New Dates for 2017

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I’m delighted to be adding some new dates for Notorious Women of Brighton and Notorious Women of Hove walks to the Brighton Fringe Festival again this year.  This Spring will also see the return of Notorious Women of Kemp Town!  I’m doing a mixture of ‘official’ tours and ‘pop-up’ tours this time.   You can purchase tickets for the official tours from the Fringe box-office as usual or just turn up, but you need to let me know if you intend to come to a pop-up tour via this website as they will be weather and interest-dependent.  Details below…

Notorious Women of Brighton…

Wilful princesses, Music Hall stars, headstrong courtesans, entrepreneurs, Brighton has always attracted women who dare do things differently. Hear some of their stories and other female claims to fame.  Starts St Nicholas Church, Dyke Road, Brighton, BN1 3LJ.  1.5 hrs. £7.50/6.50

Fringe Tours -Sunday mornings 7th, 14th, 28th May, 4th June at 10.30am

Pop up tours – Thursday evenings 11th and 25th May at 6.30pm.

Notorious Women of Hove…

Hove has been home to women whose ideas have shaken up our world – from some of Britain’s first women doctors to suffragettes, campaigners to boundary shifting entertainers. Walk in their footsteps and hear their amazing stories on this tour. Starts in St Ann’s Well Gardens, BN3 1PL. 1.5 hrs.

Fringe Tours – Saturday mornings 6th, 13th, 27th May, 3rd June at 10.30am,

Tuesday mornings 9th, 23rd May at 10.30am, Tuesday evenings 9th, 23rd, May at 6.30pm

Pop up Tour – Wednesday evening 7th June at 6.30pm.

Notorious Women of Kemp Town

From Ladies to ladies, scientists to sportswomen, Kemp Town has inspired some incredible women. Hear how worlds as diverse as policing, fashion, education, shopping and the arts were shaken by local women on this gentle walk. Starts at St George’s Church, BN2 1ED. 1.5 hrs.

Three special pop up tours only – Tuesday evening 16th May at 6.30pm

Saturday afternoons 27th May, 3rd June at 2pm.

For official Fringe Tours book at brightonfringe.org, call 01273 917272 or just turn up on the day.

Pop up tours are weather and interest dependent.  Please let me know if you would like to come by emailing me at historywomenbrighton@outlook.com or calling 07758 296563.

See you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Walking Tours! Get in Touch with Brighton and Hove’s Feminine Side…

I am really happy to have just started working in partnership with Visit Brighton.  New tours, new information – all accessible here:  http://www.visitbrighton.com/things-to-do/history-women-brighton-p1187231?purgepage=true  Or carry on reading…

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Get in touch with Brighton and Hove’s feminine side on a walking tour with Royal Pavilion and Museums guide, Louise Peskett. Discover an alternative view of the city illustrated by the stories of the incredible, outrageous, and brilliant women of its past.

Join me on a gentle 90 minute walk:

History Women Brighton – Women soldiers, music-hall stars and rebellious princesses come alive on this stroll from central Brighton’s oldest church through the Lanes, Pavilion Gardens and Brighton’s Cultural Quarter, finishing at the Theatre Royal.

History Women Hove Starting in central Hove’s St Ann’s Well Gardens and proceeding through the area’s grandest squares to the seafront, this walk follows the footsteps of some of Britain’s first women doctors, suffragettes, social campaigners and artists, and takes in a pioneering women’s hospital and game-changing girls’ school.

History Women Kemptown – Hear how worlds as diverse as policing, fashion, education, and corsets were influenced by women who once lived in this atmospheric and historic suburb of Brighton! Starts at St George’s Church.

Victorian Working Class Brighton – During the nineteenth century the Queen’s Park/Hanover area developed as a vibrant and lively working-class district. Join me to discover traces of these long-gone communities in old shops, pubs, slipper-baths, the work-house, and school. Starts at St Luke’s Church.

The Royal Pavilion Estate – A visit inside the Royal Pavilion is a Brighton ‘must-do’ but what about the outside? This hour’s walk around the Royal Pavilion Gardens and surrounds explores the creation of this beautiful green space, the history of the Gardens, its adjoining gates and buildings, and its First World War legacy.

No group too small. Too long? Too short? Let me tailor a walk to your requirements.

