From a Roman philosopher proclaiming periods as poison to the middle ages belief they could kill men, the history of periods is one we need to discuss!
Ok, so why are we talking about the history of periods? Well, because we don’t. Which when you think about it is kind of wild. After all, periods have been a thing since erm…people. So with that in mind lets delve into the messy and myraid history of periods.
Now there is way to much infomation to fit into a ten minute video (trust me I tried!) but luckily there is an amazing sqaud of academics doing research into the history of periods and thier work is definatley a must read. I’ve popped some of my favourites below (plus the works cited in the video):
How a ‘fallen woman’ became not only Ireland’s most prolific courtesan but one of histories ballsiest bitches
‘Chastity I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one?’
This is one of the opening lines of Peg Plunkett’s 1795 memoir. An archetypal good girl, who became a fallen women and then rose to become Ireland’s premier courtesan, Peg built much of her adult life on challenging what society expected of her.
The story of her life is jam packed with scandal, sex and good times, it’s a proud middle finger up to gendered morality. But I have to tell you right now, this won’t just be a rollicking romp through Dublin’s red light district. Peg’s life was littered with tragedy, she was a victim of abuse and experienced a terrifying level of violence. But each time she somehow managed to come back, more brilliant and ballsy than before.
Peg Plunkett was one of histories greatest survivors and I cannot wait for you to meet her
Quick trigger warning this article contains mention of domestic violence, violence against women and miscarriage.
Peg was born in Killough sometime between 1727 (gaged from her last memoir) and 1742 (from modern historian findings.) If you’re thinking ‘dear god this is a ridiculous piss take of a lady never revealing her age’then you’re right!
Peg was deliberately vague about when she was born. And not only that. A lot of what we know about Peg (especially in her early days) comes from her memoirs. However like most of us do when recounting a story, she totally omits anything she finds boring. So sure she might regale us with anecdotes of her incredible life, but she’ll do it leaving out dates, times and locations. Which works in the context of telling a great tale, but is really bloody annoying when it comes to studying her life. However, there are some facts about her childhood that we do know.
Pegs dad and mum were first cousins and had a whopping 22 children, although only eight survived. Three boys and five girls, with Peg falling somewhere in the middle.
With a family of eight in rural 18th century Ireland around the time of a mass famine, statistics wise, Peg should have grown up on the breadline, but she was one of the lucky ones.
Her dad was a wealthy landowner so could shield his family from the harsh realities that waited just outside their door. Behind the gated walls of the families country house, Peg enjoyed warmth, music, dancing and got a solid education.
She was expected to became a respectable woman, to marry well, perhaps a business man like two of her sisters already had. She’d pop out some babies, make a nice home and be a good wife. The end. Not exactly the most exciting life, but solid and dependable. Her future was set.
But then everything came crashing down when fever swept the family. Peg was quickly sent away, to live with an uncle. By the time she returned home her mother was dead, her older brother was dead and her father was broken. Unable to cope he handed over the running of the family to Pegs elder brother, Christopher.
Just like that all hopes for Pegs future were set ablaze.
Christopher was an out and out dick and as such relished his role as head of the household, ruling with an iron fist. He spent wildly, bullied those around him and basked in the endless power he now had over his sisters. He was in charge of the money that would be used to help secure them good marriages and so of course it was that of money that he spent with such gay abandon.
To get away with this finical delinquency, he decided to refuse any proposals that came his sisters way. By doing this he could carry on splashing the cash and his sisters would remain stuck at home, free for him to bully them as he pleased. A true win for Christopher, or so he thought.
You see after a while one of Pegs older sisters decided she done with this BS, packed up and moved to Dublin(Peg doesn’t give her sisters name, which isn’t super annoying at all…)
Soon the sister met a man who was happy to marry her without all the bells and whistles. And so they did. But not before she came back to publicly call out Christopher for being a total and utter ass hat. Declaring she would rather become a woman of her own making than Christopher’s servant.
Oh and as an extra middle finger to Christopher, the sister took 15 year old Peg to Dublin too.
Peg fell in love with Dublin. She roamed the city, taking in all it had to offer and in return flirted up a storm with every eligible man she met. Here she flourished, her bright wit and beauty making her the centre of attention. She discovered a love for entertainment, dizzying nights out in foggy rooms and of course, the company of smart, handsome men.
By the time Christopher demanded her return home, Peg had a flock of suitors and proposals. It was a get out of jail free card that Christopher wasn’t going to bend to. He’d let one sister get away and it wasn’t going to happen again. He not only refused Peg’s dowry and rejected proposals, he actively worked to scare men away from her.
With Peg and her younger sister now successfully trapped at home, Christopher turned all his attention to extinguishing Peg’s new light (he didn’t want her getting ideas after all!).
That’s when the beatings started. Christopher would whip Peg until her body was covered in bruises and welts. He wanted her weak. A crumpled wreck on the floor.
Peg managed to escape for a short period to one of her married sisters houses. Here she went all in on her plan to get out from under Christopher’s thumb for good. She needed to find a husband, one who’d treat her well and wouldn’t back down to Christopher’s threats.
This was a tall order and sadly the only eligible guy who’d take her was the elderly grocer. Peg was desperate but not that desperate, so even though the grocer asked for her hand in marriage, she was for once happy knowing Christopher would scare him away.
Nope! This was the one time her dad stepped in and so Peg was now that unhappily counting down the days to her wedding. But then she met another man. An already engaged man (red flag!) who proposed to Peg and promised her a new life far away from all her troubles. Of course Peg jumped at the chance and the pair ran away to elope.
But like so much in Peg’s life, it wasn’t to be. Whilst staying in an inn one night, Peg was awakened by her brother in law bursting into her bedroom waving a pistol. He was quickly followed by two mates, also armed, who pointed their guns straight at the pair. In a matter of seconds Peg’s lover escaped through the window and she was dragged back home to Christopher.
Life got worse for Peg. She tried to escape to Dublin a few more times but was always dragged back home. Christopher’s beatings got worse, to the point that she’d be left unable to leave her bed for days afterwards.
Pegs’ younger sister was also struggling. Trapped in her gilded cage, she’d watched Peg’s attempts at freedom and felt any escape from Christopher and captivity was impossible. She stopped eating, and retreating inside, a shadow of her former self. Peg tried to care for her sister, but there was only so much she could do. Condemned to watch on as her sister slipped away. Taking to her bed one day and never leaving. She died shortly afterwards.
Not long after her sisters death, Christopher whipped Peg until she was on her knees. Brutally beating her as she vomited blood and eventually lay unmoving on the cold floor.
Peg was bed bound for three months. Lying in bed, in constant pain she realised she had to get out. For good this time.
As soon as she could get up, she convinced her dad to give her enough cash to get to Dublin. Called a carriage and left.
Once more Pegs sisters took her in. Slowly she shook off the shackles that had weighed her down and returned to the bright thing about town she’d been before.
Peg didn’t know what lay ahead if her but the city around her was growing more wonderful every day and she hoped she would to.
Her brother in law introduced her to one Mr Dardis. Being relatively poor he was by no means presented as a suitor for Peg, but ever the romantic, she had other ideas. The pair furtive arranged to meet after dark, away from her families prying eyes. On those breathless nighttime rendezvous Peg fell in love.
Dardis secretly proposed and just like that, Peg was not twenty and yet somehow onto engagement number 3.
But this wouldn’t be like her other engagements because she chose to have sex with Dardis. This might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, but in the 18th century this was a huge and potential life changing decision. To have sex with a man outside marriage could mark a woman as ‘ruined’. If the marriage didn’t go ahead, her future would be in tatters. But Peg was young and in love, so she went with her heart.
Then Peg realised she was pregnant.
To make matters she couldn’t let her family know, for fear it would ruin her. Worse still, Dardis decided that actually, he didn’t want to marry her now. Which definitely did threaten to ruin her. Terrified of the repercussions she ran away.
She was alone, penniless and pregnant, But then Dardis came to her rescue. Well sort of. He found her somewhere to live – a brothel, before moving Peg to the country to quietly have the baby. After which Peg and her new born daughter moved back to Dublin to live with Dardis.
