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Forthcoming events 2008:

May 13th: Swindon Festival

Talk at 12.30pm: Why trace your family history?  followed by…
Workshop at 3pm: Starting Your Family History – a beginner’s guide.
for further information tel: 01793 771080

Interested in starting your family history?
Visit new website

Wednesday, October 15th – at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival

Topic: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting Family History
Venue: Ecclesfield Library. Admission free – places must be booked.
Time 10am – 11.30am     Tel. 0114 257 6663

Topic: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting Family History
Venue: Woodseats Library. Admission free – places must be booked.
Time 2.00pm – 3.30pm       Tel. 0114 293 0411

Wednesday, November 5th – Warminster Festival

Topic: What Did You do in the War Granny?
Venue: Warminster Library – Tickets £3.50
Time: 11.00am – 12.00 noon

Workshop: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Family History
Venue: Warminster Library – Tickets £3.50
Time: 2.00pm

a book about women’s changing lives…

‘The Women’s Century:a celebration of changing roles 1900 – 2000’ by Mary Turner: is a survey of the twentieth century’s major social revolution: the first comprehensive review of how real women’s lives changed. From Mrs Pankhurst to Mrs Thatcher and Princess Diana the book explores how strong-minded women changed our view of the world. It includes examples from the lives of ordinary women so they are not forgotten.
*** T0 buy a copy of ‘The Women’s Century’ click here. ***

more books about women…

Below is a selection of books about remarkable women that you may enjoy. They are not arranged in any particular order – it is not a definitive list nor is it meant to be a guide to serious study. Click on title to buy through amazon.

‘Rebel Girls’ by Jill Liddington draws on new evidence to reveal the untold stories of young suffragettes including that of Dora Thewlis, nicknamed the ‘Baby Suffragette’, whose picture was splashed across The Daily Mirror. Shortlisted for the PORTICO PRIZE FOR LITERATURE well worth reading.

‘Amy Johnson’ by Midge Gillies: relates the story of Amy Johnson, an ordinary typist, whose passion for flying and sheer determination led her to overcome a number of obstacles (not least the belief of one of her instructors that she’d never make a pilot) to conquer the skies.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature‘ by Linda Lear: examines the life of Beatrix Potter, best known for her tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends. But as Linda shows, Beatrix was much more than a children’s writer. (For brief details of her life see the woman of the month section of this website).

‘The Bugatti Queen’ by Miranda Seymour: tells the story of Hélène Delangle, daughter of a poor postmaster, who became a model, stripper and dancer before transforming herself into France’s premier woman racing driver and celebrity extraordinaire.

Women are becoming stronger and more tech savvy as time goes on. You can see this when they’re playing with great skill at Canadian casinos online.

‘Josephine Butler’ by Jane Jordan: examines the life of Josephine Butler who, at a time when ‘respectable’ women were supposed to remain ignorant of the existence of prostitution, shocked society by speaking out and campaigning against it.

‘Catherine the Great – Love, Sex and Power’ by Virginia Rounding: is the latest biography of the woman who rose from the ‘feudal anthill’ to become ‘Empress of all the Russias’. This very readable account is hard to put down.

‘Courtesans’ by Katie Hickman: describes the lives of 5 of the most celebrated English courtesans who, though selling themselves to the highest bidder, arguably remained more independent than their more respectable sisters.

‘Discovering Dorothea’ by Karolyn Shindler tells the story of Dorothea Bate, fossil-hunter extraordinaire and the first woman employed by the Natural History Museum. A fascinating story about a remarkable woman.

‘A Profound Secret’ by Josceline Dimbleby: is the fascinating account of the investigation into the relationship between May Gaskell, the author’s great-grandmother, and the painter Edward Burne-Jones.

‘Violette Szabo’ by Susan Ottaway: relates the heroic story of Violette Szabo, one of the women SOE agents who were dropped behind enemy lines during the second world war. Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her bravery.


Beth was a Londoner, evacuated during the war, then returning to the capital to train as a nurse and midwife at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Marriage and family life took her to York for many years. After being widowed, she moved to Shortlands near Bromley. Beth joined the Shortlands’ Poetry Group, (founded 1911), to discover a love affair with poetry which was to last the rest of her life, writing her first poem at the age of 63!

