A Biography of Madam Derby
On April 6, 1791, The Derby School opened its doors in Hingham Massachusetts, founded by Sarah Langley Hersey Derby on many of the same guiding principles that Derby values today: the idea of providing education through partnerships (first with the town leaders, and gradually with its parent community, alumni and faculty), the goal of being an inclusive community committed to providing the means for financial assistance, and the vision of providing the most up-to-date education available to meet the needs of the day. The school was the founder’s dream.
Sarah Langley was born in 1714, the daughter of a Hingham innkeeper. With her first marriage to Dr. Ezekiel Hersey, Sarah Langley Hersey rose to a position of prominence. It was she who ran the family farm while her husband attended to his medical practice. Although she had no formal education, Sarah took particular interest in the educational systems of her times. She engaged in frequent discussions with community leaders about the inadequacies of schooling, particularly for girls, and the lack of arts education generally. After Dr. Hersey’s early death, Sarah attracted another accomplished man from Salem, Massachusetts, an active, prosperous seaport of the day. Sarah married Captain Richard Derby and continued her position of importance.
In 1772, at the age of 58, being twice widowed and childless, Sarah Derby worked with the leading men of Hingham to address her educational concerns by deeding a parcel of land on the Main Street of Hingham for the location of a coeducational school. Six years later, in 1784, this partnership, by Act 0032, set forth the rules for the Trustees for the Derby School in order to assure the desired oversight of the school. Ten leading male citizens of the day were selected to sit on the first board. In 1789 Sarah Derby signed her Last Will and Testament and thereby provided the money to run and maintain the school, to support a preceptor to teach all academic subjects to all students and a preceptress to teach the girls needlework, and the funding to support an early financial aid program. Sarah Derby died on June 17, 1790 with everything in place to begin her school, which opened its doors on April 6, 1791.
Sarah Derby was certainly a forward thinker, and The Derby School was remarkable for several reasons. Derby was one of the very early coeducational schools in the country. While the classes were separated by gender until 1852, and the girls and boys studied a slightly different curriculum, the same teachers instructed all students – a most unusual practice. Educational opportunities were not limited to children from wealthy families. Her will required the new school to provide money for “clothing and supplying with school books, such poor scholars in this town, as shall be admitted into said School, as the Trustees in their wisdom shall think fit objects of this charity.”
If we look to Sarah Derby, founder and benefactress, we see that her vision was and still is the school’s vision, as relevant today as it was in 1791. More than two hundred and twenty years ago the Derby trustees conceived the motto and seal, which continues to capture the essence of the present Derby mission. The seal is a profile of a head and a heart with the inscription, “Improve Both.” From that seal came the school’s Motto, “Improve Both Mind and Soul.” (Modified in 2009 to “Improve Both Mind and Heart.”) That precept remains Derby’s mission and work.
By Martha Parker & Polly Rizzotto (Fmr. Head of Primary & Lower School)