The life of GD member Clotilde Rosalie Regina von Wyss in more detail: FAMILY, CAREER IN TEACHING
For those of you who’ve arrived here other than
via my file ‘Clotilde’s life in dates’, she was born in
It’s been difficult to find out a great deal about Clotilde’s family. Apart from her letters to Marie Stopes and the biographies of Stopes, my sources for her cover her professional life only; and when they mention family details, they all mention the same, bald, few. However, the Stopes connection has been helpful.
Clotilde (born 1871) and her sister Martha (born
1873) were born in Zürich. Their mother - also called Clotilde - was Swiss. I
can see from web searches that there are and were people with the surname ‘von
Wyss’ and ‘Wyss’ living in the Zürich district; perhaps some of the 19th-century
ones were relations of Clotilde. In her letters Clotilde mentions relations,
including a cousin, living in
The only thing I know about Clotilde’s father is
that he died early in 1900; definitely not in
Perhaps the split happened in 1884 - though the
letter I’ve just mentioned gave me the impression it had happened long before
that - because around that year, Clotilde’s mother went to live in
Clotilde does seem to have spent enough of her
From her earliest years, she had an interest - not just that, a joy and delight - in animals, plants, and the natural world, that comes over (if obliquely) in the more personal of her books. Throughout her life she loved to observe animals and plants, to identify them and to draw them - she illustrated her own books and other people’s - and to study their lives. She kept beetles and salamanders at home in her room, where she hoped they would breed; wherever she worked, she set up an aquarium; and when she retired, she began a systematic study of ants’ behaviour that might have resulted in some important publications if she had only lived longer.
As a separated woman living on a restricted
income, Mrs von Wyss was careful what she spent her money on. In 1891 she was
CLOTILDE IN EDUCATION - AS A PUPIL
Clotilde’s timing, in being born in the early
1870s, was very good. It meant that she was able to go to one of the schools
founded as a result of the efforts of the first generation of reformers of
women’s education; rather than be haphazardly educated by governesses. Mrs von
Wyss’ choice of north
Nearly all the obituaries of Clotilde state that
she attended the
CLOTILDE IN EDUCATION - LEARNING TO TEACH
Later colleagues of Clotilde viewed her as a born teacher. But the choice of work available to even the best-educated young woman was limited in the 1890s, so a career in teaching may have been not so much a choice as an inevitability for Clotilde. There’s a lot of indirect evidence in Clotilde’s letters to suggest that if her family circumstances had been different Clotilde might have chosen to go to university; but they weren’t different, and that option wasn’t open to her. I think this is an important point to note, when it comes to considering Clotilde’s relationship with her pupil Marie Stopes.
Mrs von Wyss’ choice to come to live in north
CLOTILDE IN EDUCATION - TEACHING IN SCHOOLS
Clotilde’s first job was at
While Clotilde was a teacher at the school it was
still in its original building in
At some point during her time working in
Clotilde’s obituary in the Proceedings of the Linnean
Society refers to the influence Thomson had on her later work, but didn’t
go into details (LS members not needing to be told them, I would imagine) so
tentatively I put forward two suggestions, a sort-of microcosm and macrocosm,
based on Clotilde’s books. Firstly: Thomson’s emphasis on morphology, on shape
and structure, and their use in classification. Observation and drawing are so
important in this. And secondly: Thomson’s firm belief, which under-pinned
everything he did, that the wonders of the natural world were evidence for the
existence of a divine Creator. Thomson didn’t deny evolution as theorised by
Perhaps Thomson’s most important influence on Clotilde’s work as an educator was an indirect one. In 1927 in her most personal book, Living Creatures, Clotilde writes a few words about standing with Thomson at the side of a moorland pool watching a newt - dull stuff to most of us perhaps, but an exciting and life-enhancing moment for both of them. In her teaching of nature study to children, and later to the future teachers of children, Clotilde tried to instil in them that kind of wonder in the face of Nature’s marvels.
During the Easter vacation in 1897, Clotilde moved
NLCS already had a Science Club when Clotilde
arrived. Miss Aitken, the chemistry teacher, was its president and Clotilde was
elected by its pupil members as the Club’s vice-president during the 1897
summer term. The Club usually met in school, but when time and exams allowed,
Miss Aitken and Clotilde would lead plant and animal collecting expeditions -
CLOTILDE IN EDUCATION - TEACHING TEACHERS
Early in 1901, Clotilde went to work as a lecturer
At CTC she encountered two more of the formidable
figures in the second generation of women educators. The second was Charlotte
Edith Ainslie, who was on the staff by 1901; she became its principal in 1902.
