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Saturday, 15 June 2013


Much is still imperfect in the social relationship between the sexes. But the recent anniversary of the death of Women’s Suffrage campaigner Emily Davison should remind us how far we have come in the last hundred years. And the fight for electoral equality had already been underway for perhaps a hundred years when Ms Davison died from injuries sustained while trying to tie a protest scarf to the king’s horse during the Derby.

I recently came across a Bergen University worksheet of quotations from campaigners for women’s suffrage in 1878. With great pride I found that two of the thirteen voices cited were ancestors of mine of whom I have written here in the past.

Mary Gurney (1836-1917)

One was Mary Gurney, daughter of my great great great aunt Emma Gurney (nee Rawlings) and author of Are We To Have Education For Our Middle Class Girls? Mary wrote in October 1878:
If women householders were not, as at present, excluded from the parliamentary franchise, their influence would be of much value in securing attention in the House of Commons to measures affecting the educational interests of girls.

The other was my favourite forebear, my formidable great great great aunt Deborah Castle. In October 1878, according to the Bergen University document, she declared:
My view with respect to the extension of the franchise remains unchanged. I cannot but think that those women ratepayers who like myself take an interest in social questions, must, as I do, feel strongly the injustice that is done them in being called upon to share in the taxation, without participating in the advantages conferred by property on the other sex, of a voice in parliamentary representation.

Sir John and Lady Deborah Bowring, in 1864, by Disdéri Eugène (who made his name and fortune after photographing Napoleon III in 1859)

Deborah blossomed in middle age. Thwarted in unsuitable love as a young woman, she seemed condemned to stay at home dutifully caring for her aging parents. The death of her widowed mother in 1856 finally released her, and four years later she married the radical but elderly Sir John Bowring (1792-1872). As Lady Bowring, Deborah emerged from the shadows of spinsterdom to become a radical voice in her own right, speaking from platforms on women’s issues and the Unitarian Church, of which both she and John were followers. She grew a reputation as "a woman of vigorous grasp of mind and efficient action."

Deborah, eleventh of thirteen children, was christened in Lewins Mead Unitarian Chapel in Bristol in 1816, in a sort of job lot with her three older siblings Charles, Caroline and Ellen. (Her other siblings were also christened there in similar batches.) A year after her christening, the pastorship of Lewins Mead passed to Dr Lant Carpenter, a campaigning educationalist who had taught Deborah’s husband at his previous appointment in Exeter and whose sermons must surely have influenced her thinking as she grew up in Bristol.

 Dr Lant Carpenter (1780-1840), c1830, from the memoirs published in 1842 by his son Russell Lant Carpenter; and Mary Carpenter (1807-1877), c1870, by Cyrus Voss Bark

Dr Carpenter’s eldest daughter Mary, although nine years Deborah’s senior, must have been a friend. Mary is remembered today as a campaigner for women’s rights and a social reformer who founded the ragged school movement. Besides her father, a formative influence on Mary was a meeting with Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy, who had fought since the early nineteenth century for property inheritance for Indian wives, education for Indian girls and an end to the practice of Indian widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ funeral pyres.

(Mary met Roy while he was staying in Bristol with “Miss Castle and Miss Kiddell.” Roy died of meningitis at Catherine Castle’s home in 1833, and Catherine died in 1834, her will the subject of much speculation by Deborah’s brother Charles in a letter about which I have written here before. Catherine’s mother was Catherine Kiddell, and by the will a Miss Kiddell, presumably a niece of the mother and cousin of Catherine Castle, inherited an eyebrow-raising £7000. Mary’s father Dr Carpenter was left £3500, while Deborah, Charles and their eight surviving siblings had to share a mere £11,000 between them!)

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)

I digress. Mary Carpenter and Deborah Castle shared with Mary Gurney a zeal for social and educational reform and in 1869 the Misses Carpenter and Castle also shared a stage in Bristol at the first Ladies Conference of the Social Science Association. Their contributions illustrated tensions within the Women’s Movement – should women simply take a greater public part in traditional feminine philanthropic “caring” roles? or should they campaign for greater rights? More on that clash of ideologies in my next post.

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