Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), one of the most influential wives of any American President, spent three years as a pupil at the exclusive Allenswood Academy finishing school for girls in Albert Road (now Albert Drive), near Wimbledon Park.

Born 128 years ago yesterday, on 11 October 1884, Eleanor, a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, had been tutored privately in New York.

However, aged 15, her family decided that Allenswood would prepare her for life in intellectual society.

She would be educated exclusively in French alongside girls of various nationalities from well-to-do, high-ranking families with well-known names such as Lloyd-George, Chamberlain, Strachey and Webb.

The school had been started in France in 1864 by Mlle Marie Souvestre and then recreated in England at Allenswood, a large house on the former estate of Earl Spencer. The pupils were given a good grounding in the arts. English, French, German, Italian, and music were taught, along with domestic science, dancing and fencing.

The girls wore long skirts, usually black, white ruffled blouses, a striped school tie, and boaters when outside. They made their own beds, had to empty their plates at every meal, and went out on to the Common every day after breakfast, whatever the weather, before returning for classes.

After lunch, they had to lie on the floor for an hour and a half and fix their minds on a single thought which would then be discussed at tea-time. They had exercise every afternoon, then more classes. A bell rang to tell them to dress for dinner. After that, Mlle Souvestre would embrace those most favoured, kiss others, and extend her hand graciously to the rest.

Eleanor was well regarded at the school and became Mlle Souvestre’s favourite pupil, even joining her on an overseas tour of France and Italy. But at 17 in 1902 she returned to the US and became a debutante.

She was overwhelmed when her cousin Franklin D Roosevelt showed interest in her and they courted for two years before becoming engaged. Eleanor’s uncle, the President, gave her away at their wedding in 1905. Mille Souvestre telegraphed her love and good wishes from England but died just a fortnight later aged 69.

The Allenswood Academy was continued by her deputy, the Italian teacher Pauline Samia, a close friend and probably lover, together with Florence Boyce, the English teacher.

Eleanor’s “liberal” education seems to have helped develop her social conscience - she showed early support for the underprivileged. When her husband became President in 1933 she became a strong supporter of his New Deal economic policies and a fervent advocate of civil rights.

After his death in 1945, she continued as an international author, speaker, politician, and activist, working to enhance the status of women. She was also a keen supporter of the United Nations and became a delegate there from 1945 until 1952.

She chaired the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and President Harry Truman called her the “First Lady of the World”.

Back at Allenswood, another Frenchwoman, Jeanne Dozat, succeeded Misses Samia and Boyce in charge and then Enid Michell ran it until the school closed in the early 1950s after some 70 years. 

The house itself was later demolished and a block of flats, also called Allenswood, was built on the site.

The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.

Click here for more fascinating articles about Wimbledon's heritage