The first was Margaret Punnett, a former student at CTC, who was appointed its
principal in 1899 but who moved on in 1902 and lured Clotilde away from CTC
(not that that was difficult) to work for her back in London. From census day
1901 I have a snapshot of Clotilde, still living in college although it was the
Easter holidays; with Charlotte Ainslie as head of household as Margaret
Punnett was away; and being visited by Marie Stopes, now a student at
The job at CTC seems to have got Clotilde down
almost from the beginning; and running through the letters she wrote in the
next year or two are the twin themes of disappointment and failure; and a fear,
that she couldn’t shake off, that she was not doing the job well enough. It
definitely didn’t help that by census day 1901 Mrs von Wyss and Martha had
returned to live permanently in
The one bright spot of Clotilde’s time working at CTC was that while she was there, she met Beatrice Ethelwyn Mackie. I discuss their relationship in the file under the sub-heading Personality, Marie Stopes and Ethelwyn Mackie.
Clotilde was looking for a change of job by 1902. She actually got as far as announcing her resignation from CTC but its governing Council persuaded her to give it one more academic year - hoping, I should imagine, that she’d change her mind about wanting to leave. It was inevitable, under the circumstances, that Clotilde would hear of the existence of the London Day Training College: not only had Margaret Punnett left CTC to work as an administrator and lecturer there but Sophie Willcock Bryant was one of LDTC’s founders, and was on its governing body which (at least in the early years) held its meetings at her house in Hampstead.
In the autumn of 1902 Clotilde applied to the LDTC
and was appointed lecturer in hygiene, nature study, arts and crafts. She had
been mistaken - obviously - in thinking that she had not done well at the CTC.
Initially the job at LDTC was two afternoons per week only, so for the last two
terms of the 1902/03 academic year Clotilde worked at CTC and LDTC together.
But in the summer of 1903 the job at LDTC was given enough hours (and therefore
enough pay) for Clotilde to be able to leave
Some reminiscences from men involved with the LDTC in its early years show how brilliant Clotilde was as a teacher, and how memorable she was. G B Jeffery, who was a student and then a lecturer at LDTC, reflected many years later that Clotilde had been given the short straw in being asked to show students how to teach art and nature study; because most of his student friends regarded those subjects as “beneath contempt”. He had watched her succeeding in making them care about them “by the sheer strength of her personality and her infectious love of nature and art”. She was also helped by the Government’s regulations, which made nature study a compulsory subject in elementary schools in 1905. D R Harris, who worked at LDTC from 1902 to 1905, remembered how Clotilde had on one occasion in 1903 saved the day by volunteering to fill in for a scheduled lecturer who hadn’t turned up. Stepping into a lecture-room full of students now noisy and restive at the delay, and with no notes and no preparation, Clotilde had them eating out of her hand within minutes and held their attention to the end of her hour. D R Harris admired the “courage and mettle” she had shown.
Clotilde stayed working at the LDTC until she
retired in 1936. This was not a standing-still, however, this was a moving
forward and upward while remaining employed at the same place. 1903-36 were
years in which the need for teachers continued to expand; and the levels of
education required of them continued to rise. In 1909 the LDTC was adopted as a
By the 1930s, Government emphasis was moving away from seeing nature as something to be studied as a whole, towards a more anthropocentric and laboratory-orientated focus on biology as a science, on hygiene and on disease prevention. Although it must have cost her some pangs to see her beloved nature study being pushed to the sidelines, by 1931 Clotilde was the LDTC’s lecturer in biology, involved not only in teaching would-be teachers how to teach the subject according to the new guidelines, but in formulating syllabuses. Her book The Elements of Biology (published in 1931) laid out a course for 12-15-year-olds to follow in preparation for their School Certificate exams. She was still arguing that it was impossible to study any organism without observing it in its native environment; and that the process of close observation could be used as a ‘way in’ to the problems and wider issues of biology.
