Accomplishments, private schools for ladies and the education of girls

Australia, 1830-1920

The film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) based on Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name (1967) portrayed life in a rural Australian ladies’ academy of the late nineteenth century. It was largely responsible for popularly imagined representations of such schools. The private ladies’ academies and colleges provided for the education of girls and young women through the accomplishments curriculum. The fictional principal of the college Mrs Appleyard, of dubious education and origins developed a drinking problem. The beautiful teacher of dancing and French, Mlle Poitiers, was biding her time in the school before marriage. An unattractive older spinster taught some mathematics. “Learning itself was incidental to the defence of social boundaries, the acquisition of polish and the business of finding a husband.” (Theobald, 1996, p. 29)

Picnicathangingrock1Earlier historians of education often supported such negative representations. The education of middle and wealthier class girls in such institutions was seen as misguided, superficial and specious. As the major historian of these schools described the critical view:

The governess in the private home, the lady principal in her female academy and the ubiquitous music master presided over a nether-world of education which was costly, pretentious and haphazard, teaching a smattering of the ‘ladylike’ accomplishments to groom daughters for the marriage market … girls were educated by default or not at all. (Theobald, p. 29.)

Similar criticism derived from proto-feminist views that the confinement of women’s education to the accomplishments confirmed an unequal and unjust restriction of women to their supposed ‘natural’ purpose and place. Much of this can be summarised as the requirement that middle and ruling class women be satisfactory objects of display, as well as useful wives and mothers. Imagining well-off women actively engaging in work, broader education and society beyond domestic roles and perhaps charitable engagements was either considered unnatural or socially unacceptable.

From the early nineteenth century, women of the middle and wealthier classes were increasingly bound by the tiresome discourse of respectability. This tended to confine women to the domestic, the private sphere. Men rather than women would operate in the public sphere of life. In colonies with convict origins, respectability, even for many well off families was hard to win. Schooling girls in superior academies might help.

Challenges to this kind of restricted education and roles for women occurred throughout the nineteenth century. They provided for a narrative of progress as girls enrolled in new kinds of schools and experienced educations similar to those of their brothers. From the 1970s, this narrative of progress in the historiography has been subject to criticism. New arguments have insisted that an accomplishments education was not necessarily as dreadful as its critics assumed. The dismissive and hostile attitudes towards it overlooked its worth, development and significance in the broader history of women and their education. The Australian historian who did most to advance this revision was Marjorie Theobald.

Female accomplishments: an ambitious curriculum

The accomplishments may be divided into several categories. They are more than school subjects. Girls who experienced an accomplishments education did not necessarily experience all of the following. Much depended on what teachers and schools could offer, and what the parents of girls required of their schooling. As is the case for most schools, some were better at what they did than others.

A French governess at work with a late colonial girl. State Library of New South Wales

A French governess at work with a late colonial girl. State Library of New South Wales

Presentation of the self

This included learning to speak well, without regional accents and common (lower class) words and expressions. In some schools elocution was taught as a subject. Along with this learning, how to behave and present one’s body with grace was important. As Ethel Scarfe remembered her education at Mrs Kelsey’s Private School for Girls in the 1890s in Adelaide: “Mostly we were taught to remember that we were ladies and sit with our knees together and keep our voices low … It was a snobby age. …” (in Hyams and others, Learning and Other Things, 1988, p. 171).

Languages and language use

Mastery of modern languages, most often French and occasionally German (almost never the classical languages) was encouraged. Modesty and good taste in the use of one’s own vernacular was a given. The writing and reading of English was central. This was an age when the writing of letters to acquaintances, relatives and friends was an art to be both learnt and encouraged.


Playing an instrument, increasingly the piano over the nineteenth century, was often offered in ladies’ colleges and academies; as was learning to sing, and singing the right kind of songs as opposed to those that might appeal to the lower-classes. Reading music was an accomplishment although serious composition was usually considered male work.

Piano proficiency for girls becomes a major accomplishment in the C19th. State Library of Victoria.

Piano proficiency for girls becomes a major accomplishment in the C19th. State Library of Victoria (SLV).


Embroidery and other needle work, “fancy” sewing, but always in good taste.

