than for tangible rewards, she would have been concerned by the growing emphasis on competition, both within and between schools.


This biography of Theodora Bonwick was researched and written by one of our volunteers, Noreen Nicholson, with thanks.  Unfortunately we have yet to identify photographs of Theodora so for now the only image we have is the grainy newspaper clipping image shown. 

Women of the NUWT