Eliza Stride Ager – Headmistress & Supporter of the Women’s Franchise League
by Linda Ayres
Eliza was born in 1856 into a working-class family in the mill town of Droylsden, Manchester. She was one of six children of Mary and James Ridgway, who was a carpenter and joiner. In the 1800s, the majority of working-class girls of Droylsden had completed their education by the age of 13 and sometimes earlier. With very few opportunities other than to enter dead end jobs, particularly in domestic service or in the cotton mills, marriage became a practical necessity for working class women. Their main purpose was to give birth and take care of their husbands throughout their whole life.
From an early age, Eliza recognised that the way to escape from a life of drudgery was through education. At the age of 13, supported by her parents, Eliza began her apprenticeship under the pupil-teacher system at the Mayfield British School, in Manchester. The system focused on training teachers, in which a senior pupil of at least 13 years old, served as an apprentice, typically for five years, to learn the teaching profession. Pupil teachers such as Eliza acted as a teacher of younger children, learning from observation and practical application while at the same time completing their own education.
After the 1870s the growing demand for elementary School Teachers attracted lower middle-class women and in turn, their entry into pupil teacher training colleges, led to developments in the curriculum.
Eliza left her hometown in Manchester in 1882 to take up her position of Headmistress at Ampthill Road Infants School, Bedford. The school was described as a handsome modern building, accommodating 363 boys, 298 girls, and there were 313 infants, which came under the Harpur Trust. In 1887, her salary was £70 per year which increased to £80 in 1888. In the course of her time as Headmistress, she introduced the Kindergarten(infant garden) system. The Kindergarten for Play and Activity Institute was created by Fredrich Froebel in 1837 with the emphasis on play as well as including games, songs, and arts and crafts to stimulate children’s imagination and develop physical and motor skills. Froebel believed women were best suited to nurture children and become teachers for his schools.
In 1890, Eliza resigned from her post as Headmistress to marry Frederick Andrew Stride Ager, a newsagent and bookseller.
Frederick was born on 4th August 1843 at Camden Town, London. He was the younger of two children of Sophia, nee Smeed and John Stride Ager. Sadly, when Frederick was 9 days old his 2-year-old brother Richard, died at Clapham, Bedford. It seems that Richard may have gone to stay with relatives or friends at Clapham, while his mother recovered from Frederick’s birth. Richard’s burial took place on 17th August at St. Paul’s Churchyard, Bedford.
Frederick went to boarding school from an early age. His first school was at High Street East, Hungerford, Berkshire, and then Lloyd Street Academy, at Greenheys, Manchester. He left school to become a stationer and took up lodgings at Warde Street, Hulme in Manchester. It is said that Frederick first met Eliza while they were living in Manchester.
Frederick’s mother, Sophia died at St. Pancras, London in 1864, aged 58 years. His father, John, married his second wife, Alice Walne, on 28th August 1866, at the Old Church, St. Pancras, London. Alice was born 16th June 1814 at Chipping, Lancashire. They subsequently moved to Bedford and lived at 11 Britannia Place. In the 1881 Census for Bedford John is a retired upholsterer living on his own means. John died on 11th April 1893 aged 80 years. Alice died 19th June 1896 aged 82 years. Their burials took place at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.
In 1891 Frederick and Eliza rented their first house at 30 Ampthill Road, Bedford. The house, which comprised of front and back drawing rooms and six bedrooms, was large enough for them to set up their newsagents’ business. In 1893, they moved their home and newsagents’ business to 30 Britannia Road. The following year, Eliza set up her own newsagents’ business at Kings Place, Britannia Road.
In March 1895 Frederick gave up his business at 30 Ampthill Road and shortly afterwards, sailed from the Port of London on the ship the MV Oruba to Melbourne, Australia. It is said that he was a hopeless romantic who thought that at the age of 51 he could make his fortune in the Australian Gold Rush. He was never to return to England. On 10th February 1903, he arrived at Colbinabbin Station, which is a small town in central Victoria. A few days later, he complained of feeling ill and said that he had intended to go to the hospital for treatment. Sadly, on 18th February a worker found him dead in his hut. A post mortem, found the cause of death to be long standing miner’s consumption. Letters found on his clothing showed that he was married, with a wife and family living in England. Frederick died aged 59 years.
