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Histories of St Mary's Hall and the Elliott Family.

Revd. Henry Venn Elliott had visited the clergy daughter school at Cowan Bridge, (later Casterton School), attended by Charlotte and Emily Bronte (and the inspiration for Jane Eyre) founded in 1832 by the Revd. Carus Wilson and was keen that there should be "a similar institution in the South".

The pupils were "destined to be governesses" and Henry Venn Elliott considered Brighton as the place to build the school as the Prince Regent had made it a very popular place to live, and there would be many wealthy families looking for a Governess. The therapeutic qualities of the sea air appear also to have been a factor. (Those of us who boarded at St Hilary House remember the qualities very well, especially in the winter term!)

Looking back to the earliest register of pupils and their post-school destinations, it does not appear to have proved a particularly useful source of employment, but Henry Venn Elliott was obviously a very practical man and not short of influence and powers of persuasion.

The Marquess of Bristol, who had property in Kemp Town, gave £500 for land on which the school was built. Henry Venn Elliott persuaded George Basevi (the very well-known architect of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) to provide plans for "The Hall" free of charge, and collected some very influential supporters with money to contribute; including Queen Adelaide (hence Adelaide House).

Henry Venn Elliott was Curate of St Mary's, a private chapel - or chapel of ease as it was called then*. People paid to attend the services there and the minister had no formal remit for the cure of souls outside his paying congregation. The Elliott family had a fifty-year licence to operate the chapel and, as that came towards its end in the early 1870s, just as the Church of England was demarcating more parishes in Brighton, they decided to gift the chapel to the Church as one of the new parish churches. In 1876, work was underway to add a chancel to the old Georgian-style 'speaking house', when the whole structure split in two and fell down. So the new parish of St Mary's got an entirely new parish church, which was consecrated on 15 October 1878. The Elliotts funded most of the new church's construction and HVE's descendants are still patrons of St Mary’s Church today.

In the 1850/60s the Earl of Bristol decided to build a Church for the school in the same grounds and, reading between the lines of the reports at that time, the Revd. Henry Venn Elliott was not best pleased and stipulated that the girls would continue to attend St. Mary's in his lifetime. Subscriptions for the new Church building were somewhat slow in coming and "the Earl of Bristol had to pay for the glazing himself".

Early documents related to the school include a prospectus and clothes list which are historically interesting. The clothes list states that "Every girl will bring with her a Bible and a Prayer Book, a new umbrella...." and a variety of petticoats (cotton, stuff, flannel), and "a silver knife spoon and fork which will be returned ". "Frocks, tippets and shawls will be provided by the Hall". (More intimate garments in the form of "6 pairs of drawers" appear somewhere around 1860s/70s). A laundry list of the 1880s/90s also proved interesting. (Later boarders recall the restrictions on "mufti" including as late as 1970 NO trousers - amended at around that time to be interpreted as NO jeans, but "smart trousers permitted except on Sundays").

The annual accounts have a simplicity that many schools would envy today. The Lady Principal was paid £100 p.a. (quite a princely sum then) and the six "governesses" a total of £150. "Butchers' meat" was nearly the same as the sum total for the Governesses and "Hair-cutting, coal and candles" all came under the same heading. Beer was also quite an item - presumably because the water was not fit for drinking.

Educationally, the school was very far advanced and the school taught a great deal more than the usual "accomplishments" of that era. They took the training of a Governess very seriously indeed. The pupils arrived about the age of eight and became pupil-teachers somewhere in their mid-teens, staying on until they were considered "qualified". We believe that the school was also one of the earliest schools who took the Cambridge Public Examinations in the 1870s - certainly the breadth of the curriculum, including sciences, was unusual for girls at that time.

We are very grateful to Olwen Davies and Sue Meek for the above information, now supplemented with many other memories on our members' pages.

* additional information can be found here: 

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