This wasn’t a happy ending though.
Peg was spiralling down. She constantly beat herself up for yet again falling in love with the wrong guy. She was struggling for money, selling off her possessions for food. She couldn’t count on her family in Dublin, who had found out that she not only had a child out of wedlock but she’d lived in a brothel and as such they didn’t want this harlot in their lives. And then there was the baby, who she saw as nothing more than another sign of her failings.
Peg didn’t know what to do, but she thought she knew would she deserved.
Peg arrived alone at her family house. Crying she begged Christopher to take her back. But he refused. Even her abuser didn’t want her now.
She went back to Dublin to beg her sisters for help. They too turned her away saying
‘If a morsel of bread would save me from death and destruction, I would refuse it to you’
Peg was now truly alone in the world. Left to count pennies for a tiny room and survive on watered down broth. Gone was the sparkling beauty who’d once taken Dublin by storm. In her place a fallen women hidden behind tattered clothes.
Whilst working out what to do next, Peg met one Thomas Caulfield in a Dublin tea house. A wealthy wine seller, he took a shine to Peg. Walking her home that night he dropped two guineas into her cleavage and promised that if she would go home with him he would take care of her.
Peg took this illicit invitation incredibly well. She didn’t bulk or run, instead she saw it as a sort of come to Jesus moment. Peg later said it helped her she see a new future for herself
‘Then all was distress, doubt and uncertainty. Now my mind was tranquil and I looked forward in hope’
And just like that, she decided to become a courtesan. As you do.
Caulfield put Peg up in her own place and showered her with gifts. She received a steady income and was back on her feet. Then Peg fell pregnant again. But this time she knew the position she was in. She arranged for Caulfield to continue giving her and their new son enough money to live off, even after he left her to marry another woman.
With her new cash and freedom Peg spent her days and nights out in Dublin’s music halls and taverns. She made friends with other women, whose tarnished reputations had taken them down more alternative career routes. She was in her early twenties and loved it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the moment.
But then once more, tragedy. Peg’s son died. Devastated, the situation was made worse when Caulfield used their child’s death as an excuse to cut her off.
But Peg bounced back. After all, being a courtesan was her job now, so she went off to find a new man. This cycle continued until she met one Mr Leeson (Peg never gives us his true name, but it’s likely he was Jospeh Leeson, the son of an English Earl who became a member of Irish Parliament)
Lesson moved Peg in with him and she happily basked in the riches that came with her new role. She still loved to party and also have the odd affair but tried to play this down a least a little for her new gig.
Eventually Leeson and Peg moved to his country pile in Kildare. There she lived the life she was once promised, the lady of a country estate. It was fine enough, but soon the call of city was to much. Though for safety, Leeson moved Peg to the outskirts of Dublin, in the hopes it would stop her from having affairs and living it up with her old friends.
It didn’t work.
The thing was, to Peg, this was a business relationship. She didn’t love Leeson, he paid her to be his mistress. So she believed she should be allowed to have sex with other people. To go out with her friends and to live the life she wanted. She’d been constrained and punished in the name of gendered morality for so long and she was over it. After all, if a man was in her position, wouldn’t he do the same?
Leeson demanded that Peg be monogamous to him. She claimed he actually proposed to her, but she wouldn’t accept, later saying:
‘I looked upon marriage merely as a human institution, calculated chiefly to fix the legitimisation of children and oblige parents to bring them up and provide for them. To ascertain the decent of property and also to bind two persons together, even if they might be disgusted and heartily tired of one another.’
That my friends is what we call a HOT 18th century take.
Peg was by no means a woman of her time. She was a fallen woman who had gone against the morality that once beat her down and was now becoming her own person. She would not abide by what was expected if her anymore.
And so a newly empowered Peg took up with another rich gentleman, Buck Lawless(great name, sadly *spoiler alert* not a great guy). Together they had several children, though none would survive childhood.
And yet, despite this tragedy and the fact this was initially a business transaction, the pair fell in love.
To say it was a surprise for Peg would be an understatement. She hadn’t intended to fall in love again, but it had happened. And this time she wanted it to work, hell, she even managed to stay monogamous!
At first the relationship was bliss. All loving looks and halcyon days. But then jealousy set in. Lawless struggled with the fact that Peg was a known courtesan. If she smiled at another man, it would provoke a massive argument. Then he’d flirt with other women to make Peg jealous and then once more, the pair would be in a shouting match.
Then their arguments started to turn physical. During one fight, Lawless pinned a pregnant Peg down in the bed, beating her so badly a doctor had to be called. Peg would lose the baby.
Once more Peg was living with an abuser. But like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself and chose to stay with Lawless.
However, in what would prove ultimately lucky for Peg, Lawless was running out of cash. He’d heard about people striking it rich in America and decided to try his luck there. This would of course mean leaving Peg, who by the way, was once again pregnant!
Peg was devastated at the idea of her lover leaving her, but Lawless promised it wouldn’t be for long and in the meantime he’d send money back for her and the baby….
Peg gave birth to their daughter and waited to hear from Lawless. They weren’t married, but they were in love. They had a baby together, that had to mean something, right?
For months, Peg faithfully waited. She turned down offers for courtesan work and read up on American affairs, hoping to get glimpse of what Lawless might be up to. But he never appeared. He never wrote to her and he never sent back money.
Peg realised that she’d not only been dumped. but ghosted, 18th century style.
She allowed herself to be devastated for a bit, but then then picked herself back up. Peg was resolute that she would not depend on a man to build her life, but instead use them as a means to create her own.
And so Peg set herself back up as a courtesan. Her first serious client was a clergyman (of course it was…), the pair had a child before she was back to the cycle of one man in, one man out. But courtesan work only paid so much and then there was the penniless periods between gigs.
Peg decided she wanted something more stable so in the mid 1770’s she joined forces with her friend Sally Hayes and set up a brothel.
Situated in an upscale area of Dublin, Peg wanted her brothel to be as swanky as possible. Each sex worker was hand picked by her, dressed in sophisticated fashions and were able to hold their own in political conversations. Champagne flowed, entertainment was dazzling and soon Peg and Sally were the talk of Dublin.
Of course her new found fame was of the infamous kind, but Peg didn’t really care. When someone shouted at her:
‘Oy Peg! Who slept with you last night, Peg?’
She just rolled her eyes and called back
‘Manners you dogs!’
Things were going great and the money Peg was earning wasn’t bad either. So what else do you do when you’re newly flush with cash? Hire a musician to follow you around constantly of course!
Ok, well maybe that’s not what most people would do, but it’s what Peg did. She wasn’t exactly the best at making good finical decisions (something which as we know by now, constantly bit her on the arse). She was of the mindset that while she had cash she’d spend the hell out of it! And oh boy did she. Out out every night in more glamorous frocks than the last, popping bottles and generally painting the town red with her business partner and best friend, Sally.
But you know how it goes when you’re living your best life. Someone has to try and ruin it. And 9 times out of 10 that someone is your ex.
That’s right! Buck Lawless is back!
After going MIA for several years he popped up out of the blue to tell Peg he was back in Ireland and asked her to come visit him in Cork. Peg wasn’t keen, but Sally knew that her friend was still hung up on Lawless and so convinced Peg to go see him.
The two women rocked up to Cork determined to:
B) do it all on Lawless dime
And they did. For a month! Unfortunately it wasn’t just drinking and dancing. Peg and Lawless started a relationship again. By the time Peg and Sally went back to their Dublin brothel, Peg was pregnant (it’s her ninth for those counting). Unfortunately Buck Lawless and his love child weren’t the only things Peg had to worry about.
In November 1779 tragedy turned Peg’s world on its head once more. A gang with the frankly terrible name, the Pinking Dindies, broke into her house. They smashed up the place and then beat Peg until she was unconscious. Peg’s two year old daughter watched on as the young men beat her unresponsive pregnant mother. Peg would lose her baby and her daughter also died (Peg claimed of shock)
Furious and unbowed, Peg wanted retribution.
