No more suffragettes please!

This week contains the 100th anniversary of another important point in women’s history. On 14 December 1918 the general election called by Prime Minister Lloyd George saw the first women in the UK to cast their votes, after the passing of the Representation of the People Act the previous February.

It’s been a great year for women’s history, on the back of these anniversaries.

But I’m going to say something that may rile some people.

I am PIGSICK of the flipping suffragettes.

I have had a gutful of Millicent, Emmeline, Christabel et al. Sorry, and all that, but it’s true.

Does this make me anti-feminist? Does it make me not worthy of calling myself a women’s historian?

I believe not. I believe it’s a very feminist standpoint, and one that shows my commitment to the wider cause and depth of women’s history.

Of course those women were amazing, inspirational and changed lives. I am not arguing with that in the slightest, and they’ll always have my utmost respect. But they’re not the be all and end all of women’s history by a long way.

My view point comes from the suffrage cause being ALL that anyone wants to talk about when women’s history is mentioned. Talk to a history teacher about women’s history and the general response is “Oh yes, we include women’s suffrage in our curriculum now”, with possibly a footnote on women’s rights in the 20th century. Talk a museum curator about women’s history, and one of the responses I’ve received is an apology of “Oh, we’ve not found a suffragist from our collecting area.”

For the past two years I’ve been running The Women Who Made Me project, which has looked at discovering extraordinary women’s history among the ordinary – we’ve profiled nuns, penitents, criminals, divorcees, landladies, social pariahs, farmer’s wives, cooks, women’s officers, prostitutes, social workers, gentry, workhouse inmates, mothers of fourteen, mothers of none, mothers of illegitimate children, artists, musicians, manageresses, matrons, highway women, confectioners, travellers, teachers, factory workers, and someone who recommended do-it-yourself enemas. All important and diverse parts of women’s history. The idea behind the project is to get people to connect with and value their female ancestry, and not dismiss it as not interesting or relevant. Grassroots women’s history research, if you will.

Recently I’ve looked at an 1880s case where a botched abortion led to a pregnant woman’s death and a herbalist locked up for the crime (which it was at the time) was incarcerated for 23 years past the duration of her original sentence because she insisted upon her innocence and was declared insane.

I’ve also looked at female anti-suffragists, many of whom were articulate and intelligent women, as I was fascinated these women could oppose the idea of expanding rights and roles. One of such was Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, who intrigued me greatly, as even when many other opposers had given up in the face of seeing what women were capable of during WW1, she kept up the fight. And she was so vociferous that she didn’t appear on the electoral roll until she’d changed her surname in 1938. There’s loads more to Gwladys, and I urge you to go and read the rest of her story on The Women Who Made Me.

Why would I want to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst again, when I could talk about some of these women instead?

The rule of thumb is if someone has a Wikipedia page then people know about them, and I tend not to touch them. It’s about uncovering and discovering history that hasn’t really been recorded, for whatever reason – because it wasn’t known about, because it wasn’t considered important, because it was disregarded, because history as taught in schools for decades was believed to be about kings and queens and empire and foreign policy and nothing else, because it sits behind a blank box on a census return, because the woman herself didn’t think it was up to much so didn’t talk about it.

Occasionally, rather than talking about the suffragettes, someone will tell me about their grandmother. Invariably she was a “strong woman”, but when pressed on exactly what that means the answer is “Er… she wasn’t a suffragette or anything but she raised us all her children really well and kept going.”

Strong woman is right. What people usually don’t mention is what granny did before she was married, after she left school. What her childhood was like. Who she was as a person rather than someone based around the house and in a nurturing role. When I asked listeners to BBC Wiltshire to tell me about their grannies there were dozens of stories of warm older women who would make great apple crumble and always be on hand to dispense a cuddle when needed. Which is great – the world needs more people like that – but really doesn’t give the full picture of a person and their life.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a grandmother too. But I’m willing to bet that Helen Pankhurst doesn’t get asked about the quality of her apple crumble, because it might be considered insulting and denigrating everything else she achieved. But she may well have been a good cook. It’s about seeing the whole woman, not just part of her life.

It’s really a question of value when it comes to historical women – what we can find out about them, and looking at what we consider as history or an achievement. There’s been an upsurge in publishing of inspiring books for kids over the past couple of years – the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Women in Science are prime examples. They focus on some exceptional women – of the past and the present. However, the reality is, these women are few and far between, and we’d be really lucky to find someone like them in our ancestry.

And, really, are these women’s achievements being judged by ‘male’ parameters – they are making discoveries and achievements in areas that have been traditionally male: politics, science, medicine, engineering.

Therefore, are we valuing and judging them and their achievements against a male-based scale, rather than valuing them as whole women?

