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Belcher, Mary Anne [Marian]free

  • Felicity Hunt

Belcher, Mary Anne [Marian] (1849–1898), headmistress, was born at Great Faringdon, Berkshire, on 12 March 1849, the daughter of Thomas Belcher, a grocer, and his wife, Mary Anne, formerly Saunders. The Revd Thomas Hayes Belcher, principal of Brighton College, was her elder brother. She was educated at the school of Eliza Beale, sister to Dorothea Beale, at Barnes, Surrey. Her career as a teacher began in 1871 when, at the age of twenty-one, she went to Cheltenham Ladies' College, where Dorothea Beale had been headmistress since 1854. There began a lifelong professional association which was to develop into an important and deep friendship.

Marian Belcher's move to Cheltenham, where she taught from 1871 to 1883, becoming vice-principal in 1877, enabled her to take the general examination of the University of London (the London BA was not opened to women until 1878). Dorothea Beale sought to train, mould, and discipline her young staff to follow her own model of personal religious life and public duty. She encouraged her assistant mistresses to move to other schools, often as headmistresses (by 1899 Cheltenham had produced forty). Central to her philosophy was the principle of the woman teacher as moral and religious preceptor, and by 1900 there was a recognized Cheltenham ‘type’ among girls' schools.

Marian Belcher became deeply committed to these principles. Her most abiding characteristic was her religious devotion to duty. She saw her work as an extension of her faith, carrying her religious belief into her teaching in scripture, literature, and history, and her ideas about duty into her school organization and her guidance to pupils about their adult lives and purpose. She was a high-church Anglican, who prepared pupils for confirmation and insisted that public duty came before private affairs.

In 1883 Marian Belcher was appointed headmistress of Bedford high school, the first headmistress, Ada McDowall, having died suddenly a few months after the school opened in May 1882. The high school was one of two girls' schools provided for in the 1873 scheme for the Harpur Trust. During her fifteen years as head, Marian Belcher shaped the school—its ethos, curriculum, and organization—leaving a legacy lasting well into the twentieth century. By 1898 there were more than 600 pupils at the school, in a town well endowed with girls' schools.

During these years Marian Belcher developed for the school a broad philosophy of girls' education, embracing both academic excellence, as represented in examination successes, and a highly developed sense of public duty. These were achieved in a context where perceptions about social distinctions and the eligibility of girls from particular social backgrounds made entry to schools, especially girls' schools, as much dependent upon social class as academic ability or the ability of a parent to pay the school fees.

Like many girls' schools of the day Bedford high school was organized into a long morning, from 9.25 a.m. to 1.15 p.m., and mistresses were available to supervise lesson preparation (according to a timetable) from 2.30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Under the scheme for the Harpur Trust schools the headmistress had full responsibility for academic matters, although the Harpur Trust governors had powers to appoint internal examiners. From its inception Bedford high school included in the curriculum religious knowledge, English subjects, arithmetic, mathematics, French, German, Latin, history, geography, botany, drill, and, by 1886, general science, including elementary science. A cookery room, fitted out by the governors in 1882, was never put to use, and the omission of 'Domestic Economy and the Laws of Health' (which had been included in the 1873 scheme) reflected Marian Belcher's conviction that such matters were best left to home instruction, being inappropriate for school.

By 1886 all the academic subjects were being offered for public examination, most often either the Cambridge or the Oxford local examinations. Marian Belcher's commitment to publicly acknowledged academic standards was shared by most other headmistresses of ‘first-grade’ schools of the day. It reflected a goal of providing a demonstrably first-class education, but went hand in hand with a determination to use that education for both public and private service.

Marian Belcher's obituarist spoke of her 'rare combination of practical wisdom with a childlike singleness of moral aim' (The Guardian, 28 Dec 1898, 2022), and photographs show her 'beaming kindness and friendliness' (Godber and Hutchins, 410). At Cheltenham she had joined other ladies' college mistresses in daily worship at local churches. In Bedford she was closely associated with St Paul's Church, near the school. She did not marry, but her Bedford household included nieces and nephews, one of whom, Ethel Belcher, attended Bedford high school and subsequently became classics and games mistress there, ending her career as headmistress of James Allen's Girls' School at Dulwich. In 1892 Marian Belcher had been instrumental in helping to found a guild of old girls at Bedford which encouraged former pupils of the school to carry the principles and duties imbued from school life into the wider world. This characterized her own philosophy, which had been nurtured at Cheltenham Ladies' College, alongside Dorothea Beale, developed in her own school at Bedford, and exemplified in her life. Marian Belcher died on 15 December 1898, after a painful illness, at her home, 9 Lansdown Road, Bedford.


  • J. Godber and I. Hutchins, eds., A century of challenge: Bedford high school, 1882 to 1982 (privately printed, Bedford, 1982)
  • K. M. Westaway, ed., A history of Bedford high school (1932)
  • E. Raikes, Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham (1909)
  • F. C. Steadman, In the days of Miss Beale: a study of her work and influence (1931)
  • D. Beale, L. H. M. Soulsby, and J. F. Dove, Work and play in girls' schools (1898)
  • Bedford High School archives
  • The Guardian (28 Dec 1898), 2022
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • will


  • Bedford High School, archives, letters, and MS notes


  • photograph, repro. in Godber and Hutchins, eds., A century of challenge

Wealth at Death

£13,629 9s. 8d.: resworn probate, 18 Feb 1899, CGPLA Eng. & Wales