But unlike her attackers, she took the high road. She filed a suit against seven of the youths, who were all Trinity College students. The case was not in Pegs favour. After all, she was a ‘whore’ and unlikely to be taken seriously in court. Not to mention that her attackers threatened to kill her if she didn’t drop the case. But she stood tall, casually mentioning that she carried a pistol she was all to happy to use should the men come near her again.
Peg won the day in court. She received finical compensation and ensured her attackers left Dublin for good.
However the loss of her children left Peg bereft. Of her nine children, eight of whom she’d actually raised, those were the only ones who’d survived and now they too were gone.
Depressed and still in constant pain from her injuries, Peg longed for a change.
You know whose coming back to fuck this horrible situation up further don’t you? That’s right! Buck Lawless! Although he’d now moved to London, he pleaded that with Peg to come live with him. He wrote her sweet love letters and promised her a fresh start in London. Peg figured at this point she had nothing to lose. So she sold up and moved to London.
Aaaaand of course it turned out that Buck Lawless, being Buck Lawless, was shacked up with another woman. This time Peg was done. Refusing to see him and rejecting his oh so remorseful advances.
Peg tried to make a new life for herself in London, but she just couldn’t get along with the city. Though she managed to stay long enough to insult the Prince Regent not once but twice (that’s our girl) first by ordering the same waistcoats as him for her shoemaker and then by riding down the road next to him.
With ridiculous royal protocol well and truly smashed, Peg made her way back to Dublin.
On arriving she was greeted by her best girl Sally Hayes and another friend Moll Hall. Together the trio made it a point to go out on the town whenever they could.
And then they were banned from doing so.
The celebrated musician Signor Carnavalli was the hottest ticket in town, however he expressly forbidden, as Peg put it, ‘every lady of my description’ from attending. Of course Peg totally ignored this and rocked up anyway. However as the most famous courtesan in Dublin, she was quickly spotted and chucked out. Told in no uncertain terms that her kind of woman was not wanted here.
Peg was not having this. She returned to the theatre the next day with a warrant against Signor Carnavalli, for throwing her out despite her having paid for a ticket.
Peg was accompanied by four hulking bailiffs who proceeded to haul the musician off to prison. Dusting herself off, Peg then matched into the theatre and apologised to the waiting audience, explaining that Mr Carnavalli was no in prison thanks to his conduct towards her.
Peg’s defiance made headlines. All of Dublin knew Peg Plunkett was back in business and this time she wasn’t letting anyone’s bullshit slide.
Business boomed with Pegs clients including some of Ireland’s most prolific men of the day. Her wealth and notoriety soared for the next few years. Peg using this as a platform to cement her place in society by throwing huge parties and masquerades (despite them being banned).
Throughout the 1780’s Peg discovered she had somewhat of a soft spot for a man in military uniform. With thousands of soldiers stationed in Ireland, both serving and waiting to hear if they were to shipped out to fight in the British Empires colonies, soldiers were staple in Peg’s brothel clientele.
Of course it wasn’t long before Peg was starting affairs of the books. Sally Hayes and Peg started a string of relationships. They burnt hot and fierce, but as soon as the soldier in question was posted abroad, things quickly cooled off.
Though Peg describes falling in love a few times with some of these men, things never got serious. She wouldn’t let them. When one Captain Cunynghame begged Peg to go with him, she declined as:
‘…though he was a fine showy fellow, I had much rather remain in Dublin, where I knew every wish could be gratified’
After all, why would she leave the empire she built? By now Peg was known as ‘the reigning vice queen’. She set up another high end brothel and was enjoying life as an unlikely member of Dublin’s high society. No longer were people ashamed to be seen with Peg, she was an established part of the elite.
She started an affair with Ireland’s Lieutenant, The Duke of Rutland that made the cities front pages. This created a media whirlwind around her. Even simple trip to the theatre became a point of gossip and scandal. Soon every move Peg made was discussed and poured over.
And then Peg did something truly shocking – she got married
…well only after she made it clear to her new spouse that she didn’t love him, actually she hated him and was in it purely because he was getting a title.
Her intended was Barry Yelverton, son to a baron and by all acccounts, the worst. But, Peg loved the idea of being an infamous courtesan with the title ‘the right honourable.’ Oh also, his family were really rich, which Peg was also a fan of.
The pair were married by a former minister and almost immediately broke up. When Yelverton’s Dad offered Peg a ton of money to dissolve the marriage she happily accepted and ditched her husband.
Peg wasn’t proud of what she’d done. After all it wasn’t like she needed the money or the title. She’d just done it because she could. It was cruel and unnecessary but it was also an F you to how the morality of marriage had screwed her over in the past. No longer was she the girl who was thrown out like rubbish when men’s feelings changed. She was Peg Plunkett, Queen of Vice, she could turn the tables and make men disposable. She was untouchable.
Then after thirty plus years in the courtesan business, Peg decided she was done. She’d worked hard and now she could just bask in the spoils of her success.
After doing some maths, Peg calculated that once all her clients paid in their I.O.U’s she’d have enough to retire on. Feeling safe in the knowledge that all good gentlemen paid their debts, Peg didn’t wait for the men to actually pay, instead buying a house in Blackrock, a town just outside of Dublin..
The bliss of retirement didn’t last long. Peg being Peg and crap with money she hadn’t done her sums rights. Her bank accounts were haemorrhaging money and if she didn’t do something fast, it wouldn’t be her new home in Blackrock she’d be living in, but debtors prison.
Peg called on those I.O.U’s she was counting. But surprise surprise, the men weren’t planning on ever paying up.
Once more, it looked like Peg was screwed. But she was determined that although she might be down, she wasn’t out.
Fine, her clients weren’t going to pay up. That was ok. Because she knew another way to get them to pay and earn a tidy sum at the same time. She’d write her memoirs. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy the juicy story of Ireland’s leading courtesan. Obviously she’d have to name names, including those of her most high profile clients…unless they paid up.
In 1795 Peg released her first memoir. It was a hit and closely followed by a second.
She penned a third, however by the time it was released in 1797, Peg had died.
She was remembered for her role as the nations leading courtesan, but also for her unwillingness to bend to what was expected of her. Still at the very end of life, refusing to let the cards life dealt her keep her down.
This was interesting! Where can I find out more?
Well you can read Pegs memoirs (for free!!) here I’d also suggest checking out Julie Peakman’s book, Peg Plunkett, Memoirs of a Whore, which is currently a steal on kindle for a little over £3.
Forget the Insta fitness guru’s, there’s only one fitness queen you need to fall for: Sunny Lowry.
Is it even January if your gym isn’t packed to the rafters and everywhere shop you step into has a new superfood or protein thingy-ma-jig to promise you super abs and rock-hard glutes? To be honest I’m officially over it. I mean seriously, can a girl not run in red-faced sweaty peace, without being outstripped by a lycra-covered superhuman with every gleaming gadget to track and tread their workout? Oh for a simpler, My Fitness Pal free exercise time.
Well pine no longer, because today we’re bringing it back to health goals of the past. So sit down, have a brew or a refreshing cucumber-infused power water and lets discuss the absolute fitness hero of the 20th century: Sunny Lowry.
Sunny was one of the first (one of, I stress, one of!) British women to swim the English Channel. She defied all expectations, broke major sporting ground and dedicated her life to supporting the young people of the North in pursuing their own athletic dreams. Oh, and one time, she was almost arrest for public indecency…
And yet, despite all this amazingness, have you heard of her? Probably not.
So eat your heart our David Walliams, because this absolute athletic goddess is the real ruler of the English Channel.
Born in Manchester in January 1911, Sunny Lowry didn’t exactly come from a place that screamed open water sea swimming. After all, Manchester ‘has got everything except a beach.’ Sunny’s dad was a fish seller, so at least she had some kind of marine-life around her, even if it was, well, dead.
She was bright, attending Manchester High School for Girls, classing the infamous Pankhurst sisters as fellow alumni, and shared their rebellious and challenging nature. When asked by her Headmistress what she wanted to do when older, she simply replied:
‘Swim the Channel.’
