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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Harriette Wilson – Modern Girl

When planning my walking tours, I always over-plan to a ridiculous degree and end up trying to include far more women than it’s ever possible to talk about in an hour and a half.  I always have a few ‘spare’ women in my file should I zip through fast and end up with nothing to say (never happened), leaving me with the problem of having to choose which women to mention and which to leave out. I suppose it’s a bit like the dreaded PE lesson team pick at school.  Remember standing in a line in the changing rooms while the ones who were good at sport picked people out for the netball team?  Always being the last one to be picked, this was never fun for me.  But I’ve just realised being the picker isn’t that easy either.   This year, I found myself constantly leaving out one of my favourite women with links to Brighton.  The least I can do is introduce her here…  So welcome, and apologies it’s taken so long, to Harriette Wilson (1786 – 1845), the most dazzling courtesan of the Regency era, a woman who captivated, charmed and dazzled her way to the heart of fashionable society, only to shock, anger and terrify her way back out again.  

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‘I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.’ Begins the first page of her Memoirs.  ‘Whether it was love, or […] the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify…’  From the first paragraph we know this isn’t just another staid celebrity biography. ‘I resided on the Marine Parade at Brighton…’ she informs us next and goes on to describe how the ‘winning arts’ of paramour Lord Craven have now dwindled to an annoying habit of drawing cocoa trees for her entertainment. ‘It was, in fact, a dead bore.’ . She moves on to an unflattering description of his choice of sleepwear.  ‘Surely, I would say, all men do not wear those ugly cotton nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed in the first night of marriage.’  This voice, frank, dry, knowing, allows us to see why Harriette was, in the sprawling, sparkling Regency demi-monde at least, one of the most feted women of her age. 

Far from being prostitutes, courtesans like Harriette weren’t coveted for their sexual availability alone, but for their company, their style, and the cachet they would bring to a man’s reputation. Only the very wealthy could afford their company. For the Regency gentleman around town, having Harriette on your arm would scream Rich! Powerful! Virile! – an early nineteenth century equivalent of dangling the keys to a Ferrari in your friends’ faces. The most successful courtesans were clever, accomplished, witty, able to hold their own in conversation, a sort of alpha girlfriend who charged for her time.  For a man in pre-Victorian, anything-goes London, there was nothing seedy or shameful about being seen at the opera with a woman like Harriette and, unlike women, men could slip easily between the above-board world of the respectable married family-man and the rowdy, gossipy, heavy drinking and gambling milieu of the dandies. Lesley Blanch writes in her introduction to Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs (Century, 1985) ‘The courtesan was expected to provide all the shades of companionship without the oppressive limitations and implications of marriage.  She offered not only the bed but the sofa, the dinner-table and the salon – all save the nursery and the kitchen.’ So, all the fun of a relationship without the hard bits.   Many courtesans were relatively high born but were simply surplus daughters or had disgraced themselves out of the marriage market in some way.

