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Shirreff, Emily Anne Elizalocked

  • Philippa Levine

Shirreff, Emily Anne Eliza (1814–1897), educationist and writer, was born on 3 November 1814, the second of four daughters and two sons born to Rear-Admiral William Henry Shirreff (1785–1847), of Huguenot ancestry, commander of the Portsmouth Dockyard at the time of his death in 1847, and Elizabeth Anne, eldest daughter of the Hon. David Murray and grandniece of the sixth Baron Elibank. During her childhood her father's naval career took the family abroad for substantial periods. In the 1820s the Shirreff family lived in France, first at St Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, and then in Normandy. From 1830 to 1834 they lived in Gibraltar, where William Shirreff was captain of the port. Along with her sisters, Caroline (b. 1812), Maria (b. 1816), and Katherine (b. 1818), she was educated by a Swiss-French governess, Adèle Piquet. Both brothers died young, William in 1829 and Henry in 1833. Emily remained unmarried, the only one of the sisters to do so. An early portrait of Emily and her sisters in adolescence depicts the group as fashionably attractive and appropriately feminine.

The family's circle of friends included prominent intellectuals, women and men, and Emily Shirreff grew up in the company of some of the best-known nineteenth-century scientists—Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, William Whewell, and John Herschel—as well as among leading literary figures. Never healthy herself, and battling frequent bouts of neuralgia after an early encounter with infantile fever, she none the less spent her younger adult years nursing various family members through sickness. She was close to her younger sister, Maria Georgina Grey, with whom she collaborated both on numerous writing projects and on the feminist educational campaigns which would secure her name for posterity. When her sister's husband, William Thomas Grey, died in March 1864, the joint career upon which the two sisters had already embarked blossomed into increasing prominence.

As young women, the Shirreff sisters had enjoyed considerable publishing success, first in 1835 with their Letters from Spain and Barbary, then in 1841 with a novel, Passion and Principle (reissued in 1854 as part of Routledge's Railway Library). In 1850 Maria Grey's husband financed the publication of their first major work, Thoughts on Self-Culture Addressed to Women, a work which heralded the interest of the sisters in furthering the educational opportunities available for women of their class. Thoughts on Self-Culture espoused an intellectual independence for women firmly based on notions of reason and Christian humanism. Their belief in the perfection of the mind and the importance of developing the intellect clearly foreshadows their active commitment to the principles of women's education. Intellectual Education and its Influence on the Character and Happiness of Women, Shirreff's first major single-authored work, appeared in 1858, and further developed the principles of this earlier discussion. It was in the 1870s, after their responsibilities as family nurses declined, that Shirreff and her sister turned their attention more fully to the far-reaching and highly successful campaigns they were to spearhead.

Emily Shirreff was actively involved in fund-raising for the North London Collegiate School and its planned sister school, the Camden School, both founded by Frances Buss. She publicly supported the medical education of women, and played a key role in developing both secondary and tertiary educational openings for women. She was mistress of the newly founded Hitchin (later Girton) College for women during the Lent term of 1870 (writing an account of the college in the Fortnightly Review, 1873), and in 1871 launched, with her sister, the National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of all Classes. Widely known as the Women's Education Union, and inaugurated in November 1871 at the Royal Society of Arts with Lord Lyttelton presiding, the union's aim was to provide secondary schools for girls and to raise the status of teaching as a profession, especially for women. To these ends, the union helped to found a number of academically rigorous girls' schools and worked to improve and formalize teacher training opportunities for women.

Under the aegis of the union, Shirreff and her sister launched the Girls' Public Day School Company (GPDSC) in June 1872. The company offered £5 shares as a way of raising money to finance the opening of new non-denominational girls' schools. Shareholders received dividends on the profit made from tuition fees, which ranged from 2 to 8 guineas termly; by 1883, with twenty-six schools in operation, shareholders were paid an annual 5 per cent on their investment. The money raised in shares was used for renting, purchasing, or building premises for the schools and for furnishing them. The daughters of shareholders were given priority as entrants, provided they met the entrance requirements. The first of the GPDSC schools opened in London, at Norland Square, Chelsea, in January 1873, with twenty pupils. The school's initial mission was to prepare the girls for the local examinations administered by Oxford and Cambridge as well as those of the College of Preceptors. The schools were deeply influenced by the educational philosophy which Shirreff shared with her sister Maria; both were company vice-presidents. Their view of education stressed both intellectual and physical accomplishment, and saw pleasure as well as discipline as key elements in a successful education. As a result, the schools founded under their influence encouraged girls in physical education, in an appreciation of nature, and in music, as well as in more traditional aspects of the nineteenth-century curriculum. Shirreff, like her sister, was a liberal educationist whose views were grounded in a humanitarian Christianity. Her lecture published in 1875 as The Enjoyment of Life outlines these principles. The success of the company schools was such that the Church Schools Company, which was founded in 1883, deliberately emulated the policies pursued by the GPDSC. By 1879 the GPDSC itself boasted seventeen schools enrolling 2804 students.