Is that too feminist, or too divisionist, or not the case at all?

Maybe, but it’s definitely something to consider as we look at the women in our ancestry and attempt to find out their stories.

Do we disregard them out of hand if it looks like they “just” had children, and didn’t do something that little bit different or out of the ordinary? There’s the “blank box” syndrome, whereby a married woman’s details weren’t recorded on many census returns because she had no identity past that of her husband and children. Even the jobs she did do – for example helping with home-based manufacture, or farming, or running a pub or shop – were attributed to her husband if she was married.

The point is, these women – those who exceeded society expectations, challenged perceptions and broke molds – are few and far between. We’re lucky if we find one in our ancestry, but most of us haven’t got that. The quite frankly excellent recent Back In Time For The Factory on the BBC looked at this – the story of ordinary working class women in garment factories, and ascribing value to their experiences.

What we need to do is re-evaluate the women we do have in our ancestry, and find value in their stories.

The nature of humanity often means that we think ourselves better than those who came before us, because we’ve built on their achievements. But this often means we’ve not experienced what those of the past did – for example multiple pregnancies (unless your name happens to be Helena de Chair), or high infant mortality rates, or domestic work without modern appliances – so our judgement on what to value comes from a blinkered perspective. Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ Maternity, published in 1915, features very frank accounts of working-class motherhood and domestic work from the late Victorian era that are completely alien today.

By its very nature, our family history comes down to us from married people, women who had achieved the “ultimate” and envied position for a woman – that of wife and mother. Society taught people to pity the unmarried woman as she had not achieved this position (look at words like spinster, old maid, dried up, etc, as opposed to bachelor) – but actually the unmarried women are often the most interesting, if you seek them out. But because they have no descendants they tend to be an afterthought in our family history, if they feature at all. It’s all about the lens we see women of the past through – because of how it was recorded.

The question is, should we perpetuate that viewpoint and that lens in how we view our female ancestry?

Or should we challenge it?

The ending of the year of important suffrage anniversaries means that women’s history has quite justifiably had a lot of focus over the last 12 months. What needs to happen now is that interest to be sustained, and to go beyond those obvious figures – looking at more than just the suffragettes.

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Harriet and Mary Ann’s story

Abortion was illegal in the UK until 1967, so unfortunately when we hear about it publicly before this date it is likely because it has gone disastrously wrong. This is the case in Harriet and Mary Ann’s story from 1883, which may also feature elements of injustice in the British legal system of the time. It’s up to the reader to decide based on the evidence.

Wherever your politics, moral and religious beliefs take you on the subject of abortion, a crisis pregnancy is exactly that – one that a woman feels that she cannot continue with, whether for health, mental health, society factors, or any other myriad of reasons. And until a woman faces that situation, it is a real unknown as to how she will react and then choose to act. In most countries around the world abortion has been illegal at some point – and in some it still is, or is verging on being again – and therefore making a choice to end a pregnancy puts a woman into a particularly murky place morally, religiously and societally. But wherever you personally fall on these matters, some women will still want abortions.

Abortion is, therefore, very much part of women’s history. Particularly in an era when “good” girls were supposed to be chaste until marriage, sexual desire on the part of women was barely even known about much less discussed, and illegitimate children carried a huge societal stigma. However, men who did engage in sexual intercourse outside marriage – although perhaps frowned upon – were not subject to the same stigma, and male desire was an acknowledged concept throughout all walks of life.

Therefore, when Mary Ann – a single Wiltshire woman not in her first flush of youth – discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1883, she had to decide whether to keep the baby and face the wrath of society, or undergo an illegal abortion.

She’d been born in Chippenham in the early 1850s, the oldest child of a gardener and his wife, and lived in a small cottage to the east of the town. After some schooling she lived at home with her parents and siblings, and contributed to the family income as a dressmaker. However, unmarried and staring her thirties in the face, she left the confines of a Wiltshire market town and went to London, gaining a position as a cook in an affluent townhouse. She was there for six years. She worked for a chemist and his family, as one of several servants with the family, and her employer had several unmarried sons living at home and working in his business.

It’s unknown exactly who fathered Mary Ann’s child, it could have been one of her employers’ sons or someone else entirely, but during the spring of 1883 she lost her job and returned home to Chippenham, to her recently widowed mother’s care. About this time she began to complain of “indigestion”.

Most women at this time were kept ignorant of the mechanics of sexual intercourse until they were married – when it was therefore considered necessary for them to know – but even then information (usually lying back and thinking of England) was not passed on easily between mother and daughter, and men were often ignorant too. The attitude of many doctors was that women had no sexual feelings apart from the urge to have children. So, it may be that Mary Ann did not know exactly what had happened to her.

