Celebrating the Pioneering Women of North London
Inspired by the 100th anniversary of (some) women gaining the right to vote, I wanted to learn more about the pioneering women who broke down barriers across various professions to strive for equality between the sexes. Planning my route using an English Heritage map of the blue plaques marking the houses of some of the most extraordinary women, I set out on my bike on the first of my adventures, starting in North London. To complement my trip, I read up on the background of these extraordinary women on route using a combination of the English Heritage blue plaque website and trusty Wikipedia.
Lilian Lindsay (1871 – 1960) – The first woman dentist to qualify in Britain - 3 Hungerford Road, Islington
After learning so much about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in school – the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon – I was eager to learn more about her dental counterpart. However, I was in for a disappointment as the house in Hungerford Road seems to be in the process of being demolished, and the blue plaque was nowhere to be seen. Standing outside the space where Lindsay once lived, I turned to my phone to enlighten me about this pioneering woman. Educated at Camden School for Girls under the headteacher Frances Buss (where I visit next), she expressed a wish to become a dentist (against the wishes of Buss, which resulted in the loss of Lindsay’s scholarship). Rejected from English colleges, since the Royal College of Surgeons of England did not permit women to sit exams, she was accepted into Edinburgh Dental Hospital. Excelling during her training, and gaining several awards for outstanding performance, she returned to North London to practice for a time before relocating back to Edinburgh with her husband. Recognised for her achievements in her field, Lindsay gained several prestigious positions – President of the British Society for the Study of Orthodontics in 1938, and President of the British Dental Association in 1946 – unlocking the doors of the dental profession for thousands of women to follow in her footsteps over the coming decades.
Frances Buss (1827 – 1894) – Pioneer of education for women – Camden School for Girls, Camden
Feeling a bit flat that the first location had been such an anti-climax, I cycled the short trip from Holloway to Camden School for Girls. This time I was not going to be disappointed – heading down a side street, I easily found the blue plaque mounted on the wall of one of the oldest parts of the school.
In 1850, Buss and her family opened the North London Collegiate School catering for ‘daughters of limited means’ – filling an educational gap for middle-class girls whose parents could not afford a governess but did not qualify for a charity school place. Fairly uniquely for the time, Buss provided her girls with an academic education including Latin and mathematics, in order to prepare them ‘for any position in life which they may be called upon to occupy’. Her curriculum inspired and acted as the basis for all schools across the country by 1900. In 1871, she set up Camden School for Girls, where she was headmistress, with the intention of providing affordable education lower middle-class girls (who could not have afforded the fees at her previous establishment). A committed suffragist who was part of the Kensington Society, Buss was instrumental in campaigning for women to be allowed to sit university exams, and later set up a teacher training college in Cambridge to continue her educational legacy. Her memory and achievements are still celebrated in her schools each year on Founders Day with daffodils - her favourite flowers.
Lee Miller (1907 – 1977) – Photographer – 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, Camden
After a punishing ride up Hampstead Hill, stopping to catch my breath at Keats House, I finally arrived puffing and panting at 21 Downshire Hill. A pretty street leading straight onto the Heath, it felt more like a village in the countryside than London.
Sharing a plaque with her husband Sir Roland Penrose, a surrealist artist, Lee Miller was born in America and started her career as a model when she was spotted by Vogue publisher Conde Nast as he stopped her stepping out into the road in front of a car. As a model, Miller came to represent the view of the ‘modern girl’ in the late 1920s, but she quickly became more interested in getting behind the camera instead of in front. Following her training and setting up a studio in Paris (where she became friends with Picasso), Miller moved back to the UK and, during the Second World War, became Vogue’s official war photographer. Documenting many scenes of the blitz carnage, she went to France soon after D-day where she captured many key events, including the first use of napalm, and the suffering in concentration camps. Haunted by the sights she had witnessed, Miller subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder upon her return to the UK, and settled down to a more sedate life in Hampstead and a farm in East Sussex.
Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) – Poet and dramatist – Bolton House, Windmill Hill, Hampstead, Camden
Going up to Windmill Hill felt like I was stepping (or cycling) back in time and into a Jane Austen novel. On either side I was flanked by great Georgian houses (mostly listed) with pretty gardens – I hate to think of the house prices here! This is the oldest area in Hampstead, and the huge number of blue plaques I saw on the way indicates that historically it has been home to many of the great and good of London.
Bolton House, where Joanna Baillie lived, is at the top of Windmill Hill and is an imposing privately occupied home. So much so, that I felt like I was trespassing on the tranquil solidarity of the place to take a picture of the plaque on the wall. This plaque was erected by the Royal Society of the Arts (brown rather than blue) in 1900, and was only the fourth ever to mark the achievements of a woman. Baillie’s works are largely forgotten now having slipped from popular culture, but during her life she was seen as the successor to Shakespeare for her historical dramas, including Plays on the Passions, and The Family Legend.