A few years later Beth moved to Belper in Derbyshire to be near her daughter and grandchildren. On discovering there was no poetry in the town, she set up two groups, and helped set one up in nearby Ripley – all still thriving. As well as sharing her enthusiasm for poetry, Beth exuded a zest for living that astounded people half her age. Involved in St Peter’s church, the Historical Society, as a volunteer at Strutt’s North Mill and visitor centre, the WEA, and much more, Beth came to love her adopted ‘retirement’ home and its people. Beth died in 2002.

Beth was a little lady who made an enormous impression wherever she went. She was enthusiastic, encouraging and interested in everything going on around her. Poetry was her great passion and she loved to share it. Her lively, quick-thinking mind belied her age, and she seemed to have boundless energy.

In addition to contributing to various poetry anthologies, Beth published three collections of her own poetry: “Time Goes By”, “Cords of Love” and “Open Choice”- this last one being completed as a distraction from chemotherapy during her final illness. She also edited “Belper in Poetry”, an ambitious look at local poetry over the last 150 or so years. Profits were divided between various charities.

Beth’s life and achievements are being paid tribute to in a unique and exciting project, Beth’s Poetry Trail. This is being developed in the market town of Belper in Derbyshire, situated in the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site.

Why a trail?

Beth herself had introduced the idea of a poetry trail or walk to the poetry groups, having visited two in North America – for Robert Frost, and for William Stafford in North Washington.

When discussing ways of establishing a memorial, all the usual ideas such as a bench seemed too dry or static somehow. It is felt that she would have loved the trail and that it will be a fitting and appropriate tribute to a remarkable woman.

Members of Belper’s two poetry groups are developing a number of permanent poetry sites, to form a roughly circular trail of about three miles. Walking between the poetry sites will take the visitor past Belper’s most scenic spots and to some less well-known places, giving a chance to meet both familiar and new poetry interpreted in different ways.

More information?

More information about Beth, her publications, Belper’s poetry groups and the poetry trail, can be found on the trail’s website:

Alexandra Reilly

Alexandra (known as Alexa) Marie Reilly née Wakim (1914 -2000)

Born in 1914, Alexa, the adored daughter of well-off parents, wanted for nothing. If she had chosen she could, like the majority of her friends, have stayed at home supported by her father until she married. Instead, showing a fierce independence, she went against her parents wishes, gained secretarial qualifications and went out to work. Later she married and had a family. Once married, she had no option but to give up work as at that time a marriage bar (which forced married women to resign from their jobs) was in effect.

Some years later, while her children were still young, the family’s circumstances changed and they were plunged into poverty. Despite her good education (she spoke 3 languages as well as being a qualified shorthand typist) Alexa couldn’t find congenial work, as during the 1950s and early 1960s employers were reluctant to employ mothers. Undaunted, she worked in a bar and wore herself out going from door to door as a shopping catalogue agent to help support her family. Money remained tight while her children were growing up but she refused the easy option of sending them to work once they reached school leaving age, insisting that their education was more important than the extra money. In this she had the support of her husband.

Her friends and neighbours tried to persuade her to send her only daughter to work, telling her that education was wasted on girls ‘as they only get married.’ But Alexa was adamant that all her children be treated in the same way. Hers was an unusual stance for the time. Her life would have been easier had she put herself first but she never did. She adored her family and only wanted the best for them. She always said that though she had little to give her children she was determined to give them the gift of education. She did that and more: she taught them about justice and equality; she encouraged them and gave them self-esteem. But more than that she gave them unconditional love. I know, I am her daughter.

Mary Turner (author of ‘The Women’s Century’)

Flora Sandes

From time to time a different woman will be featured on this page. She may be well-known or she may have spent her life in relative obscurity but one thing will remain constant – whoever is featured will have proved an inspiration to others. (To read previous entries go to archive.)