All walks available in French. TEFL trained, I am experienced in guiding in simple English to language students and people without fluent English. All levels catered for. Language students welcome!

Don’t want to walk? I offer the above walks – and more – as seated, illustrated lectures. Let me visit your group and enjoy the stories from the comfort of a chair. Full list on my website www.historywomenbrighton.com.

All walks will go ahead at pre-set times during the Brighton Fringe in May 2017 as usual and, hopefully, if the weather forecast looks good, in Spring.  Check here or drop me an email if you’d like to be on my mailing list.  See you soon!

Sisterhood in the Stone Age

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What was life like for our grandmothers one and a half million years ago?  How did they cope with (ahem, cough, cough) ‘women’s things’ in the days before Always With Wings and TV adverts made us believe that menstruating women suddenly turned into  rollerskaters and white jeans wearing disco dancers?  It wasn’t until I was asked at the last minute to prepare a talk on the subject of menstruation in the Stone Age recently that I thought I’d better do some reading around it…   The event, called ‘Women. Period’, held at Hove’s Regency  Town House, promised to reveal how our foremothers dealt with ‘the curse’.   It looked at attitudes towards (and some of the names given to)  Aunty Flo’s Monthly Visitor around the world, as well as showing a fascinating animated instructional film aimed at young women produced by Walt Disney in 1946, ‘The Story of Menstruation’.   Other delights included a look at some…. well, interesting gadgetry our Victorian sisters would have to struggle with during her ‘Lady Time’.   Harnesses?  Rubber straps?   It’s a good job rollerskates hadn’t been invented.  As, just the previous week, I’d seen a young woman in a shop visibly cringe while buying a box of Tampax  and wondered for the millionth time why, in the twenty-first century, while taboos drop like flies around sex and other bodily functions that used to raise a blush, periods should still be such an embarrassment, this fun and interesting event wasn’t before time.    Incidentally, since the event I’ve come across a fascinating article in the Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/menstruation-study-finds-over-5000-slang-terms-for-period-a6905021.html) , looking at some of the amazing euphemisms for the time-of-the-month from around the world.  Tops for me had to be ‘Der Er Kommunister I Lysthuset’ (‘There are communists in the fun house’ – Thank you, Denmark) and, oddly, from France, ‘Les Anglais ont debarqué’ (The English have landed’)

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Then there was me, an absolute Stone Age novice, trying to surmise how things went 2.5 million years ago.  I have to say a big thank you to my colleague at Brighton Museum, Su Hepburn, the original guest for the evening, who handed me her notes on this.  Su found out that the main difference between Stone Age women and us is that they menstruated far less.   Today’s modern, industrialised woman can expect a total of 450 periods in her life compared to perhaps 50 for our Stone Age ancestors.  One of the reasons was that girls started to menstruate much later.  It’s thought that menarche occurred at the average age of 16 rather than 12 today.  Women also gave birth earlier (at 19 rather than today’s early to mid 20s) and had more children (up to about 6 live births per mother).  Also, it’s believed that breastfeeding would continue until the child reached 5 (in comparison, the last NHS Infant Feeding Survey revealed only 1% of babies were being breastfed in this country after 6 months).  Of course, we can’t be completely accurate with facts and figures when we’re talking about people’s lives in 10,000 BCE, and the term ‘Stone Age’ covers over 3 million years during which time people progressed – in this country, at least – from being wholly nomadic to having the opportunity to live in relatively settled and more hierarchically organised communities, enjoying a more varied diet.  It’s generally thought, however, that our ancestors would have had less body fat and could have been deficient in things that keep us healthy today.

What’s certain, though, is that women’s lives were busy and often brutal.  Not only was there the average 6 children to think about, the relentless breastfeeding, and, with a typical life expectancy of 40, not so many grandmother figures around to help with childcare, their lives also consisted, according to Rosalind Miles in the ‘The Women’s History of the World’ (1989), of food gathering, hunting smaller prey, instructing children, making garments, cooking, tool making, possibly weaving grasses and other materials to make containers to store and carry food, erecting and pulling down living quarters as they moved to follow harvests and food sources.  Although the term ‘hunter-gatherer society’ puts the emphasis on the hunting part of the equation as the most important and difficult contribution made by men, the ‘gathering’, far from the passive picking at berries and leaves it connotes, required enormous skill and great knowledge of what was edible and what to do with it.  Ensuring that food was provided for the family every day, not just on the days when animals had been successfully hunted, required climbing trees, digging, grinding, travelling long distances and carrying things back.  And it’s thought that women did their share of hunting too, either in their own right or alongside the men.

