Ipswich: Clara, Harriet, Sophie... all women of substance
- Credit: Archant
With International Women’s Day having just been celebrated, it’s a perfect time, suggests STEVEN RUSSELL, to remember some inspirational females from Ipswich
A PROLIFIC 18th Century novelist who overcame her family’s disapproval to support herself through writing… an archaeologist who had to sit behind a curtain while a male colleague read out her report… an early female pilot… the first publicly-elected woman in Ipswich – all figures woven into the fabric of the town.
About 20 remarkable females who have contributed to Ipswich life – sometimes with scant recognition – are celebrated and honoured in the Ipswich Women’s History Trail.
A 75p booklet containing details of the trail was launched in the darkening months towards the end of last year. With the days now lengthening, it’s a good time to venture forth and see where these inspirational women lived and worked.
Those featured include:
n Novelist Clara Reeve (born 1729) who lived in Carr Street and published 24 volumes over 33 years
n Mildred Sims, who lived in Fonnereau Road and was the first woman doctor in Ipswich, practising between 1898 and 1911. She was well-known for treating people who couldn’t afford to pay
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n Judith Hayle, the only identified 17th Century English teacher of needlework
n Nina Layard (born 1853) who is credited with the first archaeological excavations of the Dominican friary in Foundation Street, at the end of the 1800s.
It is she who is said to have had to remain behind a curtain in 1906 while a male colleague presented to the Society of Antiquarians of London her paper on the Hadleigh Road Anglo-Saxon site.
Fortunately, times were changing, and in 1921 Nina was one of the first four women admitted to the society as a Fellow.
n Harriet Grimwade, Ipswich’s first publicly-elected woman, who in 1880 became a member of the school board
n Fore Street baker’s daughter Edith Maud Cook (born 1878), who became a balloonist, parachutist and early female pilot
n Eliza Acton, who in the 1840s wrote the first domestic cookery book, in which measured ingredients were listed for the first time, along with the method
n The Rev Winifred Brown, who in 1943 became the first woman church minister in Ipswich
n Olive Turney, who worked as a taxi driver for Egertons in Northgate Street during the First World War and later became a lorry driver for engineering firm Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies. In 1918 she wrote a diary that included observations about the role of women, road conditions in town, and strikes
n Sophie Youngman, first headmistress of Ipswich High School for Girls, which opened in 1878. She led it for 21 years and changed local prejudice and public opinion about education for girls
n Victorian novelist and poet Jean Ingelow, who came to the town at the age of 14 when her father took over as manager of the Ipswich and Suffolk Banking Company in Elm Street. Although her fame declined to almost nothing after she died, her books are still in print and there’s a Jean Ingelow Society in America
n Mary Whitmore, who in 1946 became the town’s first female mayor. Her interest in politics had begun with the suffragette movement
The trail has been compiled, with the support of Ipswich council, by Ipswich Women’s Festival Group – a body keen to promote and celebrate women’s achievements. Member Pat Dobson says the trail builds on a leaflet from the 1980s – the fruit of work by a community education women’s history group.
“That leaflet had been around for quite a while and clearly needed updating, so we started, a couple of years ago, to do that.”
The first step was a “100 years on” celebration of an action on census night, 1911, organised by Ipswich suffragette Constance Andrews.
Basically, up to 30 women occupied the Old Museum rooms and held an all-night gathering to avoid appearing on census forms – on the basis that “if women don’t count, don’t count women”.
A century on, about 150 women attended the celebration at Arlingtons brasserie, which today occupies the former museum site and building. “Having raised a bit of money, we decided we’d update the booklet,” says Pat.
The nine members of the group carried out extensive research over a couple of years or so – some at Suffolk Record Office and also further afield, such as through the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Although the booklet is out (it can be bought from the Ipswich tourist information centre in St Stephen’s Lane) the work carries on. By summer, a website should be running. It will give more information about some of the historic women (only a limited amount could be included in the booklet) and invite people to add any extra details they know. Visitors can also nominate other local women they believe deserve acknowledgement.
Then – on Sunday, June 23 – the group is holding a “tea-walk” as part of the Ip-art festival. For £7.50, people will get a copy of the booklet, can walk the trail at their own pace, and enjoy tea at Arlingtons. Then, at about 4pm, there will be a short talk and presentation at the brasserie. Tickets can be booked through Arlingtons on 01473 230293.
It will further publicise the trail, which is designed to raise in the public consciousness the achievements of women who often had to overcome convention and social pressures.
“It was really shocking how little some of us knew about some of them!” admits Pat. “A lot of these people were almost hidden from history, really.”
Does she have any favourites?
“I’ve got a few I’m quite fond of. There’s Anna Airy – who I think was quite a feisty individual! – who was a World War I artist, commissioned to do a lot of paintings. There’s a lot of her work in the Imperial War Museum. She was quite a character; very forceful, I think.”
Another, ironically, is not well known in her native Suffolk but is lauded on the other side of the Atlantic.
Lilian Redstone was the first Ipswich and East Suffolk Joint Archivist and her efforts are seen as the foundation of Suffolk Record Office. She was presented with the MBE in 1919 for her work in the historical records section of the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War.
During the second war she preserved records by moving them to safety.
“Apparently, she’s revered in the United States because she did a lot of work on (14th Century author and poet Geoffrey) Chaucer. If you look at American websites, she’s cited. Amazing, isn’t it?”