Chessar, Jane Agnes (18351880), educationist, was born in Edinburgh on 21 April 1835. Her father was a man of intellectual ability but he died at the age of forty-four leaving a widow with three young daughters. An extremely delicate child, she attended private schools and classes in her home town in order to prepare her for a career in teaching.
In 1851 Jane left Edinburgh and went to London, where she entered the Home and Colonial College, Gray's Inn Road, in order to prepare herself more thoroughly for her chosen profession. A progressive institution run on Pestalozzian lines, the Home and Colonial School Society was founded in 1836 for the training of primary school teachers and governesses. Elizabeth Mayo, who superintended the work of the college, took a particular interest in her, and after only a year's training Jane was appointed one of the organizing governesses in the training of teachers for national schools, specializing in human physiology and physical geography. She was a successful teacher and did much to establish the reputation of the college.
In 1861 Jane Chessar organized a group of ten student teachers from the Home and Colonial to attend a special course in physiology for women at University College. The innovatory course of thirteen lectures was given on Saturday afternoons by John Marshall, sponsor of the Ladies' Sanitary Association. Ill health obliged her to resign her position on the staff of the college in 1866, though she continued to give lectures and tuition. One of her pupils was Jeanette Marshall, John's eldest daughter, who nicknamed her Chessics and wrote of her with affection. The two attended meetings of the Royal Geographical Society. She also successfully prepared girls for the senior Cambridge examinations, taught special subjects at Frances Mary Buss's North London Collegiate and Camden schools for girls, and was one of two examiners at the first examination held by the Froebel Society in July 1876. She became a member of the Teacher's Training and Registration Society, founded by Maria Grey in 1877, and was elected a member of the council of Cheltenham Ladies' College.
A stout little Scotswoman, plain of face and costume, by the time of her election to the London school board in 1873 Jane was a figure of some repute in the educational world. Brought forward as a candidate for Marylebone she reaped the benefits of a well-organized and hard-working committee of supporters established by the Garrett feminist circle. The influence of the Langham Place group, a circle of feminists who established the first feminist periodical and the first of the women's employment societies, was crucial. A quiet but firm supporter of women's suffrage, Jane worked closely with Langham Place women like Frances Mary Buss, Alice Cowell, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Garrett. Campaigning on the ground that the education of girls may best be promoted by the presence of women members on the board, her educational programme included non-sectarian scripture teaching in schools and compulsory attendance when necessary.
Keen to press a distinctive women's line in school board politics, the education of girls occupied a large part of Jane Chessar's contribution to debate. Unsuccessful in her attempt to minimize the expansion of the domestic curriculum for working-class girls, she later intervened when the Lawrence scholarships were established to allow a number of board school pupils the opportunity to continue their education. Refusing to admit the argument that boys were superior to girls, she successfully moved an amendment on 13 May 1874 to give girls equal rights to compete for the scholarships.
Jane Chessar's special knowledge of women teachers and school management would have made her a valuable member of the board in any case, but her personal qualities greatly increased her standing with her colleagues: She understood fully how to work with others, and the sympathy and geniality which had endeared her to her colleagues at the Home and Colonial Schools, now made her a favourite on the Board. She spoke well on questions which she thoroughly understood; but she never interrupted debate by useless talking (Englishwoman's Review, 15 Oct 1880, 4356). Despite receiving the help and sympathy of Mary Richardson, the friend she lived with at 6 Frederick Place, Gray's Inn Road, London, her health broke down under the strain of school board work and was only partly restored by a winter in Algiers. Her doctors forbade her seeking re-election in 1876.
Living in partial retirement, Jane Chessar still took a keen interest in all matters concerning education and the social position of women, serving on the governing body of the Women's Education Union and supporting its scheme to establish an evening college for women workers. She also started a swimming club for London's women teachers and founded a ladies' debating society (where some of the younger women school board members took their first lessons in public speaking). She persuaded Mary Richardson to stand for the London school board, coaching her in preparation for the 1879 election campaign. Representing Southwark until 1885, Mary was honorary treasurer of the Association to Promote Women's Knowledge of the Law and shared a practice at the inns of court with the first woman solicitor, Eliza Orme.
A regular contributor to The Queen and other newspapers, Jane Chessar was well known as a journalist. She edited Mary Somerville's Physical Geography (1870) and William Hughes's Manual of Geography (1880), besides producing a booklet for the London Association of Schoolmistresses, On Teaching Geography (1879). Jane joined the Somerville Club for Women shortly before leaving for Brussels to help at an educational conference. She died of cerebral apoplexy at Laeken, Belgium, on 3 September 1880.
Englishwoman's Review, 11 (1880), 4347 · The Athenaeum (18 Sept 1880), 370 · Educational Times (1 Oct 1880) · Journal of the Women's Education Union (15 Oct 1880) · Journal of the Women's Education Union (15 Sept 1880) · School Board Chronicle [an educational record and review] (18736) · Girton Cam., GCPP Davies LSB · E. M. Lawrence, ed., Friedrich Froebel and English education (1952) · Z. Shonfield, The precariously privileged (1987)
Girton Cam., GCPP Davies LSB
Wealth at death
under £2000: probate, 12 Nov 1880, CGPLA Eng. & Wales