Mary Jane Briggs – Maker of Men

Mary Jane Briggs, the celebrated principal of Vallombrosa preparatory boarding school for boys (right: 2018), was a Liverpudlian by birth but spent much of her life in Cheltenham and was a long-term resident of Pittville Circus Road, where she lived and ran her school for twenty-five years from 1864 to 1889.

She was born on 2 March 1811 to Anna Maria Halede and William Briggs and was baptised on 1 March 1812 at St Peter’s Church, Liverpool. She spent her early life in Liverpool, Lytham and Ambleside in the Lake District.

Foundation of Vallombrosa School

The origins of Vallombrosa School date back to 1849, at Douro Villas in Cheltenham, where Miss Briggs lived with her father, a retired physician.

Following the death of his wife in 1848 William Briggs had moved to Cheltenham, possibly for health reasons and possibly with an eye to his grandchildren’s education. He took up residence at newly built 6 Douro Villas in the Lansdown area of Cheltenham, together with his daughter Mary Jane. In fact, a double blow struck the family in 1848. Margaret Elizabeth Briggs, Mary Jane’s younger sister, had married in 1835 Reverend Bryan Sneyd Broughton M.A., rector of Elmley Lovett, Worcestershire and subsequently rector of Holy Trinity in Washington, County Durham. His untimely death in 1848 left five young children to be provided for. The children came to Cheltenham to live with their grandfather and their aunt Mary Jane, who provided them with a home education. It is likely this led to the establishment of her preparatory school, as she began to take fee-paying scholars to teach alongside her nephews and niece.

By 1851, her two eldest nephews Reginald Broughton, aged 14, and Bryan Sneyd Herbert Broughton (known as Herbert), aged 13, were receiving an education at Cheltenham College (they entered the College as day boys in August 1849), and Miss Briggs was teaching seven pupils at home, including her niece Harriet Augusta, aged 10; Clement John Edmund, 8; and Thomas Henry William Broughton (known as William), 6. All the pupils at that time were from England. Miss Briggs employed a governess and there were five domestic staff, including a “wheel chair man”, presumably for her father.

William Briggs died in 1851 at the age of 80, but Miss Briggs stayed on at 6 Douro Villas, which she rented. In 1851, the annual rent for the premises was £174, before deductions for rates and taxes. In 1860, it was £160, although this was a net figure after deductions. The school expanded during this period and Miss Briggs’s reputation, and her catchment area, grew. By 1861, there were twenty-two fee-paying pupils, all boys aged 5 to 16, not just from England, but from Ireland, Scotland as well and nine scholars born in India. Two governesses were employed, together with six domestic staff.

By this time, Miss Briggs was running the school supported by her eldest nephew, Reginald Broughton, who had been a prize-winning classical scholar at Cheltenham College. From Cheltenham, he had been awarded an open scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, in December 1854, and then elected to the Hertford Latin scholarship in March 1856. He graduated from Balliol in classics and mathematics in 1859, received his M.A. in 1861 and returned to Cheltenham College as Assistant Master. He was no doubt persuaded by his aunt to take on some of the teaching duties at her school, both in Lansdown and in Pittville. He would later be ordained and elected fellow of Hertford College.

For more on Vallombrosa School and on education in Pittville generally, see the accompanying article on this website.

New Zealand Shipwreck

In 1861, Miss Briggs decided to undertake the long and hazardous sea voyage to New Zealand, accompanied by Reginald and Harriet Broughton. They departed from Gravesend on the Ravenscraig on 29 October 1861. After delays in the English Channel, the ship left Plymouth on 1 December arriving in Nelson on the South Island, New Zealand, on 23 March 1862, an odyssey lasting almost five months in total. Reginald was to take up the post of headmaster at Nelson College.

The clipper route sailed by ships between England and Australia/New Zealand
Wikimedia Commons

Two of Miss Briggs’s other nephews had settled in New Zealand already: Bryan and Clement Broughton. They had emigrated to the western arm of Queen Charlotte Sound on the South Island. Clement had settled in Anakiwa and become a sheep farmer. Bryan, too, was almost certainly engaged in farming, exploiting the knowledge he had acquired at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in 1853/4, where he had obtained a Diploma, coming first in the Order of Merit and having his name placed on the College’s Honours board. He had married Maria Theresa Downes, at Picton, Marlborough, in January 1861.

