Who was the first British woman to start a campaign group for votes for women?

Lydia Becker

Everyone must have heard of Margaret Thatcher the first female British Prime Minister.

And probably Nancy Astor, the first female British Member of Parliament to take her seat in the House of Commons.

And Emmeline Pankhurst, the woman who lead the suffragettes in their campaign to get votes for women.

But what about Lydia Becker?

She has her place in history too as a fierce advocate for women to have the right to vote and the first British woman to organise a campaigning group to achieve it.

Lydia Becker was born in Manchester in 1827. She was the oldest child of a large, well-to-do family with fifteen siblings. Her grandfather was a German emigrant and her father, Hannibal Becker, was a manufacturer of vitriol and other chemicals.

Lydia’s mother died in 1855 and Lydia had to take responsibility for the upbringing of her younger siblings.

In 1871, aged forty four, she was running her father’s home assisted by a cook and a housemaid.

Lydia was well educated and developed an aptitude for botany. She gained recognition for her collection of local dried plants and entered into correspondence with Charles Darwin about them. She wrote a beginner’s guide to Botany which was published in 1868.

She started a scientific group for women in Manchester but her life took a new direction after she attended a lecture about women’s suffrage. Lydia wrote a pamphlet about votes for women and teamed up with Emily Davies and Elizabeth Wolstenholme to form the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee reputedly the first campaigning organisation for votes for women.

Lydia and her fellow suffragists were up against huge opposition. This is demonstrated in the final verse of an “Ode to Lydia Becker” published in the Whitehaven Advertiser in 1868.

In polling booth for town or shire
No marriageable maidens linger
Or widows, who again aspire
To have a ring put on their finger
For men who want good wives they know
Would rove from Manchester to Mecca
Before they’d hand or heart bestow
On thy disciples, Lydia Becker.

In 1870, Lydia started a magazine, the Women’s Suffrage Journal.

Lydia committed herself to achieving the vote for women through peaceful means and she worked tirelessly on campaigns, speeches and her writing.

One meeting where Lydia spoke was attended by a teenage Emmeline Pankhurst who was at her first suffrage meeting.

In 1889 Lydia became unwell and went to the French spa town of Aix-les Bains to take the waters but she contracted diphtheria and died in Geneva in 1890.

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Who was the first British woman jockey?

female jockey

In 1971 the Jockey Club reluctantly took the decision to allow women jockeys to race on British race courses.

The Club approved a series of amateur, all women races on the flat as a result of a female riders campaign started by Mrs. Judy Goodhew, of Longfield in Kent.

Hayley Turner, born in 1983, was the first British woman to have a successful career as a professional jockey. Part of her achievement was to become, in 2008, the first woman to ride one hundred UK Flat race winners during a single year. She retired from professional horse racing in 2015.

However, many years previously, a notorious woman named Alicia Meynell scandalised the racing fraternity when she competed, for money, against male riders with large amounts of gambling on the outcome of her race.

Alicia was known at the time as Mrs Thornton because she lived with a Colonel Thornton even though he was inconveniently married to someone else. The colonel, although renowned as a sportsman of the hunting-shooting-fishing variety, had lost much of his fortune and sought to recover some of his money by betting on Alicia’s success in the race.

Unfortunately, Alicia lost her first race of four miles against her brother-in-law, Captain William Flint, at the Knavesmire in York in 1804. The stakes were a thousand guineas and it was reported that over £200,000 was gambled on the outcome of the race although this has probably been exaggerated with the passing of time!

The twenty two year old Alicia rode side-saddle and wore a leopard coloured dress with blue sleeves and a blue cap. She was in the lead for most of the race but was overtaken by the Captain three quarters of the way round the course.

The following year Alicia tried again, this time with more success. In the first race her opponent, Mr Bromford, withdrew from the race at short notice so all the winnings were given to Alicia and Colonel Thornton.

