North London Collegiate School 1874-1876
Known as Birmingham’s “Grand Old Lady”, Dame Elizabeth Cadbury was “perpetually youthful in spirit” and “a hostess beloved by the poor children of Birmingham” – according to the News Chronicle.
Born Elizabeth Taylor, into an affluent middle-class Quaker family in 1858, she and her nine brothers and sisters were brought up in strict Quaker fashion. Aged 13, Elizabeth was sent to Germany along with her elder sister Margaret, as their mother had “A poor opinion of….schools in England catering for the daughters of gentlemen.” Later she recorded that: “We found...we were in some ways ‘peculiar’. We were Quakers; we were teetotallers; we did not go to the theatre; and we did not dance.”
Towards the end of her life Elizabeth Cadbury reached the conclusion that: “It had been good to face these tests, to stand for principles which, if not strictly speaking [mine], were those of [my] family and of [my] religious allegiance”.
Perhaps the most important result of her German education was to inoculate her against the jingoism and patriotism which pervaded much of her class in the periods before and including the two wars. She wrote that: “England slipped into her place as being one amongst others of the European countries” – a perspective that would prove an inestimable advantage in her later international work and interests.
In July 1874, she returned to London to complete her education at North London Collegiate School. In 1950, speaking at the dinner given to mark the school’s centenary, she remembered how Miss Buss [then headmistress] had “[swept] into the classroom with the sudden question, “Well, girls, what are you doing?” “Euclid.” “No, no. You’re learning to be of some use in the world.”” Elizabeth Cadbury certainly fulfilled her headmistress’s wishes.
After leaving school, she worked at a medical mission in Paris and also with boys and seamen in London’s East End, and in 1888, she married George Cadbury – a partner in the Cadbury chocolate business. She helped her husband shape plans for an experiment in housing reform; this led, in 1900, to the founding of the Bournville Village Trust, from which countless other initiatives followed. After George Cadbury’s death, she tirelessly pursued the social experiments initiated at Bournville, became chairman of the Bournville Village Trust, president of the Birmingham United Hospitals, and chairman of the Birmingham School Medical Service Committee (1911 to 1930).
Her travels in the cause of international peace took her to most European countries, to Canada, the US, and to Calcutta (as the leader of a British delegation to a women’s world conference). In 1934, she was created Dame Commander of the British Empire, in recognition of her “educational and social services”. Birmingham University made her an honorary MA, and Yugoslavia decorated her for refugee work during both world wars.
Mrs Cadbury was a Liberal whose politics remained radical and forward-thinking right into old age. The Lord Mayor of Birmingham commented that “Her vitality and interests in everything around her was outstanding in one so old”. On her death, in 1951, Mrs Cadbury received obituaries in every major national newspaper. The Times remarked that “It was typical of her to be a questioner of tradition”, whilst the Manchester Guardian called her “Tall, dignified, impressive… [with]…true humility of spirit.”
Dame Cadbury’s progressive politics, which undoubtedly stemmed from her Quaker upbringing, made her alive to the privations of others. A public servant of the highest order, she vigorously pursued reform and development both in England and abroad.
Written & researched by Violet Brand (Yr 12 History student)