Brighton’s Cross Dressing Music Hall Star

vesta 1


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.

vesta 2

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.

vesta 4


New Women’s History Tours for 2016


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, 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 to find out more or discuss your requirements.

I hope to see some of you in May!










Life Saver for Brighton’s Poor Women


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Wait! There’s more…


This is the state of my shoes after doing nineteen Notorious Women walking tours around Brighton and Kemptown throughout May.  To say nothing of my cagoule and a variety of umbrellas lost, blown inside out and left on the number 7 bus.  But despite this, I had a great time.  If you came, a big thank you for buying a ticket, joining in, telling me about other historic women I didn’t know about, and generally making them fun occasions.   I was really pleased to get not one two great reviews from The Argus this year.  Here:   And here:

To sum up ‘I was really pleased when they Peskett’s excellently researched tour focuses on telling great stories’, ‘This fascinating tour is a wonderful way to explore the area, discovering architectural features, blue plaques, narrow twittens and quiet mews streets for the first time.’  And, best of all, ‘Guide Louise Peskett is usually fond of her subjects, but commented: “I tried to find something interesting to tell you about this princess, but she was actually quite dutiful and boring. So let’s talk about corsets!”  .

With this in mind, I’m going to do them all over again (in new shoes).  So if you didn’t catch the walks first time around, went to one but didn’t manage the other, or don’t know what I’m talking about, you can join me during July and August for a hopefully sunnier walk through the town, hearing some great stories and taking in some of Brighton’s more female-centric history.  Just like we’re doing down here (with thanks to Barbara Graeff for photo);


So here are the dates…

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 outside St Nicholas Church, Dyke Road, Brighton. Tuesday evenings 14th, 21st, 28th, July and 11th, 18th and 25th August at 6.30 pm.  I will also be doing two Sunday mornings – 26th July and 16th August.  10.30 am start.  Tours last for about one hour and 20 minutes.

Notorious Women of Kemptown.  From Ladies to ladies, scientists to sportswomen, Kemptown 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 outside St Georges Church, St Georges Road, Kemptown, Brighton on two Saturday mornings – 25th July and 15th August. 10.30 am start.  Also Tuesday evening 4th August at 6.30pm.

Tickets for both walks cost £7.50 / £6.50 concessions.  I’m not selling advance tickets so please turn up early to secure your place or email me on so I know to expect you and save you a place.

I’ll look forward to seeing you there!

In the meantime, thanks to my friend, Ali Ghanimi, here’s proof that the gold sphere on Brighton’s clocktower does move up and down.  You weren’t dreaming that.





Maria Fitzherbert – Brighton’s Almost Queen


A few posts ago I bemoaned the lack of blue plaques for historical women in Brighton (less than a quarter of the city’s blue plaques commemorate women) One woman who does have a plaque, however, outside St John the Baptist’s Church in Brighton’s Kemp Town, is Maria Fitzherbert (1756 – 1837), pictured here by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Maria is remembered as George IV’s ‘secret wife’, ‘illegal wife’ or even – and this is very, very wrong – ‘mistress’.  Has history been kind to Mrs Fitzherbert?  After all, she’s not really remembered much for qualities or achievements of her own, but simply as a woman who earned her place in the historical hall of fame for capturing the eye of an important man.  But Maria Fitzherbert, already twice widowed when she met George, the Prince of Wales, six years her junior in 1784, must have had something a bit different about her.  In a large cast of mistresses, flirtations, dalliances, and infatuations, Maria’s is the name the Prince uttered under his breath when marrying his detested wife, Caroline of Brunswick.  Maria is the person in whose favour he changed his will upon the birth of his daughter, Charlotte, and Maria’s miniature portrait is the one that was buried with him upon his death.  The fickle, restless Prince seems to have been at his best, most generous, kind and well behaved when around Maria.  Not only lover, secret wife and spouse, it was almost as if she was his good conscience, a sort of living reminder of all the things he could be if only he tried, the key to access his better self.

When Viva Brighton magazine asked me whether they could interview me about Maria Fitzherbert earlier this year for their February issue I started thinking more about what sort of person she was and the nature of the mysterious hold she had over this powerful man.  This is a slightly abridged version of the article from Viva Brighton by Steve Ramsey (March 2015) Image below Maria Fitzherbert after Richard Cosway, 1792.