Movement and clothing

Respectability was assisted with modest movement. Most sports were unacceptable because they promoted immodest, extravagant movement. Clothing would conceal most of the female body, but the choosing and wearing of tasteful and fashionable dress was another accomplishment to be acquired. The ability to dance was not acceptable in some middle class families belonging to Protestant churches such as Methodists. Nevertheless, it was an accomplishment usually valued in many respectable middle and ruling class parties and gatherings.

Drawing and painting

Learning these skills was more than acceptable as long as the subjects were suitable, and a girl did not imagine herself as a professional artist whose works might be sold.

Morality and religion

Young women were expected to be trained and educated in the precepts of their church communities. Such training usually reinforced modesty, domesticity and restricted social roles. It usually reinforced the virtues of compliance and obedience towards fathers and husbands within families. As the ideal of companionate marriage, and an increased role for both parents in educating and managing children grew in the middle classes over the nineteenth century, religious and moral seriousness was valued in women. A common criticism of much accomplishments education was that this instruction was neglected.

Household management

This may not have been specifically taught in an accomplishments education but a young woman who had the capacity to manage servants and children, who could run a household efficiently, without extravagant expenditure, was usually valued.

In this list of what might contribute to an acceptable education for an accomplished girl and young woman, there is virtually no activity that constituted the work of servants: cooking, cleaning and other house-work, and certainly not an education that might enable a young woman to be employed in paid work–with one major exception. Respectable young women, especially those who were un- or ill-supported by fathers or husbands, might be employed as governesses. An accomplishments education might similarly lead to the running of usually small private schools and teaching within them.

In Australia

Typical advertisement for early colonial ladies' academies. The Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, 12 October 1932, p. 1

Typical advertisement for early colonial ladies’ academies. The Colonist and Van Diemen’s Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, 12 October 1832, p. 1

In the Australian colonies, very early on at least, there was limited call for such female education. Much occurred in homes from mothers and with governesses if they could be found and afforded. Advertisements in colonial newspapers by the 1830s attest to the existence of small schools for well-off girls, offering an accomplishments education. In the colonies, even well off urban and rural families required that girls be more usefully educated, beyond ‘mere accomplishments’, whether at home or in the small private venture schools for girls that were established through the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Hannah Villiers Boyd, in her Letters on education; addressed to a friend in the bush of Australia (1848) certainly argued that case. She wrote that there were all sorts of problems for girls belonging to wealthy families in England when:

They have plenty of money, and plenty of servants; they need never do any thing but select from a variety of delicious food, and eat it; they may lounge on sofas, ride in carriages, or be carried about in palanquins; they can feast their eyes with beautiful sights, and their ears with heavenly music. They have also his Satanic Majesty constantly tempting them to pluck forbidden fruit, in other words, to break some law of God or man, the consequences of which will be banishment from that society of which they are perhaps the brightest ornaments; and how well he succeeds amongst the wives and daughters of the British aristocracy, the newspapers of England, alas! too frequently inform us. Ladies, on the contrary, in the bush of Australia, who cannot get servants, must frequently eat the bread of industry … (Letter 1)

Boyd argued that mothers, even if lacking confidence, could teach their children. She also put together a useful curriculum that Australian colonial mothers might follow with their children, not just girls. Practical skills in housekeeping and the raising of children were highly valued.

Rough families and barely suitable governesses in the early C19th Australian colonies. State library of New South Wales

Rough families and barely suitable governesses in the early C19th Australian colonies. State Library of New South Wales.

Nevertheless, and certainly in Victoria and elsewhere following the gold rushes and the wealth that flowed into Australia from the export of wool and other commodities, there were increased opportunities to educate well-off girls in subjects that were not so useful in keeping families fed and clothed. Usually there were more than the accomplishments offered however, a ‘sound English education’ often accompanied ‘the usual accomplishments’. The ‘English’ subjects often included English language and literature, history and geography, some science, arithmetic, religious studies, and even some physical education.

In the early 1850s, the universities of Sydney and Melbourne were founded. It was not until the 1870s that the first of the colonial universities, the University of Adelaide, allowed girls both entry and graduation. As a consequence demand grew for girls to have access to a number of school subjects that had been exclusively taught in grammar schools for boys.