Her lover may also have been uninformed to a degree – unmarried men were often not given the full picture either, and contraceptives at this time were very much in their infancy. There were leather condoms for men, but these were expensive and had to be asked for directly at the chemists as they weren’t displayed. Women could use an inserted piece of sponge on a string that was coated with a spermicide substance, but only if they knew about it, which Mary Ann probably didn’t.

Therefore, when Mary Ann complained of indigestion, her mother took her to see a herbalist in Calne, the next town over, for a remedy as this would have been cheaper than seeing a doctor.

This herbalist was Harriet, who at this time was in her early 40s. She’d been born in Herefordshire, had married her husband Isaac in Wolverhampton, and they’d had six children together. Isaac had come to Wiltshire to run a pub near Malmesbury, making Harriet a landlady for a time, but by the early 1880s he was settled in Calne as a gardener and Harriet ran a herbalism business alongside him.

On Mary Ann’s first visit to Harriet, she was supplied with some liquid and 16 powders to take to cure her indigestion. This, obviously, didn’t work, and Mary Ann made several subsequent visits for further treatments, accompanied on occasion by relatives and friends of her mother. Whether the true nature of Mary Ann’s condition became obvious to Harriet during these visits is unknown. Harriet insisted, later, that she did not know at all, and certainly outwardly she was still treating Mary Ann for digestion-based complaints.

Since Mary Ann was still not cured and had taken to her bed, Harriet came to visit her in Chippenham, and they spent some time alone talking. Mary Ann then, four days later, went again to visit Harriet in Calne. Upon her return she felt unwell, vomited, and went to bed. Then a further three days later Harriet again came to see Mary Ann and her mother, and this time – according to witnesses – made it clear that something had happened to Mary Ann. Her mother stated that Harriet had said: “If anyone asks what is the matter you say it is a tumour, but it has burst now, and she will soon be all right.” And another witness said that she’d said it was a bloody tumour and she would soon be all right and up in two or three days. These witnesses also say that Harriet took something away in her basket. The following day a doctor was called, who said that Mary Ann was suffering from inflammation of the womb and peritonitis, and sadly Mary Ann died later that day.

Given the now serious nature of the matter, a post-mortem was performed on her the following day by the doctor. The opinion was that she had died either from the effects of the noxious drugs (fennel and rue were found), from the effects of an instrument used upon her, or from both. Harriet was subsequently arrested.

Information about how to administer an abortion was well known in whispers among married women at this time, for occasions when they felt they could not afford another mouth to feed. Some doctors at the time reckoned that one in four pregnancies ended this way. There were many dangerous methods: pints of gin, hot baths, knitting needles inserted into the womb, falling downstairs. Alternatively, there were dangerous drugs, which brought on an abortion as a side-effect: adhesive plasters contained diachylon, which was made from lead and could be bought from the chemist, and would then be eaten. There was also a mixture called ‘hickey-pickey’, which was bitter apple, bitter aloes and white lead, which could all be purchased from the chemist. Infusions of rue were a known irritant, and had abortifacient properties, and was sometimes combined with other herbal infusions to increase potency.

It is likely that at least two of these methods – inserting an instrument, and a rue and fennel infusion – were used in Mary Ann’s case. But whether they were administered by Harriet the herbalist – as the subsequent murder court case claimed – or by Mary Ann’s mother and friends, is open to question.

The prosecution alleged that Mary Ann’s mother claimed Harriet said to her that she had “instruments”, but they were never to be seen. Harriet apparently carried away something from the house in a bag. And the post-mortem, having found no trace of any noxious drugs in Mary Ann’s stomach, concluded that the cause of death was the instrument used to expel the pregnancy, which was used with enough force to cause the internal bruises and that Mary Ann could not have administered that herself. This was the case against Harriet.

Her defence argued that Harriet had not been seen to possess one single noxious drug in this case, and that a single piece of “rue” might not actually be the plant. And that the instruments described were not to be seen, much less obviously used. They also felt that the day the instruments were used was the day that Mary Ann had travelled to Calne and back on the train, and that if she’d suffered the amount of bruising and wounding that day she would not have been able to walk properly. The defence suggested that Mary Ann had suffered a miscarriage, and that Harriet perhaps had attempted to help her evacuate the womb to both improve her health and save her reputation. Or that Mary Ann’s friends and relations may have attempted to do the same, and subsequently accidentally caused her death.

