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Reading’s Influential Women – an inspiring read!

Reading’s Influential Women features more than 60 individual Women who have a connection with Reading and have made a notable difference in the world. Some are well known international names, others deserve to be. They are pioneers, familiar faces, recognisable voices, unsung heroes, campaigners, world changers, socialists, celebrities, Olympic and sporting champions, writers, artists, and scientists. It’s an inspiring read!

Authors Terry Dixon and Linda Saul write:

‘There are innumerable men and women from Reading who have achieved significant things or contributed to the life of the town and/or the wider world. Some, unfortunately, have gone unrecognised or are forgotten. Also, we know that in the past, the contribution of women was often dismissed, overlooked or attributed to somebody else.

In this book we can’t hope to document all those women connected to Reading who deserve to be mentioned but we can raise the profile of some, especially those whose connection to Reading is relatively unknown. To be included, women need to have been born, bred, educated in the greater Reading area, or to have lived there, or else have made an indelible mark on the town. We have included a couple of ‘unsung heroines’, but we know there are many more.

Many of the women in this book will have had their lives affected by misogyny. Several have played their part in challenging such attitudes. Edith Morley was a Suffragist (although Lady Wantage was antisuffragism), Ethelwyn Trewavas campaigned for married women to be able to keep their jobs. Some, such as Lettice Curtis, just got on and proved how good they were in a field dominated by men. Modern campaigns, such as Me Too, and the under-representation of women in many fields and the top tiers of organisations remind us there is still more progress to be made.

One area which has seen massive improvement in recent years is sport. Elite sportswomen are clearly influential in encouraging wider participation in sport, at all levels, and we have several examples in this book. But who knows how many more there might have been if women’s sport had not been discouraged in the not-too-distant past.

In writing this book some interesting threads emerged, and there are always questions. It is fun to try to find any connections between the individuals – were Jane Austen and Mary Mitford friends? Is it coincidence that one of the first female professional photographers set up a business in the same town where William Fox Talbot had made major advances in photography just a decade earlier?’

The authors’ royalties from the book are to be donated to Berkshire Women’s Aid.

About the Authors:

Terry Dixon was born in Tilehurst, Reading, and held the post of National Publicity and Development Officer on the National Federation of 18 Plus Groups NEC for 6 years. In his day job he was an electronics engineer and project manager. Taking early retirement in 2016, he started ‘Terry’s Reading Walkabouts’ to get fitter, and to introduce visitors and residents to the hidden culture and history of Reading. In 2017 he decided to celebrate Vote 100 by creating a new guided walk called ‘Famous/not-so-famous women of Reading’ which was launched in February 2018 to coincide with the date the Act of Parliament received royal assent. His research for that walk is the basis for this book. His walkabouts have raised over £7500 (including £1000 for Berkshire Women’s Aid) for local charities and he is a member of Reading Civic Society’s committee.

Linda Saul was born and raised on the Isle of Wight but has lived in Reading for about 35 years. After studying at Cambridge, she embarked on a successful career in IT. In her younger, wilder, days she developed a habit of falling out of aircraft before finally learning to fly one. She is now a full-time artist, her work focusing on the built environment. She exhibits regularly in London and is an active member of the Reading Guild of Artists. A perpetual student, she has completed a physics degree with the Open University and is now studying for a Masters in mathematics. In 2019 Linda cocurated an exhibition of art inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Galvanised by the campaign to save Reading Gaol for the town, she conceived and organised the Reading Gaol Hug with the help of many others, including Terry.

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Octavia Hill and the Hill Family – pioneers of the green spaces movement

Octavia Hill was instrumental in the founding of the National Trust, which celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2020.

“There is every reason to regard Octavia Hill as one of history’s most inspirational figures. Housing and green spaces campaigner, a founder of the National Trust and a pioneering woman at a time when women’s voices were too rarely heard; she has long been a heroine of mine. But to many, her large family, close friends and the people with whom she worked and on whom she leaned have remained somewhat shadowy figures, even though they had a huge influence on Octavia’s hard working life. Now Duncan Mackay has set out to put that right.” ~ Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, Former Director-General of the National Trust.

The Hill family transformed Britain and were champions of the Victorian open spaces movement. Duncan Mackay’s book Whispers of Better Things celebrates their story and achievements.

From Duncan Mackay’s introduction:

This book narrates the truly astonishing achievements of the Victorian-era Hill family, the people who inspired them and those who were inspired by them. Chief amongst their achievements was the co-creation of the National Trust via the Society for the Diffusion of Beauty, a body that virtually nobody knows of today. The social origin of the threads that formed the weft and warp of the fabric of this mighty institution and other bodies was a reaction by Christian, middle-class people to the widespread suffering of the urbanised working classes. This might be considered as ‘do-goodery’ or cynically smoothing your own path to the afterlife with kind deeds, but it was clearly much more than that in terms of its intent and impact. The Hill family were startlingly different people. This difference was marked by a curiously benevolent blending of medical welfare knowledge, Christian Socialism bound together with Pestalozzian educational principles, Owenite radicalism and strong female relationships.

