Story of "the lady who dared" makes for a fascinating history project

The front page of the Derbyshire Courier on Saturday 7th February 1914 carried aphotograph of a woman sitting at a desk. Underneath the photograph was the text –“The Lady Who Dared. Miss Outram, headmistress of the Dronfield Girls’ School,whose action….. has aroused a storm of indignation in the town and made her themost-talked-of teacher in England.”

Wednesday, 5th June 2019, 8:42 am
Updated Wednesday, 3rd July 2019, 4:59 pm
Here today's Dronfield students are reading primary sources and pulling out evidence.
Here today's Dronfield students are reading primary sources and pulling out evidence.

And what had Miss Outram ‘dared’ to do? She had taught her pupils what we now call Relationships and Sex Education.Paul Whitfield is researching the event and its impact for his History MA at Sheffield Hallam University. Professor Alison Twells has commissioned Whitworks, a company specialising in working creatively with children and communities, to develop a teaching resource for primary school children using the research.The work has been trialled with year six pupils at Stonelow Junior School in Dronfield.

In 1914, Miss Outram was Standard Six Girls class teacher and headmistress at Dronfield Elementary Council School in Dronfield, Derbyshire. Miss Outram had been the headmistress since 1902.

During a Scripture lesson with her pupils (telling the story of the birth of John the Baptist) a discussion developed about sex and sexual relationships. Miss Outram answered her pupils’ questions and read two stories she had obtained from an American publication.

A sketch of the indignant managers at a meeting held over the controversy

Beatrice Bradwell, daughter of Jacob Bradwell who was the publican at The Victoria Inn, reported this to her parents and a scandal erupted. Outrage followed amongst many parents and members of the wider Dronfield community.

There were demands for Miss Outram’s dismissal. The girls concerned gave sworn statements about Miss Outram and her teaching.Here is an extract from Beatrice’s statement, held at the National Archives: “Miss Outram has told us where babies come from. One day she took a book from the top of her desk in the Scripture lesson and read that, when we are young, like me, there is an egg forms in our inside and when we grow up to motherhood the egg bursts, and we have a baby. She said she had had the book sent from America.”

Paul Whitfield says, ‘It is very unusual to have the words of a child from so far in the past. The statements from the 12 girls reflect their confusion and the euphemistic nature of the stories.”Indeed the 21st century Year 6 children at Stonelow Junior were also confused by the stories. Most of them felt the stories were Religious Education, and one boy said, “All I heard was it was about electricity!”

Miss Outram made the following statement on 7 February 1914 in the Derbyshire Times: “I consider teaching this teaching should always be done by teachers who are old and sensible enough if the girls mother’s will not do it for themselves. I always formally told them to ask their mothers. I suppose I shall have to resort to that way of escape again. Once a girl asked me the most direct question. I shuffled as so many people do with children, and I could see that the child was snubbed and that there would never be the same confidence between us afterwards. It was after that that I decided to explain things simply and naturally.”

Here the Dronfield children are exploring the statements of pupils Beatrice Bradwell and Doris Harrison.

While this argument reflects modern motives for Relationships and Sex Education, the confusion of the girls rather indicates she hadn’t been clear enough

Today’s Dronfield students have been exploring the statements of pupils Beatrice Bradwell and Doris Harrison. They really enjoyed having the experiences and hearing the voices of children from over a hundred years ago.

Doris includes in her statement: “Miss Outram told us about the forced feeding of Suffragettes in prison. Miss Outram said one woman went to prison and she would not eat anything so, to open her mouth, they broke her teeth and put something down her throat.”

Miss Outram had irritated some of the community, and the School Managers shown in this cartoon, by informing the girls about the suffragettes and the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the authorities in prison – perhaps no surprise when you look at the rather older male membership of the Board!

Picture of Miss Outram on the right with her pupils in about 1910 courtesy of Dronfield Heritage Barn.

Although to be fair this is how society was organised at this time. Women were considered, “weak, just there to be pretty and that their place was in the home.”

These were the children’s thoughts about why women were not considered so important. They did object to the stereotypical nature of these judgements and expectations!

The school managers and parents pursued the matter taking it to the Local Education Authority, and eventually the National Board of Education, despite Miss Outram making this statement in the January 1914 at a School Managers’ meeting: “I acknowledge it is a mistake. I will be more careful in future. It is a lovely little story all the same and there is no harm in it. We all make mistakes. I was not wilfully doing anything wrong, if I have done anything wrong. I do not acknowledge that I have done anything wrong. I will of course be more careful in the future.”

Both in the National Archives and in the British Newspaper Archives there are transcripts recording the lively and controversial meetings of the school managers with Miss Outram and Mr Bradshaw, and public meetings in Dronfield’s old Town Hall, pictured here.

The local and then the national press latched on to the story. A nationwide press debate about sex education and morality

ensued for about six months. There are many letters in the newspapers written by the public on both sides of the debate.

Miss Outram also received over 300 private letters of support including one from local campaigner for Sex Education, Edward Carpenter.

Today's Dronfield pupils have been re-enacting the extremely lively and contentious public meeting held in the Town Hall in February 1914 – relishing it despite the challenging nature of the language.

The dispute continued acrimoniously until July 1914. The parents were threatened with prosecution for keeping their children out of school, but by July the children had either passed the age at which they compulsorily had to attend school or returned to other schools.

Miss Outram remained in her post until 1922 when she was forced to resign. She wrote an impassioned objection in the school logbook at the point of her resignation.

Sarah Elizabeth Outram was not defeated and clearly had much support in her local community. In 1923, she was elected to the Town Council and was still serving in 1939 when she was 70. She died in Dronfield in 1950 having served her community for all her adult life.

Dronfield students examined all the evidence and they unanimously decided that Miss Outram was a heroine. Here are a couple of year six boys explaining why:

‘Miss Outram is a heroine as she never stopped teaching even after all the hate.’

‘I think she’s a heroine because she turned down all the money and fame.’

Following the success of the work at Stonelow the resource will be made available free to teachers nationally, enabling many other children to experience the story.

Stonelow’s Year Six Teacher, Elizabeth Williamson reflects on the work here: ‘The children have enjoyed many aspects of the project, but especially the opportunity to work as real historians, analysing primary sources of evidence to formulate opinions and answer questions. They have been shocked, amazed and inspired at different points in Miss Outram’s story; wondered at her courage and resilience despite the obstacles she faced and marvelled at her steadfastness. “The Lady Who Dared” has given our children a new appreciation for ordinary people who have made, and continue to make, a difference in our everyday lives.’