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date: 30 September 2023

Buss, Frances Maryfree


Buss, Frances Maryfree

  • Elizabeth Coutts

Frances Mary Buss (1827–1894)

by James Russell & Sons, c. 1875

Buss, Frances Mary (1827–1894), headmistress, was born in London on 16 August 1827, the eldest child of Robert William Buss (1804–1875), a painter and etcher, and his wife, Frances Fleetwood (d. c.1860). Frances and her four brothers were the only survivors to adulthood among their ten children. She later described how her education began: her grandparents, whom she was visiting in Aldersgate, sent her to a private school housed in the most rudimentary accommodation 'to get me out of the way' (Ridley, 3). She was next sent to a similar school in Kentish Town kept by a Miss Cook, which she remembered as simply consisting of children learning Murray's Grammar. At the age of ten she proceeded to a more advanced school in Hampstead presided over by a Miss Wyand. By the age of fourteen she herself was teaching there and by sixteen was sometimes left in sole charge of the school. Her father was not a particularly successful artist nor, it appears, a good manager of money. To help the family finances her mother, who was the strongest influence on her early life, set up a private school in Clarence Road, Kentish Town, in 1845.

Frances Buss assisted with the teaching in her mother's school, which was based on the ideas of Pestalozzi, while attending during 1848–9 evening lectures at the newly opened Queen's College in Harley Street, London. She was taught by F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and R. C. Trench, and gained certificates in French, German, and geography. To Dorothea Beale, a contemporary at Queen's, she described the education gained there as opening 'a new life to me, I mean intellectually' (Buss to Beale, 13 Jan 1889, North London Collegiate School archives). She was strongly influenced by the ideas and concerns of Revd David Laing (1800–1860), one of the founders of the college and secretary from 1843 of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution. The poverty of many governesses made him aware of the plight of middle-class women forced onto the labour market, and he aimed to provide education and certification to enable such women to qualify as teachers. Frances Buss's own experience of having to earn a living as a teacher continuously from her teens to help support her family (two of her younger brothers, Alfred Joseph Buss and Septimus Buss, were enabled to attend King's College, London, and enter the church) lent a particular immediacy to Laing's objectives.

North London Collegiate School

The Busses' school, renamed the North London Collegiate School for Ladies, moved to 46 Camden Street, with Frances Buss as its head, on 4 April 1850. She was to be head of the school, which started with thirty-five pupils, for over forty years. It was started under the auspices of the clergy of St Pancras. Laing, as vicar of Holy Trinity, Haverstock Hill, taught divinity there and was a close adviser until his death. Buss's first speech to parents paid tribute to Queen's College, which was 'in all respects equivalent to a university course for gentlemen' (North London Collegiate School archives), and indicated her intention to prepare her students for further study there. She presented the school as being principally concerned with the education of girls intending to become governesses. Her purpose was not so much inspired by an egalitarian ideology (indeed, she still saw the chief role of women as that of homemaker) but a pragmatic one, and fits with much of the language of the women's movement at this time. Her aim was to provide 'a useful education' based on 'an authorised system', justifying her new school in terms of economic necessity, 'so as to fit them for the important position in society they will be called upon to follow'. The first prospectus stressed that the school was for 'daughters of limited means, clerks and private offices and persons engaged in trade and other pursuits'. She insisted that a sound education was as essential for the daughters from such families as it was for the sons. Unlike Miss Beale, the contemporary headmistress with whom she was often associated, she did not exclude tradesmen's daughters. At governors' meetings she regularly delighted in demonstrating the wide range of social backgrounds from which her students were drawn. Her denominational policy was similarly inclusive: non-Anglicans were admitted, and a ‘conscience clause’ allowed parents to withdraw their children from the religious instruction.

By 1865 the school had 200 day girls (there were a few boarders), but was still run as a private, family concern, R. W. Buss and Septimus Buss teaching art and scripture respectively. A feature of North London Collegiate was the organization of lectures outside the ordinary curriculum, notably a series on political economy by Professor W. B. Hodgson, a close associate. In July 1870 Frances Buss handed over the school to trustees, and in the following year a second school, the Camden School, was established in Kentish Town with lower fees to cater especially for girls from lower-middle-class families. Making the case for an additional school, she argued that the 'increasing number of girls who, as they grow up, must become breadwinners as certainly as boys, makes their claim to education more pressing than ever' (D. Burchell, Miss Buss' Second School, 1971, 20).

