Helen and Grace B’s story

Sisters Helen and Grace B, the eldest and second youngest of five girls, were both involved in women’s suffrage, and both teachers – and therefore it is difficult, since both were unmarried and known as Miss B, to separate their activities.

They came from a moneyed family that moved around as their iron master father’s business dictated – Helen was born in Staffordshire in the early 1860s while Grace’s birth occurred in Yorkshire later in that decade, and their sisters were born in places in between. The family also spent time in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and London. As could be expected from an employer of 300 men, the sisters were brought up in big houses with full complements of servants and educated by governesses.

Both went on to be school teachers – Helen first, as she was the elder, in the early 1880s when she was in her early 20s, and Grace followed in her footsteps in the 1890s. Their other two unmarried sisters remained with their parents, while the youngest married a reverend.

Both Helen and Grace held long positions at prestigious private girls’ schools. Helen taught in Worcester at the Alice Ottley School for over 18 years, while Grace – after a start as a science and biology teacher in Berkshire – had a position at The Godolphin School in Salisbury for 21. Each of them were form tutors, taking older girls, and both held the second in command position – effectively the deputy head – in her school. Grace’s subject was history, but she also was involved in “contemporary studies”, which appears to have been reading the newspapers aloud and discussing their content while darning and mending, and played the double bass in the school orchestra.

Midway through the first decade of the 20th century, however, Helen chose to leave her job in England and took a job at a newly established school in New Zealand. The idea was that she would bring her experience and her school’s values to this new school. The journey, which went via Australia, would have taken weeks at sea at this time, and she travelled as a missionary. It’s known, from shipping records, that she made this journey at least twice over the next few years.

This position in New Zealand may have been the catalyst for Helen’s involvement in women’s suffrage, although by her very background – she was of wealthy background, unmarried, and very educated – she was ripe to take on the fight even before she left the UK. Women in New Zealand gained the vote in 1893, with various states in Australia also granting it around the time Helen went over, and she would have been there to see the political and social gains that were made by newly enfranchised women.

Helen returned to the UK in 1909, and took up a job at Grace’s school in Salisbury,  although her unmarried and unemployed sisters were now based around Bristol and Bath. She took up a position as an English teacher, and was described on her entry to the school as the headmistresses dearest and first proper friend. Other members of the family were also instrumental in the life of the school. Their reverend brother-in-law gave religious addresses to the girls of Godolphin School, and their middle sister was responsible for some of the wood carving in the school hall.

She remained in position for around 18 months, then travelled again to New Zealand to teach there. She went via Capetown, and sent a letter back to the school describing her experiences there from a point in the Southern Ocean. She returned to the UK in 1912, around the time her father died, coming via Palestine, and began teaching at Godolphin again. She was also in charge of a newly-established housewifery course.

While Grace was the deputy head, it was Helen who gave the address to Godolphin School on Empire Day in May 1916, mentioning the war effort and pride in their country.

The teachers at Godolphin were quite politically active. In 1915 several of them – including Helen and the headmistress – were instrumental in setting up a branch of the National Union of Women Workers in Salisbury, and inaugural meetings were held at the school. This grouping was keen for women to become police officers, and to that end was instrumental in setting up women’s patrols to help police the streets of Salisbury. Grace was part of the women’s patrols, alongside fellow mistress Florence Mildred White – who went on to become the first documented British policewoman – and they would tramp the streets rain or shine. Another achievement of this union – of which Helen was the honourable secretary – was the setting up of the Hulse Clinic in 1915 to take care of mothers and new babies, and therefore cut infant deaths.

It is known that the headteacher of Godolphin School at the time, Mary Alice Douglas, was a suffrage sympathiser. However, it appears that it was Helen – possibly with Grace – who was directly involved in the fight to gain women the vote. Salisbury had a NUWSS society from 1909, which was joined in 1913 by a South Wiltshire branch. By June 1914 Helen was the chairwoman of the Salisbury WSS, and was writing to correct claims made by anti-suffragists from that position in The Common Cause. Her refutations were backed up with statistics from Australia, which indicate that she was well versed in her subject.

