Bringing the influential women of Tunbridge Wells to book
18th April 2018
Local historian Anne Carwardine discusses why she decided to pen her book Disgusted Ladies (of Tunbridge Wells)
FROM Matilda Biggs, who signed the first national petition in 1866, to Olive Walton, who went on hunger strike and was force fed in 1912, Tunbridge Wells has been home to a series of ordinary yet extraordinary Votes for Women campaigners. Anne Carwardine, the local historian behind the blog Tunbridge Tales, has written a history of these inspiring Tunbridge Wells women, in her book, Disgusted Ladies, which has just been published.
Their activities included collecting petition signatures, marching, selling suffrage newspapers, fundraising, running shops, evading the census and withholding taxes. And,
with London only a short journey away, they were present at many of the major protests and processions which took place there. We caught up with Anne to talk about her love
of Tunbridge Wells' history, and how her research, drawing on a wide range of sources
including diaries, personal papers and contemporary newspapers, brings the stories of
these amazing women to life.
While not the oldest town in Kent, Tunbridge Wells has a lot of history to celebrate. What's your favourite chapter in its tale?
It's impossible to choose just one. There are obviously plenty of colourful stories from the
days of Beau Nash (in the 18th century), when Tunbridge Wells was a thriving spa town. But recently I've been very preoccupied with the early 20th century, when there were a surprising number of active local political campaigns, including local women's campaigns for the vote.
While exploring this history, have you stumbled across any unforgettable or obscure stories?
Lots. Stories I've told on my blog so far have included (for example) James Baigent, the
well-read railway ticket inspector who enjoyed talking to customers, and Richard Latter, who grew a 16ft beard, which he showed off on the Common. Future subjects include a palmist, an umbrella manufacturer and a habitual drunk, who appeared before the local magistrates over 60 times. I find these 'ordinary' people's stories especially interesting.
What inspired you to write Disgusted Ladies?
Back in 2013, Tunbridge Wells Museum and Kent University put on a joint exhibition titled
Inspiring Women about some of the campaigners. This sparked my interest, I began looking into their stories, which I found both interesting and inspiring, and that evolved into a book.
As illustrated by your book, Tunbridge Wells has a strong connection to the Suffragette movement. Why do you think this was?
It wasn't just the Suffragette movement - there were also the Suffragists (who campaigned by peaceful means) and the anti-Suffragists (who campaigned against women having the vote). After all the research I've done, I'm still not clear why this strong connection existed. It was probably a combination of reasons. There were some very committed and influential individual women in the town. London was a fairly short train ride away, which meant that women from Tunbridge Wells could take part in events there and invite well-known speakers to come here. And in the early 20th century, there
were a large number of middle-class women in the town with financial resources that
allowed them to devote a great deal of time to the campaign. So it is interesting that there are still active women's political campaigns in Tunbridge Wells today.
Your book is well timed, with 2018 labelled the Year of Woman. How has researching this book, focusing on events over 100 years ago, affected your own view on women's rights today?
Researching and writing the book has made me think more about women's rights than I have in the past, and more aware of the inequalities that still exist. However, in addition to that, many of the women who campaigned for the vote did so because they wanted to improve peoples' lives generally (not just women's), and there's a challenge for me in that, too.
Anne Carwardine's book is available online from publisher Troubador www.troubador.co.uk and Hall's Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. She will also be signing copies at The Forum's theatrical event, Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle, tonight [Wednesday], and hosting a talk at Waterstones bookshop, Calverley Road, on May 16 at 6.30pm. To book, go to www.twforum.co.uk & www.eventbrite.co.uk