“He lied to her and cheated on her and was sometimes cruel. He dumped her twice for other women. He was not above using suicide threats to win her, or to win her back. He coaxed her into a secret wedding, then humiliated her by getting a friend to publicly deny it had happened. He repeated the humiliation by marrying again, as if she had merely been his mistress. Yet she was clearly the love of his life, and he risked the throne to be with her. And she seems to have loved him too. It was, as one book on Mrs Fitzherbert points out, ‘a very strange love story’.
“He was brought up strictly, with a relentless and harsh education regime that included being flogged if he made mistakes in Latin grammar,” Royal Pavilion guide Louise Peskett says. “That’s what his father thought would make his sons into good upstanding men. But, if we look at his upbringing through 21st-century eyes, we could see him as an abused child who had a very remote relationship with his parents.
“And, sure enough, he became a person who couldn’t control his impulses very well, who developed problems with addiction. These days, it would be ringing alarm bells; we’d say ‘that’s a person with problems’.”
Prince George was reckless with money, impulsive, melodramatic, and sometimes selfish. But he was also intelligent, witty, charming and sociable. Tall and handsome in his youth, he had a series of lovers, all of whom were content to be mistresses. Maria Fitzherbert wasn’t.
She was six years older than him, a convent-educated Catholic who’d been widowed twice before they met. She liked dancing and music, and had a ‘lively’ sense of humour, biographer James Munson notes, but was also a ‘woman of considerable pride,’ who cared strongly about propriety and respectability. It was marriage or nothing.
By law, no-one married to a Catholic could succeed to the throne, and Prince George was first in line. This should have put him off, but, after they met in March 1784, he began a reckless and relentless courtship. She planned to go to Europe to avoid his attentions; when he heard this, he ‘stabbed himself and made out that it was a suicide attempt,’ biographer Saul David notes.
She went to Europe anyway. George ‘cried by the hour,’ according to a contemporary account, ‘rolling on the floor, striking his forehead, tearing his hair, falling into hysterics…’ He wrote her frequent, passionate letters, sometimes threatening suicide. She resisted for more than a year.
I’d have thought if you fake suicide and batter someone with letters and send messengers all over Europe for them…” Peskett says, “and they don’t respond, you’d think, after a couple of months, he would have thought ‘oh, ok then, never mind’. She must have really meant a lot to him.
“I’m sure she genuinely did like him, but her feet were on the ground. She was older and more practical, she could see the bigger picture and the problems it could cause, and put her good sense before her heart.”
Nonetheless, they married in December 1785 in secret. Their relationship status became a popular subject of gossip. The prince manipulated his friend, the MP Charles Fox, to deny the marriage in parliament; George then went to Mrs Fitzherbert and claimed to be astonished at what Fox had said. A witness claimed: ‘Maria turned very pale, and made no reply.’ She refused to see George for some time, which made him so distressed that his health suffered.
After she took him back, they went to Brighton for the summer of 1786, where they were ‘a picture of romantic contentment,’ according to a magazine called Royal Romances. ‘In those brief but happy months, the prince appeared to be a reformed character. He drank only moderately, gambled hardly at all, and entertained quietly.’
In the next few years, they spent a lot of time together in Brighton. “It was one of the places they escaped to,” Peskett says, “where they could have a taste of domestic bliss, and enjoy each other’s company like an ordinary married couple.”marine pav
(Image above of the Marine Pavilion, the predecessor of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion built by Henry Holland in 1786 where Maria and the Prince spent their time in Brighton).

