Ada Benson – First Headmistress of Bedford High School

Ada Benson  - First Headmistress of Bedford High School

Those who knew Ada Benson described her as formidable. She was a staunch Anglican, a real pioneer with high principles and hard working. It was her intention to train girls in true religion, good manners and sound learning, to train teachers and to raise their status.

She was born on the 27th November 1840, at Winson Green, Birmingham. She was one of eight children of Edward White Benson a chemical manufacturer, and his wife Harriet. When Ada was 10 years old, she and her five surviving siblings were left orphaned. Ada and her sister went to live with Mary Sidgwick whose husband was a cousin of her father’s. The other children were taken in by friends and relatives.

Her eldest brother was Edward White Benson. He was the first Bishop of Truro, from 1877 to 1883 and the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until his death in 1896. He played a prominent role in her life and took charge of her education. When she was aged 19 years, he allowed her to study and work as a governess in Germany. By 1861, she was proficient in  German and translated John Ruskin’s “King of the Golden River” and have it published.  Unfortunately, she became ill and was forced  to return to England. Ada and her sister opened a school, which was successful, but it closed in 1872 when her sister was married.

The Girls’ Public Day School Company began in 1872 and provided education to girls of all, classes. The Company appointed Ada as the first headmistress of Norwich High School when it opened in 1874. At Norwich, she was remembered for her grey dresses and the clinking chatelaine, (a set of short chains attached to a belt, used for carrying keys or other items) warning pupils she was close by. Her next appointment was the first headmistress at Oxford High School, that opened on the 3rd November 1875, with 29 girls and three teachers. In 1879, she was dismissed from the school for failing to control the antics of a pupil who one night danced in front of the dormitory window in just her nightdress, conscious of the fact that boys might well be in the garden and looking up at the windows. Ada had also been involved in the foundation of two of the Women’s Colleges at Oxford- Somerfield College and Lady Margaret Hall.

Ada met her future husband Andrew McDowall through their work. He was secretary to the Girl’s Public School Company. They were married on December 27th, 1879 in Kenwyn Parish Church, Truro. Her brother Edward conducted the marriage service.

Ada and Andrew moved to London and in April 1881 their daughter Katherine was born. A year later Ada was appointed the first headmistress of Bedford High School, which opened on May 8th, 1882. At that time, she was expecting her second child.  Sadly, her time at the school was short lived, as she died on October 11th, 1882 following the birth of their son Stewart, at her home St. Giles, Landsdowne Road, Bedford.


The burial took place close to the path at the east side of the chapel at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.  It was thought that her brother Edward chose the text on one corner of the memorial. “She being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time.”


Andrew and the children moved to London. He came to Bedford fourteen years later, with his daughter Katherine, to place flowers on the grave.

Katherine was a well-known art historian. She married Arundell James Kennedy Esdaile CBE. He was secretary to the British museum. Stewart was the Chaplain, and senior science master at Winchester College, and wrote several works on the relationship between religion and science.

Andrew died at his home in London in 1909 he was buried with Ada.

Grave Ref: E4.5


Bedfordshire Times and Independent 1882
Royal Cornwell Gazette 1879
Census 1841-1901
The reform of Girls Secondary and Higher Education