Haunting it all was the deep dread of falling into debt and being cast amongst the destitute in the workhouse, as the ‘undeserving’ poor, the ‘living dead’ of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. This was a matter of critical, middle-class importance, as Charles Dickens discovered, and produced family members that, usually, supported each other in the perilous game of economic snakes and ladders. They provided ‘cover’ whenever unpredictable disasters beset them, even if, as in the Hill family, there were, through early death and mental illness, children by three different mothers and one latterly absent father.

In that era of ‘devil take the hindmost’ laissez-faire economics, pleas for the poor, the provision of decent housing, urban and urban fringe public open spaces, places for children to play, access to greenery, sunlight, clean air, natural beauty and a ‘right to air and exercise’ to lead healthier lives, were initiated by the redoubtable Hills. Some of this pleading was stimulated by their forebears’ concerns for better public health, social justice, universal education and sanitation. There was, eventually, a huge response then and, arguably, because of subsequent population expansion, there is an even greater need for a bigger response now. It is a continuously evolving story. We all need space.

‘We all need space; unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.’ — Octavia Hill, 1888

The battle for the preservation of the greenery of the Green Belt today is something that the Hills would recognise, mainly because they invented the term ‘Green Belt’. The ‘whispers of better things’ envisaged by the Hills’ principal spokesperson for land to be shared amongst the landless for the health, happiness and better wellbeing of the many is still a tiny voice. Maybe it is something that requires our urgent amplification before the ‘sense of quiet’ is drowned out by the ugly din of rampant development.

This book is also a description of strong-willed women, women who overcame prejudice in the Victorian era of male domination, and indeed of women who preferred women to men and created their own universes including same-sex love and care in a sea of sometimes even riotous misogynous hostility. In an era when there was no word for lesbianism or bisexuality, the language became blurred and many female ‘companions’ seem to have existed in the literature of the time – perhaps as a proxy term, or perhaps not.

Miranda, Octavia and Florence Hill never married and surrounded themselves with fellow female workers or women who seem to have shared a similar attitude towards life. Their actions, and the enabling financial support of other, much wealthier, women, definitely made the world a better place. The National Trust website notes that: ‘Hill’s lack of interest in marriage and her passionate friendship with other women formed a life-path that was common among independent-minded Victorian women. In the early 1860s she had a friendship with Sophia Jex-Blake, who led the fight for women’s entry to the medical profession. In May 1860 Jex-Blake confided to her diary that Hill “sunk her head on my lap silently, raised it in tears, and then such a kiss”.’ In September 2016 Historic England (the government’s advisory body) included Octavia Hill in its compilation of notable LGQBT female history-makers, based on evidence relating to her short relationship with Sophia Jex-Blake as a young woman.

The Hills were sandwiched between the impoverished working classes and the outrageously wealthy elites. Their story was a bourgeois tale of middle-class social placement emerging through a froth of religious and moral challenges raging between the established church, dissenters, Christian Socialists and others. Mix in ideas of obligation, duty, ‘service to others’ ‘self-help’, abstinence, plain living and inner reflection during an extreme period of capitalistic brutality, and it is easy to see how the countering efforts of social reform and suffrage found a niche.

Historians have attributed gentrification tendencies to Octavia Hill’s rigid rules of social housing care and other writers have accused Miranda Hill’s Society for the Diffusion of Beauty (later renamed the Kyrle Society) of being aesthetic nonsense. However, these unashamedly middle-class individuals, whatever their faults, foibles and frailties, did something, rather than just pontificating about doing something, or even worse, promising one thing and doing the opposite. Other members of the Hill brood did things differently or more quietly but all had extended family connections that reinforced their collective endeavours.

Narrating the struggle of a small number of people committed to the cause of creating beauty and goodness over ugliness and badness may stir a sense of homage. However, the Hills were never perfect people, but beings driven by strong desires for self-actualisation whilst suffering their own demons of doubt and despair. I hope this book allows some judgement that their instincts were right, that the products of their ‘work’ initiatives are still relevant to many people’s lives today, and that it is a continuing story that begs our urgent attention and action. Miranda Hill, in particular perhaps, has been greatly overlooked by history but her key contribution was to supply the quiet emotional intelligence to seek and speak out for ‘beauty’ and to stir a pot that still gives intellectual nourishment today, particularly as urbanisation increases. Miranda did not create volumes of letters to fellow workers, grab the headlines or publish polemical papers every week like her younger sister, but her sprinkling of ideas was the fairy-dust from which much else sparkled. Arguably, it would be true to say that it was Miranda who lit the torch for ‘natural beauty on the doorstep’ that Octavia used to illuminate the path to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty and led to modern protected countryside landscape designations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The task now is to return these initiatives for natural beauty to the cities, towns and urban fringes from whence they came, in ideas such as National Park Cities, currently being mooted for Greater London, utilising tools like natural capital evaluation.

Who, wherever they reside, does not want to live amongst beauty and open spaces, or enjoy a better quality of life’s experience? Everything is learning and we can all learn to be better and do beautiful things. The Hills show how the seemingly impossible can be achieved by any of us.

Would you like to buy the book?