The summing up of the case by the judge was as follows:

His Lordship, addressing the jury, said it was the law of England that a person who, pursuing a felonious intent, brought about the death of another person was guilty of murder. Thus, if this woman endeavoured to procure abortion and in doing so produced Mary Ann’s death, it was murder. But if treating Mary Ann for an innocent purpose and not to procure abortion and death – through her unskilfulness – followed it was not murder but manslaughter. It was important to consider whether drugs and instruments had been used. The doctor had said that an instrument must have been used. Then who used it? Could the poor woman herself or her friends? No suspicion was associated with the friends; and it must be remembered that the deceased and the prisoner were in frequent association.

Whatever actually happened to Mary Ann, and the role of her mother and Harriet in the case, in the end, Harriet was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Her words on hearing the verdict were:

I am not guilty. I am entirely innocent. It is only a vile conspiracy on the part of (Mary Ann’s mother) and her friends. Oh, my lord, I knew no more of her true condition than you did. Oh, my poor children, don’t take me away from them.

It is hard, from a modern perspective, to read this case and not wonder if details were missed, and conclusions drawn on the part of each of the women involved that related to society and women’s expected role within the social structure. Modern investigation and medical practices might also have had a bearing on the case. It may be that Harriet – reportedly a devout Baptist – was entirely innocent, and suffered a miscarriage of justice, or it may be that as a married woman with six children of her own she knew how not have another and applied that knowledge to Mary Ann. What is certain though is that Mary Ann’s death was entirely accidental, and the villain of the piece is neither party, nor the man who made Mary Ann pregnant, but the society that they lived in that both denied women’s sexuality and desire, and vilified women for acting upon them in an entirely natural manner.

Harriet was jailed for ten years for the manslaughter, and sent to Woking prison, many miles away in Surrey. Her husband remained local to Calne and Chippenham, bringing up their children. However, seven years into her sentence Harriet was declared insane and taken to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum until a further order or the expiration of her sentence.

In 1893, when her original sentence ran out, Harriet was taken to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Devizes where she remained indefinitely. It is from their records that we can decipher what had happened to her.

Her insistence of her innocence in the case that had convicted her had by this time become an obsession, and she had been therefore diagnosed of chronic mania with delusions of persecution.

The doctor reports:

Says she is the victim of a conspiracy to deprive her of her liberty – that she is cruelly and shamefully treated by those in authority, preventing her husband and friends communicating with her or to make any effort to alleviate her sufferings: that her trial, sentence and consequent confinement are illegal.

Her confinement and treatment in prison, not surprisingly, appears to have had an extremely detrimental effect on her mental health. Harriet is the only patient at the time not to have a photograph included in the records – she apparently believed that if they took one they might use it against her to persecute her. Reports are that she believed the staff were against her, and that she was a force of good and others were wicked. She read and quoted from the Bible continually, and wrote to committees and asked to be released – which was denied. Victorian psychiatric care being what it was, there is no treatment recorded for Harriet and it appears that their plan was to lock her up until she gave up this insistence of her innocence. She never did.

She somehow collected money while in the asylum, which she intended to use to aid her escape, but it’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There are three incidences of her being caught with money that she should not have had, once while bathing a sovereign disguised as a button was found in her clothes, and another time she was found to have bought epsom salts while out shopping with other inmates in Devizes.

Aside from her mental health, she apparently was a great sportswoman who had a real affinity with animals. She acted as the hospital rat catcher. She was also described as an ardent naturalist – which fits with her plant knowledge as a herbalist.

She was kept in the Wiltshire Asylum for 23 years past the end of her original sentence, and does not ever appear to have given up her claim of innocence. Release, when it occurred, appears to have been unremarkable. She had had some physical health issues and was quietly allowed to return to her husband in the summer of 1915, at the age of 75.

He had been living with his sister and her husband in Oxfordshire, working as a jobbing gardener. They had six years together before he died leaving his assets to her. It’s unknown whether she remained in Oxfordshire for her final years, or lived with one of her children in Bristol, but she died some years after her husband.

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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.

Phillis Dowson’s story

While the internet is full of references – and even the text of – an American version of a Women’s Suffrage Cookbook, published to aid the cause in the States in 1915, the earlier British version is less known and considerably hard to get hold of.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookbook was compiled and edited by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who held up the British tradition of resigning her own name to that of her husband despite her political views, in the early years of the 20th Century. One reference gives its publication as 1908, but several others say 1912, so whichever is right the book was in existence at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign.

The project had two real objectives – to raise funds for the suffrage cause, and to provide quick easy dishes for women to prepare for their family so that they’d have more time for campaigning.

Whether it was her brainchild or not, the book was put together by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who was born Phillis Ellen Heaton Atkinson in 1876 in Frimley, Surrey.

She was one of six children of Edmund Atkinson, an author and professor of physics at one of the Oxford colleges, and his wife Mary—the daughter of Bristol-based soap magnate Christopher J Thomas.