With the establishment of modern grammar schools for girls, the first of which is usually considered to be the Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC) in Melbourne (1875- ), access to an academic, grammar school curriculum became possible. At the same time there was no sharp division between the old and new schools and curricula for girls. Accomplishments education continued to be offered in the new collegiate schools, some subjects being offered and paid for as ‘extras’ with visiting instructors hired as demand rose and fell. Paying for a variety of optional ‘extras’ had also been possible for girls and their families in many of the private ladies’ schools, colleges and seminaries more firmly based in the earlier era of girls’ education.

Girls enter public examinations organised by the University of Melbourne. 1884. State Library of Victoria.

Girls enter public examinations organised by the University of Melbourne. 1884. SLV.

Resistance to girls studying grammar school subjects, the university matriculation subjects, remained strong well into the twentieth century. Fears that the so-called boys’ subjects like Latin and sciences such as Physics and Chemistry would masculinise girls, even to the point of affecting their fertility (the ability to conceive children) were common. Many women as well as men doubted that such an education would encourage marriageability and promote efficient household management, especially since the domestic servant shortage from the late nineteenth century began to affect middle class and wealthier families.

As Marjorie Theobald has shown, many private schools for girls, the ladies’ academies and colleges, were hardly resistant to adding academic and matriculation subjects to their curriculum offerings. Her study of the East Melbourne Ladies College (1857-1882) and similar schools demonstrate this. The graduation lists of the early colonial universities following female admissions show that such schools provided students along with the early church collegiate grammar schools and state high schools for girls.

The private ladies’ schools were always market aware, and if there was a demand for academic subjects, they were usually quick to respond. Such subjects may have initially had the same status as other ‘extras’. Nevertheless, the place of the more traditional accomplishments subjects in the curriculum receded in the late nineteenth century.

The work of a number of the Catholic orders of sisters should also be recognised. Some orders, such as The Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus specialised in the education of middle and upper class Catholic girls in their convent schools. Again, the arts were emphasised along with the making of loyal Catholic wives and mothers. Many Protestant families recognised the virtues of a convent education for girls when little else was on offer.

Defence of the accomplishments curriculum

Criticisms of the accomplishments curriculum for girls as shallow and restrictive need to account for the following perspectives.

Girls from from the Misses Schroeders' School for Ladies in performance. Norwood. State Library of South Australia.

Girls performing. Students of the Misses Schroeders’ School for Ladies in Norwood, c 1900. State Library of SA.

The provision for teaching the arts: music, visual and more, to young women

The succeeding academic curriculum as validated by the universities was mainly uninterested in providing subjects based in this area. Some schools, their teachers and students developed high standards in the performing and visual arts. Many of the older ladies’ academies and colleges educated to a very high standard in the arts. Some women, including the opera singing ‘star’ Nellie Melba, student of Mrs Wigmore’s Leigh House ladies’ school in Richmond (Melbourne), had much of their initial music education in such schools.

Provision for teaching modern languages.

Young women could achieve highly in this area with cultural significance for colonial society. Succeeding secondary schools for girls usually maintained an attention to modern European languages, especially French.

Provision for female employment in some circumstances

For young women successful with their accomplishments education, who wished or needed to earn their own livings in respectable occupations, governessing, teaching and school establishment were all available. Many women with such schools were successful business entrepreneurs. Julie Vieusseux was one of many who opened successful schools, in her case, in partnership with a husband. (Her school educated 886 girls over its 25 years of existence.) Other women did so in partnership with sisters and mothers. Catherine Thornber’s school in Unley Park, South Australia, was established around 1855. Her husband’s death required the enterprise. Daughters Catherine, Ellen and Rachel assisted. By the 1890s university graduates, female and male were being hired as teachers.

Mothering and the companionate marriage

The first wave feminists certainly believed in access to modern forms of secondary and higher education for women. There was a growing belief that the schooling of girls led to better mothering, and improved marriages. Principals of the better private ladies’ colleges would have enthusiastically concurred. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, even though most women continued to be restricted to the domestic sphere, a belief grew that women who were better educated would be better companions for their better educated husbands. Though not a wife, Catherine Deakin, primarily educated by the Misses Thompson in their Kyneton Ladies Academy (Victoria) and accomplished speaker of French and a pianist to concert standard, is often discussed in these terms; she was a well-educated companion and wise counsel for her brother, Alfred Deakin, sometime Victorian government minister and three times prime minister of Australia. It was increasingly believed that better educated women would raise their children more sensibly, support their education thereby raising the cultural and moral standards of their families and contribute to their local communities.

