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 Switzerland in 1871, spent most of her life in England, and died in Surrey in 1938. She was a biologist; a teacher, then a lecturer; and a writer. She never married. She had a long-lasting relationship with another woman.




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 Bern around 1900.


The only thing I know about Clotilde’s father is that he died early in 1900; definitely not in England, probably in Switzerland. From a letter written by Clotilde the day after she’d heard about his death, it’s clear that her parents had split up while she was a child (the letter doesn’t say exactly when) and that she had never had much of a relationship with him.


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 London, taking her two daughters with her. She gave the 1891 census official some information on her source of income that is rather puzzling: she told him that her main income came from a sewing-machine company of which she was the secretary. However, the census official listed her as an employer, not an employee, as if her income was share dividends, not a salary. Having learned that she was separated from her husband, I’ve been wondering if she actually received money from her husband or from his family, the sewing machine company being the original source of it, but it not coming to her directly but via family members or lawyers. I think exactly what Mrs von Wyss was trying to explain to the census official will remain a mystery. She didn’t want him to know she was separated from her husband: she told him she was married. Though he might have wondered why, in that case, she described herself (not her husband) as the head of the household.


Clotilde does seem to have spent enough of her childhood in Switzerland to think of it as home; and grew up speaking Swiss German as her first language. Switzerland being the multi-lingual country it is, she could probably speak French well too.


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 living in Medley Road, a tiny street backing onto the railway just outside West Hampstead station; in number 12, next to the pub on the corner with Iverson Road. The von Wyss’s neighbours look to me as though they were on the boundaries between the artisan and the bottom of the middle-class, in the endless gradation of the Victorian class system: the pub owner (pubs weren’t really respectable), a couple of clerks, a man who worked in a hairdressing salon, a widow living on an annuity...not quite middle-class, I think you’d say, particularly as none of them had servants that lived in. Rather than paying more rent and living in more respectable, indisputably middle-class surroundings, the elder Clotilde chose to invest her income on educating her daughters at a good school. Perhaps she was looking to a future when they would be able to support themselves and her; so that none of them had to rely on income from her estranged husband. If so, it was very advanced thinking on Mrs von Wyss’ part; in the 1880s even middle-class women obliged to live on income from a husband who had left did not always think to educate their daughters for work.




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 London as a home was an advantage - because if you could pay, there was actually a choice of secondary schools for girls.


Nearly all the obituaries of Clotilde state that she attended the North London Collegiate School as a pupil. However, in October 2013 the School’s Librarian, Nicola Feggetter, told me that Clotilde’s staff index card makes no mention of the fact that she had been a pupil. Nor does there seem to be any other information in NLCS archives to suggest she was a pupil there; so I don’t know how the idea that she had been one got about. In his book on the history of the Institute of Education, Richard Aldrich says that it was South Hampstead High School that Clotilde attended; and he has proved reliable on other matters. South Hampstead High School is one of the schools set up and run by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust (now the Girls’ Day School Trust). The GPDST had been founded in 1872 by Maria Grey and Emily Shirreff. Maria Grey had also founded Maria Grey Training College where Clotilde learned to teach.


South Hampstead High School opened in 1876. In 1886 the job of headmistress was given to Mary Sophia Benton, who had taught at the school during its early years. Miss Benton must have been appointed to the job either during Clotilde’s time as a pupil or just before she started at the school. She was a new breed of teacher, a product of the first generation’s reforms and initiatives. She had been a student at Newnham College and as such, was living proof of a woman’s ability to grapple successfully with a university-level syllabus. While she was headmistress, the school focused on language teaching, especially French and German. I wonder if it was Miss Benton who chose the school’s motto? - Mehr licht, reputedly the last words of Goethe. Mehr licht was the motto Clotilde chose when she was initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn. The school’s other focus was on sciences - though the emphasis was probably more on botany and perhaps some zoology, rather than physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry and even zoology were seen as boy’s subjects even by women and as a result there was a lack of suitable women teachers for them. Botany was seen as a more feminine subject - it could be taught in girls’ schools all-too-conscious of having to justify their existence all the time and avoid being accused of encouraging girls to be unwomanly. As Clotilde was able to teach school-girls and college students a variety of subjects later in life - biology, chemistry, maths, art and nature study - she left school educated to a high level in all of them.




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 London was vindicated again when Clotilde left school. Without leaving home and thus keeping expenses to a minimum, she was able to get the best teacher-training that was available to women at the time, at Maria Grey College in Fitzroy Square Bloomsbury. The College had been founded in 1878, to train women to work in secondary schools, and successful students left it with a recognised qualification, the Cambridge Teaching Certificate. Clotilde graduated from the College, probably in 1894, with a Distinction in the Certificate exams.




Clotilde’s first job was at St George’s High School, Edinburgh and she was on the staff there from 1895 to Easter 1897. The school was set up in 1888 by the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women, as part of its wider plan to get Scottish women into university. The Association’s plan had been very successful - in 1892, all Scottish universities had been opened up to women, and this must have given classes at St George’s an impetus and focus that was perhaps harder to keep up in England where the struggle for that particular equality was still having to be fought. However, the Association’s philosophy was based on the work of Friedrich Froebel, that every child should be encouraged to develop their talents - intellectual or otherwise - to the best of their ability. Clotilde’s work later in her career shows that this was something she always believed in, so as a first appointment, a spell at St George’s School would have been ideal for her. I do not know for sure what subjects Clotilde taught at the school; but I imagine they were the same subjects that she taught later - botany, biology, nature study and art.


