Sunday, 22 August 2010

Three Spinsters in Margate

At Burleigh House ,13 Cecil Street, Margate, there was a girl's school run by two sisters, Josephine Theakston Waude and Helen Waude. With their older step sister Isabella Theakston they signed the petition. In 1866 they were 36 and 32 years old. They had 24 boarders in 1861. They were interested in improving the standard of the education they could offer their pupils, because in 1864 Josephine had signed the petition to the Syndics of Cambridge University asking that girls should also be permitted to take the University Local Examinations. This petition was successful and by 1867 girls from across the country were taking the exams. However by 1871the sisters were on the move and their step-sister Isabella Theakston ( Who dwelt with them , but lived off her own means) had moved to stay with her elder sister Martha Sprunt .

These are single women who were in the fortunate position of being well provided for. They were able to start a school, but were not dependent on it for a livelyhood. Their mother Sarah had married twice, both times to coach builders in the [Old?] Kent Road, Southwark. By her first husband John Theakston she had Martha and Isabella and a boy John who had only lived 7 weeks. Martha was the only sister to marry- her husband was publican of the Coach and Horses in Greenwich Market , then worked as a clerk for a gas company before becoming a Licenced Victualler.
John Waude's two daughters were born in Southwark and their father died in 1850. He appears to have been a very successful coach maker, working in fine materials (there is an Old Baily trial where he gives evidence when his stock was stolen) The girls moved to Rose Hill, Ash near Canterbury and in 1851n census are described as Independent Proprietors of houses. By 1881 Helen, Josephine and Isabella moved to Westmoreland.

The three women lived out the rest of their lives at Raven Bank, Staveley near Kendal. The house still exists and is a substantial stone house in leafy grounds, built in 1851. Isabella died first, then Josephine- each leaving several thousand pounds to their sisters. The last sister to die left over £17,000 to a Mr Thorp.

These unmarried sisters appear to have been unusual, in that they were well provided for. Their widowed mother had made a prudent second marriage, and Mr Waude, and possibly Mr Theakston also, had invested in property which provided an steady income for the girls. They had run a school for a number of years- was this in lean times when rents were low perhaps. But unlike many of the single women who signed the petition in 1866, their lives for the next five decades were comfortable and secure (Or did they shiver in their Lakeland home, huddling in one room, economising on everything, property rich but income poor???)

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Elizabeth Wilmshurst French and other Kent women

I have been asked by a friend to give her a list of women who signed the petition in East Sussex and Kent. She belongs to a local W.I and will ask around among her friends there who will be interested. I started the job yesterday and at once got sidetracked by the women I bumped into on the way.

The hamlet of Collier Street near Maidstone was the first. The three women who signed there represent a cross section of those who would benefit from the Vote. Eleanor French was a farmer, a widow with young children who ran her hop farm of 40 acres employing 8 men and 4 boys in 1861. She was fortunate not to be a tenant farmer in an area where the landlord was also the MP relying on her for her vote. Farmer's widows would routinely loose their tenancies and living if this was the case. As it was she ran the farm for many years until her son took it over.
Mrs Elizabeth Worsley was the wife of the village grocer and wheelwright. In 1861 she had 6 children at home, as well as two boarders and one servant. Her eldest daughter aged 20 was working in the grocer's shop. Unmarried, Miss Wilmshurst French lived at Den Farm with her widowed father. I knew more about Miss French than many of the women, but that little knowledge is tantalising. Imagine a small collection of scattered cottages along a winding lane- a small church about half way along, in an agricultural landscape that in 1866 consisted of apple orchards and hopfields. The churchyard is overgrown, and Elizabeth's tombstone, (when I returned for a second visit to photograph it) had been turned on its face by vandals. She was born in 1832 and died on October 11th 1869. She published a book called "Pebbles and Shells" in 1858 (Now unavailable?) And she was one of the hundreds of forgotten women whose voice has survived... Buried in the Mill Taylor papers in the LSE are two letters from her to JSMill's stepdaughter Helen Taylor, and a draft of a reply .

On March 28th 1868 she responds to a request for signatures for a new petition by apologising for the fact that she has no friends to ask...." hetrodoxy of all sorts is so plainly written on my mere appearance that everyone is on his guard against me....My offence is in the fact that I wear trousers, a useful garment..." She has been wearing bloomers for many years. Helen Taylor in her draft reply says that 'fine dress is our armour' and apparently encouraged by a supportive response in the second letter Elizabeth advocates birth control as a way in which women can take control of their own well being. Elizabeth French had also sent a one woman petition to Parliament in 1867 asking for women to be included in the Franchise bill which John Stuart Mill had presented to the House. When writing to Helen Taylor she mentioned that she was unwell and her death followed shortly afterwards.

When writing of her unusual costume, she said "I have been a trouble to my father, a grief to my friends, ... an object of much looking and a little pelting wherever I wend my solitary way" so I was touched when I read the inscription that father had engraved on her tombstone. "In affectionate remembrance of a beloved daughter, Elizabeth Wilmshurst French who died October 11th 1869 aged 37 years Time is short, Eternity long"

Elizabeth French is someone who has haunted me throughout the years of my research- an extraordinary woman living out and attempting to share her radical beliefs in an isolated situation.
She saw that "the men have the Bible at their tongues end from Genesis to Paul's epistles and the women are cowed and silent. I doubt if I ever knew a woman who dared so much as sign a petition without the approbation of the men , husband or other, who determined the amount of cash she had in her purse and whose temper governed her. Whether women get enfranchisement or not, they need it."