25 July 2012

Indomitable women left their mark on history's page

Ask most Devonians to name a dozen or so notable men from the county's past and they will probably dash off a list that includes Sir Francis Drank, Sir Walter Raleigh, Joshua Reynolds and Charles Kingsley.

Nancy Astor
But turn the question around and invite a similar list of remarkable women and few will be able to come up with more than three - Plymouth's first woman MP, Nancy Astor; Torquay-born, thriller writer Agatha Christie; and multi-millionaire Dorothy Elmhirst who with, her husband Leonard, turned over their Dartington estate to progressive education and rural regeneration.

Could it be that the struggle to add to the trio is simply because there were not that many remarkable women?  Certainly not - as Exeter-based historian Dr Todd Gray reveals in his book*, which explored the lives of a whole host of females who made an impression over the past six centuries, but were neglected by historians.

But historical evidence does survive to show that something significant can be discovered of their lives and Dr Gray spent nearly 15 years uncovering it in Devon's three record offices and from other sources.

His compelling account includes the 'Amazonian Sirens' of the River Teign, who fished in the 18C without any help from their menfolk; Exeter's first women strikers, who demanded an increase in their factory pay during WW1; and individuals such as Mabel Ramsay, the Plymouth doctor and committed suffragette, who promoted women's interests in the 20C.  During WW1 she helped establish a Women's Imperial Hospital in a French chateau and served as a Red Cross surgeon.

There was also Elizabeth Holman, the 19C Devon navvy who donned male attire to achieve independence by gaining a higher wage, and Exmouth's Ann Perriam, who was eulogised throughout Britain as a 'Warrior Women'.

Joining her first husband, gunner's mate Edward Hopping, on navel ships she worked as a seamstress and, during battle was a powder monkey, which involved carrying gunpowder to the gun.  She was part of Nelson's fleet at the Battle of the Nile, and in recognition of her service, the government awarded her a pension of £10.  Returning to her native Exmouth, where she remarried and sold fish in the streets of the town, she lived to be in her 90s.

There was also Exeter-born Mary Evans, who rose from a moderate background to become the wife of Benjamin Disraeli and an effective campaigner.  
Mary Evans
She was also known for her offhand remarks.  On one occasion she responded to a comment about a woman's pale complexion by remarking: 'Ah, I wish you could see my Dizzy in the bath!  Then you would know what a white skin is.'
When Disraeli resigned as Prime Minister in 1868 he asked Queen Victoria to create his wife Viscountess Beaconsfield.  By that time his wife was ill with cancer, from which she died four years later.  Among her papers were two lines of text which indicated how she saw herself, which read: 'A spirit I am - And I don't give a damn.'

The Queen allegedly said, after first entertaining her to dinner, 'she is very vulgar, not so much in her appearance as in her ways of speaking'.  It may be, says Dr Gray, that she kept her Devon accent throughout her life.

Other, less familiar, women in the collection are the Victorian innovators Caroline Skinner and her sister Emily, who in 1878 introduced a new concept to Devon by opening 'The Hotel of Rest for Women In Business' at Babbacombe, Torquay.  While shopping in London's Edgeware Road, the spinsters had been struck by the 'tired and wan faces' of the lowly-paid assistants who served them.  So they hit on the idea of bringing them to Babbacombe for a short holiday and 'how charmed and refreshed they would be by the pure air and sight of the blue waters of the beautiful bay'.

The sisters rented a small collage for six guests near their home, and over the years their House of Rest went through several incarnations at a succession of buildings named Ferny Combe, Ferny Hollow and Ferny Bank.  Eventually as many as 600 women from all over the country - from shop assistants, milliners and dressmakers to teachrs, typists and cashiers - visited 3each year, usually for a stay of a fortnight or three weeks.  The Rest House, which sparked imitations in Sweden and Germany, continued until 1971.

Aggie Weston
Just as the Skinners were actively working in Torquay for the welfare of businesswomen, two other unmarried women were similarly involved in looking after sailors in Plymouth - Agnes Weston and Sophia Wintz.  Born in the first decade of the Victorian era, they became internationally lauded for their pioneering work in developing Sailors' Rests.
A dedicated building was opened in Devonport in 1876, and it proved so successful that another followed in Portsmouth in 1881.  'They deserve to be regarded as amont the leading women of Plymouth,' says Dr Gray.  'Neither was born there, but both were buried in the port with full naval honours.'

During WW2, women were implored to keep the country going while men were fighting overseas, and Devon women certainly did their share in a variety of occupations.

Some helped the Home Guard on Dartmoor by going out on mounted patrol as observers, while others drove taxis, became bus conductors, collected salvage and worked as gardeners.  But perhaps the most surprising of all were the 'Women Guerrillas' at Plymouth.

In April 1942 nearly 20 women becan  training in hand grenade and musketry drill.  Each woman was a Civil Defence Warden and one say: 'We are wquite prepared to tackle Tommy Guns, if they give us a chance.'

* Remarkable Women of Devon by Todd Gray http://www.stevensbooks.co.uk
/todd_grey_books/RWD.html or http://www.amazon.co.uk/Remarkable-
Also: http://sigbi.org/torquay-and-district/2011-historian-reveals-
remarkable-women-of-devon/ and http://www.devonhistorysociety.
org.uk/2011_01_01_archive.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Wintz

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