Hertfordshire's hidden heroines
PUBLISHED: 12:55 08 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:40 12 March 2018
Looking for female role models for their young daughters, two Herts mums began a journey that would uncover and celebrate remarkable women in the county
It was a conversation between two Hertfordshire mums that sparked the idea for the fascinating and inspiring project, Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines, that began in 2015 and continues until the end of April at Lowewood Museum in Hoddesdon.
Emily Gray, artistic director at the Trestle Theatre Company in St Albans, was talking to Anna Reynolds, a writer and freelance project manager, about women who could inspire their eight-year-old daughters. Who could they look up to, they wondered, Beyoncé? Taylor Swift?
‘I felt there was a dearth of people who could be role models,’ Emily says.
They could have left it at that. But being plucky Herts women, they decided to take action. With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they set about finding extraordinary women in the county. They visited schools. They invited people to nominate their favourites, expecting they might end up with a couple of dozen names. At the beginning the list was small, albeit distinguished. Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who took revenge on the Romans by sacking Verulamium (St Albans). Elizabeth I, hardly unknown, but banished to Hatfield House between 1555-1558 where she became queen at the age of 25 and made her speech to her council who came to Hatfield to swear allegiance.
The project then just took off and continues today. Go to the Herts Memories website and you can discover inspiring women, watch films, and celebrate the fact that Hertfordshire women rock. You can even nominate your own heroine. Selections can be someone from Herts’ history, or she can be doing something heroic today.
So has Emily got a favourite? ‘Dolly Shepherd,’ she says without hesitation. Dolly was an Edwardian parachutist, born in Potters Bar in 1886.
‘She was extraordinary. She was the great spectacle of the time. You’d go to the village fair and Dolly would do a jump.’ What’s even more extraordinary about Dolly is that she performed the first mid-air parachute rescue and saved another woman’s life, but broke her own back and was paralysed. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records. Through grit and determination, Dolly learned to walk again and was soon back up in the air.
Emily is also a fan of the ATA girls, the first eight women pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary who were based at de Havilland aerodrome in Hatfield in 1941. They were trained to fly and then ferried combat aircraft, including Spitfires and Mosquitoes, from factories to front-line RAF airfields, without any defence. ‘They were so courageous,’ says Emily.
‘Courage calls to courage everywhere.’ So said Millicent Fawcett, suffragist and founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who will be celebrated this year when her bronze figure, created by sculptor Gillian Wearing, is unveiled in Parliament Square. It’s 100 years since women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote.
Herts had its own suffragists, who, unlike the suffragettes who believed in ‘Deeds not words’, refused to be militant. The suffragists organised meetings, letter writing and fundraising and campaigned for women to have the vote.
Kate Miller is a playwright based in Hertford who has a theatre company called Pins and Feathers. She nominated two suffragists for the Herts’ heroines project. She came across Annie Swan and Louisa Puller when she was doing research for a play. Both women became characters in Seeing it Through, about the roles of people in East Herts during the First World War.
Annie Swan was a journalist, suffragist and writer of women’s fiction who came to live in Hertford in 1910.
‘I was reading about the Zeppelin raid on Hertford and the eyewitness report was by Annie Swan – bombs fell on her house,’ says Kate. ‘When Belgium was invaded in 1914, little boats were coming across the channel with refugees. People set up committees and there were promises of rooms. The suffragists did a lot of this work, and Annie made arrangements for Belgian refugees to come to East Herts at the beginning of the war.’
Annie Swan was also commissioned by The Thirty-Nine Steps author John Buchan at the Foreign Office to travel to the US to ask for food aid. She had the backing of President Herbert Hoover and she set off – U-boat threats on the Atlantic notwithstanding – to make an appeal to American high society. By the autumn of 1918, the US was sending food parcels to Britain. Hoover wrote her a letter thanking her ‘for bringing home to the American people the necessity of food conservation.’
Louisa Puller was a Cambridge maths graduate who lived in Wadesmill, near Ware. She was a suffragist who led by example - she started digging.
‘There was a bit of a taboo about women working on the land’ says Kate Miller.
‘People thought it was improper, and middle class women wouldn’t have thought of it. But Louisa got out with a spade. They had to persuade farmers to allow them to dig.’
Hertfordshire was a boon to the war effort thanks to its agricultural productivity and Louisa Puller was hugely influential in getting women to work on the land.
The suffragists campaigned peacefully for 50 years. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Rather than peaceful suffragists, Emmeline and her daughters galvanised militant suffragettes.
Lady Constance Lytton, the granddaughter of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, could have continued to live quietly and comfortably at Knebworth House. Instead, she joined the fight for the vote. After protesting she was arrested and sentenced to a month in Holloway prison. By 1909 imprisoned suffragettes had begun hunger strikes to protest against being treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. Constance was convinced that she was being treated leniently because she was titled. She was released after three days on hunger strike due to her heart problems. At the next protest she disguised herself in cheap clothes and called herself Jane Warton. The next time she was arrested she was subjected to force feeding.
Kate Miller’s upcoming play is called The March, a co-production with Hertford Theatre, due to be performed in September and then touring the county. Set in 1911, it’s the story of Cissy Walters, daughter of a village vicar. Her mother is a tireless suffragist campaigner, but Cissy believes in militancy to force change. She resolves to join Mrs Pankhurst’s army in London and becomes a suffragette.
For Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines, it isn’t mandatory that their lives should be tales of derring-do. There are quieter ways of being brave.
Emily, at Trestle, admires Welwyn Hatfield mayor Lynne Sparks.
‘She has an extraordinary quality and she’s so open about growing up in an alcoholic household. She’s an incredibly kind and grounded woman. To speak out can be the bravest thing.’
The women in the exhibition in Hoddesdon and on the Herts Memories website are also teachers, nurses, sportswomen and police officers. And there is also the last woman to be found guilty of witchcraft in England, our very own Witch of Walkern. MP Shirley Williams is there, as is Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston, who went to Berkhamsted High School for Girls, and whose strength is brilliantly depicted by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film The Darkest Hour. There’s Audrey Collins, who was awarded an OBE for services to women’s cricket and who taught chemistry at St Albans Girls’ Grammar School for 35 years from the 1940s. Then there’s Eleanor Anne Ormerod, an economic entomologist born in 1828; community activist Syeda Momotaz Rahim, explorer and climber Lucy Shepherd and equine artist Lucy Kemp-Welch.
I ask Emily what Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines has meant for her daughter, who is now 12.
‘Something has definitely shifted. There is a feeling that women can do anything.’
Emily says that when they visited primary schools to ask for nominations, boys also got really excited about the project and wanted to celebrate their mums and grandmas.
So are Hertfordshire women the most courageous and groundbreaking in the country?
‘There are amazing women in Hertfordshire,’ says Emily. ‘But these women are everywhere – the only thing is that they are hidden.’
Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines is on at Lowewood Museum, Hoddesdon until April 28. Open Wednesday-Friday, 10am–4pm. Free admission.
The Herts Memories website is hertsmemories.org.uk