This time we pay tribute to Flora Sandes: WWI soldier extraordinaire.
Next: Beatrix Potter: writer, illustrator and amateur biologist

On 1st December 1956, the Times newspaper published the obituary of Flora Sandes, the daughter of a clergyman, who had fought as a soldier during the First World War. In 1915, when women in England were marching for ‘the right to serve’ in the munitions factories, this extraordinary woman joined the Serbian Army as a private.

From an early age Flora showed a spirit of adventure. She could ride and shoot and she loved driving so much that she bought an old racing car. When war broke out she went out to Serbia with a nursing unit. Later she joined the Serbian Red Cross and joined the ambulance section of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, known as the ‘Iron’ Regiment where she put her nursing skills to use. She put her shooting skills to use when the regiment was attacked.

Women were allowed to fight in the Serbian Army so when the ambulances had to be abandoned, Flora was able to enlist as a private. She fought in many battles and was promoted many times. She was wounded by a hand grenade in 1916 and after being treated in a field hospital, returned to England on sick leave. She wrote a book about her experiences entitled ‘An Englishwoman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army’.

Her courage was recognised and she was decorated for conspicuous bravery in the field. While on sick leave she raised money for Serbian soldiers and returned to her regiment in 1917. She married and lived abroad until after the Second World War. She settled in Suffolk where she lived until her death aged 80.

Bibliography: for further details click on title

Flora Sandes: ‘An Englishwoman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army’.

events with Mary Turner

Forthcoming events 2008:

watch this space details to follow soon

Past Events:

Below is a selection of past events to give you some idea of the topics that Mary can offer – to book a talk or workshop with Mary click here

Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading
Workshop: The Absolute Beginners Guide to Starting your Family History
Talk: Keeping a Family Archive – or how to ensure that you go down in history as real person instead of being an anonymous name on a family tree.

Darlington Library (in conjunction with exhibition – Patons and Baldwins revisited)
Topic: ‘The Women’s Century: a celebration of changing roles 1900 -2000’

Morley Festival
Topic: Women in wartime

Essex Book Festival
Topic: The Women’s Century (in partnership with the Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes)
Topic: Women in Wartime (talk in Residential Home)

Leigh and Wigan Words Together Literary Festival
Topic: Women’s Changing Roles

Harrow ‘Words Live 2007’ Festival
Topic: A Hundred Years of Change

Spit-Lit Festival, London
In discussion withVirginia Rounding, author of ‘Catherine the Great – Love, Sex and Power’, and Karolyn Shindler, author of ‘Discovering Dorothea’

The Winchester Writers’ Conference
Topic: Historical research for writers

Queen Elizabeth Girls’ School, Barnet
Topic: Feminism – the F word (talk given to year 9 as part of citizenship curriculum)

Bradford Festival
Topic: What did you do in the war mummy?

Derbyshire Readers’ Day
Topic: Women in World War II

Andover Local History Week
Topic: War and Women’s Changing Roles

Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading
Topic:  A Hundred Years of Change
Topic:  Lest we Forget (women’s watime roles)

Action Women: Rebel Girls’ Study Day, York
Topic: I’m not a feminist but …

Elsie Day

In July 2006 we paid tribute to Elsie Day a pioneer of girls’ education and the first headmistress of The Grey Coat Hospital (now a successful girls’ comprehensive).

Elsie Day (1849? – 1915)
Headmistress of ‘The Grey Coat Hospital’ from 1874 to 1910

