Sophia Beanland: Visionary, Pioneer, Dream-weaver

Rachael Christopherson, Head of Beanland House

 ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.’ Henry David Thoreau (Thoreau, 1854)

In the 1880s, the world was very small for women. They were expected to find a husband, bear children and serve their family in their domestic environments. Yet, at this time, significant changes were occurring in the social landscape signalling the emergence of the suffragette, the educated woman and the visionary leader. Miss Sophia Beanland (1851–1925) was one such woman. Educated, confident and independent, she took the daring leap into the unknown when in 1882, aged just 31, she set sail from her home in Bradford, Yorkshire, England to the small colonial town Brisbane, Australia to assume the position of the fourth principal of Brisbane Girls Grammar School. Her legacy is evident not only in the school’s Main Building, the Beanland Memorial Library, the Esther Beanland Prize and the school’s innovative curriculum, but also in the Beanland girls today.

Miss Beanland was an educated young woman and accomplished teacher who was destined to make a profound contribution to the education of Australian girls. Before journeying to Australia to take up the post as Lady Principal at Brisbane Girls Grammar School in 1882, Miss Beanland was one of the fledgling teachers at Bradford Girls Grammar School (Bradford Girls) whose foundation year is also 1875. In a recent trip to England, I had the opportunity to visit Bradford Girls, keen to trace the early history of this remarkable woman. I was warmly welcomed by Principal, Mrs Kathryn Matthews, and her staff when I visited Bradford Girls on 28 June 2017. We were excited to discuss the historical connection of our two schools, and Marketing and Communications Director, Ms Elaine Tucker, presented us with several fascinating historical documents that record Miss Beanland’s talent as a teacher and future principal.

In her annual address in the Bradford Girls Grammar School Reports (1877), Principal, Miss Porter, notes: ‘I have engaged a new teacher, a Miss Beanland, who holds a first-class Cambridge higher certificate.’ In fact, Miss Beanland gained her degree from London University and achieved her teaching qualifications at Girton College, Cambridge University (Watson, 1992).

Miss Beanland’s dedication as a teacher was captured in a letter written to Bradford Girls Grammar School from alumna, Jessie E. Elgey (Bradford Girls, 1876–1883). A scholarship recipient, Ms Elgey reflects with gratitude on the education she received at Bradford Girls. After attending Bradford Girls for seven years, Ms Elgey was ‘the first girl in Yorkshire in the Cambridge Local Examinations.’ Achieving a first-class with four distinctions, Ms Elgey was accepted into Newnham College at Cambridge University:

My health broke down — lung trouble — and the school doctor would not hear of my going to Newnham: it must be Australia or the South of England…Miss Beanland had been my class mistress: she taught Latin and Science, and had left to be headmistress of a school in Brisbane. She sent me a Latin telegram in four words, ‘Come to me and I will take care of thee.’ Can you imagine anything more generous? But Australia in those days meant exile for life and I could not bear the thought of leaving my mother (The Girls Grammar School, Bradford Millennium Chronicle, 2001).

Miss Beanland was a progressive visionary who implemented significant advances in the curriculum and facilities of Brisbane Girls Grammar School. She developed the Arts Curriculum — Art, Music and Foreign Languages — employing accomplished international teachers. She insisted that physical exercise was integral to the girls’ education, launching a special appeal in 1886 for a school gymnasium, which was built in 1888 and she established the School’s tennis club, building three tennis courts and awarding a tennis prize in the annual speech-day ceremony (Watson, 1992). Miss Beanland supervised the construction of the School’s ‘Main Building’ and founded a staff reference library, which would later become the school library (Hatton, 2010, p. 8). In years to come this would be named the Beanland Memorial Library and it is now housed in the recently constructed Research Learning Centre. In addition, Miss Beanland was conscious of effectively preparing her students for the entrance exams to Sydney University (The University of Queensland did not open until 1911) and universities in England (Watson, 1992). However, she was mindful of ensuring her students experienced a balanced education, commenting that, ‘Working against time, and devouring enormous masses of indigestible information with competitive examinations in view [is] against true education’. (Beanland, 1888).

While at Bradford Girls, I shared Girls Grammar’s early history, highlighting the extraordinary achievements of Miss Beanland. Ms Matthews and staff were delighted to hear that Miss Beanland had clearly transferred her Bradford Girls’ values to Brisbane. The founding headmistress of Bradford Girls, Miss Mary E. Porter (1875–1880), wanted pupils to be able to think for themselves and Bradford Girls was also one of the first schools in England to include Physical Education in the curriculum.

