Attingham Park: Women of the College
2018 marked 100 years since the first group of women gained the right to vote in Britain. To mark this centenary the National Trust explored the roles of women, and raised the profile of their hidden histories, at the places it cares for during the year. In the Mansion at Attingham during 2018 we looked 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?
" No one need be deterred by the feeling that he or she is not a scholar."
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.
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 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."
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…"
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."
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 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.