A Little School on the Downs

ISBN 1-903953-30-8
biography / social history
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by Mary Bowmaker


How Victorian teacher Harriet Finlay Johnson made a tiny Sussex school world famous

In the early years of the 20th century, the village school at Sompting (on the South Downs just north of Worthing) became the focus of national and international interest due to the modern ideas of its headmistress, Harriet Finlay Johnson, whose liberal approach to teaching challenged the authoritarian methods commonly in use at the time.

Having taken up her post as headmistress at Sompting school in 1897, Harriet introduced such items as nature rambles, educational visits, library mornings, lessons out of doors, cookery, handicraft, art and drama into the curriculum, and allowed her pupils a degree of freedom and autonomy that was unheard of in other Victorian schools.

The results were so remarkable that educationalists from far and wide were soon making their way to Sussex to see Harriet’s school for themselves. Many of them liked what they saw, and Harriet’s ideas were subsequently put into practice by other teachers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In time they would become integral to almost every school curriculum.

But then, in 1909, just as it seemed she had the world of education at her feet, Harriet’s glittering career came to a premature end when she announced her intention to marry 20-year-old George Weller, a former pupil 17 years her junior. 

Despite the fact that there was nothing improper about their relationship and that Harriet and her husband would remain happily married until George's death in 1952, the scandal was too much for the authorities at the time and Harriet was forced to leave the job she loved.  She would never enter a classroom again.

However, this was not the end of her story, because she now had time to write a book expounding the ideas she had formulated during her 12 years as a teaching practitioner.  The book, entitled The Dramatic Method of Teaching, attracted a great deal of attention in educational circles and influenced the thinking of teachers as far away as the USA and Japan.  Harriet’s small place in history was assured.

Mary Bowmaker has gathered a wealth of information from a variety of sources, including interviews with former pupils and surviving members of Harriet’s family, to tell the whole story of Harriet’s short but highly influential career for the first time.

It is a fascinating and entertaining insight into the character of an extraordinary woman who, in twelve short years, managed to make a little school on the downs the focus of international interest and acclaim – a truly remarkable feat.

Details softback | 146 pages text plus b/w period photos
keywords teaching | education | Victorian England | Sussex