However, things were going less well by late 1793, Saul David notes. She had ‘long disapproved of his dissolute lifestyle and disreputable friends’. He was so extravagant that she ‘often had to lend him money’. By 1794 the brilliant and ruthless Lady Jersey had elbowed her way into the Prince’s affections. As his mistress, she set about poisoning his mind about Maria, convincing him ‘that his unpopularity with the people was due to Mrs Fitzherbert and her religion,’ biographer Valerie Irvine writes. ‘She also told him that Maria had been heard to say she was only interested in his rank, not in his person.’ In June 1794, the prince dumped his wife by letter.
By this point, George’s debts were enormous, and ‘in return for financial help, the king insisted that he should marry a Protestant princess,’ the Dictionary of British History notes. So, in 1795, he wed his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, who he loathed at first sight. They separated the following year.
After another series of ‘increasingly desperate’ overtures, Mrs Fitzherbert took him back around 1800, Saul David notes. She had been looking after a child called Minney Seymour, and “it sounds like they had a few happy years, playing parents with this little girl,” Peskett says. The Prince was certainly very fond of her.”
When Minney’s parents died, there was a custody battle between her family and Mrs Fitzherbert, who was devoted to the child. Minney’s relatives Lord and Lady Hertford helped Maria; they became the child’s legal guardians, and let Mrs Fitzherbert keep her.
Maria was very grateful, but then Lady Hertford became the Prince’s latest mistress, and “used her influence on George to widen the gap between them,” Peskett says. “After this latest set-back their relationship sort of limped on, but without the passion of previously.”
To keep her own affair secret, Lady Hertford forced Mrs Fitzherbert to play the dutiful wife at social events, threatening to take Minney away if she didn’t. Maria told the prince his latest fling had ‘quite destroyed the entire comfort and happiness of both our lives’.
The final breakup came in June 1811, a few months after George had been made Prince Regent. Having been invited to a fete at George’s London residence, Mrs Fitzherbert was told she wouldn’t be seated near the Prince. “That’s how he let it be known to her that she was dispensed with,” Peskett says.
“This followed the pattern of their first break-up, when after responding to a letter that began ‘My dearest Love’, requesting her presence in London, Maria dutifully turned up only to be given another letter announcing that he didn’t want to see her again. It makes you wonder how confused he was in his own mind about it, and how easy he was to sway.
“He was very mercurial and led by his heart… Whereas she seems to have been quite calm and had her with both feet on the ground,” Peskett says. “I think she was a kind of safe harbour for the tumultuous waves of his personality, as it were. George’s mother, during one of their ruptures, even wrote to her and asked her to make it up with him, because his behaviour was so bad without her as a steadying influence.
“I think she was very strong and stoic. But how must she have felt? To be rejected for other women, and the blowing-hot-and-cold in their relationship. And, from the time he lied to her about Fox’s statement having nothing to do with him, she must have known that she couldn’t really trust him, despite these violent protestations of love. That must have really been difficult. But, of course, she would have been aware what was at stake for him, what he was risking… So that helps us to understand his point of view as well.”
After 1811, they wrote to each other ‘occasionally, but their letters were confined to practical matters, usually money,’ according to Royal Romances. She Maria lived mainly in Brighton from about 1815, and if she met the King there, they would ‘exchange frosty glances’. It’s frequently said that the people of Brighton were very fond of Maria, and this has been suggested as one reason that George’s later trips to Brighton were mostly spent in seclusion in the Pavilion.
Before George died, in 1830, he ensured that he would be buried with a locket containing a picture of her. When told of this gesture, Maria was seen to be crying.
viva feb

After the interview I started to think how Maria Fitzherbert’s life could almost be the template of a Hollywood rom-com or a work of romantic fiction.  Lone woman with sad past wooed by roguish but attractive alpha male who promises her the world.  Then, when alpha male lets her down, refuses to crumble, creating instead a better life for herself built on strong principles, strength of character and the fact that she’s made a lot of friends and gained respect along the way.  Lives happily ever after.  When George IV died in 1830, Maria had already created a supportive bubble of family and extended family, based largely on her two adopted daughters.  Perhaps there’s some kind of justice that, years after the death of her secret royal husband, Maria still enjoyed the Royal Pavilion as a guest of William IV and Queen Adelaide.

19 St Josephs

St John the Baptist’s Church, Bristol Road, Brighton.  Resting place of Maria Fitzherbert.

