What kind of person would make a good headmistress for a Victorian school for young ladies in a mansion in the suburbs of Edinburgh? Presiding over the one in Grange House from 1883-1895 was Helen Hamilton Black: a strong character, her story suggests.
She was born in Fife in 1853 to a father who was a naval officer descended from naval officers, while her mother came from a family of Indian Army officers with Scottish roots. After a childhood in the small coastal town of Dysart, by 17 Helen was at a small boarding school near Bristol. When she was 20 she married in Frankfurt.
Helen Hamilton Black or Johnson or Nutt or Chamberlain
Her husband, Robert Helenus Johnson, was the son of a judge in Bombay. The couple went to India and lived in Guntur where Robert worked for the Bank of Madras. Their first son was born a couple of years later, but Robert soon died and Helen gave birth to their second child in London. By the time this little boy was three, Helen was “assistant lady superintendent” for an Edinburgh “Institute for Young Ladies”.[ref]Based in Charlotte Square[/ref] Her responsibilities included a dozen teenage girls boarding in the house where she, her children and three servants lived too.[ref]Her mother may have lived with her too. She is with Helen in both 1871 and 1881 censuses and died at Grange House.[/ref]
Her own school and a second marriage
In 1882 she announced in the press that she would be opening her own establishment in Grange House. A couple of months later came her marriage to Whaley Bouchier Nutt, a lecturer in “vocal physiology and elocution”. Whaley had already arranged to rent the Grange mansion house in Edinburgh. More about his life below.
It was called an “establishment” for the education of “the daughters of gentlemen” and not a “school”. However conventional this sounds, there are signs that Mr. and Mrs. Nutt had some unconventional and innovative ideas.
A “scientific” botanical garden, designed by Patrick Geddes, replaced the rose garden. Presumably the school taught natural sciences, which Geddes believed offered a “unique combination of educational advantages”.[ref]Transactions of Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 16[/ref] There was a gymnasium: quite progressive for girls’ education in the 1880s, even if they stuck to “ladylike” exercise. Whaley believed there should not be too much emphasis on cramming facts, and thought that “fashioning the organs of speech” would help both mind and body.[ref]Lecture reported in Dundee Courier 26 November 1892[/ref]
The Nutts were friends of the pioneering Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, and supported women’s suffrage.[ref]Englishwoman’s Review, December 15, 1886, and April 15, 1890[/ref] Whaley was said to be a “philanthropist”, and they involved the girls at Grange House in fund-raising sales and concerts for an Indian aid mission, with Helen especially supporting their Girls’ Union.[ref]The Indian Female Evangelist. July 1, 1886[/ref]
A new life in South Africa
During her time at Grange House, Helen gave birth to two children: a daughter in 1884 and, ten years later, a son. Whaley died the year after the baby boy was born, in 1895. He left Helen everything he had, but this was just furniture and school equipment and nine hundred pounds of life insurance.[ref]By June, the owners had started eviction proceedings against the Nutts, so there may have been financial difficulties even before Whaley’s death in March.[/ref] Soon she took out a tenancy on a smaller, cheaper house and announced that her school would open there that autumn.[ref]Carrielee in the Colinton Road – Glasgow Herald August 7, 1895[/ref] However, before the end of the year she married again, in London. Her new husband, Harold Goddard Chamberlain, son of a navy Paymaster-General, was twenty years younger than she was. They moved to South Africa where their son was born in 1898: Helen’s fifth child. She was 44.
Whaley lost his father, Major Justinian Nutt, when he was about twelve. His family were settled in Cheltenham, but he lived in Rugby for two years, and went to school there as a day boy. In his 20s he spent time in Melbourne, with trips back to England. While in Australia he patented an invention for scouring wool. The Rugby School register called him a “Merchant at Manchester”, and there is evidence of a short-lived textile business partnership based there.
During the 1860s and 1870s, his name crops up in Cheltenham and Leamington newspapers. Mostly these are bland reports on the social pages of him arriving or departing, but a description of a lavish “Bachelors’ Ball” in 1871 says he came in fancy dress “as a Greek”.
After his business partnership was dissolved he started performing “dramatic readings”. Many were near his home in Cheltenham, where he lived with his widowed mother, sister Mary and three servants, but some were further afield. When he was 34 a census gave his profession as “public reader and lecturer”. Reviews described good audiences (not unconnected with his family’s social standing, suggested one reporter) but they were not whole-heartedly enthusiastic.
In 1882 he married Helen in Cheltenham. A local paper called the occasion a fashionable wedding, with an “elegant déjeuner” for family guests including Whaley’s cousin the Rev. J. W. Nutt, who assisted at the ceremony, and Helen’s uncle General Fulton.[ref]Cheltenham Looker-On, 16 Dec. 1882[/ref]
Once in Edinburgh, Whaley’s profession was generally given as “vocal physiologist and elocution” tutor. He called this a “fine art” that brought charm and grace to people’s lives as well as being beneficial to physical health.[ref]Lecture reported in Dundee Courier 26 November 1892[/ref] He taught at Loretto School, the Watt Institute and elsewhere, as well as at Grange House.
In the 1890s he was a visiting tutor at St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews, and at the London-based Chaffee-Noble Training School of Expression. As well as elocution and gesture, the London curriculum included “aesthetic physical and vocal drill”, gymnastics, recitation and criticism.[ref]Advertising in the Morning Post etc.[/ref]
When he died in 1895, a brief obituary called him an “elocutionist of considerable ability”, a man “of a philanthropic disposition” and a “Liberal Unionist in politics”.[ref]Edinburgh Evening News, 6 March 1895[/ref]
- Willsbridge House by Paul Townsend, with Creative Commons license. Added text from P.O. directory 1863.
- Dysart Harbour by Samuel Bough, 1854, from Wikimedia.
- Grange House from McGibbon and Ross, The castellated and domestic architecture of Scotland, Douglas 1887-92
- W.B.Nutt sketch from Edinburgh Evening News, 6 March 1895
- Australian info from Victoria Government archive
- Cheltenham Looker-On
- Cheltenham Chronicle