The long hot summer dragged on and on, and the dames crafted their birthday picnic plans. Detailed lists were made of disposable cutlery, finger food, exotic salads, homemade brownies, cinnamon twists from a well-known discount wholesaler, paper napkins, party bags and picnic blankets to colonize large areas of Green Park. All would be supplemented by bottles of fizz to be purchased at the end of the blue plaque trail, when we would shelter from the burning rays of the sun beneath the soft arboreal canopies in the park.
On the appointed morning we donned our raincoats, dusted down our brollies and wellies, and sallied forth in the driving rain, waving fond farewells to the picnic blankets and disposable cutlery.
We met as planned, outside the Home Office in Marsham St. There we met Betty the Badger, who is campaigning for badgers’ rights – you can find out more at bettybadger.blogspot.com/. Around the corner we admired the frieze and mosaics by Georgie Hopton, a British artist working across a range of media, who was commissioned by the Home Office to design some public art to complement their new building and reflect its purpose. The fireplace logs frieze and the hearthside rug mosaics are a very literal interpretation of the ‘home’ in Home Office.
The by now somewhat damp dames then strode boldly forth to Tufton Street in Westminster, to admire the blue plaque in honour of Eleanor Rathbone – independent MP, pioneer for family allowances to be paid directly to mothers, and instrumental in neogtiating women’s inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. She was an outspoken critic of appeasement in Parliament, denouncing British complacency in Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. Her determination in this and other matters was such that junior ministers and civil servants of the Foreign Office would reputedly hide behind pillars when they saw her coming.
Decidedly dripping dames set off across St James’s Park and the Mall, pausing to admire the bronze reliefs of the Queen Mother, with the general agreement that we all liked best the pictures of her braving the Blitz, but were confused by the lack of bottles of gin.
Totally deluged but indomitable dames arrived in St James’s Square to view Nancy Astor’s blue plaque. In 1919 she became the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament. In her maiden speech in February 1920 she reminded the House: ‘You must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely.’ She spent almost two years as the only woman in the House of Commons against a backdrop of sexism and, often, outright resentment. She supported welfare reforms and equal voting rights and was also supportive of other female MPs, regardless of political party.
On one occasion, while canvassing in Plymouth, she was greeted at a door by a girl whose mother was away. As Astor was unfamiliar with the area, she had a naval officer as an escort. The girl said: ‘…she [my mother] said if a lady comes with a sailor they’re to use the upstairs room and leave ten bob.’
On the other side of the square we paid homage to Ada Lovelace, known as the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ and credited by history as being the first computer programmer ever. She was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. As a young girl her mathematical talents led her to a long working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of computers’, and in particular, his work on the Analytical Engine. Lovelace added her own notes on the engine, which contain what is considered the first computer programme, that is, an algorithm encoded for processing by a machine.
By now the drowned but determined dames were ready for some internal liquid refreshment. We repaired to elegant tearooms on Piccadilly for tea and buns (and bubbly for the toast).