Grace left teaching at Christmas 1916, feeling that her own home needed her. Presumably her two unmarried sisters, who had been supported by their parents while they had been alive, were part of that household. Helen took up her position as deputy head, and continued to teach at the school until the spring term of 1919. She lent her garden for school play performances in the summer of 1917.

Women in the UK gained the vote in 1918, and by this stage one of the Miss Bs – almost certainly Helen – was chair of the Salisbury and South Wilts Women’s Suffrage Society. As the general election was announced at the end of that year, she chaired a meeting of the society supported by Alys Russell, where they read out answers on women’s political issues that the society had put to both candidates. Miss B also spoke:

“(She) commented on the approaching election, and said that women were privileged to help to put into power men, and, she hoped with all her heart, some women who had to undertake the largest and heaviest task ever laid upon statesmen since the world began. The task before the Parliament and the Government was to make a peace which would endure, to end war for ever by a League of Nations that would last, and, secondly, to build up a new England, and make it, as Mr Lloyd George said last week, “A country fit for heroes to live in, and for their wives and children to live in.” Having made the world, by this victory, safe for democracy, they now had to make democracy safe from selfishness and pride. The old political weapons completely failed to accomplish either of these tasks – they failed to keep the peace of the world, and failed to build up an England that they could live in. New forces were needed. Could women bring into the electorate a new spirit instead of the party spirit – a spirit of unity, without suspicion, spite, slander and the imputing of evil motives to these who did not think exactly as they did, but crediting those from whom they differed with common honesty and with really holding the opinions they professed? Could women not also, as was being done in other countries, help to make politics a clean thing, and selling of votes which often meant the selling of souls. Let them stand for clean hands.”

The gaining of the vote for women saw the gradual disbandment of Women’s Suffrage Societies, although true equality was pushed for until it was granted in 1928. Helen contributed to the bicentenary book on the Godolphin School in 1926, and both sisters often attended the yearly commemoration ceremony held at the school.

Both Helen and Grace retired to a house near Bath, with their unmarried sisters – who were given the roles of cook and gardener – and lived out their last years in a quiet village. Both died in the 1950s – Grace first, at 84, and Helen two years later at 94. They both left decent sums of money to their remaining sisters.

 

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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.

Zita W’s story

Witnessing Kristallnacht in the heart of Nazi Germany wasn’t in the original plan for Zita W.

A tailor’s daughter from New Zealand, she got a severe case of itchy feet in her late twenties and decided to throw in a career working for an architect for the thrill of solo foreign travel – an unusual prospect for a single woman in the 1930s. After months at sea she arrived in Germany where she taught English at a language school, and was involved in attempts to help threatened Jews to escape the country. She was in Berlin for events like Kristallnacht, but was unable to tell family what she’d seen and experienced until much later when she’d left the country.

Spending WWII in the UK, she undertook a variety of jobs before joining the WAAF. Despite standing five foot nothing in her stocking feet she convinced them to let her drive large lorries around the country, reputedly by standing on tiptoe when she was measured to meet the height requirement, and could barely see over the steering wheel.

She met her husband at the tail end of the war, when he came home on leave from India – he had been a soldier and then managed a tea plantation – and knew she was on to a good thing so married him and spent two years living in India at the end of the British Raj.

Indian independence and partition and her pregnancy with her first daughter occurred concurrently, and she left the turbulence of India on a boat bound for New Zealand, where she gave birth to a premature baby at the late (for the time) age of 35. Two further daughters followed when the family reunited in North London, and she settled into post-war English life to raise her family.

Even in her late 80s she was still cycling around her local area and attending evening classes to further her knowledge. Her letters from 1938 until 1945 now rest with the Imperial War Museum.

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