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Coventry University Extension Society

The university extension movement began in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the goal of extending aspects of higher education to those unable to access traditional university tuition. Typically a number of lecturers were provided by a sponsoring university (including Oxford or Cambridge) and a local committee could choose a topic of interest, allowing students in regional cities to undertake a series of lectures, which could be followed by a formal examination under the auspices of the sponsoring university. Amongst the groups for whom such opportunities were particularly valuable were women and those from less financially privileged backgrounds, for whom formal schooling and a full university education were out of the question.

Coventry joined this movement in 1886, when the resolutions of a special meeting were reported in the local press:

"It is suggested that there now be formed a Coventry University Extension Society, whose object shall be to promote the establishment of an annual course of lectures in connection with the Cambridge University Local Lecture Scheme The membership is to be constituted by the payment of a guinea and upwards per annum, and members to be entitled to the full value of their subscriptions in tickets." - Coventry Herald - 12th March 1886

Importantly, the meeting reported on 2nd April 1886 qualified this: "but it shall be open to any group of persons uniting to subscribe a guinea to the funds to depute one of their number to act as a member of the society." This broadened the scope of the society, although not to the extent of being accessible to everyone! Importantly though, the courses provide a record of the interest in self-improvement and astronomy amongst the professional classes of Coventry at this period.

The first courses embraced topics including the forces of nature, biology, literature, Roman and Norman history. The selected topic in the autumn of 1888 was "Modern Astronomical Discovery" with a course of lectures delivered by Mr Arthur Berry, B.A., F.R.A.S., Fellow of King's College, Cambridge and University College, London. The Coventry Herald reported (17 Aug 1888) that "The lectures will be illustrated by the oxyhydrogen lantern, and will therefore be given in the Co-operative Assembly Room, West Orchard" (sadly no longer extant). A report of the first lecture (28 Sep 1888) went on to note of the lecturer that "it was his intention to take the students out upon clear nights after lecture to some open space in order that they might make observations for themselves".

Unfortunately, the society stops appearing in the local press after September 1891. The Cambridge University Extension scheme continued well into the twentieth century, so it is possible that the Coventry group continued without their activities being deemed newsworthy by the local press. Further investigations of the University Extension Journal (archived at Cambridge University Library) would be required to determine this. No surviving records of the organisation appear to exist in the Coventry Archive collections.

The class of 1888

The results of the formal examination in astronomy were announced in the Coventry Herald on 15th February 1889. Nineteen out of twenty-one candidates passed the examination. Of these, all but three were women, and two students of the class of 1888 are reported to have merited "a very special distinction."

The first of these Florence Steane White was the daughter of a prosperous local watch manufacturer, Joseph White and his wife Catherine. Born in Coventry in 1869, she appears to have lived at home with her family until her marriage to a silversmith, John Middleton, in 1905. She died in 1933.

The second student of distinction, Edith Sterland, is actually not a Coventry native. Born in 1863, Edith Jane Sterland appears in the 1891 census as a school governess, boarding with the household of Alexander Rotherham, a local silk draper and cycle manufacturer in the village of Coundon, just outside the city. While Rotherham and his family were Coventry born, Sterland was born in New South Gate, London, where her father was a secretary and by the age of eighteen she had become a governess in Harrogate, Yorkshire. She died at the age of just thirty in 1893.

The remaining students listed as having passed this course provide an interesting cross section of Coventry society:

  • Elsie Mary Anslow (1869-1959), daughter of a draper. Married solicitor Henry Maddocks in 1896. He later became a Kings Council and member of parliament, and was eventually knighted, making his wife Lady Elsie.
  • Grace Marion Atkins (1873-1949) was the daughter of a wealthy ribbon manufacturer. At the age of eighteen, in 1891, she was still living at home but listed as a scholar - relatively rare for women of this period. By 1901 she had moved out of the family home, but appears absent from the census. She remained unmarried.
  • Mary Bill (1869-1890), Margaret Edith Bill (1871) and Annie Mildred (1874) Bill were daughters of a wealthy silk merchant in Coventry, and were educated at home by a governess. Unfortunately, Mary died aged just twenty, not long after the examination. By 1911, both Margaret and Annie were described in the census as teachers - Margaret from home and Annie as an assistant mistress at a preparatory school in Leicester.
  • Hilda Cramp (1874-1940) was the daughter of a ribbon manufacturer. Between 1902 and 1905 she certified as a nurse at St Bartholomew's hospital in London. In 1910 she married a clergyman, Ernest Molesworth.
  • Laura Emily Flinn (1862-1948) was a school teacher (the principal of a private school by 1891), and one of the older members of the class. Her father was a Coventry watch manufacturer. She did not marry.
  • Bertha M Grant (1860-1953) was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, but by 1881 was resident with her widowed father (an ironmonger) and her siblings in Coventry. She was another school teacher, and specifically a teacher of music (1881).
  • Edith May Hart (1869-1915) was another ribbon manufacturer's daughter. She married bank manager Edward Blackburne in London in 1893, and they returned to Coventry to settle.
  • Andrew Edward Firth Henderson (1872-1956) was born in Aston, Warwickshire, as the son of a Baptist minister. He matriculated from Coventry Grammar School in 1889 and enrolled at University College, Aberwystwith. The 1891 census lists him as a science student. By 1901 he had become an assistant master at the county school in Barry, Wales, and thereafter continued as a school master, retiring to Bristol.
  • Percy H Howard may be the Reverend Percival Howard of Warwick (1875-1955). If so he was the son of a rector, and later dean and prebendary of Litchfield cathedral. At this point he would have been young (only about 14 years old) and the family was based in Radley, Lincolnshire, so the connection to Coventry is unclear.
  • Margaret Lynes (1868) was the daughter of a general practitioner with an MD from the University fo St Andrews. She married Frederick Walker, a clerk in holy orders, in 1902.
  • Zelie Marie Milner-Moore (1873-1934) was also the daughter of a medical practitioner (who later became a captain in the Royal Army medical corps). She appears in the censuses of 1891, 1901 and 1911 as resident with her parents and having no occupation, and so was presumably considered of independent means.
  • Agnes Hannah Morris (1866) was born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, the daughter of a phamaceutical chemist. The family relocated to Coventry sometime after 1871. Agnes lists no occupation in census records and appears to have been of independent means.
  • John Bayley Parker (1864-1941) was the son of a tinplate maker and gas fitter. He appears in the 1881 census as an errand boy, in 1891 as "printer - machine minder" and in 1901 as a "letterpress machine minder". By 1911 he was simply a letterpress printer. He lived in Coventry until his death in 1941.
  • Alice Rainbow (1869-1939) was the daughter of a local watch finisher (i.e. a crafts person rather than business owner). As of the 1891 census, her brother was a railway drayman while Alice and her sister Ada were both described as hosiery menders. This then was a working household, and a good example of the demographic of interested but not wealthy workers the extension programme aimed to reach. Alice appears to have remained single until her death in 1939.
  • Agnes M Rotherham (1872-1948) was the daughter of silk manufacturer Alexander Rotherham, by whom Edith Sterland worked as a governess. By 1891, Agnes was attending a boarding school in St Andrews, Scotland, to which the rest of the family later relocated. In 1912 she is recorded as accompanying her elderly father and another sister on a journey which included California and Japan. She returned to live in Leamington Spa, remaining unmarried and living by private means, and died there in 1948.

Coventry Herald articles:
12th March 1886
2nd April 1886
17th August 1888
28th September 1888
15th Feb 1889

UK Census records, 1871-1911,
UK birth, marriage, death and probate records, accessed via