That got her into trouble and she was told to abandon these dreams. Still, they weren’t that outlandish for Sunny. In fact, there was a surge of interest in Channel swimming in the 1920s, because what says fun like donning a ridiculously unsuitable bathing suit and running into a vast body of water? As the social restrictions set against women slowly began to disappear, more and more women started to give it a go and in 1926, Gertrude Ederle, the American long-distance swimmer, became the first woman to swim the Channel.
You think Cross fit is hard? They didn’t have WET SUITS. You know wet suits, the things that keep you warm and covered up. These swimmers were hard core, braving frigid choppy waters in basic bathing suits and look how happy they still are!
Yet despite everything to the contrary, Sunny stayed firm in her dream and started swimming lessons. It soon became quite evident that the girl swam like a fish. So she joined Levenshulme Swimming Club and attended lessons at Hathersage Baths – better known as Victoria Baths. Soon, she started winning pretty much every competition going and training outdoors.
Sunny was out to prove everyone wrong.
Ok, Manchester didn’t have a beach, fine. To train she travelled up and down the country, from the Lake District, to Blackpool, and even to North Wales to swim outdoors, where she once even helped save the lives of two drowning girls.
Then, in 1932, Sunny got her chance. An advert appeared in the newspapers:
‘Wanted – a British-born girl aged 17 to 20, weight about 11 stone, with the courage to beat Captain Webb’s channel swimming time of 21 ¾ hours.’
The advert was placed by (cue the excellent name incoming klaxon) famous swimming coach Jabez Wolffe, who had failed to swim the Channel himself and so he followed that mantra of ‘those that can’t do, teach’. He became a ruthlessly brilliant trainer instead.
Sunny responded and beat 300 other women to the position. She moved down to the South East and began training in Dover and Kent. To build up a bulk that would protect her from the icy water, she went for runs on the beach, lifted weights, and ate up to forty eggs a week.
Top fitness tip from Sunny: why bother with clean eating when you can cancel out all other food groups for eggs?
Sunny had herself one of the best trainers in the business. Her dream was so close she could taste it. But not without a hearty dose of hypothermia and failure, right?
That’s right. Wolffe told her straight away that if she couldn’t handle the cold water she might as well leave, and Sunny herself said:
‘I used to go in [to the sea] and come out not feeling my ankles…’
It’s making me shiver at the very notion. But Sunny was determined and in August 1932, she had her first bash at swimming the Channel.
Despite being covered in goose fat, accompanied by a boat full of bagpipes to keep her to rhythm and a supply of beef tea to nourish her, Sunny failed to cross the Channel.
She could almost see the finish line (Folkstone) when the rough and stormy seas became too much and she had no choice but to abandon her swim after spending over fifteen hours in the water. The first attempt had a lasting impact on Sunny, as the jellyfish stings and pain of the swim was cancelled out by the dolphins that came to swim alongside her.
Still, Sunny refused to abandon her goal. She tried again in July 1933, bagpipes and all, but this time the storms were so bad that in the dead of night, Sunny actually disappeared in the waves – and it took an hour to locate her. She was only found when the crew spotted her bright red swimming cap amongst the endless crashing waves.
So once again only a few hours away from the shore, Sunny had to give up.
But, she didn’t hang around for her next shot. Only a month later, she was back in Gris Nez, France, setting off for Blighty. With her trusty pilot boat, beef tea, and of course, bagpipes, Sunny, third time lucky, crossed the channel in just under sixteen hours.
Sunny had done it! Covered in jellyfish stings, blue from cold and exhausted, she crawled up the beach, to be met with cries of:
‘I should have you arrested!!’
Yeah not exactly the heroes welcome she expected.
That’s right, despite a huge athletic achievement, Sunny was accused of public indecency because of the lightweight, two-piece swimsuit she was wearing.
Luckily, the offended party didn’t call the police, and Sunny was hailed as a national champion. She flew her Levenshulme Swimming Club flag, complete with the Manchester worker bee and red rose of Lancashire and carried out a national tour of judging galas, opening baths, and demonstrating her swimming prowess.
However– Sunny’s swim wasn’t recognised by the Channel Swimming Association until 1958, over twenty years after it took place. Funny that, how women’s achievements almost get left out of history, doesn’t ever happen, can’t imagine why…*insert massive eye roll*
For the rest of her life, Sunny ran swimming clubs, became the President of the Channel Swimming Association, and focused especially on teaching children with learning difficulties, her lucky charm, the dolphin, on all of her club emblems.
She was fiercely committed to championing swimming for all, and above all, ignoring all the voices that told her she couldn’t. There’s no better way to put it:
150 years after it first came out, why are we still so in love with Little Women? the reasons may surprise you
There are perhaps only two books that have a seemingly universal effect on the women that read them; Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. Which could be considered odd in the case of Little Women, as Louisa May Alcott never actually wanted to write a book about girls. In her words, she:
‘never liked girls or knew many except my sisters’
But Louisa had to pay her bills and so she agreed to take the gig writing a book for girls. And it’s probably thanks to that unwillingness that Little Women is so good. There are none of the usual trappings we see in stories designed for a female audience. No overly long descriptions of lush surroundings. No plot pause for a fashion show, and certainly no hastily forced in moments of ‘sisterhood’.
Instead it’s an honest tale of four sisters growing up. It’s extrodianry in its ordinariness. Every girl can relate to the March Sisters. They love each other deeply but when they attack each other they are ruthless, going straight for the jugular (how could you burn Jo’s beloved book Amy!?!?). Mistakes are learnt from, ambitions changed and childish trappings dropped. It’s a true tale of growing up, where the obstacles we face us girls may seem small but are huge in defining who we become as women.
But having an amazing plot isn’t the reason that Little Women has endured for over 150 years. The truth behind Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy’s ever growing legacy is a lot more fascinating. So lets get straight into this!
*Just as an FYI, I’m going to be talking about Little Women and Good Wives together. As both have been bundled into the same book since 1880.
Part 1 – ‘You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind‘
At the time of its release the character of Jo immediately proved to be an inspiration to thousands of young girls. Ok, yes, that’s not a huge shocker, after all to this day Jo remains the majority of peoples favourite sister. However, in the 19th century, Jo’s impact was revolutionary.
Girls were starting to realise they could have aspirations beyond those of their mothers. That if they wanted, they could do so much more than any generation of women before them. The fight for equal rights was ready, jobs beyond the home were opening up, culture was welcoming female writers and visionaries. It was the dawn of an incredibly exciting age! But also a really bloody scary one.
After all, being one of the first to step into a brave new world is daunting. And that’s where Jo came in.
Jo was the model of the woman of the future. Bright, intelligent, unafraid to break boundaries, she continuously bucks the norm. Turning down Laurie’s marriage offer (despite the fact he is rich AF and that the amount of eligible young men post American civil war wasn’t exactly stellar) she becomes not just a writer, but one unafraid to follow her own path. She decides she would be happy to stay single and only changes her mind after meeting someone that she knows she will be an equal to. Even when Jo eventually has a child, she’s not the era’s traditional mother. Instead she pins up her skirt and joins her children to run wild.
This fearlessness not only gave girls an example of the women they were free to be, but also equipped them with the tools to do so!
Almost immediately after the book came out, girls were inspired to follow in Jo’s footsteps. The Luken sisters from Pennsylvania, started their own version of the Pickworth Papers (the newsletter the March sister’s write) and ended up with subscribers from all over the US. The young Martha Carey Thomas fell in love with the books, even pretending to be Jo at times. When she turned 15 it was this that helped her decide to peruse further education and this move led to her growing up to become a pioneer of womens rights and education.
Then there are those that came in the decades after. With Jo’s direct impact on their work being cited by the likes of JK Rowling, Caitlin Moran, Simone de Beuvoir, Gloria Steinham and Patti Smith. It’s undeniable that a huge reason for our enduring cultural love towards Little Women, is Jo.
Part 2 – “It’s so dreadful to be poor!”
When Little Women first came out it was almost entirely bought and read by white middle class girls.
Throughout the book class, poverty and the social impact of them appear again and again (seriously, the book has 47 chapters, and this theme is only withheld from 4 them of them!) and yet, the girls themselves aren’t exactly in poverty.