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Harriette had had a boarding school and convent education. Twice she attempted to hold onto a proper job as a music teacher in elegant girls’ boarding schools. Twice she ran away, finding the governess’s life deadly dull. The second time she came home after her career at a school in Newcastle upon Tyne stalled, her father beat her. Faced with the option of a life of ‘crippling dullness’, she took her life into her hands and left home, Lord Craven providing a convenient if dull launchpad.
You can see the attraction at a time when the main options for women in Harriette’s position were either to become a stay-at-home wife for a husband chosen for you or a governess (a job that enjoyed no esteem, respect or rights). If you played your cards right as a courtesan and attracted the right man, you could command a lavish lifestyle. Clothes, jewellery, appropriate accommodation at a fashionable address, the latest carriage, even a pension could be forthcoming. Unlike prostitutes courtesans never solicited, they were sought after and prospective suitors of Harriette were rigorously ‘interviewed’.
One man who – initially – didn’t make the grade was George, Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent. Harriette approached him during that first stay on the Marine Parade while the Prince was in town visiting his Marine Pavilion, the predecessor of the Royal Pavilion. ‘I wonder, thought I, what sort of a nightcap the Prince of Wales wears…’ she tells us. ‘A sheet of paper, covered with Lord Craven’s cocoa trees, decided me…’ She began a letter to the Prince. ‘I am told that I am very beautiful., so, perhaps, you would like to see me […] if you believe you could make me in love with you, write to me…’ Amused, the Prince wrote back suggesting a meeting in London. This wasn’t good enough for Harriette. ‘Sir, to travel fifty-two miles, this bad weather, merely to see a man […] would, you must admit, be madness, in a girl like myself, surrounded by humble admirers…’ she wrote in response. ‘…if you can do anything better , in the way of pleasing a lady, than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.’
History hasn’t recorded what the Prince, the most eligible bachelor in the country and not used to having women turn him down, said upon receiving Harriette’s snub.
The most shocking thing that Harriette did, however, came much later. In 1825, about to turn forty, she found her fortunes fading. Many of the men who had in the past promised her a pension as part of the deal had conveniently forgotten about her. At her wits’ end, she hit upon a way to make them pay up. She’d write her memoirs. And she’d hold nothing back. She’d give the men concerned notice and if they were worried about the most minute details of their relationships with her being made public, well, they could pay to be missed out. Why not? She’d lived by putting a price on her attractiveness, so why not now charge for her discretion too? The Henry Heath cartoon below shows what happened…
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A positive stampede of men, wanting to pay the £200 the publisher was charging to ensure anonymity. Barricades had to be erected outside Stockdale’s the publishers to keep them at bay. The Memoirs were published in sections so men would have known when their shaming was nigh. It was one thing being linked to Harriette in the past but no one wanted the warts-and-all details of their relationship with her revealed for all the world to know. ‘Push any man into the streets in his dressing gown and nightcap and he will be laughed at,’ explained the London Magazine. Famously, the Duke of Wellington refused to have anything to do with it, declaring ‘publish and be damned!’ Consequently the hero of Waterloo does not emerge well from the Memoirs. ‘Rather like a rat-catcher’ is how Harriette describes his looks, and his pillow talk was ‘like sitting up with a corpse’. What Harriette did, having played power games with men all her life, was to snatch it back – and how – in the world’s first ever kiss and tell. Harriette grew rich, making ten thousand pounds out of her Memoirs, which were a best seller for years (before the Victorians relegated them to the top shelf). But she was never forgiven. When she returned to London in 1830 (she’d been living in Paris) the city cut her dead. The price of playing the men at their own game? At the time, for a woman to write frankly and unashamedly about sex – and then to do well out of it – was considered depravity of the worst type. If she’d been born today she’d probably be at the helm of an incredibly successful business. For pluck and entrepreneurial skills, for sticking to her principles, even if they were vastly different from the ones of everyone else at the time (and simply for telling the most eligible man in Britain she couldn’t be bothered to see him because the weather was bad), I think Harriette deserves the title Most Notorious Woman of Brighton.

This Year’s Woman

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This year I’m looking forward to talking about Margaret Damer Dawson, Britain’s first policewoman, born in Hove in 1863. I first came across her while doing some work in the Old Police Cells Museum in Brighton Town Hall (if you like the kind of tiny museums with jumbles of stuff everywhere run by enthusiasts who’ll talk to you for ages and maybe lock you in a cell if you ask them kindly, you need to go here). Margaret was already a high achiever before the forces of law and order called. She studied at the London School of Music, was a doughty mountaineer and was known for campaigning for animal rights and the anti-vivisection movement (apparently loudly and in a large hat) It seems, she started to think that having female police officers might be a good idea while volunteering at the outbreak of WW1 to meet and greet fleeing Belgian refugees arriving in London and seeing how vulnerable lone women were to the sex trade. She saw her chance when a call went out for volunteers to fill the gaps left by men going to the Front. The last thing anyone expected was for women to apply. Wouldn’t the sight of women running around the mean streets of London after criminals be a laughing stock?  Who was going to keep order in their kitchens?  And wouldn’t they trip over their petticoats?  Margaret joined forces with militant suffragette and journalist Nina Boyle to encourage women to apply nevertheless. The new Women Police Volunteers, soon to become the Women’s Police Service, was born and they were anything but a laughing stock. Many of the first ‘lady policemen’ (feel free to enjoy a fingers down throat moment here) were militant suffragettes who had had plenty of experience of policing already, albeit from the other side, having been arrested and imprisoned for disturbing the peace. Equality was still years away, though. The WPS had no powers of arrest, being deployed more in assisting with children being taken into care, giving a stern talking to women ‘in moral danger’ and educating women in giving evidence in court. They might not have had truncheons but they made the most, apparently, of rolled up umbrellas which they used to move on any disturbers of the peace or just to prod general miscreants. As Commandant, Margaret designed the uniforms herself (note – no flailing petticoat in sight.) After Nina Boyle left due to an ideological disagreement about being asked to police curfews for women, Mary Allen, who had previously been imprisoned for lobbing a brick through a Home Office window became Margaret’s right-hand woman. When the war ended it was expected that the WPS now numbering 357, would ‘go back to their washtubs’ as one male officer said. In 1916 the Daily Express had asked a Scotland Yard official whether women would ever be employed as police constables and had given a resounding no. ‘Not even if the war lasts fifty years.’ Luckily neither of these things happened. Margaret was given an OBE for her work during the war and there is now a blue plaque on her house in Cheyne Row, London.