On June 3rd 1874, aged 25, Elsie Day was appointed as the first headmistress of ‘The Grey Coat Hospital’ a former charity school that was in the process of becoming a day school for girls.
During her first year, due to an oversight, the school continued to take boarders, known as Foundationers, and it was in this area that Elsie Day first made her mark.
She soon realised that, despite its former status as a charity school, the children were ill-treated as a matter of course. She described the prevailing attitude as ‘anything was good enough for the Foundationers and nothing too good for those who should have cherished them’. When she informed a supplier that she couldn’t afford cream and chickens for the staff, she was told that it was usually put down in the accounts as milk for the children.
Before her arrival, pupils had been known by their numbers. She called them by their names, a change that cost nothing but must have meant a great deal to the children. In turn she told them to call her ‘Madam’.
She increased their comfort in many other ways. Much to the dismay of the cook, she insisted that the children should be served the same food as the headmistress and staff. She further antagonised the cook, a tall strong woman, by forbidding her to use the girls as kitchen maids.
Although the school employed a laundry maid, it is difficult to know what she did before the new regime for she was reluctant to do any laundry. The bedding in the dormitories was filthy but was covered by spotless counterpanes whenever there was a governors’ inspection.
Worse still the girls’ stays and black petticoats were passed down from child to child without ever being washed. The laundry maid was shocked when asked to wash them insisting that they’d never been washed in the seven years that she’d been in the school and she threatened to resign.
As in so many cases, Elsie Day’s quiet authority and refusal to compromise on standards won the day. Despite their threats to resign, both the laundry maid and the cook did as they were asked and both remained at the school.
The following year the boarders left and the Grey Coat Hospital became a girls’ day school. The first Grey Coat girl passed the Cambridge local examination in 1875. By 1880 the governors had been persuaded to allow girls to stay on at the school beyond the age of 15 and in 1891 the first Grey Coat girl passed the London Matriculation.
Elsie Day must have been very proud of her girls’ academic achievements for she recorded examination successes on large wooden boards placed on the walls of the hall.
She was tireless in her service to the school and has been described as one of the pioneers of girls’ education. In 1899 she became President of the Headmistresses Association and in 1902 she wrote ‘An Old Westminster Endowment’, a history of the school (now out of print).
For Elsie Day it was significant that the school’s initials (GCH) also stood for Generosity, Courtesy and Honour. How far she was successful in developing these characteristics in her pupils we’ll never know, but it’s clear that she possessed them in abundance.
She retired in 1910 having served as headmistress for 32 years. During her time at the school an outsider had remarked that the Grey Coat Hospital was ‘Not a school, but a large family’. When it’s remembered how dreadful the conditions were before she arrived, it is little wonder that ‘Madam’ was remembered with affection by her former pupils.

*Very little is known about the early life of Elsie Day. If anyone has any information they are
willing to share please email:
or write to:, PO Box 786, Hebden Bridge, HX7 5WP


In 1945, aged 15, I stepped into the path of one of the most remarkable women in history. It came about when I joined the Training Ship Mercury. Captain C.B. Fry RNR (known as CB) was supposedly in charge. I arrived to find that his wife gave the orders. She was 83, ten years older than her husband, having been the effective commander for 60 years.

Mrs. Fry (Beatie to her inner circle) was born Beatrice Holme Sumner on 12th July, 1862. She was of royal descent and related to the upper echelons of society. Precociously mature, she rode to hounds in Gloucestershire when barely into her teens and shocked everybody by riding astride.

It was out hunting that Beatie met Charles Hoare, one of the richest men in England. She was 14, he twice her age, married and father of five. Having been made a Ward of Court in the last 18 months of her minority they were both put on trial in 1885 for being in breach of the order and were lucky to be let off.

Their affair devastated the lives of so many that Charles, in expiation, set up a pre-sea school for poor boys of good character, the Training Ship Mercury, funded entirely from his own pocket. The school was based on an ocean-going, three-masted barque, the former Illovo, anchored offshore of a country house on the Solent.

Beatie (by now 23, and a woman of vast intelligence, energy and charisma) took to going on board every day dressed in male attire, bare-footed, so that she could lead the boys in the first exercise of the day, up the rigging and over the tops.

She swam with them in the Solent from Easter to the end of October. As the cycle of training was repeated she became a better sailor than some of the instructors, lacking only their experience of long voyages. She could command a ship under sail and just as willingly take a handful of boys out in a 30-foot cutter and teach them the niceties of tacking and gybing. She was, in fact, setting the pattern for herself and all who passed through the Mercury right up to the time of her death in 1946.

When Charles died in 1908 there was a change of gear. Beatie had married CB ten years earlier, but it was agreed that she would remain at the helm. Despite being a woman operating in what had been regarded as one of the manliest of occupations, she turned the Mercury into the toughest and most successful school of its kind in Britain.

