Girls' Friendly Society

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The Girls' Friendly Society (also known by their program name GFS Platform, or just GFS) is a philanthropic society that empowers girls and young women, encouraging them to develop their full potential through programs that provide training, confidence building, and other educational opportunities. It was established by a group of Anglicans in England in 1875 to address, through Christian values, the problems of working-class out-of-wedlock pregnancies. As M. E. Townsend expressed it in a letter of 1879: "[We] are fighting one of the greatest battles the world has ever seen--the battle for the purity of womanhood, for the possibility of virtuous Christian maidenhood." As well as addressing the issue of out-of-wedlock pregnancy of working-class girls, GFS soon grew into a support organization for unmarried girls and young women who wished to better themselves.[1][2]



In May 1874, the Reverend Thomas Vincent Fosbery (chaplain to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce), together with Mary Elizabeth Townsend (1841-1918),[3] Catharine Tait (1819-1878), Elizabeth Browne (wife of the bishop of Winchester), and Jane Senior (1828-1877), met at Lambeth Palace and agreed on the basis for establishing the Girls' Friendly Society, which officially began its work on 1 January 1875.[4] "The original rough plan of the Society's work and aim was written down in pencil in a tiny notebook in 1872," Mary Elizabeth Townsend wrote in 1882 recalling her original concept.[5] She shared her concept with Fosbery who had encouraged her in her previous charitable work with working-class women. Fosbery introduced her to the older women with whom they formed the original steering committee. Mary Elizabeth Townsend was the first president of the GFS and served as such through 1882.[6] She was succeeded by Lady Grey who served from 1883 through 1889, when Townsend again resumed the presidency from 1890 through 1892.[7][8][9] Mary Sidgwick Benson, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was president from 1893 through 1895.[10]

The GFS was set up to be non-sectarian; however, it utilized the infrastructure of the Church of England with parish, deanery, and diocesan groups. Its central office was in London as befit a national organization. Originally it was open to unmarried girls fourteen and older, but by 1879 it began to admit girls as young as eight years old. The core values of the GFS aimed at high moral standards for its members; they attempted to supply "for every working girl of unblemished character a friend in a class above her own."[11]

This insistence that the girls must be of unblemished character, which was usually interpreted as meaning virginity, was highly contentious, although it is unclear how far it was tested in practice. Certainly some girls were asked to return their membership cards when they were suspected of having engaged in immoral conduct, and one girl sued for libel after the GFS expelled her as a member on the grounds that she was suspected of having an affair with a married man. Some clergy were in favour of the rule whilst others argued it was against the Christian ideal of forgiveness. This contention was partly the reason why the GFS never became an official CofE organisation, and this, in turn, meant it remained entirely female-managed although hugely influential, particularly as a bridge between the official Sunday Schools and Mothers’ Unions.[12]

There were two classes of membership: the working-class girls, known as members, and the ladies, called associates. As it mimicked the founders’ own relationships with their servants, so it naturally attracted the huge domestic servant class, girls who often led a tough and lonely existence as maids-of-all-work in households with only one or two staff. It was less popular with shopgirls, who saw themselves as a cut above, and Northern millgirls, who were, according to a GFS report, "undisciplined, impatient of reproof and entirely wanting in self-control".[13]

Both members and associates paid annual subscription fees tailored for their class, half of which went to the local group and half to the central office. Associates provided "recreation rooms" often in parish facilities, although sometimes in their own homes, where working-class girls could meet with associates and each other, read, sew, sing, and enjoy simple refreshments. Later "houses of rest" were established for these purposes. The local groups were called "branches" and the whole organization was conceived of as a large tree with the central office as the trunk, and the members as leaves.

The central office of the GFS established a wide range of departments: one for their shop and factory workers programmes, one for publications, one for their "houses of rest" and one to deal with affiliated societies. GFS services included a circulating library and an employment exchange. The GFS published various journals including Friendly Leaves, Friendly Work and The Associates Journal. Publicity was also provided by Charlotte Mary Yonge, who featured the GFS in such novels as her The Two Sides of the Shield (1885).

They also produced many plays and pageants, often celebrating women of achievement while promoting the GFS ideals.[14] Typical of these is the event produced by the Chelmsford Branch celebrating the achievements of Essex women.[15] This opens with the arrival of a young country girl at a London train station. She is frightened and alone, having been stood up by the young man who arranged to meet her. Luckily, she is befriended by a GFS associate, who takes her to a cafe and inspires her by telling her of the many great Essex women who have brought fame to their county. Another typical production was by the pageant master Louis N Parker, "The Quest", first produced at the Albert Hall in 1925, in which a girl has to choose between the "tinselled" low way or the high way.

By 1878, the GFS had a presence in 19 dioceses in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, as well as the first branches of the Girls' Friendly Society in America and Ireland. It had 10,678 members and 4,442 associates.[16] As the GFS expanded so did their concerns and the scope of their work. New departments established in the late 1800s included one dealing with the special needs of sick and blind members, and one dealing with the safety of emigrating girls and women had been established. During the 1880s and 1890s, the GFS increased their offerings of training courses and workshops. Beginning in 1880, Queen Victoria bestowed her royal patronage on the society and the queen herself acted as an associate and admitted servant girls at Balmoral to membership.[4][17][18]


The GFS was not a participant in the women's suffrage movement in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.[19]

GFS Spreads[edit]

The GFS quickly spread across the Atlantic and around the Commonwealth. A number of Holiday Houses (retreat centers) as well as summer camp facilities were established in the United States, and many remain in operation.



