Jeanie Senior

Jeannie Senior was the first woman to be appointed as a civil servant (outside the Post Office).

This was in 1873 when she was appointed as the first female inspector of the education of girls in pauper schools and workhouses.


Jane Hughes - later known as Jeanie (pronounced 'Janey') was born in Berkshire in 1828. Her brother, Thomas Hughes, was the author the popular novel Tom Brown's Schooldays which immortalises the comfortable country life of the Hughes family.

She married Nassau John Senior in 1848. He was the only son of well known political economist Nassau William Senior who drafted the harsh Poor Law of 1834, believing that "a well regulated workhouse" was the best way to prevent pauperism because the "dissolute poor hate its cleanliness". Her marriage brought her into greater contact with many leading religious, political and social figures including Octavia Hill; Florence Nightingale; George Eliot; Kate Collins (Dickens’s daughter); and Lord Shaftesbury. The painting on the right is by artist George Watts.

But her society contacts also led to conflict with her father-in-law's views; and her husband turned out to be indolent, condemning her to constant financial worries. It didn't help that, when her father-in-law died he cut his son out of his will. She nevertheless had energy to spare for the wider world, visiting workhouses, supporting a local industrial school for girls, and Helping Octavia Hill in her housing projects.

Jeanie's 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. Dr Barnardo is said to have taken up Mrs Senior’s torch when he opened the Barkingside Girls Village Home in 1876.  Dr Barnardo is reported to have said that ‘Boarding out… owes its introduction in England to the indefatigable labours of the late Mrs Nassau Senior’.

Her work brought her to the attention of James Stansfield, the president of the Local Government Board.  He was described by the historians Mr and Mrs J.L. Hammond as a “Victorian champion of sex equality”. His appointment of Mrs Senior as assistant inspector of the education of girls in pauper schools and workhouses.was an ‘unpopular innovation’ and considered ‘unendurable’ to the male civil servants and was ‘fiercely resisted’.  They provided such an ‘unfriendly atmosphere’ that Mr Stansfield was required to give Mrs Senior ‘all the encouragement he could’.  Before he left office Mr Stansfield made Mrs Senior’s appointment to the civil service permanent so that “they could only get rid of her upon abolition terms…”.

She wrote an official report on pauper schools (‘Report by Mrs. Senior on Pauper Schools’, January 1874) which was inevitably 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 of the ‘workhouse establishment’, carried out largely through the letters columns of The Times where she was referred to as “that woman”. Jeanie bravely (and politely) stood her ground but she had to resign as a result of ill-health in December 1874. Nevertheless, in the third Annual Report of the Local Government Board, special attention was drawn to her ‘thorough and courageous’ report and it was included as an appendix. 

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

There is a good deal of further information on the web, and in Sybil Oldfield's biography: - Jeanie, an 'Army of One': Mrs Nassau Senior, 1828-1877, the First Woman in Whitehall 


Martin Stanley

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