Suffrage Stories: Hidden From History? – Susan Cunnington

On 4 April 2016 I gave a talk in the House of Commons at the Regional Suffrage Conference – one of the activities organised by Vote100 in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s enfranchisement in 2018. I had been asked to speak on the methods that we can all use to recover something of the lives of hitherto unknown suffrage campaigners – the foot soldiers of the movement. I called the talk ‘Hidden from History?: using genealogical data to recover the lives of suffragettes’.

As a demonstration of what can be done – and the techniques used – I picked at random a few names from those who appeared in the Contributors’ List in Votes for Women, the newspaper published by the Women’s Social and Political Union, in the weeks of 7 and 14 April 1911. Over the next few days I will post their stories.

The first name I discussed Sybil Campion – the next name on the contributors’ list is that of Miss Susan Cunnington, who also donated 5 shillings to the Cause.

Looking at that name I felt it might be difficult to identify the correct woman. But in fact on the 1911 census only three Susan Cunningtons showed up – one was married, so that counted her out –  and of the other two one was a dressmaker, living with her widowed father, a woodman in Lincolnshire. Looking at their form it didn’t strike me that she would have been able to spare 5 shillings. The third Miss Susan looked rather more of a fit as a financial supporter of the WSPU – although, from the very fact that I’d identified her it was clear that she was not so sufficiently militant as to boycott the census.

According to the census form she was born in 1858 – and was now in her 50s – and was the joint principal of a private girls’ day school – Wistons School, Dyke Road, Brighton. My belief that this Miss Susan Cunnington might well have been the WSPU contributor was given credence when I spotted that on 14 April list one of the contributors was Miss Millicent Lawrence, one of the sisters who had founded and ran Roedean school, not far from Brighton. Did these headmistresses discuss their support for the WSPU? Millicent Lawrence gave £6, while Miss Cunnington gave 5 shillings.

According to the 1891 census Susan Cunnington had been born in 1858 and in 1891 was mathematics mistress at a school in Worcester Park, Surrey. A little Googling uncovered that by 1894 she was the principal of a girls’ school at Waterloo, near Liverpool, and that in 1904 she was assistant mistress at Brighton and Hove High School. Between then and 1911 she had either founded or taken over the running of Wistons School.

You would think a headmistress whose school was in existence for many years would be easy to trace. But I’ve found it difficult to uncover her background. Susan Cunnington’s 1911 census form says she was born in the district of St George’s Hanover Square – but I can find no birth there for a Susan Cunnington around 1858. I tried approaching her from the end of her life and found a likely probate entry for a Susan Cunnington who died in Aldeburgh in 1950. Sure enough Ancestry provided a useful hint in the shape of a cutting from a local Suffolk newspaper – a notification of her death, revealing that this Susan Cunnington was 94 years old – well that’s a reasonable approximation to a birth circa 1858. Moreover the cutting revealed that she was ‘MA (Cantab)’. A quick look at Google nailed it. There is a wonderful website – Mathematical Women in the British Isles compiled by Dr A.E.L. Davis –  listing all women mathematical graduates between 1878 and 1940 – that instantly told me that Susan Cunnington had been a student at Newnham and had graduated in 1885 with a third class degree in mathematics.

In fact I do have on my shelf a copy of the Newnham College Register and so was now able to look her up. Her entry tells me that she was born on 10 February 1859, was educated by ‘private tuition’, matriculated in 1882, taught at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, 1885-6, at [as we’ve seen] Worcester Park School Surrey 1886-94, [she refrains from mentioning the Waterloo school – an unpleasant experience, perhaps?], vice- principal Norwich Diocesan Training College, 1895-6, [again, as we’ve seen] assistant mistress Brighton and Hove High School, 1897-1906, vice-principal Edgehill Training College, Liverpool 1906-07, co-principal Wiston’s School, Brighton 1907-13, correspondence teacher and lecturer 1914-36. Examiner for Catholic Social Guild 1920-36 – and mentions publishing editions of Ruskin.

Another Google search uncovered a letter in the archives of Trinity College, Cambridge, dated 1902, from Susan Cunnington to Nora Sidgwick, principal of Newnham, in which she reveals that at that time of writing she had been ‘Maths Mistress in the Brighton and Hove High School’ for five years. She adds that she lives with one of her colleagues, who is a friend of hers and mentions that she had applied for most of the jobs that had become vacant in the ‘Company’s Schools’, but has had no success so far. [That refers to the Girls’ Public Day School Trust Schools, of which Brighton High was one.] Then, interestingly, she mentions that she will send Nora Sidgwick a copy of the ‘Arithmetic’ when it comes out and that she has asked the publisher George Allen to let her annotate Ruskin’s Queen of the Air.

I immediately turned to another stalwart source of information – the British Library catalogue – and sure enough found that Susan Cunnington had in 1904 published The Story of Arithmetic and, over the years, not only editions of Ruskin and a wide range of other books mainly aimed at youngish people, but, in 1910, Home and State: an introduction to the study of economics and civics. So here on that Contributors’ list we find a Cambridge graduate who has managed, probably with difficulty, to find the means to run her own girls’ school and who is also taking an active interest in way that society and the economy is ordered – so much so that she is writing textbooks on the subject. Obviously if this was more than an exercise for this one occasion I would be off to the British Library to study Susan Cunnington’s published work.

