Charlotte Mason (1842-1923)
Charlotte Mason established her House of Education in Ambleside in 1892. She came to Ambleside because she knew the area well; she was a friend of Selina Healey with whom she had been at college in London in 1860/1 and whom she had often visited in Ambleside. She thought Ambleside was an ideal place to set up her training institution for governesses. ”It is far from London, she wrote, ”but in view of that fact there is much to be said in its favour. Students will be impressed with the great natural beauty around them. They will learn to know and love the individuality of great natural features – mountain pass, valley, lake and waterfall.
Charlotte Mason first rented Springfield, at the northern end of the village on the Rydal Road, in which to establish her House of Education, which opened in January 1892 with four students. Charlotte recorded their names in a small diary; actually the diary was for 1891, and she used it for 1892, changing all the dates of the days of the week as she went along. She was never one for extravagance.
The House of Education was far from being Charlotte Mason‘s first educational undertaking. She was already fifty years old in 1892. She had been a teacher in Worthing, and a lecturer at the Bishop Otter College in Chichester. She had published a series of school geography books which became very popular and provided her with a small but regular income. In the 1880s, after becoming aware of the generally poor standard of the education provided by governesses in middle class households, she had written a book on ‘Home Education’, first published in 1886 and later to run to many editions. The book and her public lectures on the same theme struck a chord with many middle class mothers who had doubtless experienced at first hand the problems of entrusting the education of their children to governesses with little or no training, and in 1887 at a meeting in Bradford (where another of Charlotte‘s friends ran a school) the gathering of over eighty set up the Parents‘ National Education Union (PNEU). Several very influential people were soon members of the PNEU; the Bishop of London, Frederick Temple (later to become Archbishop of Canterbury) was appointed Chairman, and Miss Buss, Miss Beale and Miss Clough (all already well known for their work in the education of girls and women) were also recruited to the cause, together with Lady Aberdeen who was keenly interested in the advancement of women. It was Lady Aberdeen who in 1891 persuaded Charlotte Mason to set up a training institution for governesses, which materialised in the House of Education at Ambleside.
The educational ideas which Charlotte Mason had put across so powerfully were to be the essential principles of both the PNEU and the House of Education. She herself said she had only a few ideas, but they were ideas which challenged the generally accepted views of how to educate children. She stressed that ‘children are persons’, and that teachers and parents should treat them as individuals. Children, she said, need to be stimulated from an early age by a broad curriculum, not simply to be trained to read, write and count. And this broad curriculum should contain the best literature, the best art, the best contemporary science, in fact the best of everything. At the end of the 20th century these ideas may seem self-evident; they were not self-evident at the end of the 19th century, and it is only because of Charlotte Mason and others like her that they are regarded as self-evident now. Charlotte stressed that her ideas were relevant to all children, but she saw the need to start somewhere where late Victorian society might actually take her ideas on board. The home-educated children of the professional middle classes were a good starting point.
Ambleside became the home of Charlotte Mason for the rest of her life. In 1894 the main base of the college was moved across the road to Scale How. From the original four students numbers rose to around fifty on the two year course which ran from January to the December of the following year. Charlotte continued to write profusely, refining her philosophy of education in a series of very influential books which again ran into many editions. At the same time she continued to direct the House of Education (never called a college in her own time) and the PNEU, setting her very distinctive stamp on both these expressions of her educational thinking. The PNEU had begun to spread its influence into many independent schools, which adopted the highly structured PNEU curriculum, and Charlotte Mason‘s ideas, especially on primary education, had also spread into the maintained sector. As a result a growing number of students from the college went into schools rather than into posts as governesses. Charlotte herself lived in Scale How and became very much a local figure. She knew the Armitt sisters well and she was much involved in the activities of the parish church.
During the rest of the 20th century both the College and the PNEU went through many changes. Charlotte Mason College, with some 800 full-time undergraduate students and an extensive programme of in-service courses for teachers, became an integral part of St Martin‘s College, Lancaster, and the home-school work of the PNEU (mainly for UK families living abroad) is carried out by the Bell Educational Trust based in Cambridge. St Martin’s was later taken over by the University of Lancaster and the site of the Charlotte Mason college in Ambleside is now occupied by the University of Cumbria.
During the rest of the 20th century both the College and the PNEU went through many changes. Charlotte Mason College, with some 800 full-time undergraduate students and an extensive programme of in-service courses for teachers, is now an integral part of St Martin‘s College, Lancaster, and the home-school work of the PNEU (mainly for UK families living abroad) is carried out by the Bell Educational Trust based in Cambridge.
The Armitt Library is now being established as the national centre for all Charlotte Mason archives.