After playing cricket in Picton on 21 April 1862, Bryan Broughton was sailing home between Picton and Onahau Bay when a heavy squall arose and he was drowned, aged 24, leaving a wife and a three-month-old baby daughter (Broughton Bay in Keneperu Sound was subsequently named after him). Miss Briggs was faced with this tragedy just one month after her arrival in New Zealand.

Further trouble was to follow.

Miss Briggs was aboard the Lord Worsley, a Royal Mail steamer, which was travelling north from Nelson bound for Auckland and Sydney, when disaster stuck. On Monday 1 September 1862, at approximately 1.30 am, the ship ran aground off the New Zealand coast, in Te Namu Bay, south of Cape Egmont and New Plymouth on the North Island. The Lord Worsley was shipwrecked and the passengers and crew were taken prisoner by hostile Taranaki Maoris.

Untitled (The Wreck of the Lord Worsley), watercolour by John Gully (1819-88)
reproduced by kind permission of Puke Ariki, New Plymouth, New Zealand

As one of her pupils at Vallombrosa, Pittville would later recount:

“Great excitement would prevail in the classroom when we heard that Mary Jane was going to give an exhibition of how, on her capture, the Maoris danced their war dance round her. More than once it was our pleasure to witness this performance. We always presumed that she had been found too tough to be eaten by her captors!”

In fact, a tense stand-off followed, with the passengers and crew no doubt aware that five British settlers had been shot down and tomahawked in cold blood in Taranaki in 1860, two years before, during the First Taranaki War. The following year, 1863, two officers and six men of the 57th regiment would be ambushed, murdered and mutilated by the Taranaki Maoris in the Second Taranaki War.

Miss Briggs wrote shortly after her return to England:

“We were 66 men, women and children, completely in the hands of the Maoris. There was consultation among them all night long for several nights as to whether we should be tomahawked, or made slaves of, or allowed to proceed to New Plymouth.” (Taranaki Herald 1864, 30 July p. 3)

After several days of difficult and tense negotiation and following the payment of tolls and rent, the passengers and crew were eventually released with their belongings. They made an arduous journey overland in bullock drays through difficult terrain, then by sea, eventually reaching New Plymouth.

Captain Hall commented:

“As to the passengers, severe as this blow has been to them, nothing could exceed the uncomplaining spirit and firmness with which they met every difficulty or apprehended danger.”

It was popularly believed amongst the boys at Vallombrosa that, after the shipwreck, Miss Briggs swam to shore with her two nephews and a bag of gold. In fact, the passengers landed safely on the beach by lifeboat at daybreak. However, contemporary accounts do suggest that Miss Briggs was a wealthy lady, with a large amount of jewellery and plate with her. Her own account refers to her “very valuable” private baggage. As for the gold, the ship was indeed carrying a large amount of gold (some 3,000 ounces), although it was reportedly consigned to the Bank of New Zealand rather than to Miss Briggs. The wrecked ship was plundered, as were Miss Brigg’s belongings, but the gold was apparently recovered.

This episode left Miss Briggs with some strong opinions and she was not afraid to air her views, publicly taking to task the apologists for the actions of the Maoris as well as the colonial government, in correspondence from Vallombrosa published in The Times after she had returned to England.

Tragically, the sea was to claim another of Miss Brigg’s nephews. Her youngest nephew, Thomas Henry Broughton, was aboard the corvette HMS Orpheus, which was sailing from Canada to Auckland via Sydney and carrying naval supplies and troop reinforcements for the New Zealand wars. On its approach to Manukau Harbour on 7 February 1863, the vessel struck on the bar of the harbour and was shipwrecked. Midshipman Thomas Broughton, aged 18, was drowned. 189 men lost their lives and, of a crew of 258, only 69 survived. The family later arranged for a memorial plaque to Thomas and Bryan Broughton to be placed in Holy Trinity Church in Washington, County Durham, where the two brothers had been born.

This was not the end of the family’s Antipodean woes.

