Let’s hear it for the girls!
His ancestors fled religious persecution and settled in Essex. Now he’s striving to end the modern-day harrying of Essex Girl by the ignorant and easily-led. George Courtauld tells STEVEN RUSSELL why the jokes just aren’t funny
THE tottering onto our TV screens of The Only Way is Essex must surely have been like a red rag to a bull for a man desperate to neutralise the stereotype of an Essex girl. Launched only 16 months ago, but currently enjoying its fourth series on ITV2, it features fake-tanned men and women whose lives revolve around beauty salons, nightclubs and wine bars and who – if we wanted to be uncharitable – could be described as somewhat shallow. But, no, George Courtauld is far from incandescent at this televisual portrayal. He’s chairman of Essex Women’s Advisory Group, which supports local females and is trying its darndest to trump Essex Girl jibes by accentuating the positives.
“It upset a lot of the women on my board,” he admits of the arrival of TOWIE, as the show is known in shorthand media-speak. “I looked at it for a few moments – only for a few moments, because I thought it was pretty boring, actually – but I thought the girls were rather sparky and jolly.”
He has a theory about why the programme has its detractors.
“I think part of it is snobbery – you know, because they’re all working class and less drab than some of their equivalents up north, and they were enjoying themselves. I didn’t mind it, actually. You are what you are, and if you’re enjoying life and you’re attractive, why not?”
EWAG’s origins can be found in a letter George wrote four years ago or so, with the group proper existing for about three years now.
“Basically, it was a spin-off from The Prince’s Trust [the charity that helps change young lives],” he explains.
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“I was chairman of the Essex Prince’s Trust and we had a very wide collection of talents on the board: businessmen, people who were involved in education, and above all the police, who supplied �40,000 a year and supplied the vice-chairman, who was a terrific woman called Assistant Chief Constable Carmel Napier, who is now in charge of the police in Gwent.
“Anyhow, The Prince’s Trust under ‘Fred the Shred’” – that’s Fred Goodwin, the discredited former head of ailing bank RBS and who has just had his knighthood confiscated – “decided that all the 8,000 volunteers with the trust would basically be relieved of their main duties and set to on fund-raising; and the duties of PR would all be done by headquarters.”
There were “various other things, which we didn’t entirely agree with,” says George. “But I mustn’t say that The Prince’s Trust is any the worse for it. It’s a super organisation.
“But Carmel Napier and I did see that this left untended certain problems which Essex girls have got; and there were other problems which the Essex trust wasn’t dealing with, anyhow, such as brutality from girls’ partners, and even the self-esteem of Essex girls.
“So we decided we’d set up a spin-off, addressing about 12 main problems, and the spin-off rapidly expanded – mainly because we got people from the outside, like the Women’s Institute and Girlguiding.
“We eventually broke away completely from The Prince’s Trust, but we have a representative from the trust in Essex on the board.”
EWAG seeks to support women and girls by:
• Promoting self-esteem by giving Essex females pride in their county and its people.
• Addressing the needs of local females needing help.
• Supporting teaching and training in commerce, the arts and sports.
It’s also created an endowment fund to assist Essex-based “female charities” and to help Essex females become successful in business. The group has just given �500 to women’s havens in the county. “I’m afraid Essex Man is sometimes not good to his women.” It will help train some folk and boost their chances of landing a job.
Money – �250 – has also been given to local Girlguiding.
George concedes the past three years have seen some “fairly frantic” financial campaigning – crucial, because money is vital in fulfilling its work, and ironic “because we broke away from The Prince’s Trust in order that we wouldn’t be devoting our time just to fund-raising!”
Those efforts have brought in more than �50,000 – through a variety of ideas ranging from quizzes to a “Day for the Girls of Essex” at Hylands Park in Chelmsford.
Then there was the little book Essex Girls Limericks, a celebration of Essex Girl and some of the places where she lives. Most of the ditties were written by the chairman.
They are intended as an affectionate tribute. “Obviously we didn’t want to strengthen the image which we’re rather trying to spoil – that the Essex girl is an idiot, promiscuous twit – so I wrote the limericks on our lovely Essex village names.”
Quite. That unfortunate stereotype is unfair and negative.
“It would be impossible to get rid of the blonde bimbo jokes, but what we do want to do is to point out she’s also possibly gone to one of the three best schools in England” – that’s Colchester County High School for Girls – “and that she’s an entrepreneur, she’s witty, she’s delightful, she’s good-looking. She’s got to be admired, rather than giggled about.”