The second race was against Frank Buckle, the top jockey of his day who in a fifty year career won the Derby five times, the Oaks nine times and the St Leger twice. He retired in 1831 and in 1805 was at the peak of his career.

Alicia weighed in at 9st 6lbs against Frank’s 13st 6lbs. She again rode side-saddle and this time wore cap, waistcoat and shoes in purple, a yellow skirt and embroidered stockings.

Right from the start Alicia took the lead and despite several attempts by Buckle she held on, riding to a win amid great appreciation of her horsemanship.

Alicia never raced again and appears to have separated from Colonel Thornton who continued to engage in disputes with the brother-in-law, Captain Flint. Flint spent time in the debtors’ prison and Thornton sold up his property and re-branded himself as the Prince de Chambord going off to live in France. Flint died in York of prussic acid poisoning which he was using to self-medicate for an asthma attack. And, according to History and other thoughts, Alicia eloped with a soldier in 1806 and was never heard of again.

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Who was the first British woman police detective?

Lilian Wyles

After starting her working life in nursing, Lilian Wyles joined a women’s police patrol in central London in 1919.

The patrols were accompanied by a male officer and had considerable curiosity value to the general public not least because of the uniform: pudding bowl helmet, high-necked serge jacket, long skirt and knee-high leather boots.

The patrols were only intended to be temporary but several of the women including Lilian Wyles were determined to stay in policing.

Despite considerable male opposition, Lilian was admitted into the Metropolitan Police and joined the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) where she worked with children and young people and women involved in cases of sexual assault.

Lilian was the only woman officer in a department of over three thousand men.

As a detective Lilian worked on some high profile cases such as The Savidge case, the Vera Page muder, the Mancini case and the murder of PC Edgar in North London. But the case of the Trance Medium, as reported in the newspapers of the time, is classic.

In July 1928, Mrs Cantlon, a well-known medium and spiritualist, was charged at Westminster Police Court with selling fortunes while her assistant, Miss Mercy Phillimore, was charged with aiding, abetting and procuring.

The prosecutor, Mr Roome explained that Mrs Cantlon described herself as a trance medium and that Miss Lilian Wyles of the Metropolitan Police had made an appointment to visit her.

Mr Roome described how Miss Phillimore showed Lilian to an upstairs room and Mrs Cantlon closed the blinds and drew the curtains.

Mrs Cantlon sat down opposite Lilian and closed her eyes. There were three loud knocks and Mrs Cantlon told Lilian that a North American Indian chief was standing behind her and wanted to speak to her.

“Hail my chief,” said Mrs Cantlon and told Lilian that her mother was in the spirit. Lilian replied that her mother was still alive.

“It’s your father who has passed,” said Mrs Cantlon.

Lilian explained that her father was alive too.

“You know the black spaniel dog I see before me,” said Mrs Cantlon.

“No,” was Lilian’s reply.

Mrs Cantlon said, “Tell my squaw who saw the dog last” and then told the unmarried Lilian that her and her husband would soon be back together.

Mrs Cantlon said that Lilian would make a lot of money from her book.

“Do you write?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Lilian.

“What do you write?” asked Mrs Cantlon.

“Statements for the police,” replied Lilian to much laughter in the court as Mr Roome completed his account.

Gradually Lilian came to be well regarded by her colleagues and was appointed as a Chief Inspector in 1931. When she retired in 1949 she had served the police force for thirty years.

LILIAN WYLES 1885 – 1975

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Who was the first British woman pharmacist?


We’ve had the first British female bus driver, motorist and gas fitter. Today’s first British woman is Fanny Deacon (1838 – 1930): pharmacist.

In 1868 the government decided that all pharmacists had to register with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

The first register compiled a year later included the names of 223 practicing women pharmacists about 2% of the total number of pharmacists. These women qualified for inclusion in the register because they were already in practice probably having taken over their business from a father or husband.

After 1868 women were allowed to take the Society’s examinations and register as qualified pharmacists. The first woman to pass a so called “modified” exam was Fanny Deacon.

