My Justice Journey: portrait of Sarah Smetham

blog-5-thomasThomas Dobson - Historian with the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History.

Over 70 years before the University of Oxford was awarding qualifications to women, the Methodist Church demonstrated its commitment to equality, fairness and the provision of equal opportunities.

From the very start of its teacher training ventures in Glasgow, to Westminster and later Southlands, the Church has always trained both men and women, believing that Christian spirit was a better judge of whether someone should become a teacher than their gender.

blog-5-sarah-smethamIn her Letters and Reminiscences, Sarah Smetham records how her worth as a teacher had been identified in a Sunday School classroom, and that the Church had recommended her for teacher training.

Following her year of training at the Glasgow Free Church Training College, the Rev. John Scott remarked that she gave “the best Bible lesson he had ever heard”. This led to her being appointed as a teacher at the newly established infant school in Westminster when it opened in 1850. She later recorded her role in the early success of Westminster College more widely, noting that

“London was crowded with visitors from all parts of the world and many of them found their way to the new College of Methodism … Scarcely a day passed in which, without any warning, Mr. Scott would come in with a party, and desirous of showing off his pet schools to advantage would say in his suave way “Now Miss Goble will you kindly put the children in the Gallery and give them a lesson.””

Sarah also records that her brother was among the first students to train at Westminster, and that he went on to become a teacher at the school in Taunton. Sarah went on to sit (and pass) the first ever Government teaching examination. In the coming decades, when Sarah’s husband (James Smetham, a Pre-Raphaelite associate) was struggling financially or with his ‘depression’, it was partially Sarah’s teaching work in local schools that enabled the family to survive.

When the 1870 Elementary Education Act led to a mass increase in the number of children entitled to state provided education, the number applying to train as teachers at the oversubscribed Westminster increased further. Instead of only accepting men, they established a second college and divided the student cohort, with men going to Westminster, and women attending the new Southlands College (now celebrating its 150th anniversary).

Despite being geographically separate, however, these two colleges continued to operate as closely together as possible, sharing student activities, (such as dramatic performances and evening dances), and an organisational management structure, having only one Trustee and Governing Body. It was only in the 1920s at the ruling of the University of London (who would go on to provide degrees for the Methodist students) that the two managing bodies split.

For the first several years of their operation the colleges even shared student registers, listing all the students alongside each other in one volume. Margaret Birchall was one of the first students to study at the newly formed Southlands, and her notebooks and ‘friendship album’ closely resemble those created by Westminster students, suggesting a continued strand of teaching methodology.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that it was not just gender equality demonstrated at the colleges, but total equality, across all socio-economic classes; as well as across religions, or those with no religion. Local children were also taught at Westminster College, as was summarised by HRH Princess Elizabeth in her speech delivered at the Centenary celebrations of Westminster College in 1951:

“When in 1847 the educational committee of the Wesleyan Methodist movement was searching for a site on which to build their training college, they did not look for peaceful green fields, nor for a dignified and beautiful neighbourhood where it might do its work in an atmosphere of academic calm, but rather for one that was poor and destitute where there would be many uncared for children in need of teaching. For by teaching them the students would both learn their craft and bring knowledge and comfort to those who most needed it.”