The most fascinating thing about the Ten Extraordinary Women of Shropshire exhibition which is on at the Bear Steps Hall in Shrewsbury right now (Sept 2018) is that highlights an amazing generation of women. Six of the women featured (including Margaret Rope) were born within twenty years of each other.
This was the generation who grew up as second-class citizens in the Victorian era, only to then refuse, as adults, to accept the oppressed status they had been born with.
Because these women all would have lived only miles from each other, Margaret Rope would surely have come across almost all of them.
Pioneers for equality
It’s hard to imagine how depressing the era must have been for women. When a ‘feminist’ such as Arnold Bennett can still be writing, in 1920, a whole book explaining (“kindly”!) why women are intellectually inferior to men (famously refuted by Virginia Woolf*), then you see the issue.
Margaret Rope seems to have approached the issue with a non-serviam attitude – by moving (at the age of 29) to a woman-friendly set of studios in London, refusing to marry, refusing to take part in the (male-dominated) ‘art-scene’, and then eventually joining an all-women community.
But the five contemporaries of Marga featured in this exhibition also “did it their way” – even though each had a different solution.
The suffragist and social reformer Eglantyne Jebb (born in 1876, six years before Marga) was already heavily involved in social reform work before the Great War.
She became increasingly horrified by news of the desperate state of children in war-damaged Germany and Austria, and founded the Save The Children organisation to help them. Amazingly, in an England which had grown to hate the Germans, she managed to raise large sums of money from the British public for this! One can only guess at the energy, commitment and powerful personality which she must have shown…
Katherine Harley too was already active in public life by the time WW1 came round. She had greatly dismayed her family by leading national votes-for-women marches, but when the war came she was told to “go and wait at home, woman!” by the British authorities when she asked to establish nursing units – so, she took her (all-women) volunteers group to Serbia, where the government was hugely grateful for her offer to set up mobile hospitals alongside the battlefields.
She refused to take a behind-the-lines role, and died in a bout of enemy shelling.
Teresa Hulton (later Lady Berwick of Atingham Park) was another contemporary of Marga’s. Born into money, she could have settled for a quiet life, but she is another for whom World War One was a catalyst. Like many young men come 1914, she was one of the young women who yearned for ‘action’, and her change came when a friend wrote and asked her to join an ambulance unit on the Italian front line saying, “we also have daily air raids, generally one for breakfast and another for tea, and two bombs have been dropped not far from our little chalet. But I don’t suppose that worries you.”
(Incidentally, Marga’s sister Irene was another woman whoo refused to sit on the Home Front, and who also joined an ambulance unit, in Serbia).
Teresa also took part in some secret intelligence work, of which little is known. She went on to become Lady Berwick and spent much of her life restoring Attingham Hall, which is now a National Trust property.
Mary Webb the author was born in 1881, just one year before Marga, and is best known for her ‘free spirit’ novels, in which a young woman finds freedom and purpose only in nature and natural behaviour. Three of Webb’s novels have been reprinted by Virago.
Agnes Hunt (born 1866, thus sixteen years older than Marga) became disabled early in life, suffering osteomyelitis of the hip. This didn’t stop her (in fact, it probably inspired her) to take up the cause of disabled children, and she eventually opened a convalescent home for them.
This home was affiliated to the Salop Infirmary hospital at Shrewsbury, where Margaret’s father was a surgeon working extensively in paediatrics. It’s quite possible that the young Marga may have even met this extraordinary woman.
Agnes Hunt went on to develop the home as a virtual mini-hospital of its own before founding another establishment, the Orthopaedic Hospital (RJAH) in Oswestry in north Shropshire.
The exhibition at the Bear Steps Hall is in the form of information boards rather than cases of artefacts, but, in that much of the information will come as revelations to most of us, it is still fascinating. The curator (and Civic Society member), Bibbs Cameron, is to be congratulated on the astonishing researches she’s undertaken.
Designed to tie in with the national Heritage Days appeal for nominations of ‘forgotten’ extraordinary women, the exhibition fulfils the brief exactly.
This exhibition has also been a moment to pause and think in this year of the 100th anniversary of the granting of the vote to women in Britain. It is incredible to consider that, as little as one hundred years ago, people of this great energy & creativity could be denied political equality on the basis of their sex alone.
Anyone who missed the exhibition will be glad to know that the displays will not be taken down until December (2018) but you’ll need to make an appointment to see them as they are being kept in the ‘Rex Connell’ gallery, which is usually locked. Contact Bibbs Cameron to ensure the gallery is opened up for you.
Apart from the six women already mentioned, there are displays featuring another four other women associated with Shropshire: –
Ethelraeda (aka Æthelflæd) warrior queen; the indefatigable Julia Bainbrigge Wightman, the temperance-movement leader who wrote the astonishing work ’Arrest the Destroyer’s March; or, Lift Ye Up a Banner’ in 1877; Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) the historian born in 1913, who also wrote the Cadfael Chronicles; and Esmeralda Lock (born 1854) the gypsy free-spirit who scandalised Society with her ‘wild’ ways.
*Footnote. You’ll find the refutuation in Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays called Killing The Angel In The House
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