She grew up in Surrey, with a full complement of servants in the household, also spending time in Bristol with her grandfather. Educated well into her teens, she didn’t work afterwards, indicating that the family finances were solid enough for her to devote herself to other pursuits. Her father died in 1900, leaving a considerable amount of money to Phillis’ mother. At the age of 27 — in 1903 — Phillis married Aubrey Osler Dowson.

Aubrey had been a prominent rugby player in his youth—he played forward for New College Oxford and Leicester, and later for Moseley. He also played in the starting XV for England versus Scotland in 1899. By the time he married Phillis he had settled into a career as a glass manufacturer, but perhaps his prominent name was a factor in her choosing to be known by it rather than her own.

Aubrey’s aunt, Catherine Osler, was also well-known suffragist, who was perhaps part of influencing Phillis’s political leanings. Aubrey worked for the Osler family glass manufacturing business, and they probably had close ties with the firm.

Phillis and Aubrey had no children.

By the 1911 census Phillis was fully involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and declared herself as a women’s suffrage philanthropic worker. Her mother also expressed support for the suffrage campaign on her census return.

Many of the recipes in Phillis’s cookbook were drawn from suffrage campaigners working in the Midlands, around the Warwick and Birmingham area where she and Aubrey were living at that time. However, some well-known figures appear in the pages – Millicent Fawcett contributes some recipes, as does Helena Swanwick. She appears to have published nothing else following this cookbook. Phillis became secretary for the Midland Federation for the NUWSS.

Despite being almost 40, Aubrey signed up for military service during the Great War, leaving Phillis alone at home. He survived, but his record is one that was destroyed in a fire.

In later life, Phillis and Aubrey travelled to exotic places—Morocco and Indonesia.

They moved to a farmhouse at Hanging Langford, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, for their last years.

Aubrey died in 1940, but Phillis was not an executor of his will—he left a considerable amount of money to a solicitor and a civil servant.

Phillis outlived her husband by four years. When she died, in 1944, she left £70k to her bank.

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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.

 

Rosanna B’s story

A “cripple” could really mean anything in Victorian terms, but was likely to refer to a person with a physical disability, whether resulting from an accident or something that someone was born with. Rosanna, who came from the small Wiltshire community of Colerne, was described as a cripple in a newspaper article that trumpeted the birth of her triplet daughters while she was an inmate at Chippenham workhouse in 1890. Her physical problem is put in as an after-thought, inserted to make a multiple birth sound more amazing.

She was a twin herself, born in the late 1850s as one of at least 11 children of an agricultural labouring family who worked the Wiltshire fields. She and her twin brother Ambrose were nearly the youngest in the family. She grew up in the rural community, but while her able-bodied siblings were able to find work in the area it appears that Rosanna could not work as easily, and she was often housed in the Chippenham workhouse.

It’s known that Rosanna had several illegitimate children. The triplets were born out of wedlock, and on a previous census return she is in the workhouse with another illegitimate daughter. In addition to these four, there are two other illegitimate girls in the area that bore her surname and might well be her children.

The earliest of these was born when Rosanna would have been around 13 – not impossible, but extremely rare for the time, as 13-year-olds were mostly still considered children and the onset of menses was generally later back then. If so, her disability may have made her unable to remove herself from a situation that resulted in intercourse – with a diagnosis of “cripple” it’s hard to know. This girl, who was named Georgina, died shortly after birth.

The first definite child that Rosanna bore was Lucy, born in 1880 when she was around 20. The 1881 census finds them together in the Chippenham workhouse, with no former profession given for Rosanna – so it’s possible that she was dependent on her parents for income, and their money would have be stretched with another mouth to feed. Sadly, Lucy died at the age of 3.

Another possible child for Rosanna was Minnie, born in 1888, but again she died very young – aged less than a year. This could mean that Rosanna had had three illegitimate daughters by her late 20s. Victorian attitudes towards disability being what they were, she may have been viewed as not a full person and therefore subject to sexual abuse, or it may also mean that the workhouse was perhaps a safer and more stable environment for her than her home, so she repeated the pattern that had her placed there.

The triplets were born in 1890, and named Lily, Violet and Rose. They were all baptised in Chippenham’s central St Andrew’s Church. Sadly, since children from multiple births are usually smaller and weaker than their singleton counterparts, and the care available in the 1890s was a far cry from today, Lily died shortly after birth.

The 1891 census finds Rosanna still in the workhouse, with Violet and Rose both aged 9 months. Rose died shortly afterwards, aged 1, while Violet survived until the following winter. Both were buried alongside their sister in Chippenham’s London Road cemetery. Rosanna was now still destitute, and childless again.

