President Dinah Barrand welcomed members and three visitors to the February meeting. Laura and Sandra from Stonepillow, one of the chosen charities for 2018, gave an informative and interesting talk about the work of Stonepillow undertaken with the homeless, and suggested a number of ways in which members could make a difference. A large number of board games had already been brought in to the
meeting for residents of Glenlogie and St. Josephs, but Laura also told the meeting about the ‘wish list’ published monthly asking for donations of clothing, food and homewares and a number of money raising initiatives ranging from evenings at
Crabtree and Evelyn to sky-diving and a sleep out. There are lots of ways in which BRWI can get involved!
Dinah then introduced Louise Peskett who gave a fascinating talk on Notorious
Women of Sussex.
First up was Martha Gunn (1726-1815) who, despite being of lowly birth and illiterate, became a famous entrepreneur. Starting as a ‘dipper’ for fashionable women coming to sea bathe in Brighton, Martha went on buy a number of bathing machines and a house of her own. She was said to be a favourite of the Prince of Wales, lived to a ripe old age, has a bus and pub named after her, and is buried opposite Phoebe Hessell who achieved fame by fighting as a foot soldier serving under the Duke of Cumberland. Her 17 year career in the military came to end when her gender was discovered when she was treated for a wound sustained in battle. Twice widowed and having had 10 children who died in infancy, she ended up as a beggar in Brighton. There was however a happy ending; the Prince Regent heard of her story and granted her a pension – not knowing perhaps that she would live to the ripe old age of 108!
The stories of two doctors – when to study medicine as a woman was difficult,
expensive, and prone to abuse and disparagement – came next; Helen Boyle (1869- 1957) and Louisa Martindale (1872-1966). Helen was one of the first female GPs in Brighton, developed an interest in and extensive knowledge of psychiatry,
researching the link between mental health and poverty, and was one of the co-
founders of Mind. She started the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children in Brighton, which developed in 1905 into The Lady Chichester Hospital for the
Treatment of Early Mental Disorders, the first of its kind. This was a successful
pioneering venture, of which Helen Boyle remained the ‘head and heart’ for fifty
years, seeing it through several moves and expansions. She continued to work there until the NHS took over in 1948. In the 1914-18 war she served for five months in Serbia with the Royal Free Hospital Unit, and was decorated with the order of ST Sava.
Dr. Louisa Martindale was asked to join the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children as a visiting medical officer and in 1920 was instrumental in the setting up
of the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Windlesham Road, Brighton, holding the
post of senior Surgeon and Physician until 1937. Louisa’s medical interests
were sometimes controversial, especially her studies of venereal disease and
prostitution; her book Under the Surface (1909), in which she spoke quite openly
about these very topics, apparently caused a stir in the House of Commons.
Nonetheless she was awarded with the CBE in 1931.
Appropriately, in the centenary month of the Representation of the Peoples Act,
Louise then described the lives of some local members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Brighton born Minnie Turner was an enthusiastic suffragette and was imprisoned in Holloway twice. She bought a boarding house for women only in Brighton, and this became a refuge for suffragettes. One day on returning to her house it was to find that a stone had been thrown through the window. Undismayed, she put up a poster next to the break stating ‘Male Logic’ with an arrow pointing to the broken pane.
Another Sussex suffragette Mary Hare (1865-1945) famously defaced her 1911 census form – “women do not count so we will not be counted”. In 1914 she formed her own uniformed womens’ police force in Brighton,
and later in life founded a school for the deaf based on the understanding, unique at the time, that deafness was not a mental disability but a sensory impairment that put up barriers to learning.
Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952) was an American actress who came to the UK after her husbands’ suicide, joined the WSPU and turned to writing, including a play called ‘Votes for Women’. She moved to Henfield in 1913 and turned her
home into a place of convalescence for women who had been force fed while in prison.
Closer to home, fellow WSPU member Eleanor Higginson (1881-1969) moved to Bognor after her husband’s death and, with fellow suffragette Elizabeth Hesmondhalgh, moved to a house she renamed Pankhurst painted in the suffragette colours of white, violet and green! She died in Chichester in 1969 but the image of her resisting arrest remains as one of the most iconic of the Suffragette Movement.
A more famous name was English drag King Vesta Tilley (1864 –1952) who, until her retirement in 1920, was the highest paid female entertainer on the British stage.
She left the stage to help her husband’s political career and became a Lady on His knighthood. For a time she was based in Hove and a blue plaque records where she lived.
Finally, Shoreham based Phyllis Pearsall (1905-1996) the woman
who invented the A-Z map series in the development of which she walked some
3,000 miles, checked the names of 23,000 streets, and worked 18 hour days. It was
interesting to hear how difficult it had been for her to get it published but once
published it was of course a runaway success. On her retirement, she turned the
company into a trust to protect the employees and to ensure that it was never bought out.
Katie Lyne, on behalf of BRWI, gave a heartfelt vote of thanks.
After refreshments, Dinah updated the meeting on the upcoming ‘Bit on the Side’
activities as well as various group and WSFWI events.
The competition ‘My Inspirational Sister’ attracted four entries singing the praises of
an inspirational teacher, nurse Mary Seacole, Princess Sophie Duleep Singh and
Lady Penelope. First prize was shared by Karen (Lady Penelope) and Annie (Mary
Seacole) with Manuela winning third prize with Princess Sophia.
The raffle was drawn and the meeting concluded with Dinah wishing everyone a Safe journey home.