During the 19th century, government-led reforms not only expanded state-funded education but opened up school teaching as a role for women. From this point on, women began to play a central role in education with some becoming pioneers who forged new approaches and teaching methods.
One notable trailblazer of the 20th century, who inspired major education reform in her hometown, was Liverpool-born Jessie Reid Crosbie MBE or ‘The Little Missus’, as she was affectionately known.
Born in Everton in September 1876, Jessie Reid Crosbie would go on to become a leading figure in the city’s education sector and gain national recognition for her holistic approach to teaching.
In 1895 Jessie enrolled as a student at Edge Hill College, Liverpool, a decade after the institution was founded as the first non-denominational teaching college for women in England.
More than 125 years since she studied at the college, now Edge Hill University, new research has placed a spotlight on Jessie’s fascinating life and legacy.
Alyson Brown, a History professor at Edge Hill, has delved into the University’s archive to uncover records that document Jessie’s time as a student, and her long association with the institution, that would shape her teaching career.
Professor Brown said: “For women like Jessie who attended a teacher training college in the late 19th century, this was a key way to achieve social mobility.
“It’s clear that while she studied here Jessie formed meaningful, lifelong friendships with her peers at the college.”
A hand drawn friendship graph left by Jessie is among the documents found in the University’s archives.
Professor Brown added: “Although Jessie only studied at Edge Hill for two years, she was mentioned in the annual college magazine by her former peers, especially after her retirement during the 1940s and 1950s. It was clear that they and the college were very proud of her courage and her untiring work amongst the poor.
“We also learned that she was active in the debating society, acted in dramatic productions and was a member of the College Guild. During her life she stayed close to her links in Liverpool and at Edge Hill.”
Soon after the end of the First World War in 1918, Jessie became headmistress at Salisbury Street Primary School in Islington, Liverpool.
At the time, poverty and hunger were widespread in Liverpool, especially in the inner-city district where she taught.
Jessie immersed herself in community life and took time to obtain the trust of her pupils and their parents.
Professor Brown said: “She had a very holistic view of education and didn’t see the school as operating separately from the community. She wholeheartedly believed that the complete wellbeing of the child was crucial and, in order to learn at school, it was necessary for them to be clean, well-rested and well-fed.
“Jessie saw parents as colleagues and was often quoted as saying that parents were the only professionals who received no formal training.”
She decided action was needed and developed mother and father fellowships to involve parents in their children’s education. This has been heralded as an important forerunner of Liverpool’s modern Parent Teacher Associations. She was a pioneer of parent-teacher co-operation.
“When she learned that many of her pupils would roam the streets at night, she took it upon herself to institute a 7pm curfew, which was by no means an easy thing to do and was short-lived.
“Any child she found outside after the curfew could receive a stern telling off from Jessie, as she sometimes policed the curfew herself,” added Professor Brown.
Concerned by the nutritional needs of her pupils, Jessie initiated a free milk scheme at her school and would give her pupils a cup of hot cocoa in the morning.
This act of generosity, believed to be an early free milk scheme in the UK, involved Jessie herself coaxing local shopkeepers into donating their produce.
According to National Museums Liverpool, the city’s free school meals service that exits today was inspired by Jessie’s scheme.
Not stopping there, she may also have instituted the first school bathhouse system in the country which meant that up to 30 of her schoolchildren per day had baths and went home clean.
Jessie remained headmistress at Salisbury Street for more than 25 years and was awarded an MBE in 1933 for her exceptional work at the Liverpool school.
Professor Brown said: “Jessie was a formidable woman. She had a strength that she used to improve the lives of the school children under her care.
“Given the time period that Jessie lived in, it was typically expected that women would marry and have children – she didn’t.
“She makes no reference to ever wanting to get married and she didn’t see that as an issue. In fact, she capitalised on it, and the freedoms and strength it gave her. Jessie’s story is one of tenacity, determination, perseverance and a can-do attitude. She is part of the history of what women can achieve independently.”
Jessie Reid Crosbie died in January 1962, aged 85, leaving behind a lasting legacy to inspire future generations of teachers.
To this day, training the teachers of the future remains one of Edge Hill University’s key strengths.
From its origins as a specialist institution with 41 female trainee teachers, it is now one of the largest providers of teaching training in the UK.
Edge Hill’s Faculty of Education offers innovative initial teacher education and training underpinned by its vision to produce teachers who are distinguished by their intellectual engagement, professional acumen and commitment to the communities in which they work.
The University’s archive is open to members of the public and offers extensive material on the development of teacher training in Britain, as well as the changing experiences of those who studied and worked there.