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Surr [née Grabham], Elizabeth (b. 1825/6, d. in or after 1898), educational reformer, was born in Rochford, Essex, one of at least seven daughters of John Grabham (b. 1800/01), surgeon, and his wife, Sarah, née Fry (b. 1801/2). She had at least four brothers who studied medicine, including George Wallington Grabham (1836–1912), who became inspector of hospitals in New Zealand, and Michael Comport Grabham (1840–1935), who practised as a physician on Madeira. On 26 October 1852 she married Joseph Surr (1821/2–1905), a silk manufacturer and eminent City merchant, and with him had two sons and two daughters (including Jenny, Minnie, and Howard). A grandson was born in America in 1891.

An earnest evangelical churchwoman, Elizabeth Surr entered public life in 1873 when she put herself forward as a candidate for the London school board. Campaigning on the ground that the education of girls required women's guidance and care, she favoured sound secular teaching and unsectarian Bible instruction, and was returned fourth in the poll for Finsbury; she was returned head of the poll in 1879. She gained a high public profile through her membership of the school board's special committee on incorrigible truants, which later became the industrial schools committee. A zealous advocate of the reform of industrial schools she focused the attention of the board on the cruelties practised by the superintendents of the Upton House School on the poor boys detained there, ensuring that they were exposed and stopped. With the support of Florence Fenwick Miller and Helen Taylor she was also largely responsible for exposing the treatment of boys incarcerated at St Paul's Industrial School, owned by Thomas Scrutton, chairman of the industrial schools committee. The allegations of cruelty and mismanagement included the reallocation of food intended for the boys to the governor, his family, and the rest of the staff, the provision of insufficient clothing and footwear (which resulted in severe cases of chilblains), and the use on boys of handcuffs and foot manacles.

The intervention of the home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, forced the board into an inquiry (1881), though the special committee appointed was so heavily biased in favour of Scrutton that Benjamin Lucraft, Henrietta Muller, and Edith Simcox (the last two having been elected to the board in 1879) refused to serve. Unable to escape the censure of public opinion, Scrutton resigned his position as chairman of the industrial schools committee and later his seat on the board. The home secretary decided to close the school down and issue a royal commission on reformatory and industrial schools, while acknowledging Elizabeth Surr's role in a personal letter of thanks. Giving evidence to the commission in April 1883 she held firm to the principle that institutional life is generally prejudicial to a child's moral and physical welfare. She supported the use of day industrial schools for all save the children of the profligate (who should be either boarded out, emigrated, or sent to farm schools), while stressing the need for a more efficient inspectorate, an end to the employment of former army personnel, and for the assimilation of institutions of this kind to family life.

Having seen her actions vindicated, Surr decided not to stand for re-election in 1882 on grounds of ill health. Opinions varied as to the nature of her contribution to public life. Some lauded the women as the champions of the outcasts of the metropolis. Others followed Edward Lyulph Stanley in arguing that, as enemies of the board, the women were using the issue to discredit their opponents. Keen to acknowledge her contribution, Henrietta Muller confidently declared:
Women like Mrs Elizabeth Surr, Mrs Charles of Paddington and Mrs Evans leave their mark on our day. They create a type—the hard-headed and large-hearted woman who has a keen scent for ‘a job’, who routs out dirty corners, is beloved by the people and detested by the official. (H. M. S., 4)
Surr was known for her sense of humour. Thomas Gautrey recalled the occasion when, looking suspiciously on voluble talkers, she asked that the board-room clock be so placed as to be visible to the majority of members. Belief in the doctrine of effort to alleviate social injustice was central to her public work and informed her view of the agnostic Helen Taylor as the best Christian on the board. Operating in a spirit of friendship and mutual co-operation, it was she who sent a doctor to attend Florence Fenwick Miller following her haemorrhage after childbirth. Much later Helen Taylor provided emotional and financial support when Surr's daughter Minnie was diagnosed as having breast cancer.

At the end of 1883 Surr and her family emigrated to San Diego, California, where straitened financial circumstances told on her appearance as well as on her health. In 1891 she suffered a severe fall and it seems that Helen Taylor continued to help with gifts of money. Her writing may have provided a minimal income, since a fifth biblical tale for children was published in 1896. Of her other books, three were illustrated picture books on animal and bird life (she was a keen ornithologist) and the fourth a moralistic tale for children, Good out of Evil (1877). In 1898 her sons lost their ranch and Elizabeth wrote asking for Helen's help in finding a buyer for a painting to provide her with some independent means. The bond of feeling between the two women is evident and remains until the correspondence ends in October 1898; thereafter there is no record of her.

Jane Martin

Sources  

School Board Chronicle (1876–82) · minutes of proceedings of the School Board for London, 1876–82 · Englishwoman's Review (15 Dec 1876) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Nov 1879) · correspondence, BLPES, Mill-Taylor MSS, vol. 23 · E. Hill, ‘The late Miss Helen Taylor: an appreciation’, Women and Progress (8 Feb 1907) [Mill-Taylor special collection box 7] · H. M. S., ‘Women as county-councillors’, Women's Penny Paper (10 Nov 1888), 4 · T. Gautrey, Lux mihi laus: school board memories (1937) · ‘Royal commission on reformatories and industrial schools’, Parl. papers (1884), vol. 45, C. 3876 · m. cert. · census returns, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 · ‘Grabham, George Wallington’, DNZB

Archives  

London School of Economics, Mill-Taylor special collection


Likenesses  

drawing (A meeting of the London School Board), repro. in The Graphic (8 July 1882)