Reginald Broughton had become engaged in Nelson to Annie Smith, but it seems that the engagement lasted all of ten days, with Miss Briggs apparently deciding that this was not a suitable match for her eldest nephew, contemporary observers describing Miss Briggs as “a terribly active, energetic and wilful person” and remarking on her “tyrannical strength of will”.  Miss Briggs also fell out with the Board of Governors of Nelson College, where Reginald was headmaster. This resulted in the Governors, perhaps unwisely, deciding to exclude the redoubtable lady from the college premises. In turn, this led to Reginald Broughton resigning his position, sailing with his aunt and sister on the Prince Albert to Christchurch and becoming headmaster of Christ’s College, a post he held from July 1863 to December 1864. The College had eight masters and over seventy pupils at that time.

Reginald did eventually marry, but he did so once his aunt had left New Zealand. He wed Ellen Webber at the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch on 19 May 1864. They returned to England the following year, leaving Lyttleton on the Blue Jacket on 20 January 1865 and reaching the English coast off Falmouth on 11 April.

Harriet Broughton married on the same day and at the same church as her elder brother. She and her husband, Cradock Beauchamp, settled in Anakiwa to run a farm and had eight children. Following in her aunt’s footsteps, Harriet ran a ‘Dame School’ called Grove School in Picton, where she educated her children. She lived for most of the rest of her life in New Zealand. She was related by marriage to the author Katherine Mansfield.

Academic Achievement

It is not clear for how long Miss Briggs had originally intended to remain in New Zealand (she describes herself as a ‘settler’ in her correspondence with The Times in 1864) but she sailed for England in 1863 and, on her arrival, she dedicated herself anew to preparatory education. Established at Vallombrosa in April 1864, the boarding school in Pittville Circus Road went from strength to strength. By 1871, aged sixty, she was employing four governesses and nine domestic staff to run a school of twenty-four boys.

Vallombrosa became one of a number of celebrated ‘Dame schools’ in Cheltenham at that time. This was a form of private elementary education in the Victorian era where pupils were taught by women and the school was typically located in the home of the teacher.

The label is somewhat unfortunate, as these schools were unregulated and the standard of their education was very variable. They became less common in Britain following the passing of the Elementary Education Acts from 1870. A national system of state education would introduce compulsory attendance for children up to ten years of age in England and Wales (1880), free elementary schooling in board and voluntary schools (1891) and would gradually lead to larger and better-equipped schools.

However, Miss Briggs provided her pupils with a good grounding in spelling, grammar, mathematics and the classics. Vallombrosa acquired the reputation of being a high-class preparatory school for entrance to English public schools. Miss Briggs taught boys only, but favoured female teaching staff (her eldest nephew Reginald a notable exception). Her standing grew and she found favour with the masters of Cheltenham College.

Indeed, the Secretary of the College, William L. Bain, was a near neighbour at Cotswold Villa (Longville today) on Circus Road for nearly twenty years. His eldest son, William Marsh Bain, was a pupil at Vallombrosa.

The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic reported:

“…she trained innumerable boys for Cheltenham College and it was once said by the Rev. W. Dobson, who was for fourteen years Principal of the College, that he always knew Miss Brigg’s boys, both in and out of school, by their classical grounding in school and their gentlemanly behaviour outside.”

Some of her pupils obtained open scholarships at Cheltenham, Winchester, Rugby and Wellington College, and later at Balliol, Trinity, Woolwich and Sandhurst.

Writing many years later, in 1929, the Chronicle concluded:

“Whatever the National Institute of Schoolmasters may think nowadays of the teaching of young boys by women, the system worked admirably in the Victorian era.”

War Games on Battledown Hill

There was by all accounts a distinct military atmosphere at Vallombrosa and Miss Briggs was known to organise sham fights for possession of a mound on nearby Battledown Hill, with the boys mounted on ponies bred at her farm at Buckholt, near Cranham.

This must have been quite a sight.

