A victorian governess, founder of the Markham Project: fact or fiction?


!markham01David Roman is trying to find out about the Markham Project. The Markham Project was apparently instigated by a professional governess and educationalist, Miss Elisabeth Markham between the 1880s and the early part of the 20th century.

Her aims were to encourage best practice in the training of governesses and the education of young women. She apparently advocated corporal punishment of young women over the age of 16 and unmarried ladies “up to a late age.” Her philosophy was to show that women were not frail creatures and that spanking, caning, birching and other “robust forms of punishment” were essential for discipline and the well-being of “females of all social conditions wishing to better themselves.”

The problem is that there are few untainted records referring to the Markham Project before 1959 and it is possible that the whole thing is a hoax or the creation of a fantasist for a spanking magazine of that era. Even her name sounds like something from a Victorian flagellation novel.

An Elisabeth Markham is mention in connection with the corporal punishment at a ladies college around the turn of the century by another educationalist who advocated birching and spanking for her adult (female) students. But was this the same women or the inspiration for the later hoax?

Miss Markham seems to have a had a strict upbringing that she felt was the making of her and claims to have great success in correcting young ladies “beyond the age normally associated with domestic correction.” She claims to have submitted to corporal punishment herself after becoming a governess and furthermore to have birched and caned grown women who were under her instruction while in-training to be governesses themselves.

The Markham Project itself seems to have been some sort of network of like-minded governesses and others who were trying to set-up some sort of academy to further their aims.

There were various reports of the types of domestic correction felt acceptable at that time in publications such as the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine although many of them may have been fantasies it is probable that some were not.

This was taken from a rival publication:

“The thrashing of grown gels is done in the best houses and one should not shirk from ones duty when called upon to birch them. [They] can take it just as well as the boys and perhaps more so since nature has more aptly provided [them] for correction.”

One correspondent to the EDM wrote:

“Girls of 16 until 21 should be stripped quite bare and tied to the ottoman and thrashed with cords or birch rods so as to give as much humiliation as can be done, but she should be whipped until the pain quite out does the shame.”

Another woman wrote in response to the above:

“It is true that my daughter can get quite above herself at times, being headstrong and 17, but surely the sound application to the naked posteriors of a slipper is sufficient to bring her to heel. If she rebels at this or is pert in front of others, then sometimes directing her to the corner before or after such correction will cure it. I would not strip her quite naked as your reader suggests for this seems quite unseemly. Although if only female persons or close male relatives are present then one might leave that portion that has received correction exposed to curb her pride.”

Another talked of the correct treatment of young wives and adult daughters and said this of her and her son’s attitude to her daughter-in-law.

“I am distinctly in favour of the rod, duty, obedience and discipline make for very good, well behaved girls. Even ladies of rank must on occasion be treated like a child and put across the knee. She must make her own arrangements for her punishment, as it is essential that she must loose all sense of power. Failing this the party administering the punishment should always part or lower the girl’s draws as this adds to the feelings of shame.”

“As to witnesses, this can be can be held as a threat to ensure that there is no rebellion. However, if one carries out this threat, then have a care who is present to avoid a possible scandal. If done with propriety it serves the lady well to be taken down a peg or two.”

One woman wrote of birching her niece as being for her “great good and her own satisfaction upon her exposing her lower person when her skirts were being pinned up and draws removed so that she is kept in such a condition before the servants for the rest of the day.”

Another a school mistress said that it was “well to punish girls who indulge themselves [presumably through ‘self-abuse’] with sound birchings, after first being stripped to shoes and chemise and left so to take bad thoughts out of her.”

This is the context that Elisabeth Markham sought to promote her views.

We will return to this topic in future but does anybody know more?

More on this.


12 Responses to “A victorian governess, founder of the Markham Project: fact or fiction?”

  1. 1 Elly

    The name sounds familiar.

    I want to hear more, even if it is a hoax.

    E x

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  3. 3 M Stevens

    Your blog is one of my guilty pleasures and this article about Miss Markham is of particular interest.

    I remember reading about the Markham Project in one of the regular publications in the 1960s. There was an article that claimed it had first been published in the 1930s together with several letters from that period saying it was a shame that such a project had not thrived to deal with the feckless girls of the 1920s and 30s.

    I thought it seemed authentic at the time. The letters seemed to be anyway.

    But it was 40 years ago and as has already been suggested it may have been fiction.

    But it certainly stuck in my mind.

    Yours Micahel S.

  4. 4 David Roman

    I think that you are refering to the publication that I have already found, but although there are authentic looking letters I have not been able to trace the actual publications of this period.

    I have had more luck in investigating the punishment of college girls in the 1890s and 1900s at a certain ladies college in South East England. There was certainly an Elisabeth Markham associated with this. But as yet no mention of a Markham Project.

    Many thanks for the feedback and to DJ for advertising my investigation on this blog.

    D Roman

  5. 5 Barry M

    Dear Dr Roman,

    If it is any help to you I do remember reading something of this in a 1930s magazine in 1940. There were several magazines where I was stationed and there were many that I would not get at home, as you can imagine.

    I don’t remember much, it may have been in Titbits Magazine, there was an article on a woman who was championing corporal punishment for young women.

    I only remember the name because some of the chaps made jokes about her wanting to Markham. Very childish I know, but there you are.

    I don’t remember anything about a project, this sounds very modern to me, I think she talked about a school. I only remember this much because I know it was a sort of postal school and she had no building, which I thought was odd.

    I remember thinking how do you post a thrashing?

    There you are, not much help I am sure, but it is all I can remember.

    Mr B. M., London

  6. 6 David Roman

    Many thanks Barry,

    That is very useful. I have Titbits achives, although not good in this area, I can now look at similar publications. Also your info that it may not have been known as the Markham Project before the 1950s is also helpful.

    I will ask DJ to pass on my email in case you have any more thoughts.


  7. 7 Alexis

    Hi – I found this site by mistake. I was searching in Yahoo for PDF software that I had already bought when I found your site, I must say your page is pretty informative, I just love the theme, its amazing!. I don’t have the time today to totally read your entire site but I have bookmarked it and also will sign up for your RSS feed. I’ll back around in a day or two. Thanks again for a cool site.

  8. 8 TiefdifyAveni

    Hey there everyone i was just introduceing myself here im a first time visitor who hopes to become a daily reader!

  9. 9 Briny

    Hi. Very interesting Post. Not really what i have searched over Google, but thanks for the information.

  10. 10 Sue Mary

    I don’t know about this project but in “Daughters of Divinity” an autobiography by Verily Anderson she was sent to a school run by her cousin. There she was made to lower her drawers and bend over some sort of bench and then whipped with a birch.

  11. 11 DJ

    No sorry Gerry – this Mistress may have used this name but she is modern and the hoax (if it is one) dates back to at least the 1950s and probably even further – by one account 1930s.

  1. 1 The Markham Project – Fact or Fiction? – Island of Pain

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