The compelling past of Red Maids' High School

By | 23 May 2019

There’s a rich history to one of Britain’s oldest girls’ schools

Once upon a time, I was deputy head of the oldest girls’ school in the country, The Red Maids’ School in Bristol. On founder’s day every year – the school’s equivalent of speech day – the head girl read to the assembled parents, pupils, staff and dignitaries an extract from the will of the founder, John Whitson, a one-time merchant of the city and MP.

Any deputy head will tell you, speech day is a nightmare of organisation, particularly when it comes to getting the right prize, cup or book into the hands of the right recipient. 

Mostly things pass off well, even if there is a small kerfuffle later while students swap the prize they didn’t expect with the person who got the one they wanted.

Reading the extract was an important part of the day for the head girl and usually an ordeal. Scan any will from the 17th century and I am sure you will see why it makes for hard reading for a nervous young person in front of a large audience. 

And, unintentionally, it was not without its comic moment. The will decreed that he left a sum to be used for the benefit of ‘40 poor women of this parish, their parents being deceased or decayed’.

You can imagine the ripple in the audience, ‘deceased’? Well clearly not, if we are in the audience to hear it said. ‘Decayed’? Ah, well now, that may have various interpretations, and the audiences of (mostly) happy parents usually took the description in good part.

‘Go and be apparelled in red cloth’

Every year I heard the extract from the will and wondered what was behind it. What made Whitson decide to leave some of his wealth to found a rudimentary school for girls, who would originally have been the literal waifs and strays of the streets of the city? Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital already existed for boys. Red Maids was the equivalent for girls, who were, also according to the will, ‘to go and be apparelled in red cloth’, hence the name.

I thought it was quite a wondrous tale, and I also thought that every year, it was sliding past both its speaker and its audience, with nobody paying it due attention. 

How could I bring it to life for a contemporary audience? These days I might have been looking to a TV company to make a documentary: Who Do You Think He Was?

Then I wrote a play. I called it ‘Whitson’s Will’ partly because his widow fought the will and its bequest for girls’ education for some five years after his death, delaying its foundation. I tried to explore Whitson’s life to see if there were clues to his particular benefaction and I invented scurrilous reasons. Maybe the third wife, the ‘hussy’, who was much younger than poor Whitson, was very put out by his generosity to orphan children? But so far as I was able to research, no particular reason for his bequest emerged, though it was fanciful to imagine a scene in an inn where he might have played one-upmanship with other merchants of the time – ‘I’ll start a school!’ ‘I’ll start a better one!’ ‘Mine will have girls, you never thought of that, did you?’  

The straw in the wind and the strongest possibility I saw which might have generated his generosity, was the loss of his daughters. Two died as children and one in her early 20s during childbirth. Three girls and none to survive him.

Whitson dealt in wine and politics. He had three wives, three daughters and the wherewithal, generosity and foresight to found a school for girls which thrives even now.

So far as I know he did not deal in slaves. He gave his age as 31 in 1589. 100,000 African slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic by a later generation of Bristol merchants between 1672 and 1698. Had the slave market existed in Whitson’s time, would he have been in the thick of it? And if the timing were different and he was involved in that trade, would I have wanted to write about him at all?

In my time working in Bristol, another independent school was named after its own benefactor and founder, Edward Colston. Colston’s fortune, which enabled him to be the benefactor to the city, was built up while a deputy governor of the Royal African Company. I am a realist enough – or I do not know enough about Whitson – to believe that had he lived at the same time, he might well have been involved in the same trade. Could I have written such a story?

I think the answer is no. I was content to consider that he may have been a womaniser, who met his match in his third wife, who fought his will for five years after his death, trying to prevent the foundation of the school and the loss of her inheritance. 

All good grist for the dramatist’s mill, even if (really) a flight of fancy. But a slave trader? I think not. But even considering the quandary has been interesting. 

Centuries of education

Generations of girls have benefited from the education they have received at The Red Maids’ School, but the start-up money had to come from somewhere. In this case, I believe the trade in wine and wool, not human souls. So it feels laudable, altruistic and ‘clean’ for want of a better word.

Colston’s money was (apparently) garnered in a trade which is now abhorrent. But is there no redemption for the good use of the money in educating generations of children in Bristol? 

Indeed, Colston is a name to conjure with in Bristol, with his name on at least 20 streets, and in schools, pubs and a major concert venue – now being refurbished for its opening in 2020 with a different name. The press tells me that last October, teachers at the city’s respected Colston’s Girls’ School removed any reference to him from its annual service. What irony, when it wouldn’t exist without him. Irony, but no redemption.

The history of Britain’s many independent schools, good, bad or indifferent, is part of our heritage. We bring modern sensibilities to bear upon schools with long histories reaching into different times. 

We might usefully reflect that however our forebears and founders got the money, many of us – indeed thousands of us – have benefited from what they did with their ill-gotten gains. We should be grateful.

This article first appeared in IE-Today on 2 May 2019