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Victorians make it happen

Organisations rooted in the 19th century are coming into their own in the

21st-century's explosion of lifelong learning. Simon Midgley reports MARSHA Atkins, a 41-year-old single mother with a four-year-old son, Joseph, could not have completed training to be a social worker without the help of a Victorian benevolent society still flourishing today.

The society gave her a pound;1,000 interest-free loan to help pay the fees for her second year at East Devon College, and towards meeting the cost of childcare.

Ms Atkins, who lives in Exeter, was not entitled to local education authority help because she had already had a grant while studying for a social policy degree at Plymouth University - a course which she had to drop out of for personal reasons.

"I am a single parent and I could not have continued the course without the society's help," she said. "I wanted to get back into education to do something worthwhile.

"It was a struggle. The Government is good at trying to get single parents out to work but offered no help to enable me take a course."

Ms Atkins completed her training in July and starts work this month with the National Schizophrenia Foundation in Exmouth.

The Society For Promoting The Training Of Women was launched in 1859 by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who co-founded Girton College Cambridge, and Jessie Boucherett, daughter of the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire.

In its early days it was known as the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, which resulted in the unfortunate acronym SPEW.

The society, one of whose vice-presidents was William Gladstone, was created to help pioneer new types of employment for women and to improve the then low standard of education.

In the mid-to-late 19th century an increasing number of middle-class women were vying for a small number of menial occupations. Unemployed governesses, needlewomen, widows and orphans were all desperate for help.

In 1860 the society founded the first printing press which employed women exclusively as type compositors. It also founded the first law copying office and the first register of employment for women.

In the same year it opene a school for girls which emphasised arithmetic and book-keeping. Subsequently the society opened the first office staffed by women for tracing engineering and architectural plans (1876), the first shorthand class (1873) and in 1884, soon after typewriters were introduced into this country, the first typewriting office to train women.

In 1864 it persuaded the Metropolitan Railway company to employ six women as telegraph clerks. And it made strenuous efforts to encourage the employment of women as book-keepers, cashiers and clerks, while also opening up other jobs in medicine, dispensing, watch-making and photography.

Today the society's work is devoted to granting interest-free loans for professional training and courses leading to career enhancement. In the past few years it has helped women qualify in accountancy, architectural stained glass, dance, dentistry, fashion and design, law, medicine, nursing, sculpture, speech therapy and town planning.

Honorary secretary the Rev Brian Harris said the society extended the range of employment opportunities for women in the Victorian era. However, as the state has taken over the role of training, the society has gradually limited itself to making interest-free loans to women.

At any one time it lends out around pound;125,000 in loans of up to pound;1,000. It makes up to 30 new loans every year and is heavily over-subscribed by women seeking help. Help is generally given for full-time courses and distance-learning study is not eligible.

Applicants have to submit a financial return saying how much money they have got coming in and how much they need. The loans are for women aged between 15 and 50, although most recipients are 18 to 30. They are repayable on eventual employment at a negotiated percentage rate of salary per month.

Mrs Gillis Burgess, committee chairman, said: "These days it's not easy to get grants for first degrees. We are seeing an increasing number of middle-aged women with dependent children trying to retrain.

"People say 'A Victorian society? Surely that kind of benevolent thing cannot be needed now?' But the fact is, it is."

Rev. Brian Harris, telephone: 01778 560978

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