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Drumsheugh: Lesbian sex row rocked society

THE school was among the most highly regarded establishments for young ladies, a sanctuary where good manners, poise and elegance were taught alongside the educational essentials required for an aristocratic teenage girl in the 19th century.

When good friends and fellow teachers Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie threw open the doors of their select girls' school at the north-east corner of Drumsheugh Gardens in 1809, they quickly attracted some of the city's most influential and well-heeled families. Soon their school would become one of the most fashionable and respectable girls' schools in Scotland.

The notion that anything untoward might be happening behind the quaint exterior of their school, that a scandal which would rock Edinburgh society to its very core might be brewing, was simply and utterly unthinkable.

The school had been operating for just a year and the aristocratic families it attracted spoke highly of the elegant young women teachers, when, out of the blue, a stream of carriages arrived at its elegant entrance to collect and systematically remove for good the young pupils.

First to go was 16-year-old Jane Cumming, removed from the school, it later transpired, by her outraged grandmother, Lady Helen Cumming Gordon.

Within 48 hours every pupil had been dramatically whisked away. The once-bustling school for young ladies stood empty, save for its two horrified teachers, the highly emotional Miss Woods, 27, and the deeply religious, sometimes volatile 26-year-old Miss Pirie.

It was, naturally, the talk of the New Town. What could possibly have caused this mass exodus? Could it be an outbreak of some highly contagious illness? Some failure in the school to meet the high standards expected of the aristocratic families it served?

Or something far more shocking to 19th century Edinburgh?

One thing was certain. Miss Woods and Miss Pirie faced ruin. But their financial woes were nothing compared to the shocking and scandalous allegations they found themselves forced to defend.

The claims stemmed from young Jane Cumming, herself something of a talking point amid Scottish society at the time. For not only was she the illegitimate result of a liaison between Lady Cumming Gordon's late son and a servant girl, but her mother was Bengali.

Lady Cumming Gordon defied the tongue-wagging gossips when she brought the eight-year-old child to Scotland, where her dusky Indian looks alone set her apart.

But none of that concerned Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, who ignored the possible ramifications for their fledgling school's reputation and welcomed Jane as one of ten boarding pupils.

The school was a compact facility to say the least, for the school's two teachers and ten pupils shared just two bedrooms.

Indeed, Jane shared her own bed with Miss Pirie: perhaps shocking today, yet in 19th century Edinburgh a practise that was seen as beneficial in the guidance and care of boarding school children.

But what Jane claimed she witnessed in bed at night could hardly be regarded by even the most liberal of societies as appropriate school behaviour.

She had been excused from school on Wednesday, November 14, 1810, to visit her grandmother's home at 22 Charlotte Square. There, she told the horrified Lady that the two school mistresses had indulged in "inordinate affection" for each other – the unthinkable idea they were lesbian lovers was in place.

Soon Lady Cumming Gordon was at her desk, penning warning letters to the mothers of almost all the other pupils. Within 48 hours, the shaken and distressed teachers were alone in their deserted school.

"I am utterly ignorant of what was laid to my charge and I am not conscious of anything," a visibly shaken Miss Woods told one mother who queried what on earth was happening.

Soon the allegation would become clear – and it rocked the staid and starched Edinburgh society to its very core. The suggestion that Miss Woods and Miss Pirie might have had sex in beds shared with their innocent charges became the topic of gossip.

Yet the disgraced pair were not prepared to allow gossip and rumour ruin all they had built up.

For if Lady Cumming Gordon thought that was an end to the matter, she was mistaken.

They immediately set about fighting their corner and lodged a claim for 10,000 compensation from their accuser.

The case went to court on March 15, 1811 and there was no shortage of scandalous evidence.

Miss Cumming told the court how her school mistresses took her to Portobello, at her grandmother's request, for a summer holiday. The teachers, she explained, shared a bed with their pupil sleeping in the same room.

"The witness was more often than once disturbed early in the morning . . . they were speaking and kissing and shaking in her bed," was the account of Jane Cumming's evidence.

"When Miss Woods came into bed, (the witness] felt them both take up their shifts and she felt Miss Woods move and shake the bed and Miss Woods was breathing so high and so quick," it continued.