19a St Josephs

Women’s History Festival – Last Call


I’ve posted about this before, but it’s so good, I’m posting again!
Join us tomorrow, Saturday 14th March 2015, from 10 a.m – 6 p.m for Brighton’s first Women’s History Festival. The full programme and times are here’s-History-Festival-Schedule.pdf

Talks at the Free University Brighton organised event include: The African Princess in Brighton – Brighton & Hove Black History Project, Women and the Mass Observation Archive – Suzanne Rose, Bad Girls: The Secret History of Women and Sexism – Louise Raw, “Prinny’s” Women – Jaki da Costa, Women and the Black Market in Post War Britain – Terry McCarthy and Women and the Miners Strike – Bev Trounce.
Guided walks – The Suffragettes of Brighton and Hove led by my colleague at Brighton Museum, Karen Antoni, and I will be turning my ‘Notorious Women of Brighton’ into ‘Amazing Women of Brighton’ for a walk at 2.30.
Workshops – Phenomenal Women: Creative Writing with Evlynn Sharp and Zine Making (Create your own women’s history ‘zine’ with historical materials from the National Archive) with Vicky Iglikowsky.
There’ll be two brilliant exhibitions, ‘Herstory’, an interactive women’s history exhibition by Alice Wroe – with activities suitable for children and, until 2pm, ‘100 Years of Women in Policing’ with Sussex Police.

PLUS – Film screenings, poetry readings, activities for children and young people, and food and drink available in the Brighthelm Café.

It’s taking place at the Brighthelm Centre North Road, Brighton,

See you there!

A Lady Poisons – The Case of Christiana Edmunds


At the start of every Notorious Women of Brighton Walk I always tell people not to expect a parade of role-models, that some of the women I’ll be talking about haven’t earned their place on the tour through doing good works and achieving great things.  Christiana Edmunds, Brighton’s famous chocolate murderer, is a case in point.  In 1870 and 1871 the hitherto respectable Christiana struck terror through Brighton when she took a liking to lacing chocolate creams from the famous Maynard’s sweet shop on West Street (near today’s Waterstone’s) with strychnine.  These she sent anonymously in parcels to prominent people in the town.  Apparently, some she just took back to the shop, after injecting with poison, saying she’d bought the wrong chocolates and would like to swap.  In order not to arouse suspicion she slipped money to unwitting beggar children to go to the sweet shop for her.  Police in the town were nonplussed and at a loss to explain why noteable Brightonians were suddenly receiving these ‘gifts’.  It wasn’t until the four year old Sidney Barker died from eating one of the contaminated chocolates that the finger of blame at last came to rest on Christiana’s head.  Her motive, apparently, was revenge.  After Dr Beard, the married doctor with whom she was having an affair, decided to finish things, what better way to get back at him than poisoning his wife?   Maybe she roped in the others to create a smokescreen or just discovered a taste for poisoning and couldn’t stop herself.


Do we seek to explain her motives because she’s a woman?   Would we be looking into her background and trying to analyse the choices she took if she’d been a man?  It certainly seems that her gender and the fact that a woman (a woman!) could do such harm kept the Victorian public riveted through her murder trial at the Old Bailey in 1872.  See the headline above ‘The Extraordinary Charge of Poisoning by a Lady’, that ‘Lady’ the most attention grabbing factor in the business. The Victorians loved stories of true crime and we can only imagine the extra frisson a female perpetrator would have added to this already smouldering cocktail of lust, forbidden love and jealousy.  Christina was found guilty of murder but, being declared insane, managed to avoid the death penalty, finishing her life at Broadmoor, then a criminal lunatic asylum, until her death in 1907. In a daily mail online article Tony Rennell writes  ‘she was one of the most notorious inmates of Broadmoor in Victorian times, her name a byword for something that hidebound era found impossible to comprehend or forgive — a woman’s unbridled lust.’

Kate Elms tells Christiana’s story on the Brighton Museum website and also on the website of the Keep

Women’s History Festival – Line Up Announced!


A few posts ago I mentioned that I was helping Ali Ghanimi of the Free University Brighton ( put together Brighton’s first ever Women’s History Festival.  Well, the day will be going ahead on Saturday 14th March 10 – 6pm at the Brighthelm Centre on North Road  and is shaping up to have a great line-up of talks, walks, children’s activities and workshops.   Such as…

The African Princess in BrightonBrighton & Hove Black History Project

Women and the Mass Observation Archive – Suzanne Rose

Bad Girls: The Secret History of Women and Sexism – Louise Raw

“Prinny’s” WomenJaki da Costa

Women and the Black Market in Post War BritainTerry McCarthy

Grace Eyre Woodhead – Jackie Reeve

Women and the Miners StrikeBev Trounce

Clementina BlackGerry Holloway

I will be doing my ‘Amazing Women of Brighton’ walk.  And there’ll be a chance to catch Karen Antoni’s popular Brighton and Hove Suffragettes Walk.