Captain W. P. Jeffcock, a pupil at Vallombrosa during the 1870s, reminisced:

“What must have been rather a unique spectacle, even in those days, was to see Billy Birdwood (later Field-Marshall Birdwood) and myself accompanying this fine old lady on occasions when she drove herself in her pony carriage through the streets of Cheltenham. We were mounted on young stock of her own breeding which she reared at her Buckholt farm. As she was the hostess, these invitations were to us of the greatest delight” (Gloucestershire Echo, 17 January 1939, p. 4)

Field-Marshall William Riddell Birdwood (1865–1951) was a much decorated British Army officer. Together with his brother, Herbert Christopher Impey Birdwood  (1863–94), he attended Vallombrosa in the 1870s and was later educated at Clifton College. He saw active service in the Second Boer War on the staff of Lord Kitchener and in the First World War as Commander of ANZAC troops during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. He led the landings on the peninsula and the subsequent evacuation, before becoming commander-in-chief of the Fifth Army on the Western Front during the closing stages of the war. He went on to be general officer commanding the Northern Army in India in 1920 and Commander-in-Chief, India, in 1925.

General Sir W. R. Birdwood, G.C.M.G., K.C.B.
(public domain: from Gallipoli Diary Vol. 2, by Sir Ian Hamilton)

It is remarkable to consider that such a decorated man as Field-Marshall Birdwood, Commander-in-Chief, India, had his formative battle experience mounted on a pony on Battledown Hill in Cheltenham.

The military atmosphere at Vallombrosa also found favour with the Cadet Merchant Naval Service. A number of boys with naval connections boarded at the school during the 1880s.

Demanding the Vote for Women

Organised campaigns for women’s suffrage began to take place in England around 1866 and Miss Briggs was an early suffragette.

Captain Jeffcock again:

“She was possessed of a remarkable character, although I remember that we gloated on hearing that she had been hissed at a meeting for forcibly expressing her early suffragette views. She was, however, though feared, really respected and liked.”

While living at Vallombrosa, Miss Briggs came before the annual Registration Court in Cheltenham in 1868 to demand the vote for women. Although the claim was supported by two other women, it was Miss Briggs alone who appeared in court in person to promote her claim.

The account of the hearing in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic is revealing:

“As the Political agents were too gallant to offer any opposition to Miss Brigg’s claim, Mr. Macnamara, the Revising Barrister, in the most courteous possible terms intimated that, as the legislature had made no provision for the introduction of the fair sex within the electoral pale, he was constrained to refuse admission to Miss Briggs. The claimant, however, did not quite acquiesce in the conclusion arrived at, and essayed to argue the question with the learned adjudicator, maintaining that the word “man” in the Reform Act (1867) was to be accepted as the equivalent of the Latin “Homo”, not, as generally construed, in the sense of “Vir”. The fair philologist was, however, unable to satisfy the Barrister as to the correctness of her conclusions, and after some five minutes of further parley the interesting interlude terminated in the most polite reciprocations of satisfaction, and Miss Mary Jane Briggs left the scene.”

Such, reported the Chronicle, was the first instance of the “Women’s Suffrage” movement experienced in Cheltenham.1

Miss Briggs would have been pleased to learn that over twenty years later her neighbour, Mary Ann Scott, along with a number of other Cheltenham women, put her name to a public appeal in 1889 to extend the parliamentary franchise to widows and single women occupying or owning property in their own right and duly rated in respect thereof”.


Miss Briggs ‘retired’ in 1889 and her boarding school closed. The household furniture and effects (plus her pony and carriage) were sold by auction on the premises on 18 and 19 June 1889 by Engall Sanders & Co, and the mansion with its extensive grounds was let. Vallombrosa reverted to a private family dwelling, occupied by Lieutenant-General Alexander Carnegy (Bombay Staff Corps), C.B., who renamed the property Deanwood House.

Miss Briggs went to live with Clement Broughton, her youngest-surviving nephew, who had long since returned from New Zealand and was residing at Wortley Hall Farm, near Barnsley in Yorkshire. He was estate agent to the Earl of Wharncliffe, whose seat was Wortley Hall, and was managing a farm of some 572 acres.

The 1891 census indicates Miss Briggs’s employed status and there is evidence to suggest that she had not entirely renounced her vocation. Clement Broughton had pupils lodging at Wortley Hall studying to become land agents. It seems quite likely that Miss Briggs was coaching these pupils.

Sadly, she was not to enjoy a long retirement and died at Wortley Hall on 4 February 1893, aged 81. She was buried beside her parents and sister in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Brathay, near Ambleside, Cumbria, overlooking Lake Windermere.