While Clotilde was a teacher at the school it was still in its original building in Melville Street in the centre of the city. In 1897, Clotilde was living (probably in lodgings) within a short walk of the school, at 17 Cornwall Street.


At some point during her time working in Edinburgh, Clotilde met the biologist J Arthur Thomson. From 1886 to 1889 he was a lecturer at Edinburgh University. However, from the start of his career he’d always wanted to explain science and its processes to a wider audience, so that in addition to his work in the university’s medical school, he ran courses in the university’s extra-mural programme. Although I have no direct evidence for when he and Clotilde met and became friends, there are two likely possibilities: that they met through mutual friends in Edinburgh’s academic/scientific social circles - the same circles through which Clotilde was introduced to the person or people who recommended her to the GD’s members; or that Clotilde took one of Thomson’s extra-mural courses. One way or the other, they met as kindred spirits - as lovers of the natural world.


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 Darwin, but he did suppose that evolution was part of the Creator’s plan. Even in the 1890s Thomson’s belief that a god was necessary for the creation of the world was seen at least by scientists as old-fashioned; but Thomson continued to hold to it, and to argue on its behalf in his books, until his death in the 1930s. Although her books are couched in academic, unemotional language, several of Clotilde’s later colleagues remarked on the intensity of her reactions to the wonders of the world around her, one describing them as almost mystical in their depth of emotion. Such reactions argue a very spiritual nature, one not easily contained within orthodox late 19th-century Christianity, though in one of Clotilde’s letters she does mention attempting to keep Lent.


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 back to London and joined the staff of the North London Collegiate School (NLCS). Here the links back to the first generation of fighters for women’s education were direct and short, the school having been founded in 1850 by the great Frances Buss and having only had one headmistress since her - Miss Buss’s own choice as her successor, Dr Sophie Willcock Bryant, who had taken over in 1895. In 1884 Dr Bryant had been the first woman in England to be awarded the D Sc so again, Clotilde was at a school with a strong focus on science. Sophie Willcock Bryant was another keen naturalist and she and Clotilde were close. Perhaps you could think of Dr Bryant as Clotilde’s mentor and certainly they remained friends long after Clotilde moved on from NLCS, through Dr Bryant’s involvement with Clotilde’s later employers.




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 - to Epping Forest in December 1898; and to Stamford Common in July 1899. Clotilde also gave talks to the Club, surrounded by specimens that she and the pupil members had collected. Clotilde formed very close relationships with a group of her most promising pupils, including two who became well-known in different fields later in their lives: Olga Kapteyn; and Marie Stopes. I’ll talk at length about this group of pupils below.





Early in 1901, Clotilde went to work as a lecturer at Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers, now part of Cambridge University as Hughes Hall (named after its founder and first principal, Elizabeth Phillips Hughes). As Clotilde had only five years of teaching experience in 1900, such a step up might seem a bit premature but I don’t think so, for two reasons: one - the rapid expansion of education at this time, so that there was always a crying need for experienced teachers to teach others how to teach; two - Clotilde’s gifts as a teacher, which were becoming well-known in education circles. She needed all her skills and experience in this very demanding job, teaching science and science illustration; and I get the impression from her letters that she may have had to develop the courses as well as teach them. She listed her current tasks in a letter written in April 1901: she was giving two science lectures and one illustration lecture per week; organising courses of lessons for the students’ teaching-practice, sitting in on them and discussing them with the students afterwards - 18 lessons plus 18 ‘criticism’ sessions per week; and correcting 18 sets of teaching-practice notes each week. In addition to this heavy workload she was also doing some private teaching - 9 hours per week of chemistry and maths.


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 London University.


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 Switzerland. Clotilde was still in college on that day because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She felt dreadfully lonely.


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 Cambridge and return to live in London at last.


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 school within London University and so was able to begin teaching under-graduate courses in education. Despite the difficulties presented to the LDTC by the first World War, in 1915 it began to teach an MA course. An important point in Clotilde’s career came in 1922 when the LDTC’s first Principal, John Adams, retired. Percy Nunn took over as Principal and Professor of Education in the University of London and I think it was at this point that Clotilde began to move away (essentially, upwards) from teaching the subjects for which she had been hired, towards teaching the theory and practice of education. Since 1910, Clotilde’s work-load had necessitated part-time help in teaching art. In 1923 Marion Richardson took that post - another teacher widely known as inspired, she was an expert in teaching children how to write. In 1924 Richardson was handling the basics of the art teaching course, and some supervision of students; while T G Derrick taught the relationship of art to the wider world (which included how art was used in commerce and industry); and Clotilde taught individual pupil development, and the relationship of art teaching to education in general.


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 London University and it was renamed the University of London Institute of Education (IOE) - which still exists, of course.


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.




Moving to London meant that Clotilde was able to get involved (in a way she wouldn’t have been able to, living in Cambridge) in a voluntary organisation, the School Nature Study Union (SNSU). It’s possible that Clotilde couldn’t attend the meeting in October 1903 that set up the SNSU; the names that are mentioned in that connection are the Rev Claude Hinscliffe and Kate Marion Hall. In 1902, Rev Hinscliffe was curate of the inner-city church of St George in the East. And Kate Marion Hall was a botanist who in 1904 became curator of the Stepney Borough Museum, where she installed living fish and even monkeys amongst the stuffed birds inside, and kept bees in a wildflower garden outside. Both were concerned at how little chance East End children had to see, let alone study, the countryside.


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.




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.






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: