Rebecca Arthur (1788-1864) was a school proprietor in Southampton for almost 40 years, at first in company with her husband Alexander (born 1786) and latterly aided by a bevy of talented daughters. Alexander Arthur was baptised at St George in the East, on the north side of the River Thames in present-day Stepney, on 17 September 1786, the son of Alexander (described as a gentleman) and Sarah, living in John Street. A younger brother, Alfred, was baptized in May 1790 at St Dunstan in the West, a church in Fleet Street at the centre of the City of London. The family address was now Crown Court. Alexander fils was married on 11 July 1809 at St Paul's Church, Shadwell (aliter the 'Church of Sea Captains') to Rebecca Edmunds (baptized 5 October 1788 at St John the Baptist, Margate, daughter of Thomas and Mary Edmunds). Shadwell, a dockland parish, abuts St George in the East: the rector of which parish officiated. Alexander and Rebecca moved to Southampton in 1813 accompanied by their two eldest children: Alexander (born c.1810) and Rebecca Ann (born c.1813). The October 1813 All Saints rate book shows Alexander Arthur occupying a double house in the Polygon: not in the Polygon circle itself but in Cumberland Place (then sometimes known as Polygon Lane). In later rate books Alexander is shown as the owner of the property.

Here they established a preparatory school for young gentlemen, a crammer for the public schools and universities, with English, Latin, French, writing, arithmetic and geography prominent in the curriculum. An advertisement of January 1827 reassured parents of potential pupils that the strictest attention is paid to their diet, exercise and general comfort, adding that the situation is particularly healthy.

This is sorely out of kilter with the reminiscences of one of the earliest pupils. William Makepeace Thackeray, born in India in July 1811, had been sent to England, with his younger cousin Richmond Shakespeare, after the death of his father. In autumn 1817 the two boys were sent to the Arthurs' school, probably because Richmond's elder brother George Trant Shakespeare was already a pupil. Thackeray was later to write: “We Indian children were consigned to a school of which our deluded parents had heard a favourable report, but which was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable that I remember kneeling by my bed of a night, and saying, ‘Pray God, I may dream of my mother!’.” Cold, chilblains, bad dinners, insufficient victuals and awful canings were also referred to. It seems that by the mid/late 1820s the school was largely in the care of Mrs Arthur.

Alexander had become involved with William Chamberlayne, MP for the borough, in various schemes to promote Southampton as a watering place: active (as a committee member) in the first abortive subscription in April 1824 to create sea-water baths near the Platform and supporting ambitious plans to remove the unsightly coating of mud that covered the town's putative beach. In October 1827 he succeeded to the much-prized position of landwaiter in the port, the Customs Officer responsible for the landing of goods from ships and the collection of import duties. Within four years at the most Alexander has disappeared from view. In censuses up to 1861 Mrs Arthur is described as married rather than widowed, the two houses in Cumberland Place are listed in the All Saints rate books under his ownership until the 1840s and he is described as ‘Gentleman' in the All Saints parish registers on the marriage of his daughter Frances in 1849, but in all other respects Alexander is lost to the historical record. The boys' school closed in summer 1830.

This preserve of masculinity was seamlessly replaced by a girls' boarding school under the sole control of Rebecca Arthur. It was to run until her death in 1864, originally for up to six young ladies between the ages of about 9 and 18 but with the number of pupils increased to twelve in 1856. The school moved c.1834 to premises in the Polygon itself, rented from Colson Bernard, a non-resident proprietor of houses and relative of Joseph Bernard, mayor of Southampton 1838/9. One of the Cumberland Place houses became (according to an 1841 rate book) a lodging house under Mrs Arthur. The other house was rented to Mrs Ann Young, an annuitant. The school was a haven of femininity: “the domestic arrangements are those of a gentlewoman's house, peculiarly adopted for those seeking superior instruction, with maternal care, and the indulgences of a well-regulated house” (1857 advertisement). All five of Mrs Arthur's daughters were pupils and later teachers there. Set in a strongly Anglican tradition, the school fostered “every accomplishment that can assist in forming the domestic and polished gentlewoman”. There was, at least in the early years, a pervasive European bias in the education. Resident native-born professors taught the major cultural languages - French, German and Italian - to such a degree that “a residence on the Continent is rendered unnecessary for the acquirement of Modern Languages” (1857 advertisement). The professor of music, Vienna-born Barbara Guschl, was a pianist and teacher of European reputation: a pupil of Johann Hummel (and later giving concerts with his niece Henrietta Moritz), idol of the courts of Europe, pianiste to the Empress of Austria and proselytiser of the method of piano teaching invented by Friedrich Kalkbrenner, writing an appendix in further development of the system to the English translation of Kalkbrenner's highly influential Method of Learning the Pianoforte published in 1859. Mlle Guschl first arrived in Southampton in September 1836, aged about 28 and already with a reputation as “a great pianiste” (Musical World, 17 June 1836, commenting on a performance she had given in Munich). She took up residency at Mrs Arthur's, in part to acquire a knowledge of English and French, and by 1837 was superintending private concerts both at the school and at the Archery Rooms to showcase the musical talents of her pupils. She was aided by “the Misses Arthur”, probably Sarah and Mary. The influence of Mlle Gulsch on the musical careers of four of the Arthur sisters is shown below. The youngest sister, Fanny - probably only five years old when the charismatic teacher arrived at the school - was in later life to equal, even outrival, her mentor as a concert pianist. Mlle Gulsch is still recorded at the Polygon in 1847. She died ( now Mme Gleitsmann) in May 1890 in Bavaria. The late 1840s saw the dispersal of the Arthur daughters to Exeter and Dublin to pursue their own careers.