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Is this the man who said the ‘lady policemen’ could now go back to their washtubs?

More info on the history of women police officers here http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/some-95-years-of-women-police-officers-419827

A not so guilty pleasure…

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During my walking tours last year I was often asked ‘who’s your favourite Notorious Woman?’  Easy question.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Sometime actress turned novelist, Braddon (1835 – 1915), who once lodged in Brighton’s New Road with her mother, managed to write over 80 novels in her lifetime, including the spectacular ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, which rocked Victorian readers with its disturbing portrayal of a ruthlessly ambitious woman who will stop at nothing – bigamy, deserting her child, pushing an inconvenient husband down a well – to get on in life.  In 1862 when the novel was published (Braddon was only 27 at the time and had rattled off the final third of the book in a fortnight), the home and the woman’s peaceful and stable presence in it were sacrosanct to the Victorians.  Scary, nasty things were only supposed to lurk in haunted castles, windswept Gothic mansions, or abroad.  The thought that a woman – a wife and mother at that – could generate such horrific acts and murderous chaos was shocking indeed.  Lady Audley is presented unapologetically as just a ‘bad girl’ and – worryingly for the Victorians – there is no attempt to engage our sympathy for her by heartfelt descriptions of a sad childhood to blame it on.  Braddon was a pioneer of the Victorian ‘Sensation’ novel that specialised in people falling off cliffs, houses being set fire to, hauntings and general Oh My God moments.  The titles of some of her novels practically come with their own drumroll…. ‘To the Bitter End’, ‘Taken At the Flood’, ‘Dead Love Has Chains’.  I’m not an expert on Braddon’s life story but a few online accounts I have read  (a good one here – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/aug/09/featuresreviews.guardianreview14)suggest that, for her, life imitated art, if not the other way round.  ‘Crooked solicitor father’, ‘struck up a friendship in a graveyard with a man known as the ‘Don Juan of Coventry’,  ‘struck up a friendship in Yorkshire with a shadowy figure called John Gilby,’, ‘lived in sin with a married publisher’, ‘had a career on stage with the pseudonym Mary Seyton’ (was the resemblance to ‘Satan’ deliberate?), ‘mother of many illegitimate children’ are sentences that crop up in enough accounts of her story to suggest she was familiar with the boundaries she stretched in her works.  What really impresses me about Mary Elizabeth Braddon, though, is just how good a writer she was.  When I set about reading Lady Audley’s Secret last year for research, I expected something either longwinded in the Victorian why-use-three-words-when-fifty-five-will-do’ way, or, taking account of the subject matter, a breathless and hysterical melodrama.  What I didn’t expect was a perfectly polished, immaculately plotted work that would have me sailing past my bus-stop, arriving late for work and once cancelling a perfectly good evening out with friends just so I could get to the end.  How did she do it?  Of course she was remorselessly criticised and looked down on – much as chick lit authors are these days – for not being clever or literary enough, for catering too shamelessly for the masses.  Now, a hundred and fifty years later, where are these cleverer and more literary contemporaries of hers?  A great deal of them are forgotten, while Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley is still going strong in any number of stage plays, film versions and, of course, the book that’s never been out of print.  Did these criticisms upset her?  Did she have the time to let them upset her?  Hopefully she just shrugged her shoulders and laughed all the way to the bank.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

(Incidentally, Braddon may have taken some inspiration from the real life Constance Kent murder case which occurred in 1860 and similarly shocked Victorian society with its young female murderer who was accused of disposing of the body of her young step-brother down a well.  This has a Brighton connection, which I will be exploring in a future post)