A campaigner and activist for women’s education, and later a playwright and author, Ida H’s roots were very much in her beloved Wiltshire.
Born in the mid-1880s, she grew up in a village in the middle of the county, just outside Devizes, as one of seven children (including a set of twins) of the village vicar and his rather-unconventional wife. The fact that she was a vicar’s daughter means that her exact time of birth is recorded alongside her baptism. She later recounted tales of her not-particularly straight-laced Victorian childhood in a memoir. One of these involved the whole tribe of her siblings regularly running about the village bare-footed and exacting the ridicule of some passing gypsies. The gypsies’ reaction incensed their nurse so much that she insisted all the children return home and put on their Sunday best stockings and shoes, to be paraded in front of the travelling folk. However, when the children returned the gypsies had retreated to their tents for the night and the nurse’s efforts were in vain.
Her mother was a writer, and appeared to have not too much care for the strict conventions of the day, leaving Ida and her siblings to roam the area as a gang – swimming in the canal, climbing the church roof, and wandering all over the local Wiltshire downlands. Ida and one of her younger sisters even went on a riding tour alone for three days, spending one night sleeping in a barn. Their household appears comfortable, with a whole complement of domestic staff to help the family, which would mean her mother had more time to write instead of child-rearing.
She was also a keen archer, taking part in mixed doubles matches for the Wiltshire Society of Archers when she was around 20.
When Ida was in her early 20s and still living at home, her father’s position moved to another village in Wiltshire, closer to Swindon. It was here that she became involved in the work of the Workers’ Educational Association, which was initially set up in London in the early 1900s but had enthusiastically been taken up in Swindon by local politician and county councillor Reuben George. The organisation worked to further education and bring new skills to the whole population, with focus on the working class, as part of a drive at this time to improve and progress society.
Ida, in the face of considerable opposition from the locals, set up the first village branch of the WEA in her home village. This endeavour was supported by Reuben George. This was a step towards her lifelong drive towards social reform, and was followed by another – a move to London to undertake social work. Indeed, on the 1911 census she was in London, lodging with a female tutor in sociology and called herself a social worker – a fairly unusual choice of a career for a woman of her background. At home her branch of the WEA flourished, and she was appointed just the second WEA women’s officer in 1912, at the age of 27.
This put her in a position of improving the lives of women when the women’s suffrage campaign was at its height. In 1913 she wrote:
“If the WEA is to gain any substantial victory in its campaign against ignorance and injustice, men and women must be fighting side by side. Their cause, their interests are inseparably bound together. Neither party can march by itself without endangering both its own safety, and that of the party it has left, and if one ceases to make progress, the other is held back too; so, of all the special efforts the WEA has to make today, perhaps none is more important than the special effort it is making on behalf of women.”
This job took her to speak about women’s education at meetings and gatherings all over the country, and it was at one position – in Oxfordshire about three years later – that she met and fell in love with the community doctor. As married women did not have jobs, she resigned her post with the WEA and did not even acknowledge her working life on her wedding certificate, when they married in the middle of the First World War.
As a doctor, her husband was in a reserved occupation and therefore excused conscription – so did not go to war. Ida gave birth to two sons in quick succession in the years that followed, and settled into life as a doctor’s wife in Oxfordshire.
It was as part of this life that Ida, who had been a compulsive writer since childhood, began to write in earnest. As her children grew, she started as a playwright in the 1920s, penning several works for children before working on dramas and comedies for adult groups. At the tail end of the 1920s she gave birth to her third child – a daughter – nearly ten years after her second son. She continued to write plays, sometimes directing them or producing them with amateur and semi-professional companies, and several were broadcast by the BBC on the home service in the early days of radio. One, a comedy called Lardy Cake, referred to a popular Wiltshire baked product, and others made reference to occurrences in her Wiltshire childhood. She also started writing books, among them an account of her Wiltshire childhood.
The family moved to Shropshire in 1930, where Ida’s plays continued to be written and performed by the village players, and her two sons went to study at university while her daughter went to boarding school. She also wrote and broadcast about Shropshire life, and during World War Two was very active in the local WI. Writing took a bit of a back seat for Ida at this time.
Her husband retired at the end of World War Two, and they moved to Dorset – but Ida was widowed about three years later. She began to travel the world, as her family had spread out and her eldest son was now working as a diplomat and was posted to far flung places.
She moved back to Wiltshire, and settled in Aldbourne, returning to writing. In the early 60s she researched and published a book on the village she grew up in, which was followed by a book detailing holidays with her five spinster aunts in the New Forest. She then wrote a book on Shropshire, and finally an intricately researched history of Aldbourne. She was at the heart of village life until she died in the late 1970s, and was buried in Aldbourne churchyard.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.