Eliza continued to run the newsagents’ business. In 1897, she moved to 36 Britannia Road. A year later, she had moved to 9 Britannia Place.
At some point Eliza, with her two children, Hester and John moved to the School House at Thursford, Norfolk. In the 1901 Census for Thursford, Eliza is a School Mistress. Hester is 10 years old and John is 8 years old. Also living with the family is Eliza’s 20-year-old niece, Eliza Ridgway, who is a teacher.
Subsequently, Eliza and the children returned to Bedford. In the 1911 Census for Bedford, Eliza is a retired School Mistress and living on her own means. She is living at No 9 Britannia Place. She also occupies No 11, the house next door, which was once her late father-in-law’s house. Living with her was her 20-year-old daughter Hester.
Eliza was member of the Bedford Liberal Association and was a public speaker on political platforms at the time of such speakers as Lady Isabella Whitbread. She was also a strong supporter of the Women’s Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections and which was created by Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband Richard in 1889. The League was created 14 years before the creation of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the leading militant organization campaigning for Women’s Suffrage in the UK. Eliza was, however, a peace lover at heart, and retired when Emmeline Pankhurst’s words became the rallying call for a militant and violent campaign to gain political equality for women.
Nonetheless, Eliza continued to take a great interest in these matters, particularly on issues of education. By the early 1900s, a High School for girls was in every town. In addition 2,000 women graduates, 1,500 certificated students, and eight women had received honorary degrees. She kept newspaper cuttings of all activities, including cuttings of two significant events. The first being on the 6th February 1918, when The Representation of the People Act was passed giving women the vote provided they were aged over 30 years, and either they or their husband met a property qualification. Then in 1928, The Equal Franchise Act was passed giving women equal voting rights with men and meant that all women over the age of 21 years could vote in elections. Fifteen million women were eligible. Emmeline Pankhurst died shortly after on June 14th, 1928.
In 1908, the suffragette jewellery, green, white, and purple was introduced, which either had direct links to the women’s suffrage or paid tribute to the movement. Those colours were not a secret and were often seen in newspaper cartoons and on postcards, but there was never any reference to the colours. The colour green meant hope, white demonstrated purity and purple symbolized dignity. Many items of suffragette jewellery featured peridot, amethyst, and diamond, and were a code for Give Women Votes.
Eliza died aged 81 years on 27th December 1937. The Rev. J. L. Spratt officiated at the funeral, in Bedford Cemetery and her remains were interred with those of her father-in-law John Stride Ager.
An inscription on Eliza’s headstone refers to her father-in-law’s great uncle, John Stride Esq of Carey Street, St. Clement, Danes, Middlesex. John Stride was wealthy solicitor and Steward of the Manor of Hampstead for 43 years. He died at Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn-Fields, on 2nd May 1823, aged 80 years. He appears to have played an important part in John Stride Ager’s young life who was 12 years of age when his great uncle died. It is said that John Stride died without issue, but left his sisters well provided for and they in turn incorporated Stride in to their children’s names.
On 11th April 1950, Eliza’s son John Stride Ager died aged 57 at 12 Fairlight Avenue, Harlesden, London. On 2nd May 1950 his ashes were placed in the grave of his mother and grandfather. Her daughter Hester Mary Stride Ager married George Mee in 1952. She died at Leicester in 1972.
Photograph of Ampthill Road School
Linda S. Ayres
Special thanks to Mr. Michael Watson the great-great grandson of Eliza and Frederick Stride Ager for his valued assistance on the family history and for the use of family photo.
Victoria Weekly Advertiser Saturday 21st February 1903
Bendigo Advertiser Saturday 21st February 1903
Bedfordshire Times and Independent Friday 1st January 1937
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