Shirreff was both the honorary secretary of the Women's Education Union and co-editor of its house journal, the Journal of the Women's Education Union. The first of the nine volumes of the journal appeared in January 1873, edited by Shirreff and George C. T. Bartley, author of Schools for the People. The journal was a considerable drain on the union's resources, and by 1878 had been reduced to little more than a broadsheet of four pages. Shirreff frequently contributed articles to the journal. Shirreff was also involved in the union's foundation of an evening college for women, which opened at 1 Queen Street, Brompton, in London, in 1878, and in the Governess Registry which it sponsored in 1880. She was also present at the founding meeting (1887) of the Parents' Educational Union, of which she was a vice-president.

Emily Shirreff was an avid supporter of the education principles of Friedrich Froebel, and one of the founders of the Froebel Society. She was the first secretary of the society from 1874 to 1876, when she was elected its president, a position she held until the end of her life. Many of her later writings reflect her interests in this area. In 1876 she published The kindergarten: principles of Froebel's system; also remarks on the higher education of women (2nd edn, 1880). The following year she contributed a sketch of her mentor's life to Berta Maria, Baroness Marenholtz-Bülow's Reminiscences of Friedrich Froebel. Many of the talks she gave on Froebel's system at the Royal Society of Arts, the Froebel Society, and the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science over the years were published as pamphlets. She also contributed a monthly column to The Governess, 'The kinder-garten at home'. Moral Training: Froebel and Herbert Spencer appeared in 1892.

Emily Shirreff's writings were not, however, confined to the topic of education. In 1864 her pamphlet The Chivalry of the South, published by the Ladies' London Emancipation Society at the time of the American Civil War, was a fierce denunciation of the continued existence of slavery in the American south. In politics she was a Liberal who strongly supported women's suffrage. But unlike her sister, whose sympathies were increasingly democratic, she was opposed to further extensions of the franchise after the 1867 Reform Act; Shirreff's Liberalism was of an older vintage and she did not seek to extend the franchise vertically to the unpropertied, merely horizontally to suitably qualified women. Her works Wasted Forces (1880) and The Work of the World and Women's Share in It (1881) both enunciated her feminist principles. She declined an invitation to stand as a Liberal candidate for the new London school board in 1870. In 1874 she joined the Women's Peace and Arbitration Auxiliary, which later changed its name to the London Peace Society.

In 1872 Emily Shirreff contributed a biographical sketch of Henry Thomas Buckle to the posthumous edition of his works which Helen Taylor was overseeing. Shirreff had been close to Buckle as a young woman and profoundly influenced by him intellectually. There is evidence that he had made a proposal of marriage to her, but that she had, on finding that his moral practices did not match her own principles, declined. After the death of her sister's husband in 1864 Shirreff and Maria Grey lived and travelled together, dividing their time between Italy and London. They lived first at Cadogan Place, and later at 41 Stanhope Gardens, Queen's Gate, London. It was here that Emily Shirreff died on 20 March 1897. She was buried in Brompton cemetery four days later.

While politically more conservative than her sister and partner, Emily Shirreff was a formidable force in the cause of women's education, where her campaigning skills and breadth of interest touched upon a wide range of educational issues. She was a principled campaigner, a prolific and impassioned author, and a woman of deep Christian convictions. It was, thus, with women's moral and spiritual contributions and talents that she was most concerned.


  • E. W. Ellsworth, Liberators of the female mind: the Shirreff sisters, educational reform and the women's movement (1979)
  • T. Stanton, ed., The woman question in Europe: a series of original essays (1884)
  • The Times (24 March 1897)
  • Journal of the Women's Education Union
  • B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College (1927)
  • S. Fletcher, Feminists and bureaucrats: a study in the development of girls' education in the nineteenth century (1980)
  • C. Dyhouse, Girls growing up in late Victorian and Edwardian England (1981)
  • J. S. Pedersen, The reform of girls' secondary and higher education in Victorian England: a study of elites and educational change (1987)
  • J. Kamm, Hope deferred: girls' education in English history (1965)
  • O. Banks, The biographical dictionary of British feminists, 1 (1985)
  • d. cert.


  • CUL, letters to Miss Maria Grey


  • photograph, Girton Cam.

Wealth at Death

£9105 9s. 11d.: probate, 21 April 1897, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. E. Houghton, ed., , 5 vols. (1966–89); new edn (1999) [CD-ROM]