Ending the old education based on the accomplishments

In the nineteenth century English authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill each argued for female education reform, indeed new ways of being a woman. Their arguments imagined and promoted:

(1)  new conceptions of marriage

(2)  new conceptions of motherhood, and

(3)  new possibilities for female independence.

Though controversial, such changes attracted male as well as female support from men of the educated middle and wealthier classes in Britain and Australia. In the colonies of Australia men were highly significant for expanding opportunities for the higher education of women.

The film, The Getting of Wisdom (1977) was based on Henry Handel Richardson's novel of the same name. It portrays life and education in Melbourne's Presbyterian Ladies College.

The film, The
Getting of Wisdom (1977) was based on Henry Handel Richardson’s novel of the same name. It portrays life and education in Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College.

Then there was feminism. As the historian Alison Mackinnon wrote, emergent turn of the century feminism was “explicitly concerned with social and sexual autonomy. [Women’s] quest for self-determination was a critical phase, a major shift in bargaining power between men and women.” (Love and Freedom, Cambridge, 1997, p. xi.) In the Australian colonies in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many girls’ schools associated themselves with reform. Girls would have access to the “male” university curriculum. While schools such as the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, the Advanced School for Girls in Adelaide, and later Sydney Girls High and the various Church of England grammar schools for girls were pioneers, they were not the only ones. Many of the private ladies’ colleges, seminaries and schools were similarly involved.

If in the process, the older arts-based, accomplishments, subjects were pushed to the margins of the standard curriculum, as optional “extras”, they did not disappear altogether. The modern girls’ curriculum could remain gender differentiated in new ways. In too many girls’ schools, mathematics and sciences remained difficult to access. Botany was often considered the only suitable science for girls in many schools well into the twentieth century. Following the older schooling traditions, girls remained more likely to study modern languages and perhaps history than boys. Curriculum differentiated by gender was not only imposed on girls, but also resulted from families accepting gendered differences in education as ‘normal’.

Even into the twenty-first century, in terms of behaviour and personal attributes, many girls continue to be held to higher standards than those of boys.

At the same time, by the 1920s the emerging new girl and woman could be seen most startlingly in the new female body. From the late nineteenth century it became possible to imagine the middle class, educated girl and woman playing tennis or hockey, and even riding a bicycle. In schools competitive sport for girls became possible. While the lady-like wearing of hats and gloves continued in many girls’ schools into the twentieth century, sporting costumes became less voluminous and restrictive.

Social class and the reformed curriculum for girls

This entry has addressed education and schooling for girls of the middle and ruling social classes. Both in its old and newer forms these kinds of schooling supported social class distinction and the formation of social classes in Australia. The ladies’ schools were

institutions which reproduced a vital component of ruling class culture. Speech, manners, social ritual and the right connections were vital in an era of family-based capitalist enterprise. (Theobald in Prentice & Theobald, 1991, p. 80.)

In the second half of the nineteenth century there was also increased scrutiny of the education of working class girls. These girls were usually subjected to compulsory elementary education in a curriculum much the same as that for boys at least from the 1870s. Significant curriculum divergence would occur with the belief that working class women and their families could be improved with specialised home science and home economics education. In the schools for middle class and wealthier girls this new curriculum was less persuasive.

Accomplishments and the history of women’s education

Fictional characters, Rosamund and Tertius Lydgate in their disastrous marriage.

Fictional characters, Rosamund and Tertius Lydgate in their disastrous marriage. George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Source: Jenson Society, NY.