Although her regime was harsh, she implemented no hardships that she had not endured when they were anchored on the Solent, and when her boys went to sea they were prepared for anything. She was still giving the orders when she died in 1946 three months short of her 84th birthday.

In the first three decades of the last century some of the most powerful men in Britain came to her table. Churchill, a friend, would stop by for lunch. It was he, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, who ordered the hulk of HMS Gannet to Hamble in 1914 to be made ready to replace the former Illovo.

Today Gannet – fully restored – floats in her own dock at Chatham Historic Dockyard, a memorial to one to one of the most remarkable women in history.


Muriel was born in Preston, the result of an affair between a well-born Lancashire gentleman and a barely literate Liverpool shop-girl. Learning of the pregnancy, her father tried to run away but was caught about to board a ship and forced to marry, whereupon his own family cut him off. Muriel was an unwanted child, made to black the hearths, set the fire in the lounge and scrub the kitchen floor before leaving for school, where she excelled in Maths and English and was nicknamed, ‘Dictionary Muriel’. Once home, she had to do the housework and cooking and was treated like a servant by her bullying father and sickly mother.

From an early age, she was fascinated by psychology, an interest which was to save the lives of both her and her mother. Aged 8, she uncovered and foiled her father’s plan to run off with another woman. Three years later, he had a breakdown, took a length of rope and tried to strangle the two females who had ‘ruined his life’, but Muriel, using techniques she had learned from a book, managed to talk him out of it and he was subsequently taken off to a mental asylum.

Somehow, Muriel’s creative genius survived the nightmares at home. She took up the piano, had singing lessons to train her beautiful voice and began writing poetry. Her headmistress thought she was university material and Muriel had her heart set on becoming a doctor, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. At the age of 13, she was forced to go to work. Her red-gold hair, blue eyes and stunning looks won her many admirers. In her twenties, she briefly got engaged but her fiancé refused to wait for her to make the decision to leave her sick mother. In her spare time, she did a correspondence course in journalism and began to sell articles, poems and short stories using pen-names such as Marion Dickson, or her initials, M.E.D.

She also loved sport and it was cycling that brought her together with Lawrence Read. They married in 1938, her mother’s health having improved. They had their first child in 1945 and their second daughter arrived in 1948. Muriel didn’t forget her love of medicine. She took some nursing exams and worked as an unpaid nursing auxiliary at Sefton General Hospital in Liverpool. She was the one friends and neighbours turned to in an emergency or a tragedy and she helped a neighbour nurse her young son through a rare form of cancer whilst nursing her own dying mother. She was, everyone said, an angel.

Her marriage wasn’t a happy one. Her husband crushed her creativity, forbidding her to attend art classes and making her give up a flourishing career as a concert singer. But Muriel kept her successful freelance writing career secret. Lawrence would certainly have disapproved of the sentiments of this article, For Men Only, published in The Bulletin in 1947.

Make no mistake about it, gentlemen, the day is dawning when you must look to your laurels. Merely being masculine will not be sufficient. You will need all the brilliantine, hair brushes, electric razors, shaving lotion and natty ties you can get, not to mention a few daily exercises to fine down that paunch and straighten those drooping shoulders, because we women are slowly awakening.

©Lorna Read

Women’s history speaker

book a talk…book a workshop…

Mary Turner, author of ‘The Women’s Century’ gives talks on various aspects of women’s history to both small and large groups. She has appeared at: the ‘Ways with Words’ Literature Festival in Dartington; Hebden Bridge Arts Festival; Poole Festival; the Spit-Lit Festival in London and three times at Sheffield’s ‘Off the Shelf’ Festival of Writing and Reading.

In addition she has given talks in libraries, schools and bookshops across the country and has appeared as a guest on a number of radio shows. A former history teacher in a girls’ school, Mary likes to engage her audience in dialogue whenever possible.

For details of past events click here

If you would like to book Mary to give a talk at your festival, readers’ group, school or other function, or if you would like her to organise a workshop, send an email stating your requirements to:
or write to:
Mary Turner, c/o Her, PO Box 786, Hebden Bridge, HX7 5WP