Three years later, however, her fortunes took an upturn. Somehow, she’d met a man – William –who appeared to be in steady employment and decided he would marry her. They wed in the Tabernacle church, where he appeared to be a member of the congregation but not her, in the mid 1890s. They had set up home together before marriage, living in a small dwelling where the town’s job centre modernly sits.

Rosanna had another baby, Maud, a year after the marriage. Sadly this daughter again died shortly after birth. Another daughter (Mabel) and a son (Percy) followed, and these children were the first of Rosanna’s progeny to live past toddlerhood. Percy in fact lived until his 90s, and produced four children of his own, but sadly his younger brother Ernest also died while very young.

Rosanna’ connections at the workhouse enabled William to gain a better job there as the boiler house stoker, which he held for many years. She herself became a dressmaker, and was able to contribute to the family finances while bringing up her remaining children. Later on they ran a boarding house together in the town’s picturesque St Mary Street, a business that her daughter later continued.

William died in his 70s, in the early 1930s, but Rosanna’s death remains elusive. It’s probable that she did not see the beginning of the second world war, however.

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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.

 

Emilie and Mary’s stories

“A recent addition to the industries of the town is the steam laundry,” trumpets the Wiltshire Times about Chippenham in September 1902, “or to give it its correct title the Chippenham Sanitary and Laundry Company Limited. Work was started last week in the new and capacious building which has been erected just outside of the borough boundary in Barley Close. The laundry is the only one of its kind in the neighbourhood, and may be said to supply a long felt want. Already there are 50 customers on the books, and the number is increasing daily.”

Women and washing clothes have been tied together for centuries, with many women falling into the work to make ends meet in hard times or to sustain themselves and their family when they were widowed. However, until the advent of the technology that enabled steam laundries to be established, most laundresses took in extra washing at home to supplement their income and did others’ washing alongside that of their own family.

With the advent of the steam laundry, this practice continued for married women with families who needed extra income. But the steam laundry offered extra employment opportunities for local women, and these were mostly taken by younger women straight out of school, in the time between leaving education and their own marriage.

Working at the steam laundry was considered a respected professional career for a young woman, and – although officially run by men – the day to day life of the business fell to a manageress.

The first manageress of the Chippenham Steam Laundry was Emilie, who had been brought in from a laundry in the South Wales coalfield to manage the premises, and after she moved on to London she was succeeded by a Miss Martin – who remains elusive – in 1906. The third holder of the manageress position was Mary, who took up her place in 1911.

Emilie was born in the mid-1860s in Staffordshire, the youngest of three sisters. Her father ran a bookshop, and the family were decidedly middle-class – which befitted someone who would go on to be the manageress of a workplace.

Her father died when she was only a few months old, and her mother took in boarders to keep a steady income for the family in Wolverhampton. Clearly bright, Emilie and her two older sisters were educated well into their teens, which meant that they were affluent enough to not need to leave school to contribute to the family finances. Later on they even had a domestic servant.

Her oldest sister Florence became a governess initially, which was a career that Emilie and her other sister Annie followed her into, but the advent of the steam laundries offered managerial roles to bright unmarried women of a “decent” background, and both Emilie and Florence were recruited to run a new laundry in the South Wales coalfield at the tail end of the 19th century. Here they shared the manageress role, but it was only Emilie that was recruited to run the new Chippenham laundry in 1902.

After about four years in the Chippenham position, she went to South London to manage another laundry, which would have been a step up from the provincial nature of the Chippenham establishment.

Later on, she moved to the Hastings area to manage a laundry there – again with her sister, sharing the managerial role – and living with her mother and their other sister who were running a boarding house by the sea. Neither she nor her sisters ever married

Emilie died unmarried in her early 50s, just after the end of the first world war. Her sisters continued to live in the Hastings area until the 1950s.

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In contrast, Mary – Chippenham Steam Laundry’s third manageress – came from Norfolk, from a small rural community between the city of Norwich and the coast of East Anglia. She was the eldest of her parents’ ten children, and the family owned a grocers and drapers shop. This shop was clearly successful – their household in 1881, when Mary was four, had a domestic servant and a nursemaid, and her mother had employed the services of a monthly nurse to look after the family while she was lying in in the days following the birth of Mary’s brother Sidney.

Over the next ten years, the family moved south to Worlingworth in Suffolk and took over her paternal grandfather’s wine and spirits, grocers and drapers business in this village, building on the shop’s reputation. Clearly bright, Mary was sent to a girls’ boarding school elsewhere in Suffolk, while the brothers nearest to her in age remained at home.