Ok, yes, Meg and Jo both have to work, Meg can’t afford fashionable clothes, Amy struggles for limes and Beth can’t get the piano of her dreams. But that’s not exactly being poor, especially when you look at The Hummels. The family who live close to the March Sisters and live in abject poverty, to the point that by the end of the book almost the whole Hummel clan have been wiped out by disease.
Though the March Sisters struggle at times, there is always a clear light at the end of the tunnel. They will always be able to move upwards and towards their dreams.
This is a very white middleclass look at class and the barriers it imposes. And understandably that didn’t really resonate with young women from poorer backgrounds or minority communities.
But then a few decades later the tide started to turn. The book was used by Russian Jewish immigrants as a way to connect themselves with their new home. Librarians and teachers encouraged the women to read what they felt was the best introduction to American womanhood. And although this was a very(I’m being nice) left field idea, it went against all the odds and worked, because these women could see themselves in the March Sisters.
In her book, My Mother and I, Elizabeth G Stern remembers coming to America as a young girl, an immigrant in a very foreign land. Living in an urban ghetto, she came across a tattered copy of Little Women in a rag shop and the March sisters helped her open up to the new world around her:
“Reading of them made my aspirations beautiful. My books were doors that gave me entrance to another world. Often I’d think I did not grow up in the ghetto, but in the books I read as a child.”
As time progressed, social welfare and rights improved, Little Women started to became a more universal book, a classic in it’s own right. It was translated into multiple languages, became one of Moscow libraries most borrowed books and was a bonafide international success.
Then came the adaptations. In 1912 Little Women debuted on the stage and was an immediate hit. As soon as the actress playing Jo uttered the opening line ‘Christmas just won’t be Christmas without presents’ the house went wild! Two silent films followed hot on the plays heels and by 1920 book sales of Little Women were second only to the bible (a crying shame, the former is a far better read)
And then things went stagnant. Book sales were still strong, but suddenly nobody wanted to adapt Little Women. After all, it was the roaring twenties and now the March Sisters seemed kind of hum drum.
This was a big problem. The adaptations were what was keeping the story fresh, essential in a time when what it meant to be a young girl was continuously changing.
But in the 1930’s Little Women’s luck changed. The economy crashed and though it was terrible for 99% of people, it was a god send for the March Sisters.
Part 3 – “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!”
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 and completely upturned the everyday lives of countless people. Gone was any certainty for the future and everyone was desperate for something to take their mind of the economic hellscape they were living it. Step in the March sisters.
Little Women was the equivalent of putting on a cosy blanket (even if the world was on fire just outside your window), it was familiar, but also offered a gentle dose of fighting spirit and hope for tomorrow.
The book boomed once more, becoming England’s top seller, but more than that, the adaptations not only restarted; they became an unstoppable juggernaut! Across the US community theatres staged low cost productions, the play went back to Broadway and then came the big one. Hollywood got it’s hands on Little Women.
1933’s Little Women starred some of the eras biggest names, Frances Dee as Meg, Katherine Hepburn as Jo, Jean Parker as Beth and Joan Bennett as an incredibly mature for a 12 year old, Amy
Audiences lapped up the 1933 adaptation. Partly because it was the Great Depression and everyone was down for anything that wasn’t utter bleakness, but also because this adaptation really bought the March sisters story into the now. Like so many of the audience, the March’s were having financial struggles. The longing for a new dress or a delicious dinner were things that pretty much everyone watching totally got.
The film also did something major – it tweaked the March Sisters traits and personalities to fit in with the young women of the 1930’s.
Jo is so much more athletic in this film than she is in any other adaptation. She slides down banisters, hurdles fences and climbs trees (as well as down from a second story window at one point, which frankly just seems dangerous.) This makes perfect sense. The 1930’s were an era in which women’s sport was on the rise, along with the notion that women could be active without it being a major gender issue. So of course in the 1930’s Jo is boundary breaking not only in her wit and ambition, but also in her physicality. Because that’s the version of Jo that would most hit home to this audience.
Similarly, 1933’s adaption is perhaps the last time we see Meg’s decision to become solely a wife and mother treated with respect, rather than as a throw away ‘oh yes, I guess Meg does this now’ plot line. By the 1930’s, women were of course able to have a career and go down the Jo route of chasing work ambitions, but it was still a very real societal expectation that most women would eventually settle down and become a homemaker. So Meg’s story, resonated just as much as any of the other sisters.
Then in 1949, following another huge chapter of societal upheaval (AKA two world wars) came MGM’s adaptation of Little Women. Created to once more cash in on peoples want for something comforting yet hopeful.
MGMs adaptation pretty much followed the same script as the 1933 film. This too has a ton of A list actors (Elizabeth Taylor as Amy for example) and they even had a much older pregnant actress as one of the sisters (with 31 year June Allyson as Jo). Bar that, it’s essentially the same film…but in technicolor.
Then almost five decades later came 1994’s Little Women. Perhaps the best show of how this story constantly adapts to it’s audience.
Since 1949 a lot had changed. First wave feminism had hit and bought with it massive changes. Women were now firmly in the workforce, able to raise a family and chase a career. Which all meant BIG changes for the March Sisters.
The biggest changes are arguably to Meg and Jo. If you compare the 1933 and 1994 versions of Jo, they are totally different. Gone is the OTT Katherine Hepburn athleticism, instead replaced by a more fitting 90’s theatre kid take on the charterer. She is also the only on screen Jo that we actually see write. All previous Jo’s talk a lot about it, but never visually do it, whereas in this version it’s a constant.
This is because this adaptation focuses on Jo’s ambition to be a writer, more than her lack of marriage. The biggest indicator of this is that the film strays from the books ending. In the book, Jo gets married and puts writing to the side, instead focusing on raising her family and opening a school where she plays surrogate mother to her pupils. But in this version, when Jo says yes to marriage, it’s clear she will also continue her journey to become a professional writer – she’s the epitome of the new ideal; a woman who has it all.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Meg, whose basically now a back seat passenger to the story. Gone is the 1930’s respect for her decision to be a homemaker. Compared to Jo’s broad strides forward, the filmmakers clearly feared it would be seen as outdated. In this version Meg is just there to be occasionally bossy and portray a prissy form of femininity to play contrast to Jo.
Overall feminism plays a much bigger role in this adaption. Marmie, is a much stronger character and there is a clear shift from the Girls being called their fathers ‘Little Women’ to choosing to be ‘Little Women’ for their mother and then themselves.
This brings us to the 2019 adaptation, which takes the ball of modern femisim and runs with it.
Amy is given an overhaul and more character development. She is far more aware of her world and an equal to Laurie. She starts life as girl who cares more about dresses than the world outside and ends up a smart capable woman in a difficult era to be that. She has an interest in suffrage but also knows she lives in a time when who she marries is just as much a business deal as a love match.
And for the first time in any of the adaptation, Beth actually gets a fully fledged narrative (it only took 150 years…) This Beth isn’t just ‘nice’ but incredibly strong. The 2019 adaptation beautifully picking up the parts of her character that are so often dropped or underplayed. Including that Beth knows she is going to die, has made peace with it and works to strengthen those around her to continue on in her absence.
Every generation gets it’s own Little Women. With Louisa May Aclott’s work becoming far more than a book, but a vital chapter in millions of young lives.
From the first print which inspired girls to step forth into a brave new world, to the fresh off the boat immigrants who discovered a whole new take on an old story. The girls of the depression who found hope and solace in these four sisters and the ever rolling change of adaption that keeps this story alive today.
Be you a Meg, a Jo, a Beth or an Amy, it looks like the story of our Little Women is set to live a long life for generations to come.
If you liked this, here are some amazing Little Women deep dives to sink your teeth into:
A delve into why The Crown and Peaky Blinders are leaving out female political heroes
*SOME MINOR THE CROWN AND PEAKY BLINDERS SPOILERS AHEAD*
I’ve waiting with bated breath and a faux cigarette holder at the ready for the third instalment of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, alongside many of my fellow historians and friends.
It feels like we’ve been treated this autumn with excellent historical fiction – particularly those that ties so closely to contemporary problems. And whilst I welcomed the majesty of Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies breathing emotion and life into two of the biggest characters of the twentieth century, I was most excited for the era of politicians that this series would bring.