GFS Australia began as a local branch of the Girls’ Friendly Society. Locally, the GFS is based out of parishes and diocese across Australia and Tasmania. Their national council meets every three years.

England and Wales[edit]

Locally the GFS reaches out at the branch level, with over 40 parish-based branches across England and Wales. These voluntary youth work branches work with girls and young women aged 7 and up.

The central office has three community projects based in (1) Great Yarmouth; (2) Penge, South London; and (3) Skegness. These work with young women up to the age of 25 who may be socially excluded from aspects of mainstream society.


The GFS came to the Church of Ireland in 1877. There are currently 80 branches throughout Ireland, a wide spectrum of interest is covered in the badge syllabus, which includes a study of the natural world, the community and the church, handcrafts and skills, information technology, sports and outdoor pursuits, as well as participating in fund raising to demonstrate our will to help others, both locally and globally.[20]


GFS came to Korea in 1965 and has 19 branches in 3 diocese. Their work includes Women’s education, parent education, nurturing juniors and to help and support, sharing house and supporting illegal women laborers, and to collaborate with the work of Mothers’Union, women’s group united, women priests, committee for building women’s mission centre etc.[21]

United States[edit]

The national board, GFS-USA,[22] oversees local branches and is a member of GFS World. The program is open to girls ages 5+ with active chapters in:

Rest of the World[edit]

Other chapters include Cameroon, Canada, Ghana, Japan, Liberia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Zambia.[26]


  1. ^ Money, Agnes Louisa (1911). History of The Girls’ Friendly Society. London: Wells Gardner & Company. p. 11. OCLC 563918789. 
  2. ^ Money 1911, p. 17
  3. ^ See her biography at Townsend [née Butler], Mary Elizabeth (1841-1918) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  4. ^ a b Harris, G. M. (2004). "Townsend, Mary Elizabeth (1841–1918)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56691. Retrieved 23 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Money 1911, p. 4
  6. ^ Money 1911, pp. 108–117
  7. ^ Money 1911, pp. 117–121
  8. ^ Barbarina Charlotte Sullivan Grey, wife of Admiral Sir Frederick Grey
  9. ^ Money 1911, pp. 122–123
  10. ^ Money 1911, pp. 123–124
  11. ^ Money 1913, p. 36
  12. ^ Richmond, V (2007). ""It is not a society for human beings but for virgins" The Girls' Friendly Society Membership Eligibility Dispute 1875-1936". Journal of Historical Sociology. 20:3: 304–327. 
  13. ^ Harrison, B (1973). "For Church, Queen and Family: The Girls' Friendly Society 1874-1920". Past and Present. 61: 107–138. doi:10.1093/past/61.1.107. 
  14. ^ Binns, A (2017). "New Heroines for New Causes: How provincial women promoted a revisionist history through post-suffrage pageants". Women's History Review: 1–26. doi:10.1080/09612025.2017.1313806. 
  15. ^ "Pageant of Essex Women". Chelmsford Chronicle, page 5. 15 May 1925. 
  16. ^ Townsend, Mary Elizabeth (1878). First report of the work and progress of the Girls' Friendly Society. London: Hatchards. OCLC 559427323. 
  17. ^ Money 1911, p. 29
  18. ^ Sibley, Frances W. (1896). "The Work of the G.F.S. in the U.S.A.". Associates' Record Girls' Friendly Society in America). 4 (10): 6–8.  page 8
  19. ^ Richmond, Vivienne (2005). "Online Exhibition: Bear Ye One Another's Burdens: The Girls' Friendly Society 1875-2005: The Golden Age: The 1920s and '30s". 
  20. ^ Girls' Friendly Society in Ireland. The organization is open to girls and women ages 3 and up.
  21. ^ GFS Korea
  22. ^ GFS USA. "GFS USA website". 
  23. ^ GFS of California. "California GFS web site". 
  24. ^ GFS of Pennsylvania. "Pennsylvania GFS web site". 
  25. ^ GFS of Connecticut. "Connecticut GFS web site". 
  26. ^ GFS Countries

Further reading[edit]


  • Heath-Stubbs, Mary (1935). Friendship's highway: being the history of the Girls' Friendly Society, 1875-1925 (second ed.). London: Girls Friendly Society Central Office. OCLC 22143492. 
  • Johnson, Peter (1975). G.F.S. Its Story: A History of the Girls' Friendly Society in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Girls' Friendly Society Australia. OCLC 739831066. 
  • Jones, Elizabeth Vaughan (1975). One hundred years of the Girls' Friendly Society: 1875–1975. Bristol, England: Girls Friendly Society. OCLC 315326689. 
  • Money, Agnes Louisa (1911). History of The Girls’ Friendly Society. London: Wells Gardner & Company. OCLC 563918789. 
  • Money, Agnes Louisa (1913). The Story of the Girls' Friendly Society. London: Wells Gardner, Darton. OCLC 220443823. 
  • Seymour, Jean (1988). A Century of Challenge: A history of the Girls' Friendly Society in Western Australia from 1888–1988. Perth, Australia: Girls' Friendly Society. ISBN 978-0-9598338-8-1. 
  • Townsend, Mary Elizabeth (1878). First report of the work and progress of the Girls' Friendly Society. London: Hatchards. OCLC 559427323. 


  • Harrison, Brian (1973). "For Church, Queen and family: the Girls' Friendly Society, 1874-1920". Past and Present. 61: 107–138. doi:10.1093/past/61.1.107. 

External links[edit]