Miss Buss's efforts to establish publicly accountable girls' schools were hampered by lack of funds. She raised only £47 by an appeal, at a time when boys' schools received lavish support. Her campaign to secure an endowment for the two schools was assisted by the endowed schools commissioners, who sympathized with her object, and they were able to obtain funds from the Platt charity belonging to the Brewers' Company. In 1875 a scheme to administer the schools under the Endowed Schools Act was laid down by the charity commissioners, and in the following year a successful inspection was carried out by London University. As the first public day school for girls, the North London Collegiate School was a model for the schools founded by the Girls' Public Day School Company, established in 1872, and new headmistresses at the company's schools were sent to observe its methods.

The teaching profession

Miss Buss quickly gained a reputation as one of the leading authorities on girls' education. On 30 November 1865, on the same day as Emily Davies, she gave evidence to the schools inquiry commission (the Taunton commission) both about her own school and the two wider educational missions for which she is best remembered: the importance of the training and professional standing of teachers, and the value of competitive, external examinations for girls. From the outset she was concerned about the training of her staff, sending them to the Home and Colonial Institute, where her mother had attended a training course, for further instruction. She bemoaned the lack of properly trained teachers, calling for every teacher to be taught the art of teaching and the 'power of imparting knowledge'. In 1869 she became the first woman fellow of the College of Preceptors, helping to establish the college's professorship of the science and art of education in 1872. Her election to a fellowship of the college in 1873 was the only public recognition she ever received. She was also a member of the council of the Teachers' Training and Registration Society. Rather than establish a training department attached to her school, as Miss Beale had done at Cheltenham, Miss Buss promoted separate training institutions, including the Maria Grey Training College and the Cambridge Training College. At her own school she made a policy of appointing only staff trained in the theory and practice of education, using staff meetings as opportunities for further training. The minutes for 6 June 1887 record that 'a lesson on teaching decimals was given' (North London Collegiate School archives).

Miss Buss regarded teaching as 'one of the noblest professions, not second even to medicine' (Educational Review, February 1895). She gave much time and energy to promoting professional associations among her fellow teachers. At the first meeting of the Teachers' Guild, intended to unite all branches of the profession, held at the North London Collegiate in 1883, she urged that teaching should 'cease to be a trade—where in return for so much coin so many hours were grudgingly given—and that instead it should be a learned profession', though one measure of her own success was a high salary, which reached £1454 a year by 1893. In 1866 she was one of the founder members of the London Association of Schoolmistresses. With Dorothea Beale she established the Association of Head Mistresses, which first met at her house in 1874, with the purpose of holding conferences 'in order to know what we ought to assert and what surrender' (DNB). She had a sometimes fiery relationship with the governors of her own schools, especially the first chairman, Dr John Storrar. Given the economic reasons she advanced for female education, it was appropriate that she should also have been influential in establishing the Teachers' Providential Association and the Teachers' Loan Society to assist teachers in financial need.

Girls' education

Frances Buss saw competitive external examinations as the best preparation of her students for professional life, and was adamant that girls should compete to the same standard as boys. In December 1863, when the Cambridge local examinations were opened to girls on an experimental basis, twenty-five of the eighty-three candidates who took part were pupils of Miss Buss. She helped Emily Davies to organize the memorial sent to Cambridge in 1864 calling for this arrangement to be made permanent, which was granted in 1865. Her annual speeches to parents explained her emphasis on these external examinations: in 1868 she spoke of their importance in setting a standard; in 1870 she pointed to their impartiality as a relative measure of schools; and in 1871 she insisted on their good effects upon girls' education. She saw no harm in competition and had no objection to prizes, also encouraging games such as hockey and gymnastics. 'I would like girls trained to match their brothers', she reiterated in an interview (Women's Penny Paper, 8 June 1889). She made a point of ensuring that mathematics, a subject some thought unsuited to girls, was well taught, appointing Sophie Bryant (whom she groomed to be her successor as headmistress) to teach the subject. Many of her former pupils went on to study at the women's colleges founded at Cambridge; twelve were at Girton in 1879. Clara Collet became the first former North London Collegiate pupil to obtain a degree when she took a London BA in 1880.