So, although it probably didn’t come round on a monthly basis, how did our grandmothers manage all this while they were menstruating?  Grasses, animal skins, moss, leaves?  Practicality-wise, they must have come up with something that allowed them to roam long distances, climb trees, and do everything else necessary for survival.  Anthropologists from more recent times have observed hunter gatherer people easily fashioning slings and bags to transport children and foodstuffs.  Who’s to say our fore mothers didn’t come up with an early type of sanitary belt, of the type women who went to school in the ’70s and ’80s remember being shown in the sex education lessons as an alternative to the new-fangled adhesive pads?   (In my class two girls actually fainted at the sight of the elastic trusses we’d just been told we’d soon be wearing for most of our adult lives.  They saved the concept of tampons for another lesson completely)  For readers born later, this early Kotex advert shows what I’m talking about…

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These women would have had to figure out a way of transporting their babies as they worked, so why not use the same technology?  As Rosalind Miles says ‘it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the women capable of bringing the infant human race forward into the future could also have found the way to deal efficiently with their own bodies’.

A clue to how women may have been seen at this time could come from the many so-called ‘Venus’ statues dating from the period found by archaeologists in Europe.  These figures, as shown in the image at the top of this post, appear to be representations of women.  Around 150 of them have been found, mainly around areas thought to have been occupied by Stone Age settlements, both open-air sites and in caves.  They’re usually small – the most famous one, found in Willendorf, Austria in 1905 (below), and dating from 25,000 BCE, is only four and a half inches tall.  Most are lozenge shaped and have scant facial features, yet large breasts, big bellies, and sometimes prominently displayed genitals.

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Many suggest that they could have been painted red originally.   As obesity wasn’t commonplace at the time, it’s been suggested that the full bellied figures represent pregnancy with the red colour perhaps symbolic of menstrual blood or childbirth.   Their purpose is unknown.  Maybe they were made as an appeal to, or celebration of, fertility.  Maybe they symbolised abundance and hope for longevity, survival, and success.  The statues suggest, however, that the people investing time and resources to their creation understood and had awe and respect for this side of womanhood.  Or could they have been made by women themselves?  In the days before mirrors, the statues could have been a good attempt at self depiction.  Women readers, the next time you’re naked, look down at your body and you’ll recognise the sloping of the breasts and the tummy, as well as the lozenge shape as your body tapers to your feet.  Could they even be some of the first examples of women’s art?

More information about these figurines can be found here: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/venus-of-willendorf.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines, http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/play/3d-models/venus/

Here in Brighton we have one of Britain’s earliest Stone Age monuments in the Whitehawk Camp, dating from 5,500 years ago (predating Stonehenge by 1000 years).  There’s lots of information on the Brighton and Hove City Council website here:  http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/leisure-and-libraries/parks-and-green-spaces/whitehawk-camp

And here’s a link to the 10 minute film ‘The Story of Menstruation’ produced in 1946 by Walt Disney.  It was commissioned by the International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberley-Clark).  It was part of a 1945 to 1951 series of films that Disney produced for American schools.  Inducted last year into the American National Film Registry due to its cultural importance, it’s believed to be (according to Wikipedia) the first film to mention the word ‘vagina’, and, as part of its advice, urged women not to shower in water that was too cold or too hot and to ‘avoid constipation and depression, and to always keep up a fine outward appearance.’

 

 

 

Tour Postponement

 

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September’s edition of Brighton magazine, Queens Park Living  kindly gave me the fantastic opportunity to tell everyone about a guided walk I developed last year, looking at the fascinating Victorian working class legacy of the Queens Park/Hannover/Parish of St Luke’s area.  I said that I’d be doing this tour on Saturday  10th September.  Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m now having to put this tour back.  Many apologies to anyone who read the article and  was interested in coming along.   Please watch this space for alternative dates or contact me at historywomenbrighton@outlook.com and I’ll make sure to let you know as soon as I’ve found a new time.  Sorry again everyone and hope to see you on this new tour soon!

Hove’s Animal Lover

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Lord and Lady Dowding and friends.