I prayed, I hoped, that I wouldn’t suffer the same disappoint I felt at the equally brilliant Peaky Blinders.
From a historical point of view, there was still so much missing from Tommy Shelby’s journey between the streets of Birmingham to the gloomy, hallowed halls of Westminster. Making Tommy a Labour MP and introducing him to the unsavoury, darker side of inter-war social change was genius, there’s no doubt about that. In context of today’s politics it felt weirdly Black Mirror-esque – seeing the charisma and the tide of populism that far-right politics can get swept up on, before we even realise, is a vital part of our history.
And still, it was also missing something vital.
The series was set in 1929. The first election year where all women aged 21 and over could vote. Female MPs came to parliament, including Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesbrough. Young, unmarried, full of passion, power, and socialism.
She is perhaps the most important woman in early 20th century politics, and if Tommy Shelby was playing the part of socialist MP well enough, he would have undoubtedly been hatching plans and hanging out with her. I could fully imagine Ellen, with her blaze of auburn hair, drawing herself up to her small height and reckoning with Tommy, showing him who really had the power in parliament. She could have shone on screen, could have slotted into the story so perfectly – Tommy should have been helping her fight fascism and Mosley from the start.
But he wasn’t…
Now I do understand that decision. Of course, I get that you can’t have everybody onscreen. That it’s historical fiction for a reason and fiction should be the operative word. But I was so grumpy (immediate cross messaging my Peaky WhatsApp group level grumpy) not to have seen her brought to life on screen when she fitted so perfectly into the story.
Was it because Jessie Eden – the trade unionist rousing the workers of Birmingham – already took that part? Was it that the other female characters were already too much, too powerful, too challenging of social norms?
Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing challenging, tricky, revolting women on screen, on stage, in books, in art.
But are we too used to seeing portrayals of women fighting to be heard, to be let in – rather than women who are on the inside, who are being listened to? It’s food for thought.
So, with my disappointment in the lack of Ellen Wilkinson aside, I hoped and prayed that this series of the The Crown would treat me better, and we’d get to see one of the most prominent, unique, and inspiring politicians of the time.
And no, I don’t mean not Harold Wilson!
Ok, yes, I did like seeing Harold Wilson there, especially looking so uncomfortable, so ill at ease in his first meeting with the Queen. After all, it fitted perfectly. Gone were the Prime Ministers who worshipped the Queen as a goddess, yet who also tried and sway and shape her views. This was a woman in power, a woman who knew herself, her mind, who has seen much and fully embodies ‘The Crown’. Her relationship with Wilson wasn’t friendly, nor intimate; it’s frank, open. It’s a business arrangement, each recognising the other’s advice and knowledge.
BUT, in another world – a forward-thinking, progressive world, there would have been another person sat opposite the Queen. More left-wing, with a sharper tongue and a wealth of experience in the political arena…if Barbara Castle, long-serving MP for Blackburn could have been selected as the Leader of the Opposition in 1960, then it may have been a different conversation, a different story. And this story should have at least nudged it’s way into The Crown.
Barbara Castle was the legacy that Ellen Wilkinson had left behind. Unashamedly socialist, a force of energy, enthusiasm, and outspokenness, Barbara had stormed into the House of Commons ready to take up the mantle female MPs had been putting into place – to battle the gender inequality that was inbuilt in society, and to disprove that women MPs were only in place to speak out for other women.
During her 24 years as an MP, Barbara not only ensured the passing of the Equal Pay Act, but took on the role of Minister for Overseas Development and then Minister of Transport, where she introduced the 70mph speed limit, breathalysers and – would you believe it – seat belt rules. Harold Wilson even said of her:
‘…she was good at whatever she touched.’
She was an incredible politician, who helped mould the era. And yet, in The Crown, she is limited to just a couple of lines in a cabinet meeting, where she lambastes Prince Philips plea for more money. Then she is later briefly mentioned by Harold Wilson as one of the lefties who might topple the monarchy right over if they had the chance. In fact, her full name is never explicitly spoken – she’s recognised simply by her tell-tale red hair.
The fact that Barbara Castle’s appearance in The Crown as a mere flash in the pan, is a waste. Like Ellen, she would have been a total scene stealer.
The Crown celebrates the merits and the shortcomings of the Queen and the women around her. But, when it comes to women outside of the royal household, they are few and far between. As they are in far too many period drama’s. This can’t continue.
Women like Barbara and Ellen should have places in these dramas.
Not only because it’s right. But because their stories are vivid, bold and simply fascinating. To miss them out is a huge disservice on a creative level and also on an ethical one – when we don’t see them on our big television screens, when the perfect opportunity presents itself…when will we see them?
It’s because of this lack of storytelling and inclusion that these women were outliers in their time, and lets be blunt, today they still would be. It’s far past the time where women in politics should be included in television, film and books. We need to shine a light on these women, past and present.
Ballerina Franceska Mann became legend when she killed an SS guard on the way to the gas chamber. But who was she? And what does her mythologising truly tell us about life as a woman during the Holocaust
On October 23 1943, 26 year old ballerina, Franceska Mann, transformed. Overnight she became the stuff of legend. Not through her deft pointe work or an ovation worthy performance, but because of her death.
That dark October day, Franceska, along with 1,700 over Polish Jewish people was dragged off a transit train and pushed through the gates of Auschwitz. You don’t need me to tell you what a death sentence that was. Franceska knew the odds, knew her time was up and she refused to go quietly into the night.
Franceska Mann was exceptional. A dancer at a night club in Warsaw, she was known for her talent and beauty. It was this that caught the attention of two of Auschwitz’s SS guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich.
Along with a large group of women, Franceska was led to the undressing room next to the gas chamber and told to strip. As the women undressed, the SS Guards, including Schillinger and Emmerich watched, their gaze soon honing in on Franceska. She noticed them watching and looked them directly in the eye.
She lent down to take off her shoe and the men started to approach. Then quick as a flash, Franceska attacked, using her high heel to beat a guard down. Seizing his gun, she shot. Killing Josef Schillinger and wounding Wilhelm Emmerich.
As the other SS guards bore down on the vulnerable women, they followed Franceska’s lead and fought back with everything they had. One woman reportedly bit off a guard’s nose, as machine gun fire tore through the room.
It lasted minutes. If that.
Most of the women lay dead, those that weren’t were taken outside and shot.
But their story lived on.
Becoming a legend
The tale of Franceska Mann and the women that resisted spread like fire through the camp. It bought hope; the guards now knew there was the threat, however small, that the next time they struck, the prisoners might hit back. It was a grain of resistance and in this veritable hellscape, that was so needed!
Which is why Franceska’s story become mythologised. Feverishly passed around the prisoners, its details becoming blurrier and blurrier.
Soon enough, the story was that Franceska had performed a strip tease. Luring Schillinger and Emmerich towards her with a flash of thigh and seductively pulling her blouse away. Only when the two men were lulled into a sense of lusty security did she strike. Turning the tables on her abusers.
It’s this version of events that has prevailed. Through accounts of Auschwitz survivors and even those that were at camps miles away, yet had still heard the tale.
Though popular, many historians have agreed that this version is incredibly unlikely. Yes, there was an attack of Schillinger and Emmerich, but it’s highly unlikely it was precursor’d with some light stripping. It’s an embellishment and one we continue to glean onto.
But it’s not just the strip tease that’s been added on. There are arguments that it may not have been Franceska Mann, but another woman. In different tellings Francesca morphs into everything from a Greek dancer, to an actress and even a whole mob of women taking the guards down as a unit.
Though it’s now agreed it was most likely Franceska Mann who shot down Schillinger and Emmerich, it’s undoubtable that this incident took on a life of it’s own, becoming more fiction than fact.
BUT WHY?!? What’s with all this twisting and mythologising?
Well, the answer is simple and very bleak (this is the Holocaust after all).
Surviving sexual abuse
To understand the root of this ever twisting tale we need to talk about the sexual treatment of women during the Holocaust.
