Life story retold by Katie Amos
Eliza Ratcliffe, if she is remembered these days, it is for two things, being the principal teacher of Burlton House School, or for signing the 1866 Women’s Suffrage petition: the first mass Votes for Women petition. Eliza also signed the 1864 petition asking for University Local Examinations to be opened to girls (Crawford, E. 2006: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey).
She started life however, as Eliza Cooper, the second daughter and second eldest of the ten children of John James and Sarah Cooper of Horn Street, Reading.
John James (as he seems to have been referred to in various sources – perhaps to avoid confusion with any other John Coopers in Reading) was Surveyor to the Paving Commission and Treasurer of the Borough, both quite important jobs. Sadly though, he died at quite a young age – 49 – in October 1839, leaving Sarah to bring up their children alone, in fact, she may have been still pregnant with their youngest, Mark, at the time of her husband’s death.
The 1841 census finds the family at Horn Street, Sarah is 40 and shown as being Independent (ie not having to work), Eliza, is 20, and siblings John, 20, Catherine, 16, Frederick, 12, Fanny, 11, Miriam, 7 and Mark, 1 are all there. John is shown as a surveyor, and newspaper adverts show that he and his mother have been given permission to carry on in John James’ roles for the council, as well as with his architectural, surveying, auctioneering and appraisal businesses that he ran as well. There are three siblings missing from the list- Sarah appears to have been working elsewhere as a servant, James was recently married, and Henry had died the year before his father.
By 1851 Eliza had also left home and had set up as as a school mistress. She was 29 at the time and worked at 90 Castle Street, where she is shown along with 3 pupils, 2 servants and a lodger.
The following year she married Charles Ratcliffe in Reading in 1852.
In 1851 Charles was living and working as a draper’s assistant to William Harris, linen draper, of 3 & 4 Market Place, having moved to Reading from either London or Ross in Herefordshire, depending on which census entry you believe.
The couple went on to have four children: Edward (the second youngest) was their only boy, he had three sisters, Emily, born 1853, Alice, born 1855 and Kate, born 1861. The family are at 90 Castle St in the 1861 census too, with Charles being a draper’s assistant, Eliza is shown as a governess this time, and the children are 7,6, 4 and 3 months old. Also listed there are two other governesses, Annie Nettleship and Mary Parker, age 27 and 19 respectively, and a French governess, Kate Penfold, 18, along with 11 pupils and 2 servants.
Five years after this census Eliza signed the Women’s Suffrage Petition. Of the 1,500 signatories she was the only one from Berkshire. This wasn’t her first time signing a petition though, she also signed the 1864 petition asking for University Local Examinations to be opened to girls.
Why might this be? Well, according to the baptismals records available online, as well as baptising most of their children at St Giles’ Church in Reading, they were also noted on the Protestant Dissenters Register. The term Dissenter refers to a number of Protestant denominations — Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, and others — which, because they refused to take the Anglican communion or to conform to the tenets of the restored Church of England in 1662, were subjected to persecution under various acts passed by the Cavalier Parliament between 1661 and 1665.
Did her religious beliefs play a part in her wishing to give women a greater part to play in society? Or, perhaps as a woman teaching girls, she could see some of the skills and talents they possessed being put to better use?
Unfortunately her reasons are not clear, but she obviously felt strongly on the subject. Her life continued as a schoolmistress. The 1871 census finds her at 90 Castle Street, Reading. With her is her husband, Charles, son Edward and 2 servants. Charles’ occupation is draper, age 63, Eliza is shown as a governess, age 50 (the house is named as Burlton House Girls School). Edward is a 13 year old student.
By the 1881 census Charles has changed occupations and is now a stationer, Alice and Kate are both back home, with Kate working alongside her mother as a governess to 19 pupils. The roles later switched, with Kate becoming principal, having taken over from her mother, who although still working at the school, had taken a less demanding position for her later years.
Three years later on 2nd March 1884, Charles Ratcliffe died, leaving probate to his wife, Eliza. By this time they were living at 113 Castle Street, which is where the 1891 census finds Eliza and her daughter, Kate. Kate is still head of the school, although her mother, at 70 years old has now retired. She was an advocate of the Pestalozzi curriculum. The school still has 19 pupils, along with 3 servants, a governess, a French governess, kindergarten governess and a junior governess. The pupils were mostly local girls, although a few were born as far away as Devon and Cornwall and Hull.
Eliza died on 19th March 1896, leaving an estate worth £194 3s 5d, but no doubt her years of teaching lived on with her many pupils for decades afterwards. She is buried in Reading Old with her husband Charles James. Part of the remaining epitaph for her on the grave monument says ‘Life’s race well run…’
From the Protestant Dissenters Register and St Giles register the birth dates of the Cooper children are:
John Omer 3.3.1822
Marriage of John James Cooper and Sarah Omer at St Sepulchre, London, 17th March 1818. Both shown as of the parish. J. Omer, John Cooper, and Catherine Omer were witnesses.
Was the school named for a Reverend Francis Jenks Burlton?
Buried in Section 30, Row B, Plot 5