Happy birthday to the Bodyshop, a female-fronted, local company who, this year, is celebrating its 40th year. Started in 1976 by Littlehampton born Dame Anita Roddick, its first premises was a small shop in Brighton’s North Laine, from where it didn’t take long for its ethically produced skin and beauty products to carve a niche for itself, as well as fill every teenager’s bedroom with the scent of coconut hairgel and Dewberry perfume. Although the company was taken over by L’Oreal in 2006 ,Anita Roddick is rightly remembered as a fearless entrepreneur who brought fairtrade and products not tested on animals into the mainstream and showed that business can have morals.

But 20 years before our high streets started to be populated by those well-known green facades, another company was prioritising animal welfare, and at the helm, another pioneering woman with Brighton and Hove connections.

Beauty Without Cruelty, a company still supplying cruelty free cosmetics today was founded in 1963 by the trustees of an animal welfare organisation of the same name. The original driving force of the cosmetics arm was Kathleen Long, an animal welfare activist who, with Noel Gabriel developed the first line of revolutionary cruelty-free products. When Kathleen died in 1969, one of the trustees, Lady Muriel Dowding, who in her later years relocated to Hove, came to the rescue and, under her energetic leadership, the company grew and flourished.

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Muriel Dowding, born in London in 1908, was an intriguing, committed woman, who according to her obituary in The Independent newspaper in 1993, ‘didn’t allow anything that might help the plight of animals escape her attention’. At one time she was vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. At the helm of the Beauty Without Cruelty campaigning organisation, she worked tirelessly to make people aware of the unsavoury, animal derived ingredients in their everyday products – whale oil in lipstics, for example, and civet in perfume. Hard to imagine in our better informed days, but in the 1950s and ’60s most consumers would have been unaware of the ingredients in their everyday face soaps and shampoos. Muriel’s work to increase awareness created an unprecedented demand for an alternative. The Beauty Without Cruelty cosmetics brand, like Bodyshop, offering people an easily obtainable and cheap alternative to the mainstream, enjoyed a particular heyday in the 1960s when the colourful nail varnishes and eye shadows gained celebrity followers such as popular model, Celia Hammond. Similarly, at a time when a fur coat was the must have fashion statement for the wealthy, Muriel would organise fake fur fashion shows to demonstrate, as her brand outlined, that cruelty need not be a by-product for beauty.

Muriel was also no stranger to unconventional ideas in her personal life. A committed spiritualist she met her second husband, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, one of the architects of the Battle of Britain, when, knowing he shared her views, she asked him to contact her first husband, Jack Maxwell Whiting who had gone missing in action over Denmark in 1944. Following their marriage in 1951, Sir Hugh, already a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist joined Muriel in her work to prevent animal suffering. Apparently, the house the animal loving pair shared in Tunbridge Wells, became a sanctuary for stray animals and the two became notorious for putting on lavish Sunday lunch parties to show people how tasty vegetarian food could be. Muriel’s obituary published just after her death in Hove in November 1993 notes that she was ‘ a warm, open-hearted character with a larger than life personality and sometimes uncompromising opinions.’ It paints a picture of a committed woman who threw herself wholeheartedly into the cause she believed in. She remained director of Beauty Without Cruelty until 1980.

I suppose you could say that, coming to live in a Hove nursing home towards the end of her life, Muriel only qualifies very slimly for a place in the Brighton and Hove Historical Women’s Hall of Fame, but as our city’s past is bursting with women who pioneered new ideas and stood up for their views, however unconventional, Lady Muriel Dowding, has found the perfect home.

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The Queen of the Australian Gold Fields who made Hove her Home

NPG Ax5458; Alice Ann Cornwell (later Mrs Stannard Robinson) by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by  Eglington & Co

by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by Eglington & Co, carbon print, published 1889

One week to go before my first ‘Notorious Women of Hove’ walk and I’m still marvelling at the incredible number of Hove related women who’ve made their mark on the world. Given that I’m supposed to be planning a nice one and a half hour amble rather than a full day’s trek, I’m having to make hard decisions about which of the pioneering doctors, surgeons, educators, suffragettes, poets, singers, social campaigners and plain, old-fashioned trouble-reapers to include and which I can only give a cursory mention to? One woman I definitely want to tell people about is Alice Ann Cornwell (above) who came to live in Palmeira Square in the early 1900s. Hardly a house-hold name, Alice’s list of achievements is impressive: industrialist, gold-miner, entrepreneur, newspaper proprietor and, ultimately, the originator of the Ladies Kennel Association.