Ten children were born to Alexander and Rebecca. Of the five male children, three died young. The eldest, Alexander, was buried in All Saints churchyard on 7 June 1826, aged 16 years. Richard, born c.1819 but baptized in All Saints church only days before his death, was buried on 12 April 1822. Charles, baptized in All Saints on 12 April 1823, was buried in the churchyard on 3 January 1829. The eldest surving son, Alfred, is the subject of the following entry in the gazetteer. William, born in Southampton c.1830, is found in the 1851 census as an assistant schoolmaster in Uxbridge, at a school in the High Street run by Thomas Beasley. By 1861 - now married - William is in Marylebone, at 67 Great Portland Street, as a wine merchant. He is still there - now a widower - in 1871.

Each of the five daughters survived into adulthood, following their mother into teaching, with only one recorded as having married. Rebecca Ann is still listed as a teacher at her mother's school in the 1851 census. In 1861 she is in Exeter, with her own girls' boarding school at Dix's Field. This seems to have been run very much on the lines of the school at the Polygon, with good Church teaching in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer. Rebecca was involved in a well-reported case at Exeter County Court in July 1879 over an alleged breach of contract brought by one of her teachers. She died on 31 October 1894 at Exeter.

Sarah was born in Southampton c.1820. She became a professor of singing, first at the Polygon school but by 1851 she is in Exeter taking private pupils. It was here that she became involved in what the popular press christened “the East Grinstead controversy”. Demonized by The Examiner (26 December 1857) as “the devout music-mistress of Exeter”, she was charged with exerting undue influence over one of her pupils - the daughter of the Reverend John Scobell - to enter a convent in East Grinstead run by the Sisters of Mercy, much against her parent's wishes. The link between Sarah and the Anglican sisterhood - a product of the Tracterian movement - was her friendship with Marian Rebecca Hughes, an Anglican nun who was founder and mother superior of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity at Oxford and who had taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before Dr Pusey himself in 1841. She is the subject of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Sarah moved to Oxford, and in the 1861 census is shown as a school mistress at a girls' boarding school at 26 Holywell Street.

Mary was baptized at All Saints church on 12 April 1823. She became a professor of the pianoforte, first at her mother's school and by the time of the 1851 census at Exeter, in the family's school in Dix's Field. An advertisement of February 1857, with an address in Southernhay, Exeter, shows Sarah giving lessons in music and singing in Exeter, Teignmouth and Dawlish. In 1861 Sarah emigrated to Cape Town as an Anglican missionary, on the invitation of Robert Grey, first bishop of Cape Town. The following year she founded St George's orphanage for girls in Roeland Street, moving to bigger premises at Granite Lodge in Harrington Street in 1865. From small beginnings - with eight orphans of English settlers - it burgeoned into one of the foremost engines of social welfare in the colony. Housing 200 orphans by the following decade, it was praised by Anthony Trollope, on a visit in 1878, as caring for “a most interesting and cosmopolitan collection of all races”. Mary raised funds for the orphanage through series of concerts. Mary died on 19 December 1891, her latter years blighted by mental illness and an enquiry into lunacy initiated by the Dean of Cape Town. The orphanage she founded exists today.

Elizabeth was born c.1829. The 1851 census sees her as a professor of music at the family-run school in Dix's Field, Exeter.

Frances was born, according to sources later in the century, in September 1831. This accords with her age - 48 years - recorded on the registration of her death in October 1879. However, the 1841 census shows her as 13 years old, the same age as Elizabeth and two years older than her brother William. Fanny (as she was always known) was the most musically talented of all the sisters. After a grounding as a professor of music at her mother's establishment, she became a concert pianist of international reputation, compared favourably with the greatest virtuosos of the day. She studied under William Sterndale Bennett and Sigismund Thalberg. Her first solo appearance was at a concert in the Victoria Rooms, Southampton: “Miss Fanny Arthur played a fantasia on the pianoforte in a style which would have appeared less laboured but for the timidity of a first appearance” (Hampshire Advertiser 1, March 1845). In 1849 Fanny is in Dublin, her first appearance as a soloist at the Grand Concert of the Philharmonic Society receiving the highest praise from Freeman's Journal: “The brilliancy of her execution, and the exquisite lightness, yet decision, of her fingering are truly wonderful”. On 17 July 1849, at All Saints church in Southampton, Fanny married Joseph Robinson, doyen of the Dublin musical scene and member of an influential musical family in the city: founder and conductor of the Antient Concerts Society and sometime conductor of the University Choral Society. Entries for both Joseph and Fanny Robinson appear in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Fanny continued as a pianoforte teacher in Dublin, becoming a professor of pianoforte of the Irish Academy of Music on its revival by her husband in 1856. The Irish composer (later Sir) Charles Villiers Stanford studied under her. Her first solo London appearance was at the Musical Union in June 1855. In February 1864 she played at the Salle Erard in Paris. She published a number of songs and piano compositions, most famously the cantata ‘God is Love’. Fanny's later life, however, was beset by attacks of insanity, first diagnosed in the early 1860s. On six occasions she was an inmate of lunatic asylums. Her life ended tragically, committing suicide on 31 October 1879. A subscription for a memorial was immediately begun. Joseph died almost twenty years later, in August 1898.


see also
Arthur, Alfred


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