Amy Johnson (1903-1941) – Aviator – Vernon Court, Hendon Way, Barnet
Leaving behind Hampstead, I braved the busy Finchley Road with the many impatient drivers who obviously didn’t appreciate the presence of a cyclist. I was surprised to encounter an irate bus driver who wasn’t prepared to give me any space on the road and so beeped at me quite a lot to get out of the way. I don’t cycle a lot but I had thought that, with more people taking it up, drivers’ attitude to cyclists had improved – obviously not!
Facing Finchley Road, I nearly missed Vernon Court – largely because I was looking for a house. Possibly the best known of the pioneering women on my tour today, Amy Johnson was a glamorous adventurer who showed that she was both physically and mentally tough enough to take on the men in the relatively new challenge of flight, including beating her own husband’s flying record. First taking to the air as a hobby, Johnson quickly gained her pilot wings and was the first woman ever to gain a ground engineer ‘C’ licence. Picking this mock Tudor flat for its closeness to the London Aeroplane Club in Edgeware where she was a member, she quickly set about setting and breaking records. In 1930, Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, completing the journey in only 19 days. Subsequently, in 1931 and ’32, she set the record for flights from Britain to Japan and Kent to Cape Town respectively, beating all the men in the field (the latter having previously been set by her husband).
At the start of the Second World War, Johnson joined up with the Air Transport Auxiliary and it was on one of these flights in 1941 that she experienced poor weather conditions and bailed out into the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay. Although declared dead, her body has never been recovered.
Dame Ida Mann (1893 – 1983) – Ophthalmologist – 13 Minster Road, West Hampstead, Camden
Stopping for a quick snack of a Belvita bar (I have a slight addiction – but only to the most unhealthy types), I cycled the fairly easy (mostly flat) journey to Minster Road. However, pulling up in front of number 13 I was disappointed that I couldn’t see a blue plaque – seriously this couldn’t be happening again! Luckily the English Heritage site helped get me back on track, pointing out that the plaque was actually on the side of the house facing Fordwych Road (so take note if anyone is planning to replicate my trip).
Originally destined for a career in the Post Office, it was a chance visit to Whitechapel Hospital that inspired Ida Mann to pursue a career in medicine. In a situation which I can relate to (albeit not in the field of medicine), upon qualification she had no idea what she wanted to do and sent in a number of speculative applications for a variety of junior posts. Gaining a position at London Eye Hospital, she found that she had both talent and interest in the field of ophthalmology. After gaining a further qualification in general surgery she became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (joining only five other women) and moved her practice to the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital.
In 1937, recognising the danger presented by Nazi Germany, Mann persuaded the contact lens pioneer Josef Dallos to escape Budapest and relocate to London where he began trials on patients at Moorfields. For this one action alone, I am eternally grateful as being extremely short sighted, contact lenses allow me perfect vision without the uncomfortable hassle of glasses.
During the evacuation of Moorfields during the Second World War, Mann moved to Oxford where she became a fellow of St Hughes College and set about rebuilding the depleted ophthalmology discipline. To reward her efforts, in 1945 she was made Professor of Ophthalmology – the first women to ever achieve a professorship in Oxford’s history.
Anna Freud (1895 - 1982) – Pioneer of child psychoanalysis – 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, Camden
Heading further back south (and hopefully closer to home) I started to circle back to Hampstead, taking my life into my hands on Finchley Road. Interestingly the Freud residence is opposite to the previous home of former prime minster Herbert Asquith, although they would have lived there at different times.
Anna Freud grew up in Vienna under the pupillage of her father Sigmund, quickly establishing herself as a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis and quickly rising to become the Director of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Institute in 1935. Moving to the UK with her family to escape the Nazis, she set up the Hampstead War Nursery to care for foster children escaping the blitz. In 1947, this evolved to become the Hampstead Child Therapy Training Course and Clinic providing the world’s first ever training course in child psychotherapy. After her death, the house in Maresfield Gardens became the Freud Museum showcasing the work of Anna and her father.
Melanie Klein (1882 - 1960) – Psychoanalyst and pioneer of child analysis – 42 Clifton Hill, St John’s Wood, Westminster
About a 10 minute cycle ride away from Anna Freud’s house lived Melanie Klein, a contemporary and rival in the field of child psychoanalysis. Not being at all qualified to comment on the merits of their various theories, I won’t – but their divergent views split the field into followers of each of the women, Anna Freudians or Kleinians. Being the first to use traditional psychoanalysis techniques with children, Klein also pioneered innovative techniques including the use of toys in sessions. Strangely and despite her rivalry with his sister, Klein commissioned Anna’s brother Ernst to redesign the interior of her house (42 Clifton Street).
With a strategically positioned bench outside, I took the opportunity to sit, rest and reflect before the long cycle home.
My lasting impression of my trip around North London is the amazing fortitude each of the women on my journey must have had to achieve so much in the face of enormous adversity. Writing this blog entry, I’m starting to feel more hopeful around my potential and that all the bumps in the road are nothing more than that – temporary set-backs to be glanced at in the rear-view mirror and quickly forgotten…
#PioneeringWomen #WomenSucceed #WeWillSucceed #Vote100