Born in Essex in 1852, Alice spent most of her childhood and teenage years in New Zealand. She returned to England in 1877 and showed great promise as a musician, training at the Royal Academy of Music and composing music and songs. Finding out that her father, now a gold prospector in Australia, was in financial trouble, however, she abandoned her music career in order to help him. Once back in Australia, Alice took a practical course of action: she decided to study geology and mining. Unafraid to get her hands dirty, Alice often rolled up her sleeves up and got involved in the hard and dirty work of mining itself. Women weren’t as rare in the mid to late nineteenth century Australian goldfields as you might imagine. The 1854 census of the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria, where Alice worked, revealed 4,023 women compared to 12,660 men living on the ‘diggings’, with five percent of them single.

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Whether these women were wives of miners or mining themselves, it was far from being an easy life. Intensely hot summers, freezing cold winters, lawlessness, little, if any, infrastructure or facilities, the remoteness and lack of transport meant that in some of these communities minor illness or pregnancy could be death sentences. A woman by the name of Ellen Clacy wrote these vivid observations of life on the Victoria goldfields in 1852: Night at the diggings is the characteristic time: murder here-murder there- revolvers cracking-blunderbusses bombing-rifles going off-balls whistling-one man groaning with a broken leg…..Here is one man grumbling because he brought his wife with him, another ditto because he left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum. […] In the rainy season, he must not murmur if compelled to work up to his knees in water, and sleep on the wet ground, without a fire, in the pouring rain, and perhaps no shelter above him more waterproof than a blanket or a gum tree…..In the summer, he must work hard under a burning sun, tortured by the mosquito and the little stinging March flies…..” Despite these hardships, Alice worked hard and struck gold. So much gold that soon she was able not only to sort out her father’s hardships but make an excellent living for herself too. With her business-mind swinging into action, Alice quickly established a company that was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Fantastically wealthy, shrewd, and with a big personality to match, Alice was soon a celebrity, dubbed the ‘Lady of the Nuggets’, even, in 1888, inspiring a novel, ‘Madame Midas’ by Fergus Hume.

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Back in London with her fortune, Alice turned her mind to other business opportunities. In 1887 she bought the ailing Sunday Times and, installing her fiance, Frederick Stannard Robinson, as editor, managed to quadruple circulation. In 1894 she founded the Ladies Kennel Club. This organisation, still going strong today, describes Alice as ‘formidable’ on their website. She set up the organisation ‘in defiance of the gentlemen of the Kennel Club of the day’ with the aim to put on dog shows ‘run by Ladies for Ladies’. Unusual for the day, its offices were staffed entirely by women. Cats got a look in too, as Alice later became involved with the National Cat Club, as well as the International Kennel Club. Widowed in 1902, Alice settled in Hove where she bred pugs until her death in 1932. Despite making huge strides in worlds only sparsely populated by women, a New Zealand newspaper, the Otago Witness, chose to focus more on her looks in an 1889 profile: ‘Miss Cornwell is, if not a prepossessing woman, at least not unhandsome. Her face and features somewhat irregular and undefined, it is true, harmonise well with her symmetrical and well defined picture.‘ I’d like to think that ‘formidable’ Alice Cornwell was too busy to let this bother her.

Notorious Women of Hove – guided walk during the Brighton Fringe Saturdays 30th April, 7th May, 14th May, 28th May, 4th June at 10.30 a.m from the café in St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove.  Thursday evening 12th May, Tuesday evenings 17th May, 31st May at 6.30 p.m from the same place.

 

A Celebration of Brighton’s ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’

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This incredible picture is of Doreen Valiente.   She lived in Brighton and is (so far) the only woman to be awarded a blue plaque for services to witchcraft.  An exhibition focusing on her, her practice, and the great leaps  forward she made in the understanding and acceptance of Pagan beliefs in the second part of the twentieth century has just opened at Preston Manor, near Preston Park, Brighton.  Fans of Preston Manor know that it’s no stranger to people with non-mainstream beliefs.  Members of the Thomas-Stanford family  took part in a well-documented séance in the Manor’s Cleves Room in 1897 after various hauntings started to be a nuisance.  After events such as strange smells, sightings of people on staircases and, most disturbing of all, an untethered hand that was seen going up and down a bedpost by a visitor, a medium was called.  It was discovered that an ex-communicated nun who hadn’t been given a proper burial and had lain outside for a few centuries was making her presence known.  Sure enough a body was found and the nun, at last, given a more respectable resting place.  It would be nice to think that Preston Manor was subsequently free from ghostly activity but unexplained creakings, bangings and odd events are still being reported today.  It’s no surprise that Doreen Valiente liked Preston Manor.  In fact, an early guidebook she owned is one of the exhibits.

