Tag Archives: St Mark College

The Portrait of A Kitchen Maid


A photo of a servant girl from the book ‘Victorian London’ by Liza Picard

Remember the kitchen maid? The one that went to Australia? The minutes of the St.Mark College have preserved her memory, but what of the maid herself. Who was she and what kind of person was she? The lack of details prevents us from getting anything concrete about her, but we can at least make some educated guesses. I present to you, the portrait of the kitchen maid of the college of St. Mark:
The record says that her service was long and faithful. She probably started young, maybe about fifteen. A long service might imply anything from five to ten years. She was about to receive books worth one pound, and that would be a little less than a month’s wages- a substantial amount. That’s not something you give a person that was with you for about five years. Let’s say she is about twenty five then, been with the College for a long time, maybe even since it was opened. A hard life filled with never-ending work, but the gift suggests that she was treated well.

She is going to Australia, but why? Was her husband sent ‘down under’ and she followed him there? But it is a bit late and the large transportations already ended. Except for Western Australia, you could be sent there as a convict as late as 1868. Or was it something else? Gold rush maybe, 1851 was the year they officially found gold in Australia. Were they going to find their fortune in a place where there would be no social standards to bind them to life in servitude? Whichever it was, I’d say she was a person of a substantial courage.

The board decided to gift her books. Books, not a bible. Our kitchen maid was most definitely literate. This is not the usual picture when we think about the servant class in the Victorian England, but the truth is that the literacy levels were growing at that time, even among the lower classes. That is the time when the literature, especially novel, began to gain momentum. Before, it was common to listen to the novel being read. One literate person would gather their neighbours and read them the most popular novels. Now anyone could get skills to read for themselves, even a lowly kitchen maid. She must have some education then, and there were couple of places.

There was the Jews’ Free School, opened in London in 1817. ‘It charged 1d a week to its pupils, but a child who could not produce his penny was never turned away’ (Picard, 2005). If her father was a Freemason, she might have attended The Freemasons’ Charity for Female Children, where she have learned the domestic tasks, but also to read and write. Finally, if she never learned to read and write as a child, she might go to Working Woman’s College in Queen Square, that was open for ‘teachers, shopgirls and even servant maids.’(Picard, 2005). There were of course other ways she might have gained her education, but one thing is almost certain. During her service in the college, she must have showed her interest in books and reading, hence the generous parting gift. Truly a woman after my own heart:-)

And there it is, a portrait of a person long dead, coming alive before you with the power of research. A young woman- courageous, loyal, hard-working and filled with curiosity about the world around her. Remember her-I will.
Quotes are from the book ‘Victorian London’ by Liza Picard


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I can’t tell history

History is a story with murky beginning, with no end in sight. That much everyone knows. But as I’ve learnt, by digging in dusty papers, is that history is a story you don’t tell- you interpret it. Having found an interesting bundle of letters in one of the folders I thought I can interpret a story of J.V.B King for you. However, sometimes you build an interpretation just to see it crumble before your eyes.
J.V.B King- a student of St. Mark College in the years 1915-17 and like many young men he went to fight in the WWI. The letters I found are dated 1919 and 1920. King had been discharged from the army. He wrote both to Rev. Hudson, the principal of St Mark College, and to the Board of Education to be released from his agreement as student teacher. ‘I no longer feel fit to become a teacher.’ he says in his letter to the Board of Education. ‘…I desire to lead an open air life…’ and the reason for this letter is that he had been gassed during his service.
Few months later, unable to contact him, the secretary of the Board of Education wrote to Rev. Hudson. ‘I have no direct evidence that he had been gassed,’ says the letter. Oh my precious history nerds! Please come out of the woodwork and tell me: could you obtain such evidence back then? A doctor’s note perhaps? Could you even do that with the so many people dead, maimed or gassed? I’m sure that he lived, I can’t remember seeing him on the war memorial…
Thus the letters end and I still don’t know if J.V.B King got his release. I even wonder if he really lost his health or he simply wanted out. If the former, then I can only imagine how heart-breaking it must have been to not be able to pursue something he worked hard for. If the latter, then I can’t really blame him as teaching, to me, is a worthy equivalent of hell.
I wish I could tell you the rest of it, that King became a farmer and happily grew cabbage to the end of his days. But, the history is the only story I cannot tell.

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Little Black Notebook

We have plenty of flashy things in the archives. We have portraits and microfilm-viewing machines; we have magazines and books, trophies and brass plaques. Among those showy things there is a very modest-looking black notebook. There is no illustrations or pictures, no famous people had it in their possession or put a signature to it. Yet it is the sweetest and one of the most interesting things I have seen so far. Picture this: it is a New Year of 1889, a young man named Swann, a fresh graduate from St Mark College, sends this black notebook to Mr Duthie who was his tutor for the past two years. What is the notebook? Just a compilation of stories, the memories of over forty young men, the class that crossed the gates of the college in 1887. Each of those men wrote a short story about one particular memory from his time in the school. There are stories about poaching vegetables from the West Garden (‘…a garden of cabbages intersected and bounded by gravely path…’), about being a new students and ‘…giving vent to their feelings by whistling Georgian chants.’, about studying Horace’s odes at 7AM. I’ve read how all of St Mark celebrated the Jubilee Day, June 21 1887, and how they had a day off- an event unheard of except for major holidays. The notebook even gave me a reason for further research: They called their principal ‘The Dad’, just as Coleridge was called when he was a principal and in 1887 it was somebody that was stomping around. His footsteps were like ‘…the clang of a war-horse hoof…’. Now I’m tempted to check who that was.:-)