The Nazi’s kept virtually no records of the rape and sexual abuse that went on inside concentration camps, however we now know that it happened. And it did so with horrifying frequency.
To be in a concentration camp meant you were immediately stripped of your human rights, made more vulnerable than you could ever have believed. For women, this also meant they were vulnerable to sexual attack and abuse.
One of the most notorious abusers was Josef Schillinger.
Schillenger was by all accounts sadistic beyond even SS standards. Teaming up with his mate Wilhelm Emmerich, to wreak all kinds of horror on the prisoners under his watch.
And if you were in any doubt whether or not both men were the literal worst, here’s a quote from Wieslaw Kielar (a polish resistance fighter also imprisoned at Auswitchz) about what led the pair to Franceska Mann and the other women on that fateful October night:
‘Both of them slightly drunk, accompanied the transport to the crematorium. They even entered the changing room, guided either by thoughts of a little stealing or in anticipation of the sadistic enjoyment of watching the timid, defenceless, undressed women, who moments later were to die a painful death in the gas chamber.’
So it’s understandable then that the news of Schillinger’s death was met with celebration, especially when prisoners found out a woman had killed him.
The vulnerable had become ferocious. They’d bitten back and shown that there was a price to pay for the abuse dealt out to them. To women living not only with the constant threat of death, but of sexual assault too, this was hope beyond hope.
It’s no wonder, that in the subsequent game of Auschwitz whispers, the tale of Francesca Mann was not only embellished, but tailored into countless shapes that could be clung onto by each woman. She was hero when one was needed most.
Which is why it’s so important that this is all remembered when we tell the story of Francesca Mann and her resistance. Because what made her a legend wasn’t just her act of bravery, but the desperate hopes of thousands of others. And none of those women should ever be forgotten.
It’s time to explore Millicent Fawcett’s true Boer War story – from advocate of concentration camps to becoming instrumental in bringing them down.
Over the past few years Millicent Garrett Fawcett has gone from one of those women in history that you only knew about if you were really into women’s history, to a new national treasure.
Until 2018, every time I mentioned Millicent Fawcett to my mates who aren’t giant history nerds, I’d be met with a resounding: ‘who?‘.
So I’d excitedly explain that Millicent was a revolutionary for women’s rights. She was the leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) the largest suffrage movement in the UK. She set an example of peaceful protest, working within politics and using legal methods to keep women’s votes of the national agenda for decades!
Not only that, but she was an advocate for women’s education, campaigned to raise the age of consent and criminalise any family member who inflicted child cruelty. She fought for equal divorce rights, women’s right to work in the civil service and law. Oh, and she did all this whilst holding down a loving relationship and being an amazing mum.
So when it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to have a statue of herself erected in London’s Parliament Square, it was a HUGE DEAL. Suddenly people were remembering and celebrating this incredible woman.
But that’s not to say I’m totally enthused about every aspect of Millicent’s new found popularity. I’m not. Because, she’s now become a flawless hero. A beacon of women’s rights, of the fight for equality and hope for the possibility that we can build a better future. And don’t get me wrong, Millicent is all those things, but she was also a person.
Many of Millicents’ flaws are slowly starting to become airbrushed from history. And nothing proves this better than how we now tell the tale of Millicent and the Boer War concentration camps.
As hundreds ofthe new articles on Millicent’s achievements state, during The Boer War, Millicent led an all female commission into investigating the concentration camps set up by the British Empire, which held tens of thousands of Boer people (mainly women and children).
But they all leave out this pretty crucial point – before Millicent investigated the concentration camps…she was for them.
First things first – what was the Boer War?
In 1899 The South African Boer War began, between the British Empire and the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Essentially this was a war over gold, but it was also a war that was very much about empire, race and imperialism.
This was a huge war on an international scale, it wasn’t just British forces fighting against the Boer people, but troops from all over the British Empire, including Canada and Australia. The Empire’s troops fought with machine guns and deadly explosives, with the Boers using guerrilla warfare to hit back.
In an effort to quell these guerrilla forces, the British Empire set up the first concentration camps. The first camp opened up in 1900 and housed mainly women and children.
It quickly became apparent that for those that entered the camps, the chances of survival weren’t exactly vegas odds. Malnutrition and disease ran rampant. Just a year in, Lord Milner, the man in charge of the camps wrote:
‘The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off is not so far borne out by the facts….The strong ones must be dying now and they will all be dead by the spring of 1903.’
Within two years, an estimated 28,000 Boer women and children died in the camps. As well as 20,000 black people.
So where does Millicent come into this?
Well, although the deadly nature of the camps was at first only known to those in government (and obviously people on the ground at the camps!) one woman was about to blow this whole genocidal horror show wide open – and that woman was not Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
In 1901 British welfare worker, Emily Hobhouse went to one of the camps, Bloemfontein. She arrived with a host of supplies for those imprisoned there. But she wasn’t just there to deliver aid. Emily spent months visiting camp after camp, collecting testimonies, recording the astronomic numbers of deaths and also estimating the number of black people dying inside the camps. Then when Emily had everything she needed, she publicly reported back on the atrocities being carried out.
….And Emily was pretty much laughed out the door and labelled a ‘hysterical spinster of mature age’by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain.
However, some people were listening to Emily and eventually the number of people that wanted the government to answer or at least investigate her claims grew too much.
It became clear the government had to act. BUT we know that at least some people in charge of the war knew of the horror happening at the camps (remember Milner’s letter). So they didn’t want a band of Emily Hobhouse’s turning up to investigate and then blowing the whistle on this whole war.
Which is why the person they put in charge of investigating the concentration camps was Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
From the start of the war, Millicent had been openly ‘anti-boer’. This was not rare position to take. As Millicent herself would recall in her 1924 biography, What I Remember(arguably the most hilarious yet best title for a biography) the war split England in two. On the left those who were ‘pro-boer’ argued that the boers were innocent and being attacked, however the majority of people (‘anti-boer’s like Millicent) were outraged at this, believing those against the war to be not just unpatriotic, but traitors.
So the fact that someone staunchly ‘anti-boer’ was now investigating these camps, understandably didn’t go down well with everyone. After all, that’s not exactly the neutral third party you want undertaking such a vital job.
Emily Hobhouse herself voiced concerns about Millicent’s appointment. Worrying that although Millicent fought for women and children’s rights in Britain, she didn’t seem to express any empathy for the Boer women and children.
Still, the Fawcett Commission (also known as the slightly ridiculously named, Ladies Commission) was happening whether Emily liked it or not.
Alongside Millicent, some of the other ladies in the commission were’nt exactly impartial. Among this number was, Lady Alice Knox, who was married to one of the senior officers of military leader, Lord Kitchener. In fact, Millicent would later write that Alice saw the Boer people as ‘socially equivalent to where Scotland were 200 years ago’(that’s some serious 1900s shade!).
Ok. So I think we can all agree that Millicent and her crack team of incredibly bias women we’re probably not the best team to take on this job. But it’s about to get so, SO much worse.
Just before she was set to head off to investigate the concentration camps, Millicent wrote an article for The Westminster Gazette, where she tore apart Emily Hobhouse’s report and said that the camps were:
‘necessary from a military point of view’
Bad right? Don’t worry, it gets worse! Because then Millicent argued that as Boer farms were possibly supplying information on the British Empire forces, the women that were helping in this deserved to go to the camps:
‘They have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact. But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.’
And with that, Millicent packed her bags and set off to investigate the concentration camps.
If all of this made you angry, then good, it should. I think we can all recognise this as in no way ok. But that’s also why it is so important it’s so vital that this part of Millicent’s life isn’t airbrushed away.
Because, what happened next was that Millicent made it right. On arriving at the camps, Millicent did a total 360. She realised she’d been wrong and led her ladies commission in gathering every scrap of evidence needed to rectify the atrocities going on.
Not only that, but her commission knew that the camps wouldn’t shut down overnight, so the women came up with immediate solutions to the most pressing issues facing those that lived in the camps and ensured they were put in place (which resulted in a dramatic drop in the death rate).
On their return to England, Millicent and her Ladies Commission became one of the most outspoken forces against the camps.