Fanny’s father, William Potter, was a pharmacist who had a chemist and druggist shop in Kibworth, Leicestershire.

Once she was qualified Fanny registered with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society from the same address as her father until 1875. She married Abraham Deacon and moved with her husband and father to Fleckney in Leicestershire. Here Fanny and her father had a shop next to the chapel where Fanny’s husband was the minister.

Their son Gus combined pharmacy with watch making and Fanny remained at Fleckney long after the deaths of both her father and her husband. She was still on the register of the RPS when she died in 1930 aged ninety two.

Alice Vickery
By unspecified (Schwimmer-Lloyd collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1873, Alice Vickery was the first woman to qualify as a chemist and druggist by passing the Society’s ‘Minor’ exam.

In 1873, Alice had qualified as a midwife. In 1880 she also became one of the first women in Britain to qualify as a medical practitioner.

Alice was also a prominent early feminist, and an active promoter (and practitioner) of free love, contraception and women’s rights.

Meanwhile, Isabella Clarke and Rose Minshull had passed the Society’s Preliminary, Minor and Major exams.

From 1875 they both made repeated applications for membership of the Society and were rejected.

The Annual General Meeting of 1878 approved a motion, albeit by just two votes, that it was undesirable for women to be admitted to the Society.

The following year, however, the Society’s Council grudgingly finally agreed that Isabella and Rose should become members.

Yet the change turned out to be largely symbolic. In the following decades, the number of women on the statutory register actually declined. By 1905, there were only 195 female pharmacists on the register, just 1.2 per cent of the 16,000 total.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that things began to change.

In 1947, Jean Kennedy Irvine became the first of many female presidents of the Pharmaceutical Society. By then, one in 10 pharmacists were female.

This had grown to 18 per cent by 1959, and by the mid-1980s over a third of pharmacists were women. And nowadays, there are more women pharmacists on the register than men.

There’s an interesting account of the 175 year history of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society here.

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Who was the first British woman gas fitter?


We’ve had the first woman to drive a London bus and the first British woman to drive a car.

Today’s first woman is Shirley Cameron Jennings who was the first British woman to become  a gas fitter.

As she was the daughter of a gas engineer it’s not entirely surprising that Shirley followed in her father’s footsteps. She commenced studies at Westminster Polytechnic in 1935 and four years later became the first woman to pass the Higher Grade examination of the Institute of Gas Engineers.

She worked as a gas fitter for two years before joining the Metropolitan police as a constable.

After WW2 Shirley joined the CID and was appointed as a Detective Sergeant in 1952.

A couple of years later she was sent to investigate a theft from a company in Mayfair and met the company accountant, Mr Becke.

The couple were married in 1954 and Shirley went on to become the first woman police commander of the Metropolitan Police – Shirley Becke!

The image at the top of this post has nothing to do with Shirley the gas fitter. It’s from the Imperial War Museum and shows women stripping and cleaning street lamps and preparing them for re-glazing in a gas works at an undisclosed location during the First World War. Not exactly relevant but within the theme!

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If you’re reading this blog post before 29th June 2018, you can get a FREE copy of “Magnificent Britain” by Michael Murray from Amazon. Just click the link at the bottom of the previewer.

review 3


Who was the first woman to drive a car?

motor car 1904

Following on from the first woman to drive a London bus, who was the first woman to drive a car?

On Thursday 9th June 1904 Victoria Martin drove the leading car in the first rally that marked the inauguration of the Ladies’ Automobile Club.

Victoria lead the procession from its starting point at Carlton House Terrace in London, along Pall Mall, around Hyde Park and on to Ranelagh in Chelsea where the ladies arrived in time for tea.

For this Victoria was widely reported in the press to be the first woman motorist.

However in the preceding couple of years several wealthy women had been meeting together to promote the idea of women as car drivers.

