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."

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