Celebrating Suffolk's Spice Girls

JENIFER Glynn, being a proper Cambridge historian and all that, probably won't appreciate the analogy with popular culture, but the spirited women she's written about are really Suffolk's very own Spice Girls.

Steven Russell

Suffolk might be quietish but it's never lacked oomph. Steven Russell discovers how a corn merchant's daughters helped shape the face of Britain with their own brand of 'girl power'

JENIFER Glynn, being a proper Cambridge historian and all that, probably won't appreciate the analogy with popular culture, but the spirited women she's written about are really Suffolk's very own Spice Girls.

Back in the 19th Century a woman's lot was very different to today. Life, even for those with jobs, often promised rather more in the way of drudgery than satisfaction. For instance, the 1,740,800 women employed in domestic service in 1900 dwarfed the number of female teachers (124,000), nurses (68,000) and doctors (212).

However, things were changing - and it was some determined East Anglian women who had been rapping on the glass ceilings and walls. Less than 40 years earlier Britain was hostile to the very notion of female doctors; it was a battling pioneer from Suffolk who refused to take no for an answer and became England's first female doctor in the 1870s. Now there are more female medical students than men.

The right to vote was another prize that had to be fought for. It came in stages: legislation in 1918 allowing some women to influence events for the first time, and the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 finally giving women the vote on the same terms as men.

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It's Emmeline Pankhurst and her Suffragettes, whose agitation in the early 1900s was sometimes violent, who usually receive the credit. However, it was a resolute woman born on the Suffolk coast who had paved the way, largely through peaceful persuasion.

Millicent Fawcett began campaigning for women's educational opportunities in 1866 and became president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in the 1890s. Her legacy lives on in the name of the Fawcett Society, which continues the fight for equality between men and women.

Many people are intrigued to discover that she and that pioneering female doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, were sisters - their family rooted in Aldeburgh and Snape.

Jenifer Glynn was certainly surprised to find out. She'd long had a visitors' book, kept by an aunt in Palestine who was married to the attorney-general. There, on March 28, 1928, in firm handwriting, are the names of Millicent Fawcett and another sister, Agnes, then aged 81 and 83.

“The more I learned about the family, the more interested I became in them as a family. They supported each other,” says Jenifer.

A 1864 quotation from Elizabeth alludes to the clan's backbone and drive. “My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it.”

Spending holidays in the Aldeburgh area, Jenifer discovered more about the family, including the fact that the girls' father, Newson, built the maltings at Snape.

Although many folk were aware of the individual achievements of Elizabeth and Millicent, few knew of their backgrounds, reflected the intrigued historian - “and it is the family context, the interaction of the beliefs and ambitions of the six sisters, four brothers and close community of cousins that make the story so absorbing”.

No other family was as active, and successful, on so many fronts as the Garretts, argues Jenifer, with their ideas and leadership having enormous influence. The girls “had their own special mixture of vision, energy and practical persistence . . . Between them they had huge success in tackling frustrations and breaking down barriers”.

Elizabeth and Millicent might steal most of the glory - rightly - but the efforts of sister Agnes and cousin Rhoda helped convince people that women should qualify as architects and run their own businesses.

The story of this accomplished band of females is told in Jenifer's book The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women.

Among the source material, some published for the first time, are letters from the sister Alice, who went to India as the wife of a lawyer and wrote regularly. The correspondence included rich detail about family life.

Father Newson was born in Leiston. He was the third son of Richard Garrett, the successful manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Newson went to London, where he met and married Louisa, and managed his father-in-law pawnbroker's shop in Whitechapel. Two children, Louisa and Elizabeth, were born above the shop.

Newson decided he'd had enough of London and moved his family to Aldeburgh in 1840, the following year buying a corn and coal business at Snape Bridge.

Things went well and a few years later, explains Jenifer, he had warehouses on both sides of the bridge, owned or had shares in about half Aldeburgh's 22 coasting vessels, became the local shipping agents for Lloyds, built his own barges and a gasworks, and took over a local brickworks.

In 1852 Newson built a new mansion for his family and then the maltings at Snape, turning barley from neighbouring farms into the malt needed for beer before shipping it to London and elsewhere. (Oldest brother Richard, meanwhile, was bringing industrial technology to Leiston, building the Long Shop flow-line assembly hall that would churn out portable steam engines.)

Family memoirs show Newson could be loyal, generous and brave, but also intolerant, impulsive and quarrelsome. He'd go on to become Aldeburgh's first mayor and county councillor, and give the town its Jubilee Hall, says Jenifer. Wife Louisa was calm and a good organiser.

“His drive and intelligence, mixed with Louisa's firm morality, had formidable results, firing his whole family with ambition.”

It was the example of Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American college in 1849, who particularly fired Elizabeth Garrett.

However, the Medical Act of 1858 decreed that qualifying meant studying at universities and medical schools, and taking examinations that were closed to women. The Medical Council also changed the rules after Dr Blackwell registered in England: qualifications from America and France were no longer recognised.

Newson exploded when his daughter explained in 1860 that she wanted to study medicine. “The whole idea is so disgusting. I could not entertain it for a moment,” he said. Conditions in hospitals could be appalling, as Florence Nightingale had pointed out.