Some of the nineteenth century English novelists, well read in Australia, including George Eliot, gave the accomplishments education for girls a very bad name. It was portrayed as equipping young women of the wealthier classes, including the aspiring, with a series of superficial and persuasive arts, all of which were designed to trap young men of means into marriage. There was a tragic fate in store for the admirable medical doctor and scientist, Tertius Lydgate in Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). Attracted to and then marrying the accomplished Rosamond Vincy, former student of Mrs Lemon’s private academy caused disaster. Rosamund had learned

all that was demanded in the accomplished female – even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage. Mrs Lemon herself had always held up Miss Vincy as an example: no pupil, she said, exceeded that young lady for mental acquisition and propriety of speech, while her musical execution was exceptional.

Despite Rosamund’s beauty, piano playing and fashion, her extravagance, inability to contain her flirtatiousness even as a married woman, and incapacity to manage a household, in the eyes of the novelist, stood to condemn both her and her education. Perhaps this was too strong, and even if schools such as those of the fictional Mrs Lemon existed in England in the early nineteenth century there is not much evidence for the worst of them in colonial society. As Hannah Boyd had argued in the 1850s, the colonial girl required a more practical education.

Well past the golden age of the private ladies’ academies, but still at Adelaide’s Girton Proprietary School for Girls in 1914 there were advertised extras (“special subjects: terms on application”). They included pianoforte with Miss Matthews, dancing with the Misses Robinson, elocution with Mrs Langford, plain needlework and dressmaking with Miss Holden. There were a mix of more and less useful accomplishments that might assist in the making of an accomplished but also useful girl. The ‘finishing’ of a young woman through appropriate schooling did not slip easily from some girls’ schools even in the twentieth century.

A long-lasting private school for wealthier girls (1886- ) that secured its future by incorporating in 1937. This photo, 1909. State Library of NSW.

A long-lasting private school for wealthier girls, Ascham (1886- ), that secured its future by incorporating in 1937. This photo, 1909. State Library of NSW.

At its best an accomplishments education insisted on a music, language and visual arts education of substance. The promotion of European high culture in the rough Australian colonies was part of the work of well-educated women, many of whom benefitted from the women who ran the many hundreds of ladies’ colleges, seminaries and schools. When higher education and employment opportunities progressively opened to women, many of the more substantial private colleges and academies responded to the opportunities. Nevertheless, these schools almost always encouraged class division. They had a long history of reconciling women who could have achieved much beyond, to the domestic sphere.

The private schools, academies, colleges and seminaries based around the accomplishments curriculum could not compete with the wealthier church collegiate schools, and then the increasing numbers of girls’ government high schools. By the 1930s there were very few of them that continued to exist. They had become old-fashioned, but also uneconomic. Most of them had always been rather short-lived. Schools that depended on small enrolments and the health and energy of their proprietor principals and families could not compete with the resources of the government schools and the large church-founded colleges.

Bibliography and References

Clarke, P. 1985. The governesses: Letters from the colonies 1862-1882, Melbourne, Hutchinson.

Hooper, C. 2001. Female entrants to the University of Melbourne’s matriculation examination, 1871-1881. Melbourne Studies in Education, 42, 79-92.

Kyle, N. 1986. Her natural destiny: The education of women in New South Wales, Sydney, NSWU Press.

Mackinnon, A. 1984. One foot on the ladder: Origins and outcomes of girls’ secondary schooling in South Australia, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press.

Reid, H. 2000. Age of transition: A study of four South Australian private girls schools 1855-1926, Adelaide, [the author].

Theobald, M. 1987. Humanities, science and the female mind. Unicorn: Journal of the Australian College of Education, 13.

Theobald, M. 1984. Julie Vieusseux. In: Lake, M. & Kelly, F. (eds) Double time. Melbourne: Penguin.

Theobald, M. 1989. The PLC mystique: Reflections on the reform of female education in nineteenth century Australia. Australian Historical Studies, 23, 241-259.

Theobald, M. 1996. Knowing women: Origins of women’s education in nineteenth-century Australia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Theobald, M. 1991. “Mere accomplishments”? Melbourne’s early ladies schools reconsidered. In: Prentice, A. & Theobald, M. (eds.) Women who taught: Perspectives on the history of women and teaching. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Whitehead, K. 2003. The new women come along: Transforming teaching in the nineteenth century, Sydney, Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society.

Citation of this entry

Campbell, C. 2023. Accomplishments, private schools for ladies and the education of girls [On-line]. Sydney: ANZHES. Available:

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