It’s good that when Millicent’s story is told, we talk about her work on the Boer War concentration camps. But we shouldn’t just tell the end of this story. Not just because to do so isn’t so much telling history, as cherry picking, but because it does a disservice to Millicent.
Millicent Garett Fawcett was first and foremost, a woman. She wasn’t some kind of feminist deity, she was human and flawed. Through her life she did a lot of really amazing things, but she also said and did some really shitty things. Which would make her like pretty much everyone else. In this era of cancel culture and pedestaling, it’s important to remember that.
To make our history heroes shiny blameless beacons, is dangerous. It takes away not only the things that built them into the people they were, but robs us of any lessons we can possibly learn from them.
Further reading on Millicent Fawcett and The Boer War concentration camps:
Strap in for the tale of Jeanne de Clisson, the gentile noble lady turned warrior pirate and traitor – Game of Thrones Cersai has nothing on this vengeful woman!
Ok, I hope you guys are ready, because today we’re embarking on one of my favourite bat-shit stories in history! We’ll be travelling to 14th century France to meet a lady who took the term ‘woman scorned‘ and ran way past the line with it. Going from a rich noble-born, to making a name for herself as both Frances’ number one enemy and a fearless swashbuckling pirate! Ready? Let’s get to it then:
Born in Brittany, France, in 1300 to wealthy titled parents, Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and Létice de Parthenay, the story of Jeanne De Clisson starts off as that of your average 14th century noble born woman. And by that I of course mean that Jeanne was married off at 12 (wasn’t the past great!?).
She lived her life how a well behaved noble lady was expected to. Popping out babies and re-marrying other rich influential men when her husbands died. So far so standard.
By the time Jeanne reached her thirties she was onto marriage number three, to noble, Oliver De Clission. But Jeanne and Oliver’s marriage was actually incredibly unique for this era. You see, they actually loved each other!
Unsurprisingly with people being married off purely based on how it would help build up a families wealth and titles, true ‘love matches’ were few and far between. Luckily, Jeanne and Oliver were the exception to that rule.
Together, they lived together in a blissful bubble. Having five children and flitting between their family castle and manor, with little to no drama’s occurring. Life was perfect.
That is, until war tore their world apart
In 1337 France and England were at each others throats, fighting for the right to rule over France. You see, ten years earlier, French king, Charles VI had died without leaving a clear heir, meaning the crown was anyone’s to grab (if you could come up with a decent claim for it!). To make things even worse, this wasn’t your usual battle for power. Oh no. This went on so long that it became known as the ‘hundred year war’.
And you know what makes any already confusing and convoluted war even better? That’s right, another mini war to take place in the already existing war!
Enter, The War of Breton Succession
In 1341, John ‘the good’ of Brittany, who ruled over the homeland of Jeanne and her brood, died childless. This meant that he left no clear cut heir to take his place (apparently France loves a theme) thus two rival factions made a claim to Brittany. John Montfort, who was backed by the English and Charles of Blois, who was both married to John ‘the goods’ niece and had the French nobility’s support.
As battle over their Brittany home sped up, Oliver and Jeanne opted to give their support to noble fave, Charles of Blois. With Oliver stepping into the role of one of Charles military commanders.
This would prove to be a bad choice. In 1341 Oliver was sent to defend the town of Vanne, against English invaders. Sadly, Vanne fell and Oliver and several others were captured and ransomed.
Left alone with five kids, her beloved husband locked up and her home at war, this was far and away one of the darkest times in Jeanne’s life.
But suddenly there was a light! Oliver’s ransom was set incredibly low and he was released. Not only that, but England and France had signed a truce. To celebrate this incredible turn in events , Oliver was invited to take place in a tournament.
The family back together, a lovely day out and relative peace? Surely for our lovebirds Jeanne and Oliver, the future was looking bright?
Nope. It was all a rouse.
It turned out that Charles of Blois suspected that Oliver’s ransom had been set so low because he was actually working with the English to assist their seize of Vennes. So he had lured Oliver to the tournament to arrest him.
Oliver was detained and sent to Paris for trial. There, under the blessing of French king, Phillip the Fortunate, he was sentenced to death. Despite no clear proof of guilt being found against him.
And so Oliver was executed as a traitor. Essentially because his boss reckoned he might have been one.
Something had shattered inside Jeanne and what replaced it was cold steel.
To further her pain, Oliver’s body was desecrated. His body strung up by the armpits and his head sent to be placed on a spike in Nantes as a warning to others.
Emotionally broken, Jeanne actually took her sons to see their fathers head in Nantes. And after that minor child trauma was over, she decided to pack up her stuff, sell the families lands, raise a small army of fighters and set out to avenge her husband.
Newly armed and incredibly dangerous, she was determined to reek bloody revenge on Charles of Bois, King Phillip the Fortunate and France itself.
Jeanne’s first stop was to the castle owned by Galois de la Heuse, a friend of Charles of Bois. She turned up, kids in tow and asked to be let in. And of course they let her in! I mean, sure she was the wife of a traitor, but how much of a threat could one woman be? Right….
By morning everyone in the castle had been killed.
All except for a few wide eyed survivors who Jeanne let flee so they could spread word of her murders.
In 1343 Jeanne had been declared a traitor and with the French fuzz catching up to her, she decided to take her fight to the sea and become a pirate (as you do).
She bought three ships with the money she had from selling all her lands and goods. She then ordered them to be painted black and their sails dyed crimson. With her incredibly dramatic ships set, she set sail across the channel.
Now if you thought that seeing the pirate skull cross bones set fear into the hearts of sailors, well that had nothing on Jeanne and her merry band of murderers.
French crews who saw those crimson sails emerging from the fog, knew it meant one thing. They were about to die.
Jeanne and her crew set their sights on any and all French ships. Capturing them and slaying the entire crew. And unlike many other pirates, noble borns weren’t kept for ransom. Instead it’s believed that Jeanne would behead them herself.
Yet it wasn’t all stabby stabby kill time. As she had before, Jeanne left a few survivors. Not because she was being nice, but so word would spread back to King Phillip of the horror she was wreaking across the seas.
Now Jeanne wasn’t just about indiscriminate murder. She was also one smart woman. Which is why she joined forces with England in her quest to take down France.
You see, by this point France and England had fallen out once more, with their truce only lasting two years (1343-1345) and the battle for the French throne was back on (it was called the hundred year war for a reason!)
With his country at war, things were already bad, but things started to look very unfortunate (get it) for King Philip after he discovered that Jeanne was not only brutally murdering his ships crews, but also using her fleet to provide supplies to English troops in France.
Much of this particular time in Jeanne’s life has been turned into legend. Meaning it is really hard to sift through and tell fact from fiction. There are tales of her plundering french fishing villages and towns, joining English ships as they invaded France and beheading more people than Henry VIII on a really bad day,
You might think that King Phillip dying in 1350 would have satisfied Jeanne’s blood lust and stopped her quest for vengeance. But it didn’t.
It looked like only death could stop Jeanne. And it came for her around 1353, when her flagship sunk. Leaving Jeanne and her two sons, Guillaume and Oliver adrift in the middle of the sea.
Huddled together in a small boat, mother and sons looked like they stood no chance against the elements.
Guillaume soon died from exposure and time was fast running out for Jeanne and Oliver.
But a little shipwreck wasn’t going to stop Jeanne. She didn’t stop rowing. Even after her son died, she wouldn’t stop. This lasted for five days, until both her and Oliver were picked up by Montfort forces. Their survival was nothing short of miraculous and yet, considering Jeanne, not surprising.
Following this, Jeanne and her surviving son sought exile in England. And from here, Jeanne’s story takes a very unexpected turn.
Jeanne found love once more.
She met English Knight, Sir Walter Bentley, during her exile, and for the first time in years, she must have felt a joy that she thought had been lost forever. The pair married in 1356. With Jeanne choosing to leave her pirating days behind her, in favour of returning to the quiet married life she’d left behind over a decade ago.
With her new husband by her side, Jeanne actually moved back to Brittany (all be it a part of Brittany now looked after by English forces!) Living happily in Honnebont Castle until she died peacefully in 1359.