A little more Googling revealed an entry in the 1924 Catholic Year Book  giving her father’s name as John Cunnington. I then found, in Ancestry’s London Parish Registers file, that on 6 April 1856 a Susan Cunnington had been christened at Christ Church, Lancaster Gate. Her birth date in the register is given as 8 February – but I think we can accept that, with only two days difference, this is the right ‘Susan Cunnington’.  Her parents’ names were John and Susannah Cunnington. They lived at 2 Cleveland Mews – and her father’s occupation is given as ‘coachman’. Moreover, her brother, Arthur, who had been born in 1853 was christened at the same time. Could these be her parents? It doesn’t look very likely – but I can find no census entry for a suitable Susan Cunnington before 1891 – so for the time being her origins will have to remain shrouded in mystery….

At least that was how I left it when doing the research for my talk. But now as I came to the end of writing up this post I thought I’d have one last delve. 

During the initial research I hadn’t been able to find ‘our’ Susan Cunnington on the Findmypast 1939 Register. But now I decided to try once again. This time I omitted a first name, put ‘Cunnington’ into the search box and filtered the search to show only women. Eureka. Amongst all the other female Cunningtons was a most unlikely ‘Susdia’ born in 1856. Sure enough when I clicked on this I could see that this was a mistranscription for ‘Susan’ and that moreover she was ‘tutor and author retired’. At the time she was living in the house of a shipping clerk and his wife, presumably as a boarder, in Merilies Gardens, Westcliffe-on-Sea, Southend. The obituary notice had associated her in the past with Storrington (West Sussex) and Thorpe Bay, which isn’t far from Westcliffe – so I am sure she is ‘our’ Susan Cunnington.

The entry on the 1939 Register gives her exact birth date – 10 February 1856 – which ties up exactly with her being 94 when she died in 1950. The date in the Newnham Register is three years awry – but the specific day and month are indisputably ‘right’. Certainty is helped by the fact that no Susan Cunnington was born in 1859. So I am now certain that she is the daughter born to the coachman in the first quarter of 1856.

Thinking that Cleveland Mews was in Fitzrovia, south of the Euston Road, I was a little puzzled as to why she had been born in Kensington and christened at Lancaster Gate. But another Google search found a useful website which lists changes of names that have been made to London streets. On this I found that one ‘Cleveland Mews’ was now ‘Leinster Mews’, close to Lancaster Gate. Street View shows me it is still a mews, though the coachman’s horses have long gone. So we can picture baby Susan Cunnington being carried back from Christ Church to her mews home on an April Sunday in 1856 (and, yes, I know it was a Sunday, because another quick Google allows one to discover the day of the week of any date). But what happened to her after that?

Her mother may be the Susannah Cunnington, wife of John Cunnington of 180 Buckingham Palace Road, Pimlico, who died in 1886, leaving £78. If so, I found that she, too, worked at least some of the time in service – as a maid. So was ‘our’ Susan Cunnington the five-year-old of that name who was staying with her uncle, a blacksmith, at Babraham in Cambridgeshire, when the 1861 census was taken? The census form says that she was born in Paddington but whoever gave the information to the enumerator may not have been very well informed about the exact place of her birth but did know that she lived in the Paddington area, which I suppose Bayswater is. The Susannah Cunnington who died in 1886 had been born in Balsham, which is only a few miles from Babraham and could well have been a sister of either the blacksmith or his wife. It might be possible, with a great deal more delving, to prove this.

After spotting young Susan on the 1871 census there seems to be little trace of the family until Susanna Cunnington’s death in 1886 and Susan’s appearance on the 1891 census. Even young Arthur has vanished. I expect names have been mistranscribed and with a good deal more searching they might be winkled out.

But there is no getting away from the fact that a girl born to a Bayswater coachman did matriculate at Newnham in 1882 and did go on to hold a variety of teaching posts, run her own school, write a mathematical text book, edit Ruskin, and support the Women’s Social and Political Union. What is the story that lies behind this life?


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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  1. #1 by Louise Bernikow on April 7, 2016 - 7:36 pm

    just amazing! now there’s a movie! thanks so much… louise b

    On Thu, Apr 7, 2016 at 4:29 AM, Woman and her Sphere wrote:

    > womanandhersphere posted: “On 4 April 2016 I gave a talk in the House of > Commons at the Regional Suffrage Conference – one of the activities > organised by Vote100 in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of (partial) > women’s enfranchisement in 2018. I had been asked to speak on the m” >

  2. #2 by Margaret Seymour on January 26, 2020 - 7:20 pm

    The Campion family were the owners of Danny Park Hurstpierpoint .
    Interested about Susan Cunningham as I attended Wistons school and always thought if was founded by Mrs Baaxter Phillips .

    • #3 by womanandhersphere on January 30, 2020 - 4:49 pm

      Margaret – Susan Cunnington was definitely co-principal of the school in 1911 – but I can see that Mrs Baxter Phillips was headmistress in the 1920s. I imagine that Miss Cunnington and her co-principal founded the school and that it was later taken over by Mrs Baxter Phillips…and the earlier history expunged.
      Thanks for getting in touch

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