Doing the Lavender Walk
There are many dedicated dames out there doing their best to rescue women’s achievements from obscurity, and Jeanne Rathbone has to be one of the most entertaining. She has made it her mission to cast a spotlight on the many remarkable women who have lived in her neighbourhood of Lavender Hill, in Battersea. Her painstaking research and strenuous lobbying have met with some success, since several of the women in question have now been honoured with Battersea Society plaques on the houses where they once lived.
I turned up at Battersea Town Hall a couple of weeks ago to join one of her guided Sunday morning walks and was dazzled by the energy, commitment and accomplishments of Jeanne’s subjects – and beguiled by the brio with which she tells their stories. I felt like part of an invincible little army trooping along the streets, with Jeanne stopping the traffic where necessary to get us all across to the next location.
Many of Jeanne’s women were crusaders for social justice, entering politics at a time before the welfare state, in response to the need and distress all around them:
Jeannie Nassau Senior became the first female civil servant when she was appointed a government inspector of workhouses in 1873, with a particular remit to report on the education of ‘pauper girls’.
Charlotte Despard, socialist, Sinn Feiner, and a redoubtable campaigner for women’s suffrage. She was imprisoned in Holloway twice in 1907, a victim of the ‘cat and mouse’ Act.
Caroline Ganley‘s political education began when she accompanied her husband to meetings of the garment workers’ union. She, too, campaigned for women’s suffrage and became a committed pacifist. She was among the first women JPs, appointed in 1920, was elected to London County Council in 1934, and became an MP herself in 1945. Her pioneering approach saw Battersea leading the way in terms of women’s welfare.
The arts are well represented, too, with a few famous names as well as the more obscure ones:
Biddy Lanchester, socialist feminist and mother of the more famous Elsa Lanchester, who became the bride of Frankenstein in the film of the same name.
Writers Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the Booker Prize in 1979 with Offshore (see damesnet’s review), and Pamela Hansford Johnson, a critic and novelist whose works encompassed the high comedy of The Unspeakable Skipton, Proust studies, and social commentary (as in On Iniquity, inspired by the trial of the Moors murderers.)
Marie Spartali’s achievements have been rather obscured by her role as muse and model to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but she was an accomplished painter in her own right, contributing works to exhibitions in Britain and in the US over a 60-year career.
And this is only about half of the women on the walk!
Now you could just go to Jeanne Rathbone’s treasure trove of a website, where she generously shares the fruits of her research, and lots of pictures of her subjects (and of their works), but that would be to miss all the fun. With a different hat on, Jeanne is a stand-up comedienne, and it shows. Her informal, almost gossipy, commentary on the women she so clearly admires, studded with off-the-cuff and irreverent asides, should not be missed. Asked about a bust of Shakespeare set into the wall of Gilmore House, she contemptuously dismissed it with, ‘There was one of Milton, too … well, they had pretensions… ‘ (She was not referring to former resident Deaconess Gilmore, philanthropic sister of William Morris, but to a different occupier of the premises.) She is also an active member of the Battersea Society, which gets her little flock access to the grounds of Gilmore House, and actually inside The Shrubbery, to admire the elegant Georgian lobby.
At a couple of the humbler houses, the current residents popped out to listen in on the history of their home. As part of her drive to get more blue plaques for her illustrious women, Jeanne also goes equipped with some dummy ones she has had made up, so people can see how distinguished these residences would look with one of them on the wall.
The walk finishes at Pamela Hansford Johnson’s house, now conveniently transformed into an Italian restaurant, Farrago’s. Sadly I didn’t have time for this bit, but I don’t doubt it was very convivial!
Find out much more about the women I’ve mentioned and those I didn’t have space for at Jeanne’s website, and, if you’re in London, keep an eye open for future walks. It makes for an altogether enlivening Sunday.