Back at school, Miss Cumming would share a bed with Miss Pirie. But, she claimed, Miss Woods would enter the room in the dark when there would be more whispers and kissing.

"I heard Miss Woods one night ask Miss Pirie if she was hurting her," the teenage pupil told the court. "And Miss Pirie said 'No'. Then another night I heard Miss Pirie say: 'Oh, do it, darling'. And Miss Woods said: 'Oh, not tonight, for it may waken Miss Cumming and perhaps Miss Stirling'. But Miss Pirie still kept pressing her.

"So then at last she came in and she lay above Miss Pirie. And then Miss Woods began to move and she shook the bed."

The shocking allegations appeared confirmed by fellow pupil Janet Munro, who shared Miss Woods' bed in the next room. She told the court of when Miss Pirie visited her teaching colleague in the depths of night, while she lay just inches away.

"I believe her clothes were off and one lay above the other." she said. "Miss Pirie was uppermost. The bedclothes tossed about and they seemed to be breathing high. I said: 'Miss Pirie, I wish you would go away, for I can't get sleep'. Then Miss Woods said to Miss Pirie: 'You had better go away, Jane, for I'm afraid you'll catch cold standing there'. But I knew she wasn't standing. She was in bed."

The girls may have been in agreement, but one of the judges hearing the case, Lord Meadowbank, was less so. Sex between women, he said, was "equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery or carnal copulation with the devil."

Yet it was also incredible that such a story could be dreamed up by teenage girls. Soon the judges were questioning Miss Cumming's background, her early years in India and the possibility that Hindu servants may have talked of sexual exploits within her earshot.

The lawyer for the two teachers was quick to produce good character references for his clients and point out both Miss Cumming and Miss Munro had been disciplined by strict and religious Miss Pirie.

Both teachers, he argued, suffered from rheumatics and would often massage each other's back – explanation, perhaps, for the shaking bed. Nevertheless, the court found Lady Cumming Gordon not guilty by a 4-3 majority.

The two teachers appealed and their case was upheld a year later by a 4-3 majority.

Even then it was not over. Lady Cumming Gordon took the case to the House of Lords, where it dragged on until 1819 – a full decade after the original claims.

They finally rejected her appeal, sparking another year of argument over the level of damages.

Having claimed 10,000 from their wealthy accuser, the now financially ruined Miss Woods and Miss Pirie finally received little more than 1000 each after paying crippling legal fees.

The scandal meant the two women would not teach in Edinburgh again. Miss Woods found a part-time teaching job in London. Miss Pirie was left in poverty and poor health in Edinburgh.

Their story remained dormant until city lawyer William Roughead found one of only two surviving transcripts in the thirties. The result was a book which ultimately was read by playwright Lillian Hellman and turned into a play, The Children's Hour. It later evolved into two Hollywood films: These Three in 1935 and 1962's The Children's Hour, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

Were Miss Pirie and Miss Woods victims of a scandalous misunderstanding or the victims of teenage girls' plotting against their teachers? Or were they tragic victims of a time and place which could not cope with a same-sex love affair? Only they knew the truth.

Taboo subject unheard of in polite circles

THE Drumsheugh Gardens school scandal broke at a time when the notion of two women engaging in sexual activity together was unheard of in polite society.

It wouldn't be until the late 19th century that the word "lesbian" would be used to refer to anything other than the Greek island of Lesbos or a particular variety of wine.

Certainly, the notion that two women might be embroiled in a same-sex love affair was difficult enough for the higher echelons of Edinburgh society in 1809 to accept.

Quite another matter was how the act might have been accomplished – page after page of evidence from the hearing dwells on the position of the two teachers' bodies in bed and the noises they made.

One of the judges at the original case, Lord Meadowbank, had his own opinion, declaring sex between women was "equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery, or carnal copulation with the devil", while Lord Hope said it was as likely as "thunder playing the tune of God Save The King".

By the 1930s, when William Roughhead wrote about the case, public attitudes had changed. The subject, once so shocking that the Drumsheugh case was heard in secrecy, was now deemed fit for a much wider audience.

 
 
 

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