In harnessing the positives, EWAG aims to push negative connotations into the shadows. It holds up examples of women with Essex links who have achieved high-profile success, such as plantswoman, garden designer and author Beth Chatto; former EastEnders star Kara Tointon; singer Alison Moyet; former Olympic champion Sally Gunnell; actress Juliet Stevenson, and crime writer Ruth Rendell.
So why have Essex girls suffered all these cheap shots?
“I’ve got my own theories,” says George. “There have always been the dumb blonde jokes. Quite frankly, men apparently find blondes more attractive and men make jokes about things they can’t get at. So many blonde-girl jokes are generally, as I said to my grandchildren, invented by schmucks, told by nerds and believed by wallies.
“All the Essex girls I know are clever, beautiful and charming.”
There are other reasons.
“Essex Man is an entrepreneur. We’re not a county of aristocrats; we’re a county of merchants and entrepreneurs – the sort of chap who makes his own money, wears gold chains and votes for Teresa Gorman [the former Conservative MP for Billericay], has an exotic wife who’s dolled up to the nines, and that annoys other people. Pure jealousy. That’s my theory.”
As well as EWAG banging the drum in an attempt to bolster self-esteem and aspiration, its donations help in practical ways.
Trouble is, he says, the �50,000 it’s raised produces annual income of only about �2,500 to give away, ”which is a pretty measly sum, really”. Necessity is thus proving the mother of invention. A recent book by board member David Starling, telling the stories of Essex boats and yachts with girls’ names, has so far made �4,000 for the coffers. An anthology about notable Essex women is in mind. “All I need is about �10,000 to publish it!” It will include the county’s four queens, five saints and articles on suffragettes.
Already being arranged to help raise funds is the Essex Vintage Festival at Hylands Park in the summer of 2013. “Apart from the publicity, the fact we are able to hand out even the small sum of �2,500 a year is in its own way hugely positive,” says George.
A long-term dream is to have staff available to take queries from women who need help. Again, cash is the key.
“We want to get ourselves into a position where we can bid for money for schemes which help women. For example, there’s an EU scheme called the Daphne III programme which has millions of euros.”
The oddly-named initiative aims to shield children, young people and women from violence “and attain a high level of health protection, well-being and social cohesion”.
By the way, seeing as EWAG is about helping women, does anyone ever say to the chairman “Hang on! You’re a man!”
“Yes; lots of people,” he chuckles. “They say ‘Did you found this thing because you’re secretly a lecherous brute and want to see more women?!’”
He’s offered to retire several times and hand the reins to a female, but recognises that the women on the board are invariably so busy doing their own jobs that “a spare man like me, theoretically retired” comes in handy.
Mind you, George says, he’s now 73. “They’ll soon start thinking I’m looking more and more like Father Christmas!”
Part of the fabric of Essex
GEORGE Courtauld’s family is, literally, part of the fabric of Essex.
His forebears were Huguenot refugees – French Protestants facing religious persecution – who settled at Pebmarsh in 1780 and started a textiles enterprise. The business expanded into nearby Halstead, Braintree and Bocking, and became the largest textile company in the world.
By 1860 it was giving work to about 3,000 local people. In 1870, George’s great-grandfather employed 800 men from the factories to “encourage” folk to vote Liberal in the rotten borough of Maldon, where he was standing – and where he triumphed.
George himself, Essex born and bred, worked for Courtaulds, though from 1904 it had no longer been a family-run concern. “I slightly got fed up, when I had a good idea, being told ‘It’s not a family business anymore’,” he admits.
He did work at one time in the Courtaulds mill at Halstead, which closed nearly 30 years ago. “I wove my own pyjamas!”
Work took him to Coventry, Manchester and Bradford, and then he was offered a job as Queen’s Messenger, which he found fascinating.
Queen’s Messengers are couriers for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office who carry secret and important documents to our embassies and consulates – diplomatic baggage being protected from prying eyes by international agreement.
George did it for nearly 20 years, travelling 3.5-million miles “on funny business”.
He also served as an independent councillor in the Braintree district, and after retiring as a Queen’s Messenger was High Sheriff for a year. He’s now Vice Lord-Lieutenant for Essex – part of the civic machinery that represents the Queen in the county and upholds the dignity of the Crown.
On top of that, George lives and farms near Halstead, has had five books published – including tales about his travels as a Queen’s Messenger to places such as Mongolia, China, the Persian Gulf and Chile – and is grandfather to 11 children.