Six Little Girls Dressed in Blue: Lady Caroline’s “Spinning School”

Clive Barnes writes:

On September 7 1789, six village girls walked up to Milton Abbey mansion house to meet King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte. When the queen returned to Weymouth with “the K”, as she referred to George in her diary, she made this entry:

“We breakfasted by 8 and set out at 9 for Milton Abbey, 17 miles from hence, where we arrived at about half an Hour after 11 & were received by Lrd Deamer [Damer] and Miss Deamer, his Daughter. In walking through the Court, six Little Girls Dressed in Blue walkd before Us and strewd Flowers. They are Miss Deamers Spinning School. Lrd Milton calls them Les Filles de Saint Cyr, & Miss Deamer Mademoiselle Maintenon.”

Lord Milton’s reference was to a seventeenth century French noblewoman, Françoise D’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, the unacknowledged wife of King Louis XIV of France. She had persuaded Louis in 1684 to establish a school at St Cyr for the children of noble families who had fallen on hard times. Lady Caroline’s school was for the daughters of some of the craftsmen and labourers of her father’s estate. And Lord Milton’s remark, while teasing, surely showed an indulgent pride in Lady Caroline and her interest in the village children. 

We do not know which of the village girls stood at the courtyard gate with flowers in their arms that morning, but we do know that the “charity school for girls” continued for another forty years until Lady Caroline’s death in 1829. The girls had their own uniform and there is a bill for making their gowns among Lady Caroline’s estate papers for 1822. There are also bills for a Sunday and evening school for the village boys, although they do not appear to have had a uniform made for them!

The girls seem to have been taught not only spinning, and later button-making, but also to read and write and were probably paid a small sum for attending. From the estate bills in 1789, the eldest girls were paid a penny and the youngest a halfpenny. We do not know where they met or how regularly. In 1789, three girls were taught each week by Eleanor Sargent, a village woman, on a rota system which saw some girls returning to lessons about every six weeks. 

The teaching of spinning and button making was a preparation for the kind of paid work the girls might do in the home as adults, enabling them to support the family income, or to have some independence as breadwinners themselves. The teaching of literacy would also have given them skills and confidence rare among working class women at this time. 

It is hard to measure the impact of the school on the girls themselves or on the life of the village. But perhaps we can have a glimpse of it in the life story of one of its pupils. One of the little girls in the school in 1789, and perhaps among the six that met the royal couple, was Ann Sturmey, then aged seven. She grew up to be one the women in the village who were paid by the parish to nurse the sick and the old, supporting herself and her children after the early death of her husband, William Fiander. She was also the author of the only letter from an ordinary villager in the nineteenth century that we have discovered. This was written to her son Robert who lived in Big Lorraine, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.in 1855 to tell him of his brother’s death. Samuel Fiander (Robert’s father William’s brother) was in Newfoundland by the late 1790’s and died there in 1851. The letter was preserved by his family in Canada, and featured in the presentation by John O’Quinn to the history group in December 2022. Perhaps the letter itself is tangible evidence of the influence of Ann’s attendance at Lady Caroline’s spinning school a half century before.

This entry was posted in Damer, family history, local history, Milton Abbas, Overseers of the Poor, social history. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Six Little Girls Dressed in Blue: Lady Caroline’s “Spinning School”

  1. cabernet_99@yahoo.com says:

    Minor correction: the letter written by Ann Sturmey was to her son Robert who lived in Big Lorraine, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Samuel Fiander (Robert’s father William’s brother) was in Newfoundland by the late 1790’s and died there in 1851.

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