Wakefield's Forgotten Women: The Gissing sisters left an indelible mark on our children's education
For more than a century the Gissing name has been synonymous with the city's renowned radical wayward novelist George, until now.
He may have helped put Wakefield on the map, alongside other Victorian literary heroes such as Thomas Hardy and HG Wells, but it was his passionate, hardworking younger sisters Margaret and Ellen, known as Madge and Nellie, who persevered to give something back to the city by setting up an elite prep school.
Highly educated but constrained in their career choices due to their sex and social standing, the pair trained across the country as governesses before returning to the city to create the prestigious Boys’ Preparatory School.
Hundreds of boys passed through the doors of the small school which took only the brightest youngsters.
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Originally founded in 1898 in their home on Wentworth Terrace, it was forced to relocate to larger premises at Cliff Hill House, on Sandy Walk, seven years later due to demand for places.
Teaching in two classrooms, the sisters were known as Big Gis and Little Gis, due to the age of the children they schooled. In 15 years more than 700 children were trained by the sisters until the school’s closure prior to World War One due to the opening of QEGS junior school.
At a time when parents were forced to send their children to study miles from home due to a lack of local educational institutions, they filled a much needed gap in the market.
Former pupils described how the school “rapidly grew in esteem,” helped by the girls’ modern approach. They were among the first females to referee football games.
Dressed in long skirts with high-necked blouses and chokers, it’s hard to imagine them on a football field and umpiring cricket matches. But the accounts from their former pupils speak in awe at the “genteel” pair “marching them down to the pitch” with their whistles.
Their pupils were educated to the highest standards in Latin, English, music and maths and many went on to further study at the country’s top establishments.
Following the school’s closure, the sisters moved to Leeds, where Ellen continued to teach university students. In 1923 they retired to Aysgarth, where Margaret died following a long illness in 1930 aged 63. Ellen then moved to Westmorland where she was joined by her nephew.
In later years she wrote two books, ‘Angels and Men: The Nature and Purpose of Heavenly Beings as revealed in the New Testament’ and ‘The Hidden Life of the Blessed Virgin’.
Ellen only returned to Wakefield once, to unveil a plaque to her brother above the family home.
The sisters were born, Margaret in 1863 and Ellen in 1867, above their father’s chemist shop in Thompson’s Yard. The front of the shop, now the NatWest Bank, is on Westgate.
When Margaret was aged just seven her father died suddenly leaving their mother with five children aged under 14 and large debts. The family were forced to move from the privileged life they had to smaller premises.
Despite this setback, the sisters were both incredibly bright and were two of the first pupils at the newly established Wakefield Girls’ High School in 1878.
Scholars previously only knew of the pair as “the girls” through their brother’s diaries and letters.
“He painted them in a dim light, once describing Margaret as “bitterly religious”, adding: “My poor sister is a Puritan and we can talk of nothing but matters of fact.”
But in reality, family came first and he helped to fund the setting up of the school and paid for its advertising.
The respect and esteem he held his sisters in is apparent, when after a string of disastrous relationships he entrusted the care of his sons, Walter and Alfred, to them. Writing in his diary of his decision, he said: “I have no option but to leave him [Walter] here to be tamed.”
Sadly Walter was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In later years Alfred moved back to live with his aunt Ellen in the final years of her life.
Their birth place and childhood home at Thompson’s Yard was physically saved from demolition by former secretary of the Gissing Trust, Clifford Brook, in the 1970s.
An expert on novelist George, he recognised the importance of the sisters’ achievements when he wrote: “The two Gissings of that generation who made the most mark on the town were George’s sisters Margaret and Ellen.”
Their home, a snapshot of a bygone age, now has the unfortunate claim of being one of the least visited museums in the country, with just 118 visitors in 2014. A sad legacy for one of the city’s most talented families.
Commemorative blue plaques are placed on buildings of historical significance, often the homes of significant local people.
Wakefield is home to 34 blue plaques, but only four of them are dedicated to women.
The Forgotten Women of Wakefield project uncovers the fascinating stories of the women whose dedication helped to shape the city and aims to recognise them with blue plaques.
The Gissing sisters’ brother, George, is recognised with a blue plaque commemorating his birth on Westgate. FWW would like his sisters to receive the same honour, with a plaque on their former home on Wentworth Terrace.
They are holding an evening to honour the sisters at 7pm on August 23, which will feature a visit to the Gissing Centre and a talk from Kevin Trickett, president of the Civic Society.