The Shipley School
Shipley Sisters (c. 1894). Founded the Shipley School in 1894 to prepare young women for Bryn Mawr College.
The Shipley School, now a coeducational day school in Bryn Mawr, was founded in 1894 by the three Shipley sisters, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Katharine, to prepare young women for Bryn Mawr College. The children of a Quaker father who encouraged his daughters in intellectual pursuits, the sisters themselves were well educated and well traveled. All had studied abroad and Katharine graduated in the first class at Bryn Mawr. Theirs was not to be a mere finishing school. The Shipleys’ aim was: “to fit [the student] to enter college with a mind trained to habits of scientific study.” They also emphasized “character building.”
By 1913, the School had 75 boarding students and 39 teachers. The early brochures describe Shipley as a “home school,” not a “school away from home.” Students lived in three residences and studied in the “schoolhouse”, purchased in 1895, faced in brick in 1906, and still standing as the main School building. Students were expected to participate in the life of the community in addition to pursuing their academic studies.
And while they look quite demure in their Commencement dresses and went regularly to concerts and the theater, they played basketball and baseball and rode bicycles and horses.
They also earned scholarships to Bryn Mawr. “Fortiter in re, leniter in modo” (“Courage for the deed, grace for the doing”) was and is the School motto. From the beginnings there was an emphasis on each individual developing her own abilities and talents. There never was a “Shipley mold.”
In 1998, with 795 students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, Shipley on the surface is a very different place from what it was in 1894. It no longer has boarders; it has been coeducational for 25 years. Boys and girls go on to a wide variety of colleges. The genius of the Shipley sisters was to establish a mission which allowed for flexibility in changing times.
Students c. 2000.
Their emphasis on academic excellence and on concern for the body and spirit as well as the mind of each individual child is still the basis of Shipley’s mission and philosophy.
A Moral Compass
Margaret Bailey Speer (1900-1997).
Margaret Bailey Speer (1900-1997), the fourth Headmistress of The Shipley School, arrived in 1944 after a distinguished career at Yenching University in Beijing, China. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she went to China to teach English. By 1934 she was Dean of the Yenching College for Women, a position she held until December 1941, when the Japanese occupation forces in China closed down the university. After a period of house arrest and then internment by the Japanese, Miss Speer returned to the United States in 1943.
For 21 years until her retirement in 1965, Margaret Bailey Speer carried out and reinforced Shipley’s original mission. Her intellectual standards were high. Her understanding of people was deep. Her global vision, her genuine concern for humanity, and particularly her sense of justice profoundly influenced an entire generation of Shipley students. Teaching by example and by parable, she had a light and often humorous, but nevertheless firm touch. She worked tirelessly not only to educate and broaden the minds of Shipley students, but those of others as well. She ensured that African American students would be welcome at Shipley and was a founder in 1966 of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church Tutoring Program, in which students of Main Line independent schools still tutor children from the inner city.
Respected by her peers as well as her students, Margaret Bailey Speer was a president of and also served on the boards of the major associations of independent schools and a number of other organizations concerned with education and justice. Miss Speer was one of the first women elected as a Member of Session, the governing body of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.
—Written by Trina Vaux