Puritan virtue

7th April 1995 at 01:00

Jessica Saraga on Emmeline Tanner, head of Roedean and government adviser.

Imagine a headmistress. If you're female and born before the sixties, the headmistress you'll imagine, though you may not know her name, is Emmeline Tanner. Tall, imposingly bosomed, clean featured and healthy, indomitable, cheerfully hard-working, scourge of the sloppy and heroine of the loyal, unshakeable morality based firmly on the conventions binding the social fabric, her approbation striven for, her disfavour appalling - such a headmistress you will imagine. Such a headmistress was Miss Tanner - later Dame Emmeline - epitome of headmistressly virtues, archetype of the stereotype embedded in our psyches deep in the stratum reserved for female authority figures.

Headmistress of Roedean from 1924 to 1947, she did not herself come from a privileged class. Her own education was earned, not bought, from the age of 16 when she started her career, teaching younger pupils in return for tuition with the Birmingham School Board. Moving from post to post, she missed out on university, obtaining her London degree externally. Her first headship, at 32, was at Nuneaton High School under an enlightened and supportive Warwickshire LEA, but her commitment to the education of girls was bound to lead her, in the first quarter of the century, into the private sector as well as the public. From her next headship at Bedford High School she was head-hunted, not entirely willingly, for the plum post at prestigious Roedean.

Pursuing her own career, Emmeline Tanner also furthered the development of education not just for girls, but generally. She became adviser of every government from the end of the First World War to the end of the second, serving alongside R H Tawney, W H Hadow and Sir Will Spens on both the Consultative Committee, an educational think tank set up with the Board of Education in 1899, and on the Fleming Committee whose report led to the 1944 Act.

She combined, like many women of her generation, Victorian self-help and early 20th century practical feminism in equal measures, both, in her case,founded on the religious and moral heritage of her modest petty bourgeois West Country origins. Her family manifested the traditions of English non-conformity equally in their adherence to the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, and their opposition to drink, tobacco, meat and compulsory vaccination.

None of this was as idiosyncratic as it might seem, deriving from the mainstream of a particularly English Puritan tradition, which by the late 19th century was embodied in Liberalism and Non-conformity. Created life, whether human or animal, must be respected as the physical manifestation of the deity. The human body should no more be deliberately sullied by impurities such as smallpox vaccine that the human spirit by coercion. The cast of mind is readily recognisable; we can see the Tanners' intellectual descendants still today in the grass-roots morality of countless vegetarians, non-smokers, and users of natural remedies. Greens and environmentalists, Friends of the Earth and enemies of motorways, members of Amnesty, scourge of huntsmen, and flaggers down of lorries exporting live animals for slaughter, they still turn ideas into action.

Her sisters interpreted their heritage variously and, for young Edwardian women, just as remarkably as Emmeline Tanner did herself. One was a nurse on the Western front in the First World War; another set up an advertising agency (in which she employed her husband); the third became personal secretary to the managing director of a Bristol business. Brother Herbert turned Quaker and pacifist, only to see his son killed in Second World War hostilities, torpedoed en route overseas with the Friends' Ambulance Unit.

Such was Emmeline Tanner's stock, and though she joined the Church of England, (whoever heard of a Swedenborgian headmistress?) she never lost her love of nature or her Puritan confidence in the capacities of the individual whether male or female to learn, improve and be a force for good through an active and engaged life, at work in the world.

The real interest of this book - which may not have been intentional - is not so much to remind us of the life and concerns of a pioneering educationalist so much as to place her achievements at the heart of the establishment in the context of a non-conformist tradition so often dismissed as eccentric.

Doors of Possibility: Life of Dame Emmeline Tanner, 1876-1955, Susan Major, Lutterworth Press (May 1995), ISBN: 0718829220

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