Friday 23 February 2018

Honesty Girls Club: Educating the Girls of York

In 1902, seventeen year-old Winifred Rowntree noted that there was nothing for teenage girls in York to do in the evenings . Inspired by the local evening school for adults, she decided to establish a club that would aim to entertain and educate girls from the area around Leeman Road. Not long after, Winifred and twenty-three other young women, most of whom had fathers who worked on the railway, agreed to meet every Monday evening, and thus the Honesty Girls Club was born.

By 1913, the club was flourishing, with 116 members. After years of meeting in the evening school’s building, had finally moved into the club’s own purpose-built facilities. The senior class (for those who had left school) continued to meet on a Monday night to practice needlework and dancing. In the summers, they meet in Clifton Gardens, where the dancing would be replaced by gentle strolls around the gardens observing the flora and fauna. The club’s junior class (those aged eleven to fourteen) met on a Monday night. They would practice their plain sewing, before having an hour of games and dancing. Both sets of meetings ended with hymns and a prayer. Entrance cost a penny a week, although siblings got a discounted rate of a half-penny. For younger girls who hoped to join the club (those aged nine to eleven), “Drill Sessions” were run for an hour before Monday’s meetings which allowed them to show their commitment to the group. On summer Saturday afternoons, girls were invited on countryside rambles, but only if they had attended at least three club nights in the last month. This was one of twenty-five rules that members had to comply with, including: “Members shall remove their hats as soon as they enter the Club,” and “No sweets or other eatable to be brought into the Club at any time.”

The main aim of the Honesty Girls Club was to educate its members. The club had its own library, and senior members were automatically signed up to the Rowntree library. As the club expanded, they began to run evening classes for members. These covered a wide range of topic, including: singing, copper work, blouse-making, Morris dancing and folk songs, English literature, swimming, gardening, and “Dramatic Classes” that provided “Dramatic Entertainment” for the community. The club also held annual competitions, such as a wildflower competition in which prizes were offered to the girls who could collect the widest variety of species. In 1912, this was won by Rose Richardson, who successfully collected 169 specimens of wildflower. Spare a thought for poor Lily Bracewell, who came third in this contest for three years in a row, before having to drop out in the fourth year due to illness. In 1913, they set up the Snowdrop Band, a subsection of the club which invited “knowledgeable ladies” to come and share their expertise on topics, including: “Ideals of Womanhood,” “Physcial and Moral Health,” and “Thought Books,” a journal for pleasant thoughts that entered one’s head.

As its name suggests, the Honesty Girls Club organizers wished to instill kindness and honesty within its members. Their motto, an extract from My Love by James Russell Lowell, reads:

“She doeth little kindnesses,
Which most leave undone, or despise:
Four naught that sets one heart at ease,
And giveth ha
ppiness of peace,

Is low-esteemed in her eyes.”

To this end, they regularly ran events for the local community, including an annual Christmas party for children from the local workhouse and a weekly ‘Play Club’ for local children. In the 1912 annual report, it was noted: “There can be no doubt that the children unconsciously grow in the habit of self-control through the house spent in organised play.” Shortly after this, the junior class established a ‘Guild of Help’ which made baby clothes from recycled materials and gave them away to ‘very needy homes.’ They also created cradles out of banana crates which could be lent out to mothers as necessary. During the First World War, it was decided that such charitable acts was the best way for the club to support the war effort, and the Guild of Help became a vital part of the club.

It is thanks to Lily Scott that I was recently made aware of this little-remembered organisation. Lily Scott joined the Honesty Girls Club on February 20th 1903, when she would have been twelve years old. Starting in the junior group, she later progressed into the senior class, and was elected to the running committee in 1912. She probably left the club when she married in 1913, but continued to show an interest in its activities. A collection of items belonging to Lily but pertaining to the Honesty Girls Club were recently gifted to the Borthwick. As well as a substantial collection of the club’s annual reports, we also have a hand-embroidered cushion and a collection of copper items that Lily made while attending classes at the club. According to the annual reports, copperwork was one of the less popular classes, with only eleven girls attending in 1912, meaning Lily would have been in a minority. In one report, the teacher writes that the class have made excellent works, in spite of their small size, but that she does wish they would learn to clean up after themselves! Also in the collection is Lily’s certificate of membership. Girls had to prove their commitment, so were only given a certificate after they had regularly attended club meetings for three years. After five years of attendance, the club would have their certificate framed. While the frame no longer survives, the certificate has been mounted, and has survived in remarkably good condition.

Winifred Rowntree continued to oversee the Honesty Girls Club until her death in 1915, when her husband. Her funeral was attended by 110 club members, and they held their own memorial service for her. After her death, Winifred’s husband, A. D. Naish took over as President, while Winifred’s mother Emma Rowntree became Vice-President. They were assisted by a secretary and vice-secretary, both of whom were former members. However, the club was largely run by a committee of twelve girls annually elected from the senior group. These girls were responsible for running evening meetings, deciding which classes would run and finding teachers for them, and organizing any outreach programs. In later years, this committee was supported by former members of the club. The last annual report for the club was released in 1940. By this point numbers had dwindled; only four classes were still running. The Club probably closed shortly after.

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