Attingham Park: Women of the College

College tutors in front of the Mansion at Attingham c.1950

It’s been 100 years since the first group of women gained the right to vote in Britain. To mark this centenary the National Trust is exploring the roles of women, and raising the profile of their hidden histories, at the places it cares for. At Attingham, from Saturday 17 February, we’ll be looking at the roles and opportunities afforded to the women of the Shropshire Adult Education College, based here from 1948 to 1976.

Women of the Shropshire Adult Education College (1948-1976)

How were women empowered by their time at the College and what opportunities were available to them?

Discover more about the roles and opportunities for women at the Shropshire Adult Education College based at Attingham
Four women standing beside a sign for the Adult Education Collage and the National Trust at Attingham, 1951
" No one need be deterred by the feeling that he or she is not a scholar."
- Shropshire Adult Education College, April 1948.

The College context

A zeal for adult education followed the difficult wartime years and a series of colleges sprang up across the country, often taking residence in large country houses. Before his death in 1947, the 8th Lord Berwick had agreed that Shropshire Council could take on a lease of part of Attingham Hall for use as a college. It opened the following year with alterations planned to make it suitable for students and staff.

The College had accommodation for 60 students with 2,000 people staying each year and another 5,000 attending single events, concerts or one-day courses. There were courses for the weekdays, weekends and some courses lasting longer in the holiday periods.

Attingham was home to the Adult Education College from 1948 - 1976
A flier advertising a music course at the Attingham Education College

The College was popular both with local people and those travelling from further afield, such as, those from the USA. The courses covered a whole range of subjects from literature to agriculture and folk dancing to discussing issues such as world famine. 

For nearly 25 years, Teresa, Lady Berwick shared Attingham Hall with the College during her widowhood. There were three rooms open to National Trust visitors at this time, with the Dining Room only open when not in use by the College.

The College was led by Sir George Trevelyan, whose father had given his home, Wallington, in Northumberland to the National Trust in 1941. When Trevelyan retired in 1971, Geoffrey Toms took on the role of Warden of the College. Trevelyan and Toms were supported in their work by various women and this year we will be telling their stories.


Staff of the College

Roles held by women included the ‘College Domestic Bursar’ who worked alongside the Warden to hire a team of domestic staff for the College, the ‘College Secretary’, and the ‘Director of the Summer School’ who planned the Study of the English Country House course which began in 1952 and still continues today in the form of the Attingham Trust.

The 1953 Attingham Summer School on the portico steps of the Mansion
The 1953 Attingham Summer School members standing on the portico steps of the Mansion at Attingham

The domestic staff provided hot meals and clean spaces to work and rest at the College. In their spare time they were welcome to explore Attingham, for example swimming in the river and to learn alongside students, sitting in on lectures. This highlights the inclusive nature of the College.

Women also shaped the content of the College courses such as establishing the musical courses and linking with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) which still offers adult education today.

" Her total dedication from the outset was an essential element in the founding of the College."
- Ruth Nesfield-Cookson, former College Secretary, speaking of Gwen Orgill, former Domestic Bursar.

Students and tutors

The College had a crèche in the early days which enabled mothers to attend when there may have been no one available to care for their children. The College followed the difficult wartime years so this much have been hugely beneficial and was progressive for the time.

For some women, the College was a chance to have a break from family life and do something for themselves. Others, welcomed the joy of having their meals prepared by staff or the peace gained by coming through the park gates for a course after a busy working week.

The courses were aimed at, and attended by, both men and women, this education was inclusive, and for all. There were visits to the College by organisations such as the Women’s Institute, the Mothers’ Union and Townswomen’s Guild. 

" We have run a great many courses this summer, often for women’s organisations…"
- Sir George Trevelyan in his 1949 report to the Board of Governors of the Shropshire Adult Education College.

There were a significant number of female lecturers who were well known in their field at the time. They include Daphne Oxenford, the BBC voice of Listen with Mother, Lady Eve Balfour of the Soil Association and various other authors, poet and painters. The College took on the Danish concept of ‘Enlivenment’ which breaks down the distinctions between student and tutor enabling them to learn from one another.

The setting of the College had great impact on those involved:

" We had booked places for an Art (Painting) weekend […] This alone was sufficient to cause excitement but to be allowed to wander through the elegant rooms of Attingham impressed us immensely and we felt very privileged […] There were so many opportunities to acquire a skill and knowledge of subjects which would probably otherwise never come our way."
- Mrs M Welsby and Sylvia Wood who attended a number of art courses, 1951-1963
Students in the Picture Gallery at Attingham, c1950.
Two women seated in the Picture Gallery at Attingham c.1950


Lady Berwick and Lady Trevelyan

What was the experience like for Lady Berwick who continued to live on the east side of Attingham Hall? It was important for her that Attingham was to be seen as a home, not just as the premises of an institution. Participants of the Attingham Summer School sent letters of thanks for Lady Berwick’s hospitality and they were often intrigued as her role as chatelaine (a woman who owns or controls a large house). 

Lady Berwick (left) and Lady Trelyan (right) on the portico steps at Attingham, c.1960.
Lady Berwick and Lady Trelyan on the portico steps at Attingham, c.1960.

Lady Mary Trevelyan, Sir George’s mother, was a regular visitor to Attingham. She was involved in both the Women’s Institute and Rural Women's Organisation. She attended numerous course at the College and had a shared love of gardening with Lady Berwick.


What will be on display in the Mansion?

The Mansion will reopen on Saturday 17 February, and will be open daily from 11am until Sunday 4 November.

Inside, we will be telling the story of life for Lady Berwick during the College years on the east side of the house. On the west side and on the basement level there will be small displays explaining how the College made use of the rooms. Photos, quotes and replica documents will all help to give an understanding of this time and what it meant for the women of the College. We hope visitors may reflect on their own educational opportunities and those of their families and that  the displays may re-kindle some memories from those who were part of this life-changing College.

The Dining Room was used as a music room and lecture theatre during the college years. For 2018 it will be displayed to reflect the College’s use of this space. The regency ambassadorial dinner display on the dining table will be rested for the year while we condition check and carry out essential conservation work on it.

A lecture in the Dining Room for Women's Social Services Clubs c.1950
A lecture in the Dining Room for Women's Social Services Clubs c.1950

The carpet has also been removed for the year, meaning that the room usually presented with closed curtains for the appearance of a ‘fashionable’ evening meal will be filled with daylight as the curtains are opened. This will cast light on the intricate ceiling and beautiful paintings on the wall previously seen in low light.

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