Workshops will include:

Phenomenal Women: Creative Writing with Evlynn Sharp

Zine Making with Vicky Iglikowsky
Create your own women’s history ‘zine’ with historical materials from the National Archive

Surrey and Sussex Police will be presenting the exhibition ‘100 Years of Women in Policing’ and there’ll also be ‘Herstory’, an interactive women’s history exhibition by Alice Wroe with activities suitable for children.

Plus more!

Says Ali: ‘The one-day event will mark International Women’s Day celebrations and launch a year-long women’s history project to promote positive female role models within schools and the wider community.  It will feature fascinating, hidden histories of extraordinary and pioneering women such as Brighton and Hove suffragettes, the African Princess in Brighton and women who inspired the trade union movement.’


The event is being crowd-funded.  We are trying to raise £1000 to ensure that it is free and accessible to all.  Any donations would be very gratefully received here

Thank you!

One Small Step. Helena Normanton: A Woman We Should Know Better

Ovingdean church

I wasn’t thinking much about historical women as I stumbled – literally, thanks to the icy wind and having just walked through a field of horses (I have a history of being chased by animals in fields while out walking, but that’s another story) – into St Wulfran’s Church at Ovingdean yesterday.  This early Norman church on the rural fringes of Brighton is a real gem.  Tucked away in one of the folds of the Downs, it has a gorgeous 1867 Arts and Crafts inspired ceiling by Charles Eamer Kempe, some beautiful stained glass and, thanks to posters advertising children’s groups, meetings and a stack of coffee mugs, the feel of a place that, despite being almost a thousand years old, plays a lively part in the community.   Picking up one of the leaflets provided for passers-by, I was intrigued to find that one of the most trailblazing women to be associated with Brighton – if not, of the twentieth century – is buried in the churchyard.


This is Helena Normanton (1882 – 1957), the first woman to practise as a barrister in England and the second, in 1922 to be called to the Bar in England and Wales.   Her list of firsts doesn’t end there:  Helena Normanton became the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client, the first woman, in 1948, to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, the first woman to conduct a trial in the USA , and the first woman to represent cases at the High Court and the Old Bailey.   According to Judith Bourne, Senior Lecturer in Law at London Metropolitan University ( “she left behind a legacy…In a way she was a social experiment and bore the brunt of discrimination for everyone else. A pioneer who fought against a lot of prejudice, she was the one who made it possible for women to enter the legal profession.”

Here’s yet another first… These days not many people blink an eye when a married woman chooses to keep her own surname.  But in 1924 the married Helena Normanton attracted considerable interest – and disapproval, no doubt – when she became the first married woman to be granted a passport in her maiden name.

helena n

Helena Normanton’s early life perhaps prepared her for the struggles to come.  At the age of four, her father having been found dead in a railway tunnel, she moved from London to Brighton with her mother and younger sister to run a grocery shop and then a boarding house in Clifton Place.  In 1896 she won a scholarship to York Place Science School, forerunner of Varndean School for Girls, but on the death of her mother only four years later, had to leave to look after her sister and help run the business.  1901 sees her moving to Hove, to live at a boarding-house in Hampton Place run by her aunt. In 1903 she was able to resume her studies and went to the Edge Hill Teachers’ Training College in Liverpool, subsequently teaching history in Glasgow and London before applying to become a student at Middle Temple in 1918.  Initially she was refused, and lodged a petition with the House of Lords, only being admitted in 1919 after her reapplication within hours of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

As probably expected from a woman who was making such bold raids into male territory, Helena wasn’t an armchair supporter of women’s rights.  She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was part of the 70 women who, disenchanted with the leadership of the Pankhursts broke away to form the Women’s Freedom League.  She supporting the campaign of the Women’s Peace Council for a negotiated peace during the First World War and was an early member of CND.

