Sue Young Histories

Jane Elizabeth Nassau Senior 1828 – 1877

June 13, 2010

Jane Elizabeth Nassau Senior 1828 – 1877 (known as Jeanie) was Britain’s first female civil servant, and co-founder of the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS), her work led to the foundation of the National Society for Aid to Sick and Wounded in War, the forerunner of the British Red Cross, Assistant Inspector of workhouses,

Jane Nassau Senior was the sister of Thomas Hughes (who was an ardent sponsor of homeopathy), and the wife of Nassau John Senior (1822-1891), the son of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864) (who was also a fervent advocate of homeopathy*).

Together with her husband, Jeanie Senior was a patient of James Manby Gully (Sybil Oldfield, Jeanie, an ‘army of one’: Mrs. Nassau Senior, 1828-1877, the first woman in Whitehall, (Sussex Academic Press, 1 Feb 2008). Page 57), and they were both staunch advocates of homeopathy.

Jane Nassau Senior was a friend of George Eliot, Octavia HillFlorence NightingaleDante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is possible that Jane Nassau Senior knew James John Garth Wilkinson as they were both interested in spiritualism (Frank Podmore, Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, Volume 2, (Cambridge University Press, 20 Jan 2011). Page 230). In 1848 Jeanie married Nassau John Senior (1822-1891), only son of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864), the noted political economist and close friend of her father. The couple spent the early days of their married life at her father-in-law’s house in Hyde Park Gate, London, where Jeanie met many, if not most, of the leading religious, political and cultural figures of the day.

Over time Jeanie was to develop friendships with some of her most eminent contemporaries, including Florence Nightingale, George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Frederick Watts, Julia Margaret Cameron, Octavia Hill and many others. She was painted by both George Frederick Watts and John Everett Millais and photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. She was a noted singer and her voice was used to test the acoustics of the new Albert Hall.

Later the couple moved to Elm House, Lavender Hill, Battersea (later demolished to provide the site of the new town hall), then a semi-rural area. Lady Ritchie (Annie Thackeray) wrote of Elm House in ‘From the Porch’ (1913) that ‘Stately and charming people used to assemble at Elm House. It is an odd saying that people of a certain stamp attract each other. It was a really remarkable assemblage of accomplished and beautiful women who were in the habit of coming there, that home so bare, so simple yet so luxurious.’

Although Jeanie moved in Society, she would not have thought of herself in such terms at all. In fact, the family faced some severe financial struggles and, at one time, Jeanie gave singing lessons to supplement the family income. Unlike her brother Thomas Hughes she was not by nature a fighter of great causes, she was too involved with the personal happiness and alleviation of the suffering of those around her; her way was to try for ‘practical beauty in life as far as in her lay, and happiness and deliverance from evil for others’.

Nonetheless, she was deeply concerned, like many women in her position, at the appalling hardship and deprivation caused by the industrial revolution and she was particularly concerned about urban poverty and the suffering of young children, especially girls. Jeanie was actively involved in a number of charitable undertakings and during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was a tireless worker for the Red Cross, whose medal she received. She founded the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants, a scheme which ‘had results of a most wide-reaching and beneficial kind, and the girls of England owe an incalculable debt to the unceasing toil and loving forethought of Mrs. Nassau Senior’.

In 1873 she became the first female civil servant when she was appointed by James Stansfeld (1820-1898), President of the Local Government Board, as Assistant Inspector (and later Inspector) of Workhouses. She wrote an official report on pauper schools (‘Report by Mrs. Senior on Pauper Schools’, January 1874) which was critical of the existing arrangements. Her report caused a public furore with a lengthy (and, on her opponents’ side, a very ungentlemanly) battle with the vested interests in the ‘workhouse establishment’, carried out largely through the letters columns of the The Times.

Jeanie bravely (and politely) stood her ground but she had to resign as a result of ill-health in December 1874. Jeanie went to recuperate at a cottage at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight (which she described as ‘the gate of heaven’) where she had the pleasure of the company of Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Frederick Watts, Julia Margaret Cameron and other friends.

Jane Nassau Senior was born Jane Elizabeth Hughes at Uffington on the 10 December 1828, the only sister of the authorThomas Hughes and six other brothers.

She married Nassau John Senior on 10 August 1848 at Shaw Church.

Her relief work with soldiers returning from the Franco-Prussian War led to the foundation of the National Society for Aid to Sick and Wounded in War in 1870, forerunner of the British Red Cross; and her work with impoverished children in Surrey led to her appointment in 1873, as an assistant inspector of workhouses.

She died of ‘cancer of the womb’ and exhaustion on 24 March 1877, aged 48; and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

Of interest:

*Nassau William Senior (1790-1864) ’… was an English economist…’ and  ’… a private pupil of Richard Whately, afterwards archbishop of Dublin [Richard Whately Archbishop of Dublin], with whom he remained connected by ties of lifelong friendship…’ He was ’… a member of the Poor Law Inquiry Commission of 1832, and of the handloom weavers Commission of 1837…’ and ’… legal advisor and marriage counsellor to Jenny Lind…’

In his 1865 book Historical and Philosophical EssaysNassau William Senior leads his reader in a stout defense of homeopathy (Nassau William Senior, Historical and Philosophical Essays (Volume 2): Oregon. English poor laws. Combinations and strikes. Lewis on dependencies. Lewis on authority in matters of opinion. Oxford and Mr. Ward, (Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1865). Pages 257-261).


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