Eliza Fewings

Eliza Anne Fewings (1857-1940), headmistress, was born on 28 December 1857 at Bristol, England, daughter of Sarah (born Twining) and Charles Fewings. She trained as a teacher under her brother, headmaster of King Edward VI Grammar School in Southampton. After eight years teaching at the Roan Girls' School, Greenwich, she was appointed headmistress of Dr Williams' Endowed High School for Girls in North Wales (1886-96). On the Council of Bangor and Aberystwyth University Colleges, she campaigned for and won equal status for women at the Aberystwyth College.

In 1896 she was appointed headmistress of the Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. She was responsible to an all-male board of trustees chaired by the then Queensland Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffith. In 1899 the second mistress, Maud Sellers, accused her headmistress of academic incompetence and asked the board to make her responsible for academic matters, leaving Miss Fewings in charge of domestic arrangements. Griffith upheld the complaint; Miss Fewings was formally given notice in August and the headmistress of Maryborough Girls' Grammar School was offered her position, without advertisement.

Miss Fewings' announcement of dismissal led to a furore of protest: two public meetings were called by parents and another by Sir Samuel Griffith to defend the trustees. Many correspondents who wrote to the papers in support of Miss Fewings were women: she clearly had won a great deal of respect and she made effective use of public opinion, contacting reporters to ensure her side of the dispute was heard. The Brisbane Courier observed nothing else had aroused such public interest, except federation.

Miss Fewings had expressed concern about standards in 1897 and asked for external assessment and the introduction of external examinations, without success. When dismissed she started a new school immediately: in October 1899 the Brisbane State High School for Girls (later known as Somerville House) was established. By 1903 it was the largest girls' school in Queensland with 150 students. Miss Fewings had secured external assessment through the Cambridge University Board of Examiners.

Public support had failed to prevent her dismissal from Brisbane Girls' Grammar School, though she had been granted paid leave until February 1900. The more durable result was the hastening of legislation to bring grammar schools under inspection by the Department of Public Instruction. The other protagonist, Miss Sellers, was herself dismissed soon after Miss Fewings. Like Miss Fewings she had a distinguished career elsewhere in education.

Miss Fewings twice travelled overseas to keep herself informed of educational developments. Her ability was recognised: she became a member of the University Extension Committee, a member of the Council of the Brisbane Technical College and of the board of Brisbane School of Arts. While in Britain in 1908 she accepted appointment as warden of Alexandra Hall, a residence for women at University College, Aberystwyth. Though she retired in 1914 she remained on the Court of Governors of the College and became a governor of the Endowed School for Girls.

She returned to Brisbane in 1921 to celebrate the 21st birthday of Somerville House, and was herself celebrated. She died in Wales in 1940. Tributes flowed in, recognising her courage, high standards and energy.

Pat Noad

P. Freeman A History of Somerville House 1899-1949.