It’s unclear how Mary’s career began, as her record in 1901 is elusive. As an unmarried woman, she was probably boarding somewhere, and the house owner noted down her details incorrectly. It’s likely that she started on the career towards management of industrial premises – either being employed as a manageress of another laundry or instrumental in some other industry at the time. Her career was a contrast to that of one of her sisters, who only went as far as Ipswich to be employed as a drapers’ assistant.

By 1911 Mary had travelled to Chippenham and taken up position as manageress at the Sanitary Laundry Company. Most of the workforce were women, and the bulk of them were unmarried – either young single women or those who had been widowed. Married women did work as laundresses, but tended to take in extra laundry to do alongside their own to earn money for their family, as going out to work when you were married was frowned upon. Similarly, the manageress position was held by an unmarried woman.

Laundry was collected from around the town by a man with a horse and cart (one of three men employed by the business, one of the others having the job of running the boiler), and received and sorted at the premises. Then the articles went to the wash house, where recent advances in metal rotary machines had resulted in a hydro-extractor, the drying chambers (eight of them), and the ironing room. The washing was then sorted again, ready for dispatch back to its owners by horse and cart. Of this workforce, 29 strong in 1911, Mary was in charge. She would have handled day to day management of her employees, kept an eye on the books, and sorted reordering and maintenance of the services and machines that the laundry offered. She was answerable to the company secretary, in an office elsewhere in the town, but expected to be in charge on the ground.

By the mid-point of the First World War, the laundry offered dyeing, carpet beating, and refitting of shirts – all important parts of a service that would have been done at home before women went into the industrial workforce because of the number of men on army duty.

In 1916, at the age of 40, Mary married Alfred, who had been working in Chippenham as a dental mechanic and false teeth manufacturer. He served as a soldier in the war, and was posted elsewhere. Despite propriety dictating that a married woman shouldn’t really have a job, Mary remained manageress at the laundry.

One of her brothers, Sidney, was killed at the end of the war, dying in France and Flanders just a few weeks before the armistice. Her husband survived, however.

She kept her manageress position until at least 1920, after Alfred returned from fighting, and lived with him on Malmesbury Road. By 1923, however, she’d resigned from the laundry and was not working. Alfred had moved his business up the road to Malmesbury, and Mary was with him as the dentist’s wife.

They don’t appear to have had any children, and by the outbreak of the Second World War they were still living in Malmesbury.

Mary died in 1963, aged 87, in Malmesbury.

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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.

Mary E’s story

The Women Who Made Me recently ran an exhibition at Chippenham‘s Yelde Hall, as part of the British Heritage Open Days celebration, in conjunction with Chippenham Civic Society.

Mary, who sits rather sulkily at the centre of the featured photograph, was one of the women featured.

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It is a misnomer that women rarely worked during Victorian times, and they were often fairly active in the workforce – at least until they married, and were expected to then fulfil their womanly duty by caring for their house, husband and children. Once such role that was often undertaken by women was that of postmistress, the person responsible for organising communications within a town or district.

This role in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham was the preserve of Mary from the mid-1850s onwards, one of six women to have held that job in the town since the late 17th century.

When she was born, in the later part of the 1820s, her paternal aunt held the role. Her father, whose family lived at the post office on the town’s high street, served as the chief clerk. Another of his unmarried sisters lived with them too, as did lodgers and a domestic servant.

Like many in Chippenham at the time, the family were non-conformists and regularly attended the Tabernacle chapel. Mary and five of her siblings were all baptised into this religion.

The family appears to have been deeply involved in local life. The post office sat between a chemist and a drapers, two of her sisters worked as milliners and dress makers, and another married the local saddler.

Mary initially served in the post office as an assistant under her aunt, but became postmistress herself when her aunt retired in 1857. She hadn’t married, which meant that she was able to take up the role. One of her younger sisters became the assistant, and her aunt and widowed father continued to live with them. Her younger brother emigrated to Michigan in America. She and her aunt remained the only members of the family to be counted within the Tabernacle congregation.

Her working hours were extremely long. The post office was open from 7am until 10pm every day, except for Sundays when it was only open from 7am until 10am, and letters to particular places were dispatched at different times of the day. They also offered money orders and savings, and insurance.

Mary took in a nephew after his parents died, and both educated him and raised him to be a carpenter. Later on, she took in a niece too. After her parents died, several post office workers also lodged at their house.

Her aunt died in the early 1870s, and Mary had sole control of the post office. She oversaw the office move in 1874 from the High Street to new bigger premises in the market place, and her staff expand to fourteen – including letter carriers, telegraph boys, postmen, stampers and auxiliary workers – who kept the business and communications of the market town working.

