I was asked recently how I manage to find all these interesting stories about women of the past who haven’t been profiled before.
The short answer is because they are out there. Another short answer is because I look with a different lens, and don’t assume that because there’s nothing written there’s nothing there. Yet another short answer is that they’re happy accidents.
A longer, more considered, answer would be that I am – and always have been – extremely curious about people’s lives and what drives people and makes them tick. I worked as a journalist for many years, and therefore like to dig deep to find a story. Combined with an all-consuming drive to prove that women’s history is so much more than just suffrage and a fight for equal rights, and you’ve got the right conditions for turning up real and interesting stories.
However, I’m sure that my questioner wanted actual details about how I found people rather than technical musings on the drive behind the project, so let’s explain a bit further about how I’ve found people…
If you’ve been to one of my talks, you’ll have heard all about serial criminal Mary Ann Fairlie, as we build her story together through newspaper reports and other documents. Mary was found in the prison records for Gloucestershire, when she’d been arrested for breaking a window while drunk and assaulting a police constable. I happened upon her because I was in those records researching someone in a friend’s maternal genealogy line, she was on the next page (adjacent to a man who’d been had up for “interfering sexually with a sheep”) and I wondered what sort of woman would beat up a police officer in the 1890s and looked her up. And what a tale she had.
She in turn led me to two other women. One of the newspaper reports mentioned that she’d beaten up a female prison warden, “Mrs M Redding” in 1883, and I wondered about women becoming prison wardens at that time – so tried to find her. I found a child in the area called Maud Redding, who was far too young to have been the warden, but discovered that she and many of her siblings had been born in India – so had a look at why that had happened, and what the reality of that was for her mother Helena. And then I discovered the great tragedy at the heart of Helena’s family. Later on I did find the female prison warden – Marion – and she turned out to have come through the workhouse system.
Marion wasn’t a matron of a workhouse though, and through that I wondered what background might lead someone to take that role on, and what the duties were. So I duly looked up the various matrons (and masters – they were usually a married couple) of my local workhouse in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and happened across Martha who held that role for nearly 30 years. In one of the newspaper articles I used to research her, I came across a mention of a “crippled” woman giving birth to triplets while in that workhouse – Rosanna – so researched her too.
Public buildings in Chippenham have been a source of lots of women in the project, mostly as I am surrounded by the places that they lived and worked and can’t help but wonder who lived there. I’ve done research into one of the local primary schools, and looked at several teachers from there – Ruby (who was divorced in 1930) and Marion (who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1920s alongside Robin Tanner, but didn’t get any credit for it) – as well as teachers and university lecturers from elsewhere. I’ve also researched the chain of barkeepers at a couple of local pubs, and have looked for the most interesting landladies from those lists – as invariably it was the husband who officially held the alcohol sale license but his wife ran the pub, so Lilian and Sarah are a couple of stories from that haul. I also went and looked up the woman who gave a set of almshouses to the town – Elizabeth – because I realised I walked past regularly and saw her name but knew nothing about her and why she gave the properties to the town – and in a local history book found a reference to Priscilla, wife of a local industrialist, whose husband was given endless credit for having produced a cricket team of sons but the woman who carried and birthed them was barely mentioned.
Marion Young, teacher of Chippenham, who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1930s
On another tack, sometimes I hit upon an important part of women’s history that is barely talked about in personal terms, and try to find someone to help me illustrate it. For example, the unfairness in standards for divorce law between men and women in the mid-19th century, which is often generalised, didn’t really have a face to it so I found Diana by going through the UK Civil Divorce Records and her political connections came to light later. Female anti-suffragists boggle my brain, so I researched Gwladys to try to find out what drove her (actual conviction, economic necessity or familial revenge – you decide). The profession of a monthly nurse went out with the ark, and no-one these days knows what one did (she came into a woman’s home after the birth of a baby to do her chores and feed her other children), so I looked up Elizabeth. Ballet’s association with prostitution turned up Susannah. Abortion and what you did with an unwanted pregnancy – before the advent of Levonelle or mifepristone and misoprostol – is another issue that I wanted to highlight. I had one credit left on the British Newspaper Archive before having to top them up, so searched “Wiltshire abortion” and found the tale of Harriet and Mary Ann.
Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, later Cowper
Other women I turn up in books – Amy Bell, the first UK female stockbroker – came from Jane Duffus’ book The Women Who Built Bristol, while Hannah Young I found in a BBC book to accompany a series on the Victorian kitchen, and turned up more than gas cookery when I discovered her husband had taken her name when they married, and she recommended do-it-yourself enemas.
Amy Bell, first UK female stockbroker
Enquiries also turn up interesting stories. A friend’s father suggested that I look for a nun, which turned up both Sister Josephine and Mother Superior Amy, and in turn a penitent woman – Cecelia – who was being reformed in a convent, because I wondered what she’d done to earn her place there. An enquiry from the Women’s Engineering Society’s centenary project turned up the wonderful Maysie – actress-cum-socialite-cum-pilot-cum-engineer – and in turn also Lillian Haskins, wife of the director of civil aviation in the 1930s.
And then there’s just plain curiosity that a stray record brings on: what on earth did a woman called Hephzibah get up to? Running a home for fallen women, it appears. And how did a white woman born in Sierra Leone end up in Victorian Chippenham? (Annie’s dad was a missionary in Freetown at the time of her birth).
Then the final part of the answer is YOU, gentle reader. I am genuinely interested in what your grandmother (and your mother, and your maiden aunt, and your second cousin three times removed) got up to, because oral history is the dog’s bollocks and adds so much more colour and life to women’s stories than bare records and salacious newspaper reports ever could. So please, #tellmeaboutyourgranny, ask your great aunt what she did in the war, write down your mother’s experiences for posterity, and tell your daughters just what women’s history is all about – more than just suffrage and women’s lib: it’s endless housework and varicose veins, back street abortions and fiddling with a knitting needle, doing a great amount of your husband’s work and never getting the credit for it, balancing books but never being called an accountant, not being able to marry and keep a job you love, swearing in front of a police station in order to be arrested and therefore get a bed for the night, being stoic when your infant dies of an illness we could easily prevent now, finding a way to keep an income when your husband dies, and many many more things besides.
So that’s how I find my stories, and populate my project. It’s for you, and it’s for everyone. Help me to find more.