How the Victorians helped the welfare of young women

The Girls Friendly Society

The Girls Friendly Society was officially established in England on 1 January 1875 by Mary Elizabeth Townsend, an Irish clergyman’s daughter married to the wealthy Frederick Townsend. It was established to provide facilities for the young women under its protection. Most important were the lodges offering cheap, good-quality accommodation to young women working in domestic service, and mill and factory workers.

Originally open to unmarried girls 14 and older, by 1879 it began to admit girls as young as eight years old. The core values of the GFS aimed at high moral standards for its members; they attempted to supply ‘for every working girl of unblemished character a friend in a class above her own’. They supplied houses of rest where working class girls could meet with associates and each other, read, sew, sing and enjoy simple refreshments.

The first mention of the GFS in Balsham was in the School Log book in 1921, ‘the school had a half day holiday today as the GFS has gone to Cambridge’. In 1941 again the Log Book mentions ‘Girls given permission to go to a GFS festival’.

From the 1940s to the early 60’s the GFS was run as an after school club for girls, on a Thursday afternoon, at the home of Miss Rose Slater. First in a cottage situated in the high street and later at 7 Nine Chimney Lane, a two up, two down cottage. For the price of 3d (1½p) there would be prayers, with news of club activities, songs and games such as charades, with a handicraft and gift-making session. Rehearsals took place for the concerts and pageants that were played out in the Institute and a trip to the seaside was organised once a year for members, parents and friends.

With the demolition of Miss Slater’s cottage and her declining health the Balsham branch of the GFS closed around 1964. Miss Slater is remembered in the village as a wonderful pianist and a very popular member of the community.

The Girls Friendly Society is still active and aims to help girls and young women with self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing. You can find out about them by clicking here.

Do you have any memories you’d like to share about the GFS? We’d love to hear from you.

To buy an ebook or print copy of Balsham, a village story 1617-2018 please click here. You can also buy a print copy at the Old Butchers in Balsham or the village Post Office.