The Society was founded in 1847 by Mr William P Mitchell, an Edinburgh solicitor, who put forward a scheme to help “indigent gentlewomen” of Scottish birth or education, who were struggling to survive on low incomes and limited savings.
In these Victorian times “male-dominated society regarded marriage and motherhood as the only role for middle-class women. Unmarried women formed a sort of sub-class: many had seen marriage pass them by, or they spent much of their lives caring for ageing parents or younger members of their family. Well-educated, but trained for no profession, they were considered by their maternal instincts and without further training to be well-suited to teaching, working as governesses, needlework or tuition in the pianoforte. Many found themselves living in a social limbo, dealing with unruly children, despised by their employers yet by birth and education unable to mix with the servants…. Many suffered the fate of the Bronte sisters, whose struggle to survive by teaching and working as governesses resulted in such novels as Jane Eyre, Villette or Agnes Grey. This last, published in December 1846, was a stark realisation of the governess’ situation, though unlike those who would in time become beneficiaries of the Indigent Gentlewomen’s Fund, Agnes Grey married her curate and no doubt lived happily ever after”(Hatvany, 1997)
In 1930, the Society received grant of a Royal Charter from King George V and became known as “The Royal Society for the Relief of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland” or, less formally, the “Indigent Gentlewomen’s Fund” or just “IGF”.
Over the years, the Society evolved to meet the changing needs of society and these culminated in 2014 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II granted a new Supplementary Charter changing the Society’s name to “The Royal Society for the Support of Women of Scotland”, or “RSSWS”, and bringing with it new charitable purposes and new, broader, admission criteria against which applications for support are now considered.
In 2015, it was estimated that since its inception, the Society had distributed a total of over £33 million in direct payments to women in need. Adjusting for inflation, this is equivalent to well over £150 million in today’s money.
For a summary of key milestones in the Society’s past see here. The Society also commissioned a more detailed history “The Royal Society for the Relief of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland…a History 1847- 1997” by Dr Doris Hatvany and we are happy to make a digitised copy available to those who have an interest in the Society’s work and history.