History of Elizabeth Jesser Reid

Social reformer, philanthropist, and anti-slavery campaigner Elizabeth Jesser Reid is best known as the founder of Bedford College, Britain’s first facility to cater for the advancement and further education of women.

Elizabeth Jesser Sturch was born on Christmas day 1789 to Elizabeth and William Sturch. The younger of two daughters, she grew up in a wealthy, liberal household. Her father a successful ironmonger and Unitarian theological writer.  In her youth, although afforded the best education available to a young lady of the time, Elizabeth was frustrated at the limitations put upon her schooling because of her gender.

In 1821, Elizabeth married physician Dr. John Reid and moved to their family home at Glenville Street, however the marriage was short-lived when her husband passed away just 13 months later. Dr Reid was the benefactor of his brother’s land on Glasgow’s River Clyde; Dr Reid left his 32-year-old widow with a sizeable income.  Now financially independent, Elizabeth was able to more actively pursue and support causes close to her heart.

With a keen interest in social reform, liberty, and education, Reid took on sponsorship of individual pupil’s studies, became a member of the Garrisonian London Emancipation Committee, and attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London 1840. She supported women’s benevolent programmes, and concerned herself with international political affairs, in particular, the then current European revolutions and struggles for independence.

Following the deaths of their parents Elizabeth and her sister Mary moved into the parental home together at York Terrace, Regent’s Park. Respected in the community, their close friends included Jane Martineau, Anna Swanwick, Augustus De Morgan, and prominent lawyer and diarist Henry Crabbe Robinson.

Prompted by her circle of esteemed peers, and encouraged by the Queen’s College University programme of governess training in 1848, Reid decided to found her own venture in order to provide non-sectarian formal education for women. She took a lease on the Bloomsbury property at 47 Bedford Square, and later also 48, and opened her “Ladies College” in 1849. Prior to this, female education consisted of lessons conducted by a governess in basic subjects, and without recognised qualifications.

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Primarily, her students numbered a few dozen. Using her Unitarian and social connections, as well as support from the University College London, Elizabeth commandeered respected professors to teach at the college, and began to build an illustrious alumni. Some of Bedford’s first attendees include artist and educationalist Barbara Bodichon, feminist campaigner Bessie Raynor Parkes, Lady Byron, and Charles Dickens daughter, Katey. Former student Sarah Parker Remond, the first black woman to conduct a lecture tour of Britain on anti-slavery issues, also shared Reid’s home while she studied at Bedford between 1859-61.

In 1866, at the age of 77, Elizabeth Jesser Reid passed away. Prior to her death, she set up trust fund to ensure her estate went to the continued support of Bedford. Thirty-four years later the College became a constituent school of the University of London, and began accepting male students in 1965. Bedford merged with Royal Holloway in 1985 and is now known as The Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, with an administrative staff of 2,300 and students numbering over 8,000. A plaque to commemorate Elizabeth Jesser Reid can be found on the property at 48 Bedford Square as the foundation of the United Kingdom´s first institution for the advancement of women´s education.

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