Can somebody tell me what it means? It's all Greek to me:-)

Can somebody tell me what it means? It’s all Greek to me:-)

I have read some of the memories that the past students wrote and even published in the Year Books or elsewhere. But those are not the memories that were written after many years, tinted with nostalgia of passed youth. It is not St Mark College years on; it is the school as it was right then. Those guy just graduated and then produced these accounts. And they did it in just a few short months, remarkable considering they were from all over the UK with Swann compiling and coordinating the whole thing, And for the love of all that is holy, can somebody tell me what it is written on the front page? I can’t read Greek and the curiosity is killing me!:-)

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Puff the Magic Marksman or The History of Smoking in St. Mark’s

Whew, the big and unplanned hiatus is over and we’re back to our stories.

In the St Mark’s Magazine of 1935 one can find an article that described the smoking habits of St. Mark’s College in the years. The author was a student in the College in the years 1891-92. Smoking in the College was forbidden, so said an elaborate sign ‘in ancient lettering’. But as it is with all schools since the popularization of the tobacco, there was some rule-bending.

There were places and spaces that were the refugee of the smoking folk. They were unofficially permitted to smoke in the gardens and in the gym building. The gym building had the obvious advantage of gas lightning that made for a fine lighting point. They were strictly forbidden from smoking in the study room, but the clever students taught themselves the art of covert smoking by puffing into a drawer or, sitting on a hob, into a chimney.

Contrary to or barbarous times, the cigarettes were not the proper thing to smoke, unless you were engaged in a ‘ten minutes’ fag’ in a short break between lessons. Our civilised Marksmen preferred the noble pipe as paraphernalia of choice and at one point an unofficial smoking club had a rule that every member should smoke a ‘churchwarden’. It was in fashion to have your own favourite pipe. ‘The president smoked a long pipe, whose stem might have been used as a walking-stick or a map-pole’, others had briar or clay pipes and the author even recalls one interesting ‘Indian opium pipe’ that was so ornate and beaded that it barely have a bowl to put tobacco in.There was etiquette and unwritten rules that a smoking man should adhere to. Borrowing of tobacco was frowned upon as well as constant failure to provide yourself with matches. You may recall the tobacco jar that I’ve written about before. It is from a later period, when the two Colleges came together. But the rules about smoking did not change, yet still there was a ‘communal stash’St Mark College Smoking Club. I presume that's the president on the bottom right of the sign. Look at the size of that pipe!

St Mark College Smoking Club. I presume that’s the president on the bottom right of the sign. Look at the size of that pipe!

one could dip into. But the main question is: why the smoking was frowned upon in the time when dangers of smoking were mostly unknown? Was it because they thought it would bother other students or was it a fire hazard? Imagine somebody smoking in the library! Yikes!

en dangers of smoking were mostly unknown? Was it because they thought it would bother other students or was it a fire hazard? Imagine somebody smoking in the library! Yikes!

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Memories of S Mark College

Derwent Coleridge- the guy that founded St Mark's College

Derwent Coleridge- the guy that founded St Mark’s College

There is this book that I found in the depths of the archives. It is quite interesting, as it was written after the school has been in existence for 45 years and it was collaborated upon by people who were closely involved with it, sometimes both as students and teachers. But to me, the most interesting were the memories of Derwent Coleridge, the founder of St Mark. He talks about the way the whole area was when they first arrived. He says that it was ‘market-gardens and meadows intersected by creeks and ditches covered with green water weeds.’ It is really hard for me to imagine the middle of London to ever been like that. But the invasive expansion of London was apparent even back then, as he says: ‘it was country already condemned to turn into suburb…’

He recollects everything about the college itself: the grounds, the buildings, the teachers and pupils. Even Mrs Harvey, who was the matron in charge of the domestic servants. It made me think that she must have been an incredible figure. Colerige says that once, hearing rumours of burglars on the grounds, even that she was ‘…elderly and rheumatic, (she) went around the passages with a poker.’

He also casually reminisces about the music evening that they had, when he listened to Sir Arthur Sullivan singing. Yeah, Derwent my man, I’m not jealous of that at all:-) I swear sometimes it feels like we had our fingers in ALL the pies at some point.

But the memories of others as they remembered St Mark and Coleridge were as interesting. Especially what A.C King said, that he was ’…delighted in taking every opportunity of introducing his assistant masters to any man of note…’ He must have been proud of them and it looks to me like he did everything to help their careers and the school’s reputation.

I wonder what Coleridge would say if he could see us now? I bet he would be proud of us getting full university title last year. I think he would be happy with what his legacy had become. As for me, I enjoyed the book and I will definitely come back to Coleridge because there is more to say about him.


Gent, G.W. (ed) (1891) Memories of S Mark College. Chelsea: G. White Printer

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