In 1899 Viscountess Harberton invited several women of her acquaintance to meet at her house to discuss mechanical traction and to consider the formation of an automobile club for women.

This encouraged Lady Cecil Scott Montague to make the preliminary arrangements for the Club.

The Duchess of Marlborough, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Marchioness of Winchester and the Countess of Dudley were amongst the founding members of the Club.

Countess of Warwick
image credit: By The Lafayette Studio ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Countess of Warwick declined the invitation to join the Club. She replied that she rather disliked automobiles although she could see they might become useful for carrying heavy loads in both town and country. However at the present time she could only regard them as an amusement for rich people as they were so very expensive and considered them very unnerving for the horses.

The first meeting of the Ladies’ Automobile Club took place on 2nd October 1903 at the Hans Crescent Hotel in London.

Then more members were enrolled into the Club who all agreed to pay an annual subscription of two guineas.

The ground floor drawing room of the hotel was designated for the exclusive use of the Club. The room could accommodate one hundred members and was furnished with easy chairs and sofas and contained many small writing desks as well as being decorated with flowers and palms.

A series of lectures on practical engineering and talks by well-known motoring experts was planned for Club meetings.

Tea was taken at the end of the meeting in the winter garden of the hotel by all the ladies present.

Wealthy ladies were very keen on “clubs” and the Ladies Automobile Club soon became very popular.

By mid-1904 the Club had taken new, improved rooms at Claridge’s Hotel and planned the first rally which was attended by 56 vehicles. Although a few of the ladies drove themselves, the majority were driven by men with the women as passengers.

However Victoria Martin or Mrs John Biddulph Martin as she was known and the Duchess of Sutherland drove themselves.

Many of the vehicles were decorated with flowers and a crowd of photographers and well-wishers watched them set off.

Victoria Martin was the widow of John Biddulph Martin, a philanthropist and the owner of Martin’s Bank who had died in 1897. He was Victoria’s third husband and although American by birth, she’d adopted Britain as her second home and was thus credited with being the first British woman car driver.

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Who was the first woman to drive a London bus?

London bus

When I was writing Jam for Tea I recalled that the first woman to be blasted up into space was the Russian, Valentina Tereshkova.

Sometime later I found myself trying to remember the name of the first British woman to make that exciting journey into space. It was of course Helen Sharman who was born in 1963 just one month before Valentina Tereshkova made her historic flight.

Learning about Helen Sharman inspired me to find out about other British women trailblazers.

I’ve read the stories of some amazing women and found some Internet gems as well.

For example, this YouTube film clip is a fantastic record of the first woman to drive a London bus.

Her name was Jill Viner and she took her place behind the wheel in 1974.

Women were not allowed to drive London buses until the 1970s and the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Jill Viner was working as a London bus conductress and immediately took advantage of the new opportunities offered by the change in the law and applied to qualify as a driver.

British Movietone News filmed Jill’s first day at work explaining that she’d wanted to be a bus driver since she was eight years old.

In the 1970s London Transport was short of over three thousand drivers to run a full service and it might be thought that Jill was kicking at an open door.

However the rampant sexism of the era was encapsulated in the Movietone commentary which was riddled with prejudice and stereotyping. In less than a minute the voiceover managed to include: “Well, it’s the end of all those jokes about women drivers. Like it or lump it…. We men have brought it on ourselves. Red-headed Jill…. says she’ll wear the trousers. But with a pretty girl like Jill at the wheel, who’s complaining?”

Despite Jill’s achievement in 1974 it looks as though Transport for London is still having to work hard to encourage women to work in transport.

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Following the sale of Leefdale’s Old Rectory, several villagers find themselves drastically affected by the actions of their new neighbours.

Sleepy, picturesque Leefdale soon becomes a place of bitter conflict which attracts the attention of a boorish political reporter and the national media who are in pursuit of a much bigger story.

By the end of the summer the lives of three women will be transformed irrevocably.

Leefdale #Kindle #KindleUnlimited