Cecil Gradwell (1855-1942)

Born Cecilia Mary Anne Gradwell

Sector: Support Services

If the washing machine was the invention that transformed Western women’s lives in the 20th century, the typewriter must be a contender for that title in the 19th century. Any working woman who has been ‘volunteered’ to take the notes in a meeting (so pretty much all of us) might curse the strong association that still lingers between ‘female’ and ‘secretary’ but for many Victorian ‘gentlewomen’, the typewriter gave them a route to economic and social freedom that did not involve bedpans or blackboards.

A few entrepreneurial women saw a bigger opportunity: the demand for secretarial skills meant they could open their own training business. One was Cecil Gradwell. There are other women who ran larger operations during this period but Cecil is interesting because she looked at and sought to improve the position of women from three interdependent perspectives. How can women secure better paid work? Where will they live while they are working in jobs that are still relatively low-paid? And how can they create and maintain some financial security? She spent an industrious twenty years addressing these issues.

There are large gaps in Cecil’s story but she was born in Duleek, Ireland in 1855 and came from a large Irish Catholic family, the third of eight children. The family was property-rich: she was brought up at Platten Hall, a large Georgian mansion in County Meath, while her cousins lived nearby at Dowth Hall. They also had a strong interest in horses: Dowth Hall was in the middle of a race-track and Cecil’s older brother, George, later ran a stud farm at Platten Hall, where he bred the winner of the 1898 Grand National, Drogheda.

Platten Hall in the late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Irish Point to Point Services.

At least part of Cecil’s education took place at a Catholic boarding school in Birkenhead, run by nuns from the Society of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. (It is still a school today, though in a new incarnation as Upton Hall School FCJ.) Cecil’s father, John, died in 1873 when she was 18. The estate was valued at the equivalent of £2m, but this would have included the house, with all its associated running costs and Cecil later took the credit for administering the estate on behalf of her family and pulling it out of debt. This is how she seems to have spent her 20s and 30s and the way in which she developed her financial acumen and business experience.

In the early 1890s, Cecil moved to London and in September 1893, she set up a business with Charlotte Octavia Richardson (1860-1952). The information on Octavia is sketchy. She was also from a large family, the youngest child of a surgeon. She was born in Wales, brought up in Gloucestershire and Somerset. Her mother, Mary, died when she was 20 and in 1891 was living in Chelsea on Oakley Street with her father and some of her siblings. It is not clear how she and Cecil met but after Octavia’s father died in 1898, she and Cecil started living together and continued to do so until at least 1926. Cecil spent some of that time living as a man: in both the 1911 census and the 1939 register Cecil’s gender is initially recorded as ‘female’ with the entry amended to ‘male’. The decision to be known as ‘Cecil’ rather than ‘Cecilia’ seems to have been a meaningful one.

Women and work
Although Octavia is named as a partner in the business, Cecil was the driving force, taking the lead in all the P.R. and marketing activities to publicise their ‘interesting scheme..to supply women with business training’. The school, at 5 Victoria Street, offered courses of three months, covering typing (on two different machines), double entry book-keeping and business training. A longer six-month course also included shorthand. Within twelve months the Westminster School of Business Training for Women had expanded its office space, but it kept its intake at about thirty girls a year. This selectivity probably contributed to its reputation for excellent results, judged by the number of girls who subsequently found appropriate positions, mainly permanent but sometimes temporary.

Margaret Bateson interviewed Cecil in October 1894, one of the last women to be featured in her series about ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions’. Although generally very positive, she clear had some reservations about Cecil’s idiosyncratic business training curriculum and found the list of questions Cecil used to test her students’ knowledge slightly bemusing. While understanding the difference between dividends and interest might be useful, as well as knowing what ‘per cent’ meant and how to calculate it, ‘I can hardly think Miss Gradwell is in earnest when she asks us to “Describe in proper order the whole proceedings on your part and that of our stockbroker on purchasing £10,000 Midland Railway Ordinary Stock.” It would be such an extremely tedious tale.’ Ralph Richardson, Octavia’s father, was an investor in the railways so it was may have been boring but it was probably a scenario drawn from real life.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Cecil took every opportunity to publicise the opportunities secretarial work offered for women. In 1899, she was one of five women who presented papers on secretarial and clerical work at the International Congress of Women, held just around the corner from her offices in Westminster. She submitted well-received essays to a range of different publications aimed at helping women navigate the world of work and spoke at careers events. She had links to the Central Employment Bureau for Women, the National Union of Women Workers and in 1919 was listed as a member of the (very large) Council of the London Society for Women’s Service, alongside various organisational leaders, trades union heads and MPs.

Women and housing
Even with good training, the salaries women could expect as secretaries or clerks during this period were not high, starting at £250 a week equivalent. As early at 1859, affordable accommodation was identified as critical if women were to able to come to London to work. In parallel with the rise of typing schools and women’s employment offices, the 1880s also saw new housing schemes and residential clubs opening for educated single women on low incomes, mainly as the result of efforts made by other women. These included the Ladies’ Associated Dwellings Company at 52 Lower Sloane Street and the Ladies Residential Chambers Ltd on Chenies Street.

Cecil had her own project but she needed a sponsor. She found a wealthy one in Mrs Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair (1837-1921).

Portrait of Cornelia Adair by Eduardo Tofano. Source: T.D. Hobart Papers, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

Cornelia was the widow of ‘Black’ Jack Adair, an Anglo-Irish stockbroker whom she married in 1867. Jack was infamous for his brutal evictions of tenants from land in County Donegal so he could build his dream castle there, Glenveagh, eventually completed in 1873. Jack also owned the vast JA ranch in Texas, where 100,000 cattle roamed across 1.3m acres of land, and so his death in 1885 left Cornelia very wealthy.