Throughout this time of expansion and change, the
LDTC had continued to be run by the LCC and all those who worked there had been
LCC employees. In 1932, however, the LCC handed control of LDTC over to
It was the actual practice of teaching that Clotilde loved and was so supremely gifted at: the hands-on interaction with pupils and pupil-teachers. While she was working at the LDTC, she did evening courses in nature study; she led field-trips during the college vacations; and she did voluntary teaching work at Wormwood Scrubs, where she had no problem being left on her own in a room full of up to 70 offenders. She turned down at least one promotion which would have lifted her beyond that daily classroom contact: when Margaret Punnett retired in 1933, Clotilde was offered the part of Punnett’s job that was titled ‘Warden for Women Students’; she was flattered, of course, but declined it.
CLOTILDE IN EDUCATION - THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING NATURE
Clotilde shared these concerns, and became one of the SNSU’s most active members. I’m sure she influenced the focus it came to have, on helping teachers with the nuts and bolts of teaching nature study - she will have been more aware than most SNSU members of how little most teachers knew about the subject themselves, and how they struggled with a lack of equipment and inadequate facilities for experiments, as well as a lack of knowledge. She was a long-serving member of SNSU’s executive committee. She contributed two leaflets to the series SNSU published, designed to help teachers with specific nature study projects. She used her position as an employee of the LCC to further the SNSU’s aims: she helped set up a scheme whereby LCC-owned equipment and specimens could be loaned out to schools for use in class; and it was almost certainly through Clotilde that the SNSU was able to use the LDTC’s building on Southampton Row for its annual conference. And she edited its journal for over 30 years from its first issue in 1906; the article I read on the SNSU named the journal as the SNSU’s most useful and widely-known promotional tool. Though the main focus of the journal was botany and zoology, Clotilde was happy to include articles on nature in its widest sense, so geography, geology and astronomy also featured in it.
At conferences and exhibitions, in articles and books, Clotilde argued for importance of nature study, not only in teaching children (particularly urban children) about how the natural world worked; but also as a way of developing character, of instilling the right morals and encouraging the habit of careful observation. She was struggling against the indifference even of education professionals, but she continued to promote her sense of the subject’s importance whenever she got the chance.
The emphasis on building moral character was important. It weighed with those who made decisions on how children were educated, what subjects they should study. But I think that Clotilde also wanted to see that as many children as possible were given the chance to go out into the natural world and perhaps feel some of the joy she experienced in watching, studying and drawing it. In the SNSU journal’s very first issue, she wrote that the purpose of nature study was to create delight. From 1909 to 1912 Clotilde also worked on a series of books trying to inspire children with those feelings: The Child’s World in Pictures for example; Beasts and Birds; and Gardens in their Seasons. Many years later, she returned to the subject in Living Creatures, published in 1927. She was also quick to see the potential of film in preaching nature study to an even wider audience: in 1936 she acted as advisor to an educational film made by Gaumont-British Instructional, showing ants as communal creatures. The film was based on children’s nature study work, which Clotilde had overseen.
Clotilde’s teachers’ aids continued in use a long time after she died: new printings of her SNSU leaflets were issued in the 1950s and as late as 1968; the film was still being shown in the late 1940s. But according to the article I read as my main source for this section, the SNSU didn’t make its case strongly enough for the importance of nature study as an integral part of the school curriculum, so the subject was gradually squeezed out of the science syllabus entirely; a failure for which Clotilde must take some share of the blame. She might be having the last laugh though - if you can call it that: perhaps if the beliefs of the SNSU - that understanding and appreciating nature was an important part of children’s education - had been taken more seriously, we would not now be in the environmental and climatic mess that we are.
CLOTILDE AS A CLASSIFIER OF SPECIES
I’m sure Clotilde saw the identification of plants - especially unknown ones - as a basic activity in her studies of the natural world. However, with all her other commitments she probably didn’t do as much of it as she would have liked - for example, she didn’t have a ‘identification/classification’ article in any botanical or zoological journal (as far as I know). She did do at least one piece of identification work that got published: in 1906/07 she was contacted by Mary Margaret Newett, who was working on the translation into English of the journal kept in 1494 by an Italian priest on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Newett had been stumped by a plant which must have been drawn in the journal but mentioned only by its name in Milanese dialect. Clotilde was able to identify the plant, either from a copy of one of the journal’s illustrations, or perhaps by visiting Newett and looking at the original manuscript. It was a type of heather; and a note about it appears in Newett’s book. It was this kind of work that led to Clotilde being elected a Member of the Linnean Society by 1910, and a Fellow in June 1914.
SOURCES FOR THIS LOOK AT CLOTILDE’S FAMILY AND CAREER see the end of the ‘life’ file.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
5 November 2013
4 February 2021
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: