Higher education postcard: Royal School of Needlework

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag pulls together the threads of a unique institution

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

If you haven’t come across Victoria, Lady Welby, before, you probably should have.

A person of independent wealth, having been born to aristocratic parents and marrying a man of similar background, she was a self-taught academic philosopher of language, making a distinct contribution to the field of semantics through her theory of significs.

And, which is equally as important for the purposes of this blog, she founded the School of Art Needlework, which became the Royal School of Needlework: a very niche higher education institution.

The school was founded in 1872. Not a college in the traditional sense, it seems to have employed women to learn via practice: in the words of the school’s website, “to provide employment for educated women who, without a suitable livelihood, would otherwise find themselves compelled to live in poverty.” Initially about 20 women were so employed.

Based above a bonnet shop in Sloane Square, the school gained its “royal” soubriquet in 1875 when Queen Victoria agreed to be its patron (this was probably helped by Lady Welby being the Queen’s god-daughter, and one of her maids of honour, and the school’s president being Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstien, aka Princess Helena, the Queen’s third daughter).

In 1903, following significant fundraising by its president, the school moved to purpose built premises on Exhibition Road, shown on the card. This gave more room to work, and at its peak 150 women were employed by the school.

The school’s history connects it to many royal occasions: coronation banners, robes of state, tapestries all feature. But it was not only for royalty: soldiers returning from WW1 were taught to stitch as a therapeutic activity; and in 1940 the school was involved in turning regimental insignia from across the allied forces into transfer patterns for stitching.

In 1987 the school moved to Hampton Court Palace. From there it provides not only archival and practical resources for embroidery, but also teaches online and face to face, including a degree in hand embroidery, the only one of its kind in Europe.

Recent work by the school includes the embroidered logo for the 2002 FIFA world cup in Japan and South Korea; a Paul McCartney album cover; a huge tapestry used in Game of Thrones; and the anointing screen used in the coronation of Charles III. And there are some lovely old photos from its history on the school’s webpages.

The card itself was sent on 6 October 1925 to a Miss or Mrs Newman in Wellington, Somerset.

We hope to leave Paddington 11.15 arriving Taunton 2.36 Friday October 9th. Maud and Reg are coming if it is alright.

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