Probate was granted on 10 March 1893 to Clement Broughton, with her effects valued at £3,399 13s and 8d (approximately £300,000 today, adjusting for inflation).

On hearing of her passing, and following an appeal by the Cheltenham Looker-on, a number of old pupils of Miss Briggs (“Briggites”) formed a fund-raising committee and collected the sum of £93 6s 0d from fifty-seven subscribers. The funds were handed over to the Council of Cheltenham College, who agreed to establish and provide in perpetuity a memorial in the form of an annual prize, to the value of not less than two guineas, to be awarded in the Junior Department, “the subject being … Geography in competition, for which special marks have been arranged to be given for handwriting and spelling, two prominent features both in the character and scholastic training of the late Miss Briggs”.

The Briggs Memorial Prize was first awarded in 1894 and, to this day, Cheltenham College awards a Geography Prize every year in the Preparatory School.

There seems little doubt that Miss Briggs provided a high-quality preparatory education to the sons of wealthy parents, some of whom went on to become distinguished figures in the British establishment, both in the civil and military. She did so for almost forty years in Cheltenham, including twenty-five at Vallombrosa, Pittville, where she became a celebrated figure. Preparatory education continues in Circus Road today.

Mary Jane Briggs was described as the “maker of men” and it was written in the Cheltenham Examiner on 8 February 1893, shortly after her death, that there will be many a moist eye in India when young officers and civilians hear that the Alma Mater of their boyhood is no more”.

Mark Penfold
February 2018


Ancestry; Cheltenham Annuaires & Directories; Cheltenham College; Christ’s College, Christchurch, New Zealand; Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester; British Newspaper Archive; National Library of New Zealand; Maritime Museum of New Zealand; Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; Puke Ariki, New Plymouth, New Zealand; Wikipedia; other information in the public domain available through the World Wide Web.

The assistance given by the Archivists at Cheltenham College and Christ’s College, Christchurch, the Assistant Librarian at The Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, and by Cheltenham Library is gratefully acknowledged.


Sale particulars of the contents of Vallombrosa taken from The Cheltenham Looker-On, 15 June 15 1889:

Sale of the well-made, useful HOUSEHOLD APPOINTMENTS.
Are favoured with instructions from Miss Briggs, who is leaving,

Upon the PREMISES, on TUESDAY and WEDNESDAY NEXT, June 18th and 19th, 1889, commencing each day at 12 o’clock precisely,
THE HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE and EFFECTS, comprising in the Bed Chambers a quantity of Iron, French, and Wood Bedsteads, excellent Curled Hair Mattresses, fine Feather Beds, Blankets, and Quilts, Mahogany and Painted Wing and Single Wardrobes, Chests of Drawers, Kneehole and other Dressing Tables, Wash Tables with Marble Tops, Toilet Grasses and Sets of Ware. In the Reception Rooms, Brussels Carpets, Fenders and Fire Implements, a well-made Walnutwood Drawing Room Suite, Settees, Couches, and Easy Chairs, Oval, Centre, Loo and Occasional Tables, Two Cottage Piano Fortes, 6ft. 6in. Walnutwood Shaped Cheffionere with plate glass back and marble slab. Two Mahogany Pedestal Sideboards, Dining, Pembroke and Writing Tables, and Dinner Wagons. The School and Classroom Appointments include Mahogany and Oak Single and Double Writing Desks, Mahogany, Pitch Pine, and Oak Bookcases, a well-made light Oak Writing Table, with falling front. Easels, Blackboards, and Exercise Books. The Household Linen, China and Glass Ware, Basement and Out-door Effects. Also a Phaeton and strong Spring Cart, Grey Pony and Sets of Harness, Lawn Mowers, Garden Rollers, and other Useful Effects.

The MANSION, with extensive Grounds, to be LET. Immediate possession may be had on application to the Agents, at their Offices, No. 1, Promenade.

On View the Day prior to Sale, and Catalogues may be had on application to the AUCTIONEERS.

1 The context for Mary Jane Briggs’s complaint was a petition presented to Parliament by the philosopher and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill in 1866, which demanded that the word “Man” should be replaced by “Person” in the Reform Bill of 1867. The petition was proposed by the Women’s Suffrage Committee, which collected 1,500 signatories.