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Lots of other things are on display – Doreen’s altar, her ‘book of shadows’ (a personal book of Wiccan religious texts and magic rituals) and, particularly stunning, some small wooden goddess carvings and a carving made by Doreen herself of the Roman god, Janus.  It’s a great opportunity to get a feel for the life of this fascinating woman as well as a chance to see some of the accoutrements of a modern-day witch.  The exhibition is very good on explaining the roots of ancient, pre-Christian beliefs and how these started to be discovered again, largely thanks to the work of Doreen. 

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Born in Surrey in 1922, Doreen began exploring her interest in the occult and experimenting with magic spells while still at school. Horrified, her Christian parents sent her straight to a convent but she left at fifteen, refusing to go back. In the early 1950s she became aware of the work of Gerald Gardner who, after stumbling upon a group of witches in the New Forest and becoming part of their coven, had set up a Museum of Magic on the Isle of Man. She started to correspond with Gardner and in 1953 – just two years after witchcraft stopped being illegal in this country- she was initiated into his coven. Doreen’s contribution to the understanding and accessibility of witchcraft and Pagan beliefs was decisive. Seeing that Gardner wasn’t as gifted with words as she was, she used her considerable organisational skills and creativity to rewrite his interpretations of the old ancestral religions and basic rituals which formed the core of the new Pagan religious movement known as Wicca. Doreen, who also has books of poetry to her name, was never afraid of talking openly about the subject and is considered the mother of modern witchcraft.  Her books ‘Where Witchcraft Lives’, an exploration of Sussex folklore, ‘An ABC of Witchcraft’, ‘Natural Magic’ and ‘Witchcraft for Tomorrow’, brought witchcraft into the 20th century and became essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. In later life Doreen helped establish The Pagan Front, later transformed into The Pagan Federation, which aimed to fight prejudice against pagans in society and the media. She would also come to serve as patron of the Sussex-based Centre for Pagan Studies, a resource facility for those wishing to learn more about the ancient religions of the world.

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The exhibition feels very much at home in the Manor’s dark-panelled Maquoid Room (above) with its creaking floorboards and hushed atmosphere. With Paganism being the seventh largest faith group in Britain, this exhibition is as important as it is fascinating.

‘Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain’ is at Preston Manor until Autumn 2016.  Admission free to the exhibition after paying for admission to Preston Manor.  For more information regarding opening times, etc, see here: http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/prestonmanor/plan-your-visit/

The Doreen Valiente Foundation, who look after Doreen’s legacy, are here:http://www.doreenvaliente.com/Doreen-Valiente-About_The_Foundation-3.php

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brighton’s Cross Dressing Music Hall Star

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OK, so this post might be a bit late for panto season but it’s always a good time to think about the magnificent Vesta Tilley, music-hall star and one of the most successful male impersonators of the late Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall, later resident of Hove. Below is the only slightly changed article I wrote for the Brighton and Hove Independent newspaper, published in early January 2016.

