13th June 2009
Why am I interested in these obscure women, and why do I think it is important to find the trajectory of their lives? Carmen Atkinson is a perfect example of a woman who is not remembered on the internet- google her and there is nothing. In fact she almost appears to want to obscure the record, changing her given name time and again. However in her two public utterances- asking for girls to be allowed to take the University Local Exams, and signing this petition- she was putting herself forward in support of controversial issues concerning women’s rights. In her professional life as a school proprietor in Brighton she keeps her name Carmen Atkinson, even though as a private individual she uses the anglicised form.
One of the puzzles of the petition- which led to the founding of the early suffrage societies the next year, was that of the hundreds of school mistresses who signed only a handful appear as members or subscribers to those societies (For example Miss Buss and Elizabeth Wolstenholme ) I suspect that the publicity resulting from the distribution of the document to the press and MPs could have had a devastating effect on the businesses that these women in particular were running.- If you thought the idea was ridiculous would you want your daughters teacher to support it?
The trajectory of Carmen’s life – glimpsed through the census- lends some credibility to that idea. After 1866 she moves to Brighton. Her husband may be commuting to visit her from Barnards Inn, but they are living apart. He has a respectable job as Clerk in the Bank of England, From 1881 they both describe themselves as widowed. Was this separation encouraged by her public stand on women’s rights?
Of course she had been running a school in the family home from at least 1864- and in their early married life they had lived on his private means in Devon (1851 census). So, unusually , she was a businesswomen and her husband was in a good job and also perhaps had other means. She did not have to work, yet perhaps she chose to educate young girls, and took an interest in improving that education. (However the early results lists of the University Local Exams do not show her entering any successful pupils)
So we have just any bright young Spanish woman, daughter of an army officer, arriving in Devon by 1834, marrying at the age of 19 a well to do young Bank Clerk (Their son’s record at Oxford suggests that Charles John Atkinson’ father was a knight.) having three sons and a daughter and going on to set up a school in the family home. She supports two women’s causes publicly. Then/And she separates from her husband, and in Brighton sets up two more schools, one for boys then one for girls. Her widowed mother Asuncion Navarrete lives with her throughout her life in England, dying aged nearly 90, and we leave her in 1901 living in a Convalescent Home for Gentlewomen in Folkestone.
Is this just a forgotten life, or is it remarkable?