She died early and suddenly one morning in bed, at the tail end of the 1870s, aged 51, and was buried alongside her parents and aunt in the non-conformist burial ground in the town – which now no longer operates as a cemetery. She had given up her role very recently, on account of her health (which was stated as weak throughout her life), and was marking out her time until her replacement came.

Once she had gone, there was no named postmistress or master in the town directories and the family business had ended.

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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.

Hannah Y’s story

Direct marketing isn’t as modern a concept as you perhaps might think. Product placement and endorsement occurred from the late Victorian times onwards, as the benefits of a media hungry and increasingly literate population came to be realised by manufacturers, and advertising their products could have a direct impact on sales.

One such product endorser was Hannah Y, from the north of England, who promoted the use of gas stoves, beef extract, baking powder, gelatine, and,… er… enemas. And she gained such notoriety that her husband changed his name to hers when they married, rather than the other way around.

Born in Birmingham in the late 1850s, Hannah’s father Cornelius was a glass mould maker in the burgeoning industries in the Midlands. She was her parents’ oldest child, and was gradually joined by a succession of siblings – many of them short lived. By the age of 2 the family had left Birmingham for the glass industry at Gateshead in the north east of England, at that point located in County Durham. Here they shared a house with another family, also employed in the glass industry, and Hannah’s mother – also called Hannah – gave birth to four children, two of whom didn’t live to see their second birthday.

With the decline in the glass industry in the north east, the family moved again – this time bringing their three surviving children to Lancashire. Here Hannah studied at school until at least the age of 12, and their family survived again by finding work at the glassworks. After school, Hannah went on to gain a first-class diploma in cookery demonstration and a special merit medal from the Berkhamsted Mechanics Institute. She would have been taught cookery and household management as part of her elementary education, and probably excelled – hence travelling as far away from home as the Home Counties to further her studies as a young, single woman. In the meantime, she gained two more brothers, one who lived and one who did not.

At some point in the 1870s her father changed jobs, first becoming a whitesmith – someone who worked tin – and then working as a gas engineer for Fletcher, Russell & Co in Warrington, who manufactured gas stoves. Gas stoves had been invented in the early part of the 19th century, but did not really take off until pipelines had been installed in most bigger UK cities. Cooking on a gas stove took a different skill to cooking on coal-fired ranges and open fires, as it was far easier to control the heat, and Fletcher, Russell & Co employed Hannah as a demonstrator of these new methods.

She ran a programme of lectures and workshops to show women how to operate the new stoves they had purchased from the company, thus endorsing their wares. This led to a cookery book that she wrote and published in 1886, with the company’s backing and blessing. Called “Domestic cookery: with special reference to cooking by gas” the book gave a selection of recipes that Hannah had developed that were plain, practical and economical, and not high class – perfect for the new owners of gas stoves. The Victorian preference for plain and simple cooking was refined and subtly developed by Hannah’s recipes, and it was reprinted many times in the years that followed.

A second book, Choice Cookery, followed in 1888 when Hannah was around 30. Like the first, this book offered further recipes adapted and refined for gas cookery, and contained adverts for gas stoves, and other appliances, alongside fine leaf gelatine and baking powder – which were used in several of the recipes – and other kitchenwares.

By the early 1890s Hannah had set up home in Sunderland, and married a Lancashire doctor. Unusually for the time, he took her surname to unite the family name rather her taking his. This meant that she did not lose the name she had been making for herself, and thus kept her notoriety and career.

After her marriage, she had business interests in Chester and ran a temperance hotel with an assistant. It was from here that Hannah took mail orders for the kitchen products that she endorsed.

In 1893 her only non-recipe book was published. This, entitled Health Without Medicine, advocates a contraption to give a self-administered enema using water – “nature’s great remedy”. Enemas were often used as a contraceptive by Victorian women at this time, but if this was Hannah’s aim it failed as she gave birth to her daughter the following year, while living in Sunderland.

Hannah’s reputation for new product endorsement led German meat extract manufacturers Liebig to employ her to promote their product in the mid-1890s. Hannah published the Liebig Company’s Practical Cookery Book, which contained many ingenious ways to cook using meat extract. She also spent time back home working in Lancashire, living next to her brother – who was also employed by the gas stove manufacturers.

Her final book, Home Made Cakes and Sweets, was published in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, when she and her family had moved to Cambridgeshire. Here Hannah continued to sell specific ingredients and equipment from home, as well as lecturing and demonstrating cookery, alongside her husband’s work as a general practitioner.

Her daughter grew up and married a doctor, and her husband and son-in-law practiced together in Cambridgeshire, the family living together in one large house. Her husband died in the late 1940s, leaving his money to their daughter. Hannah died about a year later, aged 90.