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Prometheus's Fire

Chapter 19: The Queens Institute, Dublin (1861-1881); the first technical college for women in Europe

Patricia Phillips

The problem of how to employ 'gentlewomen' had emerged in Britain as a consequence of the restrictive middle-class mores of the Victorian era. Teaching and governessing were the only open professions. It was addressed by early feminists, in the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft the 18th century feminist pioneer.

In England there was founded in 1859 the Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women, associated with the English Woman's Journal. This had roots in the Bradford Mechanics Institute for Working Women, set up by Fanny Hertz, and people such as Mss Crowe, Overend, Bayly, Rye, Faithfull associated with the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences.

The author goes at some length into the English feminist and radical roots of this movement, and then makes the link into Ireland via the 1861 conference of the Association, which took place in Dublin.

The prime movers in the Irish initiative which followed were the Quaker Anne Jellicoe (celebrated as the founder of Alexandra College) and Barbara Corlett. The former was married to a mill-owner, whose attempts to educate and train the local girls in useful arts had fallen foul of the Catholic Church, and the latter was the daughter of a coach-spring manufacturer.

They had to overcome the social barriers between perceived 'gentility' and work and this in the Irish environment proved to be more acute a problem than in England. Dublin was awash with impecunious gentlewomen, consequent on the numerous bankruptcies of estates due to the famine.

Rather than attempting to invent 'suitable' occupations for distressed gentry, they decided to embark on a technical training centre for women, to teach the basic skills of industry and commerce. They got patronage from leading citizens and from Royalty, and set up classes covering a wide range of skills, including telegraphy, photography, engraving.

They got industrial sponsorship from the B and I Magnetic Telegraph Co. The RDS opened up its library in support. Shortly after this time Anne Jellicoe took up her post with the nascent Alexandra College, leaving Barbara Corlett to run the show according to her lights, which were somewhat restricted to the 'decaying gentry' market.

They applied to the DSA for funding, and ran into the problem that the Commissioners, who included TH Huxley, were somewhat more egalitarian in their ideas than Ms Corlett thought appropriate. Although they in the end got DSA support, Ms Corlett steered the curriculum away from the practical arts, towards things like French and music, considered more ladylike.

There followed an attempt to associate with the Royal University, and to expunge the memory of Anne Jellicoe, and the association with the practical arts, from the record. The Queen's Institute however declined as a consequence of this policy, and had closed by 1883; there was a hint of some disgrace, and there is no record of an obituary for Barbara Corlett.

After this initially successful but sadly flawed start, in the 1880s an attempt was made to return to the original aims of the 1861 project by a group of influentials, and a new Association for the Training and Employment of Women was set up in Kildare St. Meetings were held in the RDS; the Provost of Trinity College participated, along with the great and the good.

By 1890 the Englishman's Review was able to report that Dublin was again the pioneer in technical training for women, and by this time the initiative had been subsumed into the overall Dublin technical education system, which was open to women from the outset.

For this chapter we hotlink to the chapter in full.


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