On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hilaire joined a guided walk focussed on Notable Women of Lavender Hill. Here’s her account of an illuminating tour.
Jeanne Rathbone led this informative walk around the Lavender Hill area, organised as part of the celebrations of the centenary of some (not all) women getting the vote. Jeanne is a member of the Battersea Society, and a formidable champion of women who have made a significant impact in our area but are now largely forgotten.
The tour began outside Battersea Arts Centre, as we assembled on the steps and donned Votes for Women sashes. The vast majority of blue plaques in Battersea honour men so Jeanne had smaller blue plaques made up, which were held up at appropriate locations along our route. The first of our Notable Women was Jeanie Nassau Senior, who lived at Elm House, on the site of what is now Battersea Arts Centre.
She was the first female civil servant, appointed as Inspector of Workhouses in 1873, and paid the same as her male colleagues – a situation which unfortunately did not set a precedent. Her report on the education of “pauper girls” was highly critical of the existing arrangements, and she is credited with pioneering the concept of fostering, or boarding out. She was involved in several strands of philanthropic and humanitarian work, was loved and admired by many, and died too young, at only 48.
We crossed the road and walked a little way down, stopping a couple of doors along from the Labour Party’s Battersea headquarters at 177 Lavender Hill. This building was funded by Charlotte Despard, our second Notable Woman, an inspirational figure who deserves a prominent statue at the very least. I’ve written previously about Charlotte Despard, and am delighted that Wandsworth Radio will be broadcasting a documentary about her in June.
On then to 5 Thirsk Road to learn more about Caroline Ganley, a working class woman who was very active in suffrage campaigns. She worked alongside Charlotte Despard and was one of three women elected as Councillors in Battersea in 1919. She went on to be elected MP for Battersea South in 1945, the first working class woman with elementary education to enter Parliament.
Our next stop was Gilmore House on Clapham Common North Side. There’s an English Heritage plaque here for John Walter, ‘founder of The Times‘, but not – as yet – for Deaconess Isabella Gilmore. Isabella was the sister of William Morris, and after her husband Lieutenant Gilmore died she trained as a nurse at Guys Hospital. Here she met Bishop Thorold who asked her to set up a deaconate in south London. Jeanne described the role of deaconess as a mix of ‘nurse, social worker and amateur policeman’. Deaconess Gilmore devoted her life to supporting poor girls and women in south London, initially in a rented house at 11 Park Hill, until she acquired the larger Sisters House, now Gilmore House, in 1891. She also trained other women to become Deaconesses.
From here it was a short walk to the Shrubbery on Lavender Gardens, where the Pre-Raphaelite painter Marie Spartali spent some of her most formative years. This was the highlight of the walk for me. Several years ago, when I was researching Marie Spartali Stillman for a London Undercurrents poem, I’d walked up to Lavender Gardens to see the villa where she’d lived with her family in the 1870s. I could only peer through the railings then. On this occasion, we were allowed into the grounds and, thrillingly, into the house itself. Although the villa has now been converted to apartments, the ground floor foyer gives a sense of its former opulent glory.
Marie Spartali was renowned as a ‘stunner’, and at 6 foot 3 inches, she must have cut an imposing figure. What I love about her, though, is that she was much more than a muse – she became a very successful painter in her own right. Jeanne also mentioned that Marie was friends with Jeanie Nassau Senior, and that Marie and her future husband William Stillman courted at Jeanie’s house, as Marie’s parents disapproved of their relationship.
Next stop was 84 Lavender Sweep, site of the home of playwright Tom Taylor and his wife Laura Barker. Laura was an accomplished pianist and violinist (Tom Taylor had inherited a Stradivarius violin which she played), and also a composer. The couple hosted Sunday Musical Soirees in their home, were figures including Jeanie Nassau Senior (who had a fine voice) and Clara Schumann performed. Although Laura Barker’s published œuvre is small, she deserves to be remembered both for her musical accomplishments and for her pivotal role in Battersea’s progressive circles.
From here we walked to 27 Leathwaite Road to hear about not one, but two, Notable Women. Biddy (Edith) Lanchester was born in 1871 into a middle class family and studied at Birkbeck Institution. She went on to join the Social Democratic Federation. In 1895 she was working as a teacher and lodging at Este Road, when she told her family she was going to live with her lover, Shamus Sullivan, a railway clerk. Her family was appalled, and her father, two brothers and a psychiatrist intervened by dragging her off to the Priory Asylum in Roehampton. There was an outcry and with help from Battersea MP John Burns and the Legitimation League she was released after several days. Biddy Lanchester lived with Shamus Sullivan until his death in 1945. She was also secretary to Eleanor Marx, and a committed socialist, feminist and suffragette.
Their daughter Elsa Lanchester spent her early years in Battersea, attending a small socialist boys’ school near Clapham Common. At the age of 10 year, she was sent to train as a dancer with Isadora Duncan in Paris . She returned to England at the start of the Great War, and began teaching dance to other children as a way of bringing in some income for the family. She was soon performing in cabaret and nightclubs, then more serious stage work followed by film roles. She became a successful Hollywood actress, with her most famous role being Bride of Frankenstein. Jeanne recommended her autobiography Elsa Lanchester, Herself as a thoroughly good and very funny read.
Our final stop was at 53 Battersea Rise, childhood home of the author Pamela Hansford Johnson, and now an Italian restaurant. It had started to rain, so we were grateful of the chance to sit inside and warm up with a coffee or tea while Jeanne gave us a quick overview of Pamela Hansford Johnson’s life and Battersea connection. Pamela had lived at Battersea Rise with her mother until the age of 22. Her father had died when she was 11, and left her mother in debt. She excelled at school, began writing poetry, and wrote to Dylan Thomas after they were published in the same magazine. She was his first girlfriend, though she later married C.P. Snow. She wrote 27 novels, the first of these, This Bed Thy Centre, is based in Battersea in the 1930s.
All in all, a most illuminating and inspiring guided walk! Thanks to Jeanne, and all the amazing Battersea women, past and present.