Madame Lionnet, the High School’s French mistress

Madame Marie Lionnet was one of the very few women to work at Nottingham High School during the Victorian era. She may even have been the second-ever woman to be employed by the school. Regrettably, I have found out relatively little about her, with only a series of mere snapshots of her fascinating and colourful life available at various intervals.

Marie Lionnet was born in middle to late 1835 or early 1836, although I have failed abjectly to discover either her maiden name or her place of birth, beyond “France” and probably “Paris”. We have no pictures of Madame Lionnet either. When she worked at the High School she seems to have slipped between the staff photographs of 1883 and those of 1895. The only woman we have on a staff photograph of that era is Mrs Bowman Hart, the music teacher. Here is the staff of 1883-1884:

As far as we know, they are :

back row:

Mr H Lupton ?, the Reverend EAT Clarke ?, Mr C “Carey” Trafford, unknown

middle row:

Mr JA Crawley, Mr WE “Jumbo” Ryles, Mr W Jackson, Mr S “Sammy” Corner, Mr S “Cheesy” Chester, Mr J Russell, Mr B “Benny” Townson.

front row:

Monsieur JLE Durand, Mr C “Donkey” Bray, the Reverend JG “Jiggerty” Easton, Dr. R Dixon (Headmaster) Mrs Bowman Hart (of whom, more later), Mr H “Donkeys” Seymour

Here is the High School at that time:

Notice that the school’s enormous coal fire chimneys have not yet been added. That was something that happened around 1890. There were originally two crosses on the roof, but clearly, one has been taken down, or more likely, blown down in some long-forgotten storm. In front of the school, the bushes are beginning to grow out of control but eventually they would all join up to form one enormous shrubbery, home to foxes and sixth formers with cigarettes.

Madame Lionnet is known to have married an engineer called Lionnet and they spent a good few years travelling with his work around the United States, Canada and various European countries. They went back to Paris, France, however, in early 1870 and were present in the capital during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. Here is a single soldier from each side:

On the left is a member of the famous “Grenadiers de Bretagne” who would express their reluctance to retreat by tying their beards or moustaches to the beard or moustaches of the man next to them, often forming defensive lines up to two or three miles long.  On the right is a member of the famous Prussian “Bismarcken Shocken Troopen” who would always fight so bravely in Germany’s many wars that in late 1939 the Führer designated them the first ever “Sacred Regiment of Adolf Hitler Impersonators”.

We presume that in 1870 Madame Lionnet must have been visiting her family, who hailed from the capital, because we know that she was present at home in Paris when her father was killed in combat. He had been fighting in one of the battles around the city’s fortifications during the siege. Shortly afterwards Madame Lionnet’s husband was killed and, with hardly any family left,  when the siege was lifted, she came to England to work as a teacher of French, possibly a little like this one:

On the French version of Google, I did find a rough fit for somebody who may well have been Madame Lionnet’s husband. This was Étienne Napoléon Lionnet, who was born on April 13th 1815. He began his studies at the “Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées (School of Bridges and Roadways) in 1837 at the age of 22. Here is a postcard from that era. Even then, the notorious Parisian traffic was absolutely ferocious:

Monsieur Lionnet died on December 15th 1870 which would have been in the very middle of the Siege of Paris which lasted from September 19th 1870 to January 28th 1871.  I also found mention of the Lionnet brothers who ran an ambulance service during the Siege of Paris in 1870-1871. People were really hungry during the siege, and some rather queer markets soon sprang up, Rat is very obvious, but “viande canine et féline” means “dog and cat meat”. Tastes a little like chicken, apparently:

The whereabouts of Madame Lionnet in the 1870s are unknown, other than just generally, “in England”.

The first exact piece of news came from Nottingham. Madame Lionnet became the University College’s first ever lecturer in French, having started her employment there in the college’s opening year of 1881:

Before that, she had worked at the High School for Girls as “A French Mistress”:

Madame Lionnet started her career at the High School in, probably, the academic year of 1885-1886. She died on March 9th 1895, so she worked there for nine years.