In contrast to Jack, Cornelia was a popular woman who threw big parties and played host to King Edward VII and the Prince and Princess of Wales. She was also generous in her support for philanthropic causes in Texas and the UK. She was particularly supportive of the Boy Scouts movement championed by her close friend, Lord Baden-Powell.

Somehow Cecil persuaded Cornelia to found the Beechwood Club at 6 Oakley Street, along the road from Octavia’s house, in 1895. Perhaps the Irish connection formed a basis for Cecil and Cornelia’s collaboration: a Mrs Adair and a Miss Gradwell were both at an Irish Industries Association Meeting in London in 1899. The name was probably a nod to Beechwood Park, a Hertfordshire mansion which Cornelia was leasing at the time. Women employed as secretaries, clerks or teachers, or training to enter these professions, whose incomes were below a certain limit, could apply to become residents. The rate included their own bedroom, a shared bathroom, communal living and dining spaces and some or all of their meals. Applications were made to a screening committee, which undoubtedly included Cecil. Even operating on a cost-recovery basis, the fees were 1 guinea a week, which equated to 60% of a secretarial starting salary.

In 1901, Cecil joined Beatrice Headlam and Eva McLaren on the committee of another residential scheme, the Bee Club, which had a similar set up and was also on Oakley Street. Adair House was later built further down the same street and when Cornelia Adair died in 1921, she left Adair House to Cecil, along with a reasonably large bequest.

Women and money
Along with better-paid work and affordable housing, Cecil’s wanted women to be able to manage the money they earned. It is highly likely that Cecil was a member of the Pioneer Club and in June 1894, she spoke there on the question: ‘Are women competent in money matters?’, (to which she felt the answer was generally ‘no’). She continued to look for ways to educate women, lecturing at King’s College, University of London in the early 1900s on “Business Matters for Women”.

In 1897 “Miss Gradwell’s School of Business” provided some examples of the materials they used to train women in finance to the Education section of the Victorian Era exhibition at Earl’s Court. These included a legal contract, a balance sheet, estate accounts and a syllabus of their lectures. Cecil spoke alongside Nancy Bailey at the related conference on the training of women in business organised by Daisy, Countess of Warwick, where she laid out her thoughts on what women needed and why. Let’s see how many of her views from 1897 are still worth considering in 2021.

  1. Men have to manage money as part of their everyday lives and therefore come into contact with business situations earlier. Sadly, that is still partly true, given that boys receive more pocket money than girls.
  2. It is good for all women to develop the same skills but it is essential for three groups in particular: those who also had to manage their own money, those working in the voluntary sector and those earning their own living. I think we can say this is still true, particularly since women still regularly report lower levels of financial confidence than men.
  3. Women need to understand the terms lawyers used and only agree to things they understood. True then; true now for anyone
  4. Women seeking to earn their own living need to show courage, tenacity of purpose and originality. Ditto.
  5. Women can be successful in business if they just reliably deliver high-quality work. We all want this to be true but I think we are all now much more aware of the range of biases that affect performance assessments.

In parallel with all her other activity, Cecil continued to develop her own career. In 1895, she started to offer financial advisory services, which developed into a small accountancy and auditing practice. Like Helen Cox, the education sector was a source of business for her. When Alice Baird and her sister, Katrine, established St James’ School in Malvern in 1896, Cecil was their first auditor and Alice later recalled that Cecil gave her advice about planning the school’s finances ‘and specially worked to reduce our income tax’. In the 1911 census she described herself as an “accountant and auditor in public practice and director of a 19th century building society”.

By then, Cecil and Octavia had moved out of London to a large house, Slater’s Oak, near Effingham in in Surrey, where they lived together for at least another fifteen years. One of Cecil’s passions was croquet and her troubled attempt to lay a new croquet lawn in 1913, which resulted in a legal dispute with the supplier about the quality of the end result, is one of the last times she makes it into the papers. After that she and Octavia both disappear. At some point Cecil moved to Sussex where she died in 1942. Octavia seems to have died in Berkshire some years later.

Given the number of siblings they both had, I am sure that somewhere out there are some descendants who know more about their stories and perhaps even have a photograph: Cecil is one of the very few women Margaret Bateson interviewed where the text was not accompanied by a photograph or a sketch and I have not yet been able to track down a picture of her. If anyone out there can help, let me know!


One aspect of Cecil’s story that is striking is that, despite clearly wanting to improve the position of women and committing huge amounts of time and energy to that end, she had one key limiting belief: while she thought many girls made excellent book-keepers, only ‘a microscopical percentage were fitted for the intricate work of an accountant’ or, in other words, could do the work she herself was doing. As a result she dissuaded them from attempting it.

It is quite likely that many of the women who came through the doors of the school had been taught by governesses with a shaky grasp of maths and so Cecil mistook opportunity for capability; perhaps the fact that training as an accountant was long and expensive made her wary about sending women down a path that increased rather than reduced their financial precariousness. Whatever the reasons, her beliefs shaped her actions. It is a useful reminder for all of us who work to improve diversity, inclusion and equality that, even when our intentions are good, we still might need help from others in noticing biases, rooted in our own experiences, that are getting in our way.


Sources include: The Queen 20/10/1894; 7/9/1895; 2/4/1898; Progress in Women’s Education in the British Empire: Report of the Education Section, Victorian Era Exhibition (1898); The Westminster Review (1902) Volume 157; Brighton Gazette, Hove Post, Sussex and Surrey Telegraph 12/2/1910.

‘I Was There: St James’s, West Malvern’ by Alice Baird (1956); Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle by Elizabeth Crawford (2002) P.206-217

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