Issue date: 06 November 2001

The part played by women as social reformers in Victorian and Edwardian Bristol is being put under the spotlight by historians from the University of the West of England. Researchers are keen to hear from families whose female ancestors may have been part of the fight to improve social conditions for women and children.

''Women were involved with all kinds of philanthropic work. This ranged from taking part in anti-slavery campaigns in the early nineteenth century, to setting up 'ragged schools' for poor children and by the 1890s, to involvement in trades unions and the women's movement,'' said June Hannam, from UWE's Regional History Centre.

''We started by investigating nationally important figures like Mary Carpenter and Katharine Conway. Mary was an anti-slavery campaigner in the early nineteenth century, who later set up Red Lodge reformatory school for girls in Colston Street. She ended up by giving evidence in 1861 to a parliamentary committee of inquiry investigating the education of destitute and neglected children. In contrast, Katharine qualified as a teacher in the 1880s, became caught up in the socialist movement and was involved in a strike of cotton workers in Bristol in 1889.

''However, we are also eager to learn more about less well-known names such as Agnes Beddoe, Mary Clifford, Eliza Walker Dunbar, Jane Tillett and Rosa Pease. We would love to hear from descendants of these women who might have collections of letters or memoirs containing a wealth of new information.''

June and her colleague Moira Martin are particularly interested to trace how, as the century progressed, what began as voluntary social action developed into paid careers in education, medicine or social work for women.

''It was a period of huge economic change, and Bristol reflected this with a wide range of manufacturing industries, a thriving commerce as well as a professional middle-class. There were also sizeable Quaker and Unitarian communities who believed in equal education for girls and boys. These factors provided a ready-made base of well-educated women eager to contribute to social reform.''

Such women may not have needed to work for economic reasons, but found their voluntary work gave them a window on the world. It was a complex picture, however, and as the century progressed, their motivations and opinions continued to vary and diverge. Some women were motivated by economic and political issues, whereas some were more influenced by moral or health issues.

Another striking feature of these women is how often the families were interconnected, and even intermarried. For example, one member of the Bright family of Manchester was a radical Liberal MP, whose first wife was Elizabeth Priestman. Her sisters, Anna Maria and Mary, moved to Bristol in 1860 and became correspondents of Josephine Butler, a reformer and campaigner for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Elizabeth’s daughter Helen Bright eventually married into the Clark family of Somerset.

This research, which has been made possible thanks to a grant from the British Academy, will contribute to a database on Bristol women engaged in public life.
If you have information that could contribute to the project, contact June Hannam or Moira Martin on june.hannam@uwe.ac.uk or moira.martin@uwe.ac.uk


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