The Essex Women’s Commemoration Project (EWCP) was facilitated by the first female Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, Mrs Jennifer Tolhurst, in 2021. I’d written to her when directing a play written in 1660 by Margaret Cavendish, and had been astonished to discover that there was no recognition of this extraordinary playwright, poet, philosopher, scientist, and novelist (arguably she wrote the first work of Science Fiction) in her Colchester birthplace. Mrs Tolhurst’s response was immediate. She asked me to join four Deputy Lieutenants – Julia Abel Smith, James Bettley, Roy Clare, and Juliet Townsend – to ensure that not only Margaret Cavendish but other notable Essex women were commemorated with blue plaques.
We began our research with the Dictionary of National Biography, and quickly came across over 200 worthy recipients, but, after much debate, reduced the list to a more manageable 72. It soon became abundantly clear that the gender imbalance for public memorials is a national scandal. The much-acclaimed English Heritage scheme in London, for example, has over 950 plaques, but only 14 percent of them record the achievements of a woman. The Glasgow Herald headline was right: ‘Objects better recognised than women.’
Blue plaques tend to be a mirror which reflects the class, race, and beliefs of the people who erect them. We wanted to engage a much broader demographic, and particularly to inspire young women who may feel tainted by the ‘Essex Girl’ stigma. The way forward, as we saw it, was to work with local communities and raise awareness of the women who had lived and worked among them. We forged partnerships with, among others, Essex Gardens Trust, the Women’s Institute, Community Rail Partnership, and local history groups in places such as Basildon, Canvey, and Newport.
While our project received a development grant from Essex Heritage Trust, most are locally funded. A surprising discovery was that blue plaques aren’t that expensive – less than £400 in fact. Neither is the process necessarily bureaucratic. In most cases (listed buildings being the exception) you can put a blue plaque on a wall without planning permission, in the same way that you can place a street number or name on your house. English Heritage’s somewhat arbitrary ‘rules’ only apply in London, except where they’re adopted by a council. Chelmsford, as an example, has done that, but it’s far from being the norm – which is why the EWCP has unveiled 29 blue plaques dedicated to women in under two years.
Although the reaction from the public has been extremely positive, we’ve still had instances of whataboutery and the accusation of sexism towards men. In fact, we don’t honour the women because of their gender, but rather in recognition of their remarkable achievements.
Pioneers and trailblazers
When you read their stories, the first thing that springs to mind is, “Wow! I didn’t know that,” and the second, “WHY didn’t I know that?” Here are just two examples:
In 1711 Philippa Walton’s husband died, leaving her with ten children and a gunpowder factory. So successful was her management of the business that it was nationalised and became the Royal Gunpowder Mills.
Edith Pechey-Phipson was one of an initial cohort of seven women who studied to become a doctor at Edinburgh University but, such was the opposition, a live sheep was let into the exam room to distract them and they were expelled after a year. She later became the Chief Medical Officer at the new Cama Hospital in Bombay: the first hospital in the world to be entirely staffed by women for women.
Leading the way
There was a remarkable coincidence when erecting a plaque to Hannah Lake, who was born in Wickford in 1620 but emigrated to America 15 years later, founding a dynasty that includes three American presidents. Wickford Library was identified as a possible location for the plaque, and when we went to speak to the librarian, who was from Ohio, she cut us off with: ‘She’s one of my ancestors.’
Disregarded and disbelieved are common factors when it comes to recognising female endeavour. Princess Dinubolu of Senegal was probably the first woman of colour in the world to enter a beauty pageant; at Southend in 1908. She’s been dismissed as a hoaxer, an actress, and a white woman posing in ‘black face’. When I asked an historian how he knew this I received a two-word email – ‘It’s obvious.’ This spurred me on, and, from my extensive research, her story checks out. It was an act of defiance to Edwardian society. Entering “Best Blonde” seems to make that clear.
One of the objectives of the EWCP is legacy, and while, to date, we haven’t been particularly successful, two Southend schoolgirls read their poems at the Princess’s plaque unveiling about how it feels to be young, female, and black, growing up in Essex. They were both articulate and passionate: a strong indication that the future is safe in the hands of the younger generation.
‘I am Courageous, fearless, and great.
I am the African Boudicca.’
Remembering their struggle
My personal view is that plaques ought not to be static objects on a wall but trampolines that propel others into achieving for the greater good. Otherwise, what’s the point of memorialising their struggles? Essex has led the way with these 29 plaques commemorating women, but we’re determined to surpass the 43 given to just one man – Charles Dickens. Essex is far from unique. Imagine if each of the 84 English counties committed to doing the same?
If you wish to honour a woman from your area, just email me at [email protected] and I’ll send you a detailed document which explains exactly how.
EWCP – BLUE PLAQUE LOCATIONS – is there one near you?
Rose Allen – Great Bentley, Colchester
Ada Andrews – Canvey Island
Amy Bull – Little Baddow
Margaret Cavendish – Colchester
Beth Chatto – Elmstead, Colchester
Joanna Constantinidis – Chelmsford
Katherine ‘Mina’ Courtauld – Colne Engaine
Agnes Dawson – Newport
Princess Dinubolu – Southend Victoria Station
Joyce Frankland – Newport
Gwynneth Holt (with Thomas Huxley Jones) – Chelmsford
Mary Honywood – Coggeshall
Clara James – Canvey Island
Hannah Lake – Basildon / Wickford
Catherine Marsh (aka Miss CM Marsh; and Miss Marsh) – Colchester
Adele Mayer – Newport
Jane Packer – Thurrock
Dr Edith Pechey-Phipson – Langham, Colchester
Vera Pemberton – Ingatestone
Isabel Rawsthorne (with Alan Rawsthorne) – Installed at their workroom in Little Sampford
Helen Robinson – Hyde Hall, Chelmsford
Myra Sadd Brown – Maldon
Nancy Tennant – Ugley
Pamela Underwood – Elmstead, Colchester
Philippa Walton – Waltham Abbey
Marion Wilberforce – Basildon / Wickford
Ellen Ann Willmott – Warley Place, Brentwood
Hester Woodley – Little Parndon, Harlow
Hannah Wooley – Newport
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Norfolk has famous women too
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