The women's movement

Frances Buss was a supporter of reform movements, taking an interest in anti-slavery, Italian unity, the National Indian Association, and later Irish home rule. She assisted in the temperance work of her brother Septimus, an east London vicar. She believed in the importance of women taking part in public life, organizing leaflets to women ratepayers in support of Elizabeth Garrett's candidature for the London school board in 1870 and encouraging the candidature of one of her staff, Jane Chessar, to the same body in 1873. Her association with Emily Davies dated from a shared interest in the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. As a headmistress she had a keen eye for the development of employment opportunities for women, and would change curricula accordingly, introducing lessons on the working of municipal government after the 1888 Local Government Act. Active in the campaign to admit women to the medical profession, she was a governor of the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1874 she hosted a meeting of the Friends of the Women's Peace Movement, where a paper on 'the best way for women to use their influence to prevent war' was read. Although she sympathized with Josephine Butler's purity campaigns, her position prevented her from taking a public stand. She belonged to the Central National Society for Women's Suffrage, and saw a link between the difficulties encountered in securing satisfactory educational opportunities for women and their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise: 'If we had only had the vote some of the difficulties I have described would never have existed' (Women's Penny Paper, 8 June 1889). She was convinced that the full effects of these movements would be felt over the long term: 'I should like to revisit the earth at the end of the twentieth century to see the result of the great revolution of the nineteenth—the women's rights movement' (Woman's Signal, January 1896).

Character and reputation

Pupils remembered Miss Buss with a mixture of respect and fear; she was a strict disciplinarian, boasting to Dr Thring of Uppingham School that she had no need for corporal punishment since she could reduce a girl to tears in minutes. Although she was extremely nervous on public occasions, and was by her own admission not a good speaker, she grew to value public occasions, especially the annual prize-givings. She had a keen eye for publicity and cultivated the press. Her regular addresses to her pupils on moral and philosophical questions were published after her death as Leaves from the Note-Books of Frances M. Buss, edited by G. Toplis (1896). She was well travelled, often taking younger members of staff with her on trips to Italy, her favourite destination, and Sweden, where she made a study of the school system in 1871. Described as 'short of stature and heavy of figure', she was said to possess 'the artist's gift of knowing how to dress', favouring garments of lace (Burstall, 39). Her unremitting work as a teacher prematurely aged her—she was white-haired in her forties—and she became worn down by a debilitating kidney ailment. Frances Buss died at her home, 87 King Henry's Road, Hampstead, London, on 24 December 1894, and was buried in the churchyard at Theydon Bois, Essex, near the country cottage where she spent her vacations. Memorial windows were placed in the school hall of North London Collegiate School for Girls (as it was named in 1870) and in Theydon Bois church.

Frances Buss's ideas laid the foundations for girls' day education in England. They were absorbed by a whole generation of headmistresses and schoolmistresses, many of whom were taught by her. One of them, Sara Burstall, who was both a pupil and an assistant mistress under her, spoke of Miss Buss's decisive influence, 'which was destined to shape my whole life, as it has of many others' (S. A. Burstall, Retrospect and Prospect, 1933, 43).


  • A. E. Ridley, Frances Mary Buss and her work for education (1895)
  • S. A. Burstall, Frances Mary Buss (1938)
  • J. Kamm, How different from us: a biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale [1958]
  • F. Hays, Women of the day: a biographical dictionary of notable contemporaries (1885)
  • Englishwoman's Review, 26 (1895), 47–50
  • reports at prize-giving, staff meeting minutes, correspondence, North London Collegiate School archives
  • R. M. Scrimgeour, ed., The North London Collegiate School, 1850–1950 (1950)
  • M. Forster, Significant sisters (1984)
  • S. Fletcher, Feminists and bureaucrats: a study in the development of girls' education in the nineteenth century (1980)
  • J. Roach, A history of secondary education in England, 1800–1870 (1986)
  • J. Roach, Secondary education in England, 1870–1902 (1991)
  • P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987)
  • P. Levine, Victorian feminism, 1850–1900 (1987)


  • North London Collegiate School, corresp. and papers


  • photographs, 1860–72, repro. in Ridley, Frances Mary Buss, facing pp. 87 and 273, frontispiece
  • J. Russell & Sons, photograph, 1875, NPG [see illus.]
  • portrait, repro. in ILN (5 Jan 1895), 11
  • portrait, repro. in Education (Nov 1890)
  • portrait, repro. in Educational Review (Jan 1895)

Wealth at Death

£19,794 17s. 9d.: probate, 21 Jan 1895, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)