Christmas means it’s almost panto time again. As a host of pantomime dames and girl-boy heroes prepare to tread the boards, it’s a great time to remember one of the most famous cross-dressing performer who delighted Victorian and Edwardian music-halls, such as Brighton’s Hippodrome, before retiring to Hove. Vesta Tilley- real name Mathilda Powles – was born in Worcester in 1864. With her father a comedy actor and music-hall chairman, she appeared on stage dressed as a boy from the age of three and was so successful she was the family breadwinner by the age of eleven. By the time she was an adult Vesta was drawing crowds with her drag act, performing songs and sketches dressed as one of many – usually poorly behaved or morally dubious – male characters. During the rowdy golden years of music-hall an act would be sharing the bill with anything from acrobat-trampolinists to escapalogists to comedy pianists to illusionists. Performers who hoped to have staying power were the ones who had nerves of steel and could stand out from the crowd. The sight of Vesta, who never tried to hide her womanly singing voice, a woman swaggering confidently on stage in trousers was notorious enough to send a frisson through the audience without straying too far from the boundaries of the double-entendre ridden, saucy music-hall world. One of Vesta’s most popular characters was ‘Burlington Bertie’, a well-dressed yet idle toff about London who lays in bed until late in the morning and spends his inheritance ‘Along with the Brandy and Soda Brigade’. As ‘The Seaside Sultan’ Vesta poked fun at the pretensions of male office clerks on seaside holidays, ‘a flannelled fool from an office stool’. Audiences lapped it up and, all through her career, adoring fanmail arrived from both men and women. For men, Vesta was a fashion icon and many men would take her picture to their tailors demanding a suit ‘cut like Vesta’s.’ Unisex fashions were a long way in the future and I wonder how many women sitting in the audience in their long frocks, unending layers of petticoats, corset and padding underneath, envied the freedom of Vesta’s masculine clothes. Vesta wasn’t to everyone’s taste, though. Apparently, during the 1914 Royal Command performance, Queen Mary and the women in her entourage preferred to look away rather than watch the shocking sight of a woman in trousers. They were in the minority, however. By then Vesta was the highest paid female performer on the British stage, regularly making £50 per week. During the early days of the First World War Vesta, dressed as a soldier, put her act to the service of army recruiting. Singing songs such as ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, sometimes urging men to come onto the stage and join up there and then, she became known as ‘Britain’s Best Recruitment Sergeant’.
In 1919 Vesta decided to hang up her trousers for good. The proceeds from her farewell tour, which lasted almost a year, were given to different children’s charities. She made her final performance at the London Coliseum at the age of 56. Her husband, Walter De Frece, ex music-hall entrepreneur and one time co-owner of Brighton’s Hippodrome in Middle Street, had been knighted for his efforts for the war effort. He was soon to become Conservative MP for Blackpool. As the very feminine Lady De Frece, Vesta spent the rest of her life until her death in 1952 between Monte Carlo and her flat in St Aubyn’s Mansions on the Hove sea-front. Vesta wasn’t the only cross-dressing female music-hall star. Bessie Bellwood, the American Ella Shields, Hetty King and Millie Hylton also enjoyed success.

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Vesta’s – or should that be ‘Lady de Frece’s’ – former residence, St Aubyn’s Mansions on Hove sea front, has been commemorated with a blue plaque.

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New Women’s History Tours for 2016

Betty_Snowball

Happy New Year!

This is a picture of the fantastically named Betty Snowball, who played cricket for England (as well as squash and lacrosse for Scotland).

In February 1935 she set the world record for the highest individual innings in women’s Test cricket, scoring 189 runs in 222 minutes against New Zealand.  Her record wasn’t surpassed until 1986 (by former Indian cricket captain, Sandhya Agarwal) but it remains the highest Test score by an English woman.  Betty was born in 1908 in Burnley, Lancashire.  Following her cricket career, she became a PE and Maths teacher in Hertfordshire.  Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack describes her as ‘one of the major figures of women’s cricket for two decades from 1930’.

Although Betty doesn’t really qualify as a woman with Brighton or Hove connections I wanted to mention her in the run-up to my next round of women’s history walks as my brand new tour around Hove will start close to the Sussex Cricket Club Ground.  Sussex Cricket Club started life in 1839 and is the oldest in the UK.  I thought it would be a good moment to remember the achievements of a formidable woman cricketer from the past.

I’ve almost finished plotting out my brand new ‘Notorious Women of Hove’ walk and have been surprised at how many incredible women with links to Hove there are to talk about.   From some of Britain’s first women doctors and suffragettes, to social campaigners, founders of national charities and pioneering entertainers.  Maybe a cricketer or two.  During the last three years I’ve done walks around Brighton and Kemptown and many people have said ‘surely there must be some Hove women to talk about’.  I’ve found enough to fill several hours.  Hopefully by the time May comes around I’ll have been able to narrow the information down a little bit.  Do join me!  Dates below…

Notorious Women of Hove Walks

Saturday mornings during the Brighton Fringe Festival 2016… 30th April, 7th, 14th, 28th, May, 4th June at 10.30 for 1.5 hours.