But he came round quickly, says Jenifer: “ . . . the more he thought, the more he came to realise that Elizabeth, like him, was a fighter, and that as Garretts don't lose fights he must do all he could to help her win”.

While the official line was that no medical school would accept Elizabeth as a student, many folk were sympathetic. William Hawes, a governor of Middlesex Hospital, suggested, for instance, that she spend time on a surgical ward as a nurse.

Jenifer Glynn's book details the struggle and repeated knock-backs as Elizabeth gathered medical experience here and there but found it impossible to break through the impasse.

Ironically, she was very skilled and knowledgeable. Once, as the only person who could answer a ward-round question, she put many of the official students' noses out of joint. They sent a memo complaining about young female spectators in the operating theatre being “an outrage on our natural instincts and feelings”, and “the promiscuous assemblage of the sexes in the same class (being) a dangerous innovation likely to lead to results of an unpleasant nature”.

Eventually, a glimmer of light appeared. The Society of Apothecaries was licensed to examine medical candidates; it had never before examined a woman, but unlike the royal colleges had no law against it.

There were, inevitably, more hurdles and setbacks to overcome, but eventually the long battle was won.

“Elizabeth had been the only one to get through the net,” says Jenifer. “In 1865 she was able to put up her brass plate, 'Elizabeth Garrett L.S.A.', (Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries) on a house in Upper Berkeley Street rented and furnished for her by Newson.” Her name would appear on the medical register a year later.

The momentum was unstoppable: in 1876 an Act would allow women to train and to practise as doctors, alongside men.

The mid-1860s were momentous times for another Garrett: Millicent. Sisters Louisa and Elizabeth had both moved to London, and visiting brought the chance to meet people with radical political opinions.

In 1865 Louisa and husband James took Millicent to hear a speech by the MP John Stuart Mill, who was arguing for the vote to be extended to working men and also to women. Millicent would later write that she was a suffragist “from my cradle, but this meeting kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for it”.

One of Mill's supporters was a blind Liberal Party politician and Cambridge academic called Henry Fawcett, who proposed to Millicent in 1866. They married the following year.

In 1868 Millicent joined the London Suffrage Committee, and by the early 1880s had emerged as one of the leaders of the movement. She was also passionate about the education of women, and was heavily involved in the organisation of women's lectures at Cambridge. Millicent was at the centre of the early planning and growth of Newnham College in the early 1870s.

The third-most prominent of the Garrett sisters was Agnes, who made her mark in design.

She and cousin Rhoda both turned out to have natural taste, “but where they stand out as different from most of their contemporaries is their emphasis on the importance of thorough professional training and their ambition to be their own masters. They wanted to do more than practise 'the humble art of house decorators', painting the doors, shutters, and other woodwork with various kinds of designs, coats of arms, etc. after a few courses at an art school.”

By the time she was 26 and her cousin 30, Agnes decided the pair of them should get themselves apprenticed to a London architect. Daniel Cottier was prepared to give them some training. They spent about 18 months with him and the same time with another architect.

In the mid-1870s they launched R&A Garrett House Decorators, and published in 1876 a book of ideas about painting, woodwork and furniture for the “cultivated middle classes” - how elegance could be achieved without great cost.

“Without William Morris' love for the medieval and the gothic, and with more feeling for comfort, they strongly shared his belief in good craftsmanship and unity of design, and his dislike of anything shoddily mass-produced.”

Jenifer feels it's a shame the cousins' Gower Street house in London has a blue plaque remembering Millicent, who lived there later, but no mention of Agnes and Rhoda. “Yet it has been claimed that in their day they 'came to be seen as influential on a par with Morris and Co in spreading new and artistic ideas of taste in the home from the 1870s'.”

Elizabeth's contribution to medicine is being celebrated in the new Garrett Anderson Centre at Ipswich Hospital. The name of the multi-million-pound treatment centre was chosen in a competition. It's fitting, as Elizabeth was elected president of the East Anglian branch of the British Medical Association in 1897.

Should Suffolk do more to keep memories alive of these remarkable women?

“I just wonder whether it might be good if there were something at Snape to commemorate the whole family,” feels Jenifer Glynn. “There are portraits of Newson and some of his workers, which are splendid, but I think that is all. Few visitors know who built the maltings, or what the family achieved. Perhaps a plaque in the concert hall, or something of the sort, might help.”

The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women is published by Hambledon Continuum at £30. ISBN 978-1847252074

The two most famous Garrett daughters

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

Married James Anderson, a London ship owner, in 1871

Daughter Louisa became a well-known campaigner for women's suffrage

In 1866 Elizabeth opened St Mary's dispensary in Marylebone, where she launched a medical service specifically for women and taught medical courses for other women

It was renamed the New Hospital for Women in 1872

Elizabeth retired from medicine and moved back to Suffolk in 1902

She became mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908 at the age of 71 - the first female mayor in the country

After her death, the New Hospital became the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital

Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929)

Born in Aldeburgh

Although she admired the bravery of the suffragettes, she thought militant acts would alienate otherwise-sympathetic people. Millicent argued that the vote should be won by peaceful campaigns for law changes

After the war she wrote books such as The Women's Victory and What I Remember

The other sisters - Louisa, Agnes, Alice and Josephine - were less prominent but, says author Jenifer Glynn, were closely involved with the radical interests of the family

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