Equality of pay was another issue close to her heart.  Despite having a successful legal career, she had to supplement her income by letting out rooms in her house and writing for newspapers and magazines to make ends meet.   She had lived through the First World War and seen women becoming the main breadwinners.  As early as 1914 she asked in a pamphlet ‘Sex Differentiation in Salary’ ‘Should women be paid according to their sex or their work?’ I wonder what she’d think if she knew that almost 60 years after her death, this issue that she described in such black and white terms should still be something that many women are fighting for.

Helena Normanton also campaigned for women’s rights within marriage.  She believed that, once married, men and women should be seen equally and in the 1930s campaigned for changes in the matrimonial law to allow married men and women to keep their money and property separately.  In 1938, despite hostility from the Mothers’ Union, she co-founded with Vera Brittain, Edith Summerskill and Helen Nutting, the Married Women’s Association in 1938.

On the website which explores the ‘journey of women in the legal profession over the last 100 years’ Kitty Piper writes ‘As one scholar puts it, Normanton should be to women lawyers what Neil Armstrong is to astronauts, and this is no exaggeration.’

Another reason we in Brighton should celebrate this incredible woman – Helena Normanton was the first benefactor to donate funds for the establishment of the University of Sussex.  Quoting the University website ‘Helena Normanton campaigned tirelessly to establish a university in Brighton. She made the first donation to the Sussex University appeal in 1956, and bequeathed the capital of her trust to the foundation of the University upon her death in 1957.  ‘I make this gift in gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me when I was left an orphan’Helena Normanton, 1956

Sharp-eyed, women’s history savvy visitors to St Wufran’s may also notice that the churchyard houses the family tomb of another pioneering woman with local connections, Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912), below, was one of the first female doctors in Britain.  I talk about Sophia on my Notorious Women of Kemptown Walk.  The tomb belongs to her family, Sophia Jex-Blake herself, was buried at Rotherfield alongside her partner, Margaret Todd.


For more information about St Wulfran’s Church, see the website

A thousand year old tree at the entrance to St Wulfran's Church, Ovingdean

A thousand year old tree at the entrance to St Wulfran’s Church, Ovingdean

More women please!

geograph-302412-by-Simon-Carey copyright – Simon Carey

This statue of Queen Victoria was erected at the end of Grand Avenue, Hove, in 1897 in commemoration of her Diamond Jubilee.  Have a good look at it.  Because it’s the only statue of a woman in Brighton and Hove. Last week Brighton’s local paper, The Argus, published an article here about the lack of recognition for women who have shaped our history.  Only a quarter of blue plaques in the city commemorate women.  The article says: ‘Ali Ghanimi, of Free University Brighton, and blogger and history guide Louise Peskett hope to raise public awareness of women forgotten by history.’  I am in my third year of doing guided women’s history walks of Brighton.  I know from all the surprised faces and ‘well, I never knew that’ and ‘this is so weird I’ve never heard of this woman’ comments that the key word here is ‘forgotten’.

And what about blue plaques?  They’re all well and good but they’re all about the past, aren’t they? I mean, it’s nice to remember the great and the good but, really, it’s only a bit of metal that looks like a blue dinner-plate, is it that relevant these days?  Absolutely.  I’ll hand over to Ali here: ‘“Telling stories about women’s achievements is a very powerful way to improve girls’ confidence and sense of place in the world,’ she says. ‘It counters harmful stereotypes and helps boys develop more respect for girls and women, which benefits all of us”.  Self-respect and having positive role-models have never been so relevant or important.  And not just for young people.  Are we ever too old to feel gladdened by and inspired by others’ achievements? Celebrating people is as much to do with today and tomorrow as yesterday.

This is why Ali – with some tentative help from me and a handful of other local women – is organising the first Women’s History Event in Brighton next March.  It’s built on Ali’s course at the Free University (, ‘Women, the Greatest Story Never Told’.   Watch this space and expect speakers, workshops, tours and a club night plus more.  It’s shaping up to be an exciting day.  More details to follow as they come in.

This is one of the 21 women commemorated by a blue plaque in Brighton, Dame Anita Roddick, businesswoman, human rights activist and environmental campaigner, best known as the founder of The Body Shop.
anita r