An advocate for young women, Miss Beanland was quite vocal in the public arena about the contribution that women made, and could make, to their communities. In the Brisbane newspaper Boomerang she responded to a provocative letter about girls’ education, writing:

A writer has said that it is part of the education to bring all the faculties of man to a state of perfection, and that, ‘A man is perfect in proportion as he is fully equipped and prepared for the right performance of the various duties and obligations that devolve upon him in life’. For the word man substitute woman, the statement is surely true, ‘A woman is perfect in proportion as she is fully equipped and prepared for the right performance of the various duties and obligations that devolve upon her in life’. (Beanland, 1888)

She was committed to the liberating nature of education, describing education as, ‘the most important subject that can engage the attention of mankind’(Beanland, 1888). Miss Beanland maintained that education shaped a woman to be ‘more independent in spirit, more developed in character,’ and that ‘a woman had the right to a fuller life’(Beanland, 1888).

Living up to the adage, ‘Always a Grammar Girl’, Miss Beanland maintained her relationship with Brisbane Girls Grammar School for the remainder of her years. On the advice of her doctor, she returned to England in April 1889, but would later establish the Esther Beanland Medal, in memory of her mother, as an annual award for textile design. The Founders Copy of the medal is held in the Wyon Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. Following her death on 24 June 1925, the School received a proportion of her estate ‘as a remembrance of Sir Charles Lilley the chief justice who laid the foundation stone of [the] school’, as well as the gold bracelet watch that was originally gifted to Miss Beanland upon her departure from Girls Grammar (Watson, 1992). In 1994, Beanland House was named in recognition of her great contribution to the School.

I think Miss Beanland would be amazed and humbled at how her legacy is realised in the Beanland girls of the twenty-first century. Beanland girls have excelled across the disciplines, including at national and international levels, reflecting the values that were introduced by the young pioneering Lady Principal of 1882. One of these students is past Beanland House Captain and Dux of the School, Chloe Yap (2013), who was recently awarded a New Colombo Plan Scholarship by the Australian Government. The scholarship enabled Chloe to complete an internship in computational genomics at the Genome Institute of Singapore, within the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Furthermore, in sport, current senior student, Minna Atherton (12B), has championed the balance of academic studies with sport, achieving excellence in the pool. In 2014, Minna (aged 13) set a new National (Australian) Age Group Record with a time of 1:02.79 in the girls’ 12-13 years 100m backstroke. By 2016, Minna had broken the Junior World Record in the 50m backstroke, with a time of 27.49 (‘Minna Atherton Bio,’ 2017). This is certainly a progression from Sophia Beanland’s ideal of physical fitness. Finally, Isabel Nolan (12B) reflects the Beanland character of confidently speaking about the issues of our time. In March this year, Isabel was named as Captain of the 2017 Queensland Debating team and she led her team to the finals in the National Debating competition in June. At the conclusion of the competition, Isabel was the only Queenslander selected for the Australian National Team. These are just three of the hundreds of Beanland girls who have realised their potential through their Grammar education.

When I interview the Year 6 students before they commence at the School, I try to explain to them the significance of the woman behind the House that is Beanland. Sophia Beanland was so much more than the ‘lady of high attainment and refinement, well-grounded in Latin, with a knowledge of Euclid, Algebra, French or German with experience in tuition and not younger than 27’, that Sir Charles Lilley sought for the position of Lady Principal more than a century ago (Hatton, 2010, p.8). She would leave a legacy for all future Grammar Girls, founded on a philosophy of egalitarianism, the value of education and the belief in the potential of every student. Her foundation enables every Grammar Girl to ‘go confidently in the direction of their dreams [and] live the life [they] imagined’ (Thoreau, 1854).


Beanland, S. (1888, February 4). [Letter]. Boomerang.

Hatton, E. (2010). Sophia Beanland. Brisbane Girls Grammar School Gazette. (Spring 2010), p. 8.

(2001). The Girls Grammar School, Bradford Millennium Chronicle. Bradford.

Minna Atherton Bio. (2017). Retrieved from

Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden.

Watson, T. (1992). Digging up the Daffodils: the spade work of Miss Sophia Beanland, lady principal of the Brisbane Girls Grammar School, 1881 – 1889. In Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society twenty-first annual conference proceedings. St Mark.