Tuesday evenings 17th, 31st May at 18.30 for 1.5 hours.

Meet St Ann’s Well Garden Café, Nizells Ave, Hove, East Sussex BN3 1PL

Price £7.50/£6.50.

Book with Brighton Fringe http://www.brightonfringe.org/?gclid=COGviLjOg8oCFUYTwwodpDID0Q, or just turn up.

Notorious Women of Brighton Walks

Sunday mornings during the Brighton Fringe Festival 2016… 1st, 8th, 15th, 29th May, 5th June for 1.5 hours.

Tuesday evenings 3rd, 10th, 24th May, 2nd June for 1.5 hours.

Price £7.50/£6.50.

Meet at St Nicholas Churchyard, Dyke Road, Brighton BN1 3LJ

Bookings… as for Notorious Women of Hove.

These walks, as well as ‘Notorious Women of Kemptown’, are also available for private group bookings outside the Festival.  Contact me on historywomenbrighton@outlook.com to find out more or discuss your requirements.

I hope to see some of you in May!

 

 

 

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Life Saver for Brighton’s Poor Women

isl

This not particularly noteworthy shop front at the bottom of Islingword Road in Brighton’s Elm Grove area belies its incredible origins.  In 1899 the modest building was one of the most pioneering medical centres of its time and a real life-saver for local women. The all women-staffed ‘Lewes Road Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children’, as it was called, was started, according to its 1905 annual report, ‘to afford to poor women of Brighton… the opportunity of free consultation with Doctors of their own sex.’ In these pre-NHS days, access to healthcare was costly. Charitably financed ‘dispensaries’ filled the gap by offering cheap treatment to society’s poorest. But with its focus on women and its all-female staff, this one was radical indeed. An act allowing women to qualify as doctors had only been passed in 1876. Female doctors were few and far between. In the modesty-ridden Victorian days of keeping your legs covered and your head down, many women let symptoms go unchecked and illnesses untreated rather than be examined by a male doctor. Queen Victoria famously did not like to be attended by her personal physician with a stethoscope.  The Dispensary managed to unite some of Britain’s most pioneering female doctors. Its co-founder was Dr Helen Boyle, who, arriving in Brighton after working in London’s east-end, was particularly interested in the role played by poverty in women’s mental health. At first hand she’d seen how nervous exhaustion and depression were exacerbated by insanitary conditions and financial hardship. She described the lot of the woman living in working-class areas such as Hanover/Elm Grove as being ‘neglected and maltreated until … they were turned into the finished product – lunatics.’ Only a stone’s throw from the Dispensary, at the top of Elm Grove, was Brighton Workhouse – now Brighton General Hospital – with its austere asylum block looming over the town. Dr Boyle’s aim was to step in before the female patient ended up there, leaving yet another household in ruins and children deprived of their mother.   Below is a picture showing Victorian women in a London workhouse.

workhouse

The Dispensary was so successful, space was found in 1905 for in-patients at a premises in Roundhill Crescent. This lead, in 1920, to further premises in New Church Road, the eventual Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children with Nervous Diseases. This is now the Aldrington Day Hospital where a few weeks ago Dr Boyle’s  achievements were recognised by the erection of a blue plaque.

Helen-Boyle

Dr Boyle (above) went on to become the Royal Sussex Hospital’s first female psychiatrist and co-founder of mental health charity, MIND. The Dispensary’s co-founder was Dr Mabel Jones, who’d opened a GP’s practice in Hove with Dr Boyle in 1898. Brighton-based GP, Dr Louisa Martindale (below), amongst whose many other achievements included pioneering the use of X-rays in cancer treatment – was a visiting medical officer.

Louisa_Martindale

Vice-president was none other than Dr Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson (below), the first woman to qualify as a surgeon in Britain and founder in 1872 of London’s New Hospital for Women, now named after her.

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Today most of us don’t give a thought to whether the doctor we see is male or female. But, for women, the struggle to enter the medical profession was hard-fought. The Lewes Road Dispensary with its help for poor local women proved the huge contribution that women could make.

* ‘Women’s Hospitals of Brighton and Hove’ by Val Brown, published by Hastings Press, goes into the numerous women’s hospitals in the city in more detail and is a great read.

This is a slightly altered version of an article I wrote for the Brighton and Hove Independent newspaper, published 30 Oct 2015.