On September 23, Wycombe Abbey School celebrated its 125th anniversary, having been founded by Dame Frances Dove in 1896.

To recognise this achievement I have asked local historian Willie Reid to tell us more about this remarkable lady.

By Willie Reid

When Frances Dove died in 1942 she not only had founded Wycombe Abbey, which became one of the most successful and prestigious girls’ schools in England, but she had also:

• Helped to set-up the first girls’ preparatory school

• Become the first female Wycombe town councillor, in 1907

• Set-up the Central Aid Society to alleviate poverty

• Opened a local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which campaigned peacefully for equal rights for women

• Been a governor of three other local secondary schools

• Served as a JP

• Donated a stained-glass window in All Saints Parish Church.

And when this committed Christian died in 1942 she was still the only woman to have been elected to the town council.

Frances Dove was never one to sit on the sidelines and complain: she literally saw what needed to be done and did it. And for these numerous services to education and civic life this resourceful lady was made a Dame of the British Empire.

With such an impressive CV, and with Wycombe Abbey celebrating 125 years on 23 September, having ‘got to know her quite well’ through my historical walks/talks, I felt it would be fitting to mark this auspicious occasion by bringing Frances Dove’s name to the fore again in order to recognise the tremendous impact she had in and around High Wycombe for the best part of 50 years. And what better way to remind us of this remarkable lady than to rename the street outside her famous school from Abbey Way to Frances Dove Way. And with the support of Cllr Lesley Clarke this idea has been accepted by the local council.

At the same time a new ‘blue’ plaque is being attached to the wall outside Wycombe Abbey mentioning her and the setting up of the school in 1896.

Frances Dove was born at a time when girls were considered inferior to boys so there was little need for schooling. However, her father, a curate in London, refused to accept this.

She obviously worked hard at school for in 1871 she entered Girton College, Cambridge, the first girl’s college in the UK, established in 1869. There, in 1874, she attained an ordinary degree which she was later able to convert to a M.A. She then went to teach mathematics at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

After three years there she left to become a mistress at St Andrews School for Girls in St Andrews in Scotland which had just opened. In 1882, when the headmistress stepped down, Frances Dove was appointed in her place.

Then, after 14 successful years in charge of this school, now renamed St Leonards, Miss Dove resigned citing her determination to start a similar school in the south of England. In the search for appropriate premises she laid down 5 conditions:-

• it had to be a large house,

• near a town,

• with ample fields for cricket,

• a lake for swimming

• and a place with below average rainfall!

In the end she chose Wycombe Abbey, recently put on the market by Lord Carrington, and purchased the house and 30 acres of land for £20,000 in July, 1896 with the support of friends.

There immediately followed a desperate rush to open the school on a specific date September 23, 1896. Why was this date so auspicious? Because that was the day Queen Victoria became the longest reigning British monarch. Here, as the voice of women’s suffrage was beginning to be heard, Frances Dove chose to make a point.

She firmly believed that the girls attending Wycombe Abbey were privileged to have this first-class education and should work hard. This would not only equip them for life but also allow them to be of service to others.

And here she led by example when, in 1906, she set up the Central Aid Society to help the poor of Wycombe, some of whom were often seen begging at the Abbey gates, at a time when there was no welfare state.

In 1907 an act of parliament allowed women to become local councillors and Miss Dove stood in a council election in the same year and won a seat.

In 1908 she was nominated to become the first lady mayor in England but due to last minute council intrigue she failed to get elected by just 2 votes.

In 1910 she stepped down as head of Wycombe Abbey when the roll had reached 230. According to her successor, Miss Whitelaw, ‘Miss Dove was far ahead of her time. She realised that not all pupils develop through the printed page and introduced gardening and carpentry into the time-table.’

At that time she was also a governor of 3 other Wycombe schools - Royal Grammar School, Wycombe High School and High Wycombe Technical Institute where many of the town’s future furniture manufacturers and designers were taught.

She lost her council seat in 1913 but continued to undertake voluntary work for the diocese and the county education committee.

In 1919, at the age of 72, she learned to drive, it was said that her friends wished she hadn’t.

In 1921 she became a JP and from 1902-24 she was a member of Girton College Council before becoming a life governor.

In 1928 she became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). She is said to have accepted this honour with the personal humility which was hers in spite of her dominant personality.

This redoubtable lady died at her home at 24 Priory Avenue on 21 June, 1942, just short of her 95th birthday.

Frances Dove had many fine qualities but perhaps her greatest legacies lie in her empathy with the young, where her constant quest was to develop the character of every girl, as well as her compassion for others.

One ordinary woman, one extraordinary life!