She had her own house, which seems to have had the name “Esplanade”. It was at 5 Dryden Street. Dryden Street, indicated by “La flèche orange”, runs north from Shakespeare Street and ultimately, via Addison Street, finishes at Forest Road East. If you turn left out of Addison Street, and walk along Forest Road East, you will soon come to the High School, which is the white rectangle near the corner with Waverley Street:

Madame Lionnet seems to have bought her house from John Hudson, a machinist, and after her death, it passed into the hands of Mrs Betsy Stevens. Nowadays, every single square inch of Dryden Street has been used to build new buildings for Nottingham Trent University. This is where Dryden Street joins Shakespeare Street. No 5 would have been near to the junction. Perhaps Madame Lionnet would recognise those mature plane trees on the left:

In her obituary in the school magazine, “The Forester”, Madame Lionnet is described as

“a woman of wide culture and well read in the literatures of several languages, and was a most capable and energetic teacher who spared no pains with her pupils. It will ever be a sincere regret to her many friends that her last years were embittered with heavy losses; for she lost the savings of many years through the failure of the Liberator Society.”

The Liberator Society crashed in 1892 when £3,500,000 of investors’ money was lost after the closure of the London and General Bank which, along with the House and Land Investment Trust, was investing money in “gigantic building speculations”.

“Madame Lionnet was remarkable for open handed generosity, and those who knew her well could speak of many deeds of charitable kindness, and pay a tribute to the courageous industry and independence of character which enabled her to work so successfully in a foreign land.”

Madame Lionnet was killed by a bout of pneumonia which “supervened on influenza”. Pneumonia was the commonest killer in Victorian England, and just before the First World War, Sir William Osler would call pneumonia the “Captain of the Men of Death” as it was by then the most widespread and dangerous of all acute diseases. As we have seen, Madame Lionnet died on Saturday March 9th 1895 and she was buried in the Church Cemetery on Mansfield Road on the following Wednesday, the Reverend Peck, a teacher at the High School, conducting the service.

The Forester said that the interment took place:

“in the presence of many friends and pupils and of representatives from the School, the University College and the High School for Girls. Numerous beautiful wreaths, with which the coffin was entirely covered, testified to the respect in which the deceased lady was held.”

9 Comments

Filed under France, History, Humour, Nottingham, The High School

9 responses to “Madame Lionnet, the High School’s French mistress

  1. Andy Jones 1970-80

    Another fascinating post John – I hope you get as much pleasure out of researching and writing them, as I do from reading them. Regards

  2. Jan

    That reminds me of a French mistress (Miss Cook IIRC) who joined the staff in Autumn 1973. She was taken ill and passed away only a few months later. It was so sad to see a young life cut short like that.

    • I replaced Miss Cookr in September 1975. She had resigned the job in the previous academic year, and I was her replacement. I found out as time went by, and the members of staff then were very much saddened by her illness and death. I never met her.

  3. An incredible amount of research John, you are to be congratulated, this is so interesting. What a life she led, and those moustaches, they have got to be world beaters! I must admit, I’ve never heard of a defensive line being formed by tying them together!

    • You’ve never heard of a defensive line being formed by tying them together because I made it up! I’ve watched too much Monty Python over the years, I suppose. I just looked at the French soldier’s moustache and beard, and I thought it was so ridiculous that I couldn’t not make up something stupid about it. Pity it wasn’t April 1st!

  4. Thank you for this post. Life must have been very difficult after losing her money. It is scary thinking about losing one’s savings. My father-in-law’s father and uncle started a school in our village in 1911. It is still going strong now. Regards, Lakshmi

    • I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I have a definite policy of trying to write about women who deserve more praise than they usually receive.
      And great credit too is due to your father-in-law’s father and uncle for founding a school where previously there was none. There are fewer greater achievements.

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