Ellen Terry and Edith Craig: Sex, Suffrage and Shakespeare

The incredible story of a mother and daughter who broke all the rules of their era. From trailblazing suffragettes to scandalous love lives

Here at F Yeah History we love women who boss at everything.

Be it literature, politics, art, employment, activism – the two women you’re going to read about next had it ALL.

Ellen Terry, star of the stage, and her thespian daughter Edith Craig, were two of the jazziest, energetic, and engaging characters of the early 20th century. From defying social norms to sticking it to theatre censorship laws, Ellen and Edith shook up the world they lived in, and everybody they met along the way.

Hooked? Good. Let’s start with the mother…

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you’ll know he wrote some cracking leading ladies. Portia, Katherine, Viola, Sylvia, and who could forget Beatrice, queen of wit and sass?

They’ve been portrayed on stage and screen over the past five hundred years, but never with quite as much wow factor as when Britain’s best loved stage actress, Ellen Terry performed them.

D-R-A-M-A: Ellen as a stonkingly scary Lady Macbeth, painted by John Singer Sargent

And if you want a quick summary of how much Britain loved Ellen Terry, then here it is in a little poem written for her:

‘Britain’s pride,

The genius of the stage personified,

Queen-like, pathetic, tragic, contemporary, merry,

O rare, O sweet, O Wondrous Ellen Terry.’

Ellen Terry lived a dramatic life on and off the stage. Born to a family of performers, she became a child actress and grew up on the stage, before joining the Theatre Royal at Bristol and became famous for her depiction of Shakespearean heroines.

BUT it all went a bit wobbly when Ellen turned sixteen, and married George Fredric Watts, a renowned artist, for whom she had once modelled for. Watts was 46 at the time – 30 years her senior! – and the marriage was doomed (again…she was 16!), lasting less than a year.

Ellen returned to the stage, often alongside Henry Irving (who apparently inspired the looks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, don’t you know). Henry and Ellen’s  relationship was intense, and passionate; they partnered in productions for decades.

Ellen was also close to George Bernard Shaw, exchanging letters with him for most of her life. There was even a play written about their letters! Shaw referred to their relationship as a courtship by letters, and wrote to her, in one:

‘Do you read these jogged scrawls, I wonder. I think of your poor eyes, and resolve to tear what I have written up: then I look out at the ghostly country and the beautiful night, and I cannot bring myself to read a miserable book…Yes, as you guess, Ellen, I am having a bad attack of you just at present. I am restless; and a man’s restlessness always means a woman; and my restlessness means Ellen.’

I’d say I felt sorry for his wife, but their relationship was pretty weird already…

But enough about the men. Ellen loved a romance, yes, but her career remained extraordinary.

She was unable to resist stage life, though this was sometimes for financial reasons.

Even after giving birth to her two children with Edward Godwin (who she had eloped with but didn’t actually marry) she returned to acting and slayed across theatres in the UK, USA, and Australia.

The Terry/Craig/Godwin fam: Terry and her children, Edward and Edith

Ellen was adored by legions of fans, and became the muse to many directors and playwrights. Her performance of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was world renowned, and in her later years, she successfully toured the US, delivering lectures on the Bard himself.

Ellen’s children travelled with her as she toured the world, and as she grew older, her daughter Edith managed her career.

Born Edith Godwin, she was keen to distance herself from her illegitimacy…and thus, Edith Craig was born! 

Meet Edith

Ellen’s star may have eclipsed all others, but her daughter lived an colourful, unique, and inspiring life equal if not greater than her mother.

The ultimate stage parent!

Starting on the stage at a young age, Edith acted, like her mother, with Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, and in the plays of her mum’s pen pal, George Bernard Shaw.

But she wasn’t going to be an actress, oh no! Edith took a very different theatrical direction. Inspired by the radical movers and shakers that surrounded her, Edith set up a new theatre company, the Pioneer Players.

In a move to end censorship in performing arts, Edith and the Pioneer Players, well, did what it said on the tin. They put on plays that had been previously banned – plays about social reform, humanists; and, unsurprisingly, feminism.

Because what cause was flourishing at the time of the Pioneer Players? Women’s suffrage, of course!

Now, Edith was already pretty indoctrinated into the women’s suffrage movement, having attended a forward-thinking school with a pro-suffrage teaching staff, as she said:

‘When I was at school I lived in a house of Suffrage workers, and at regular periods the task of organising Suffrage petitions kept everybody busy. Perhaps I didn’t think very deeply about it, and my first ideas of Suffrage duties were concerned with the interminable addressing of envelopes; but I certainly grew up quite firmly certain that no self-respecting woman could be other than a Suffragist.”

Edith was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but soon left in protest at the Pankhursts’ autocratic rule and joined the Women’s Freedom League with other suffrage bigwigs, including Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard.

As theatre became even more prolific in the suffrage world, with plays by Ciecly Hamilton and Elizabeth Robins depicting pro-suffrage and feminist narratives, in 1908 Edith became instrumental, along with her fellow actresses, artists and playwrights, in forming the Actresses’ Franchise League.

Apart from bearing one of the most gorgeous suffrage banners of all time (don’t @ me), the AFL didn’t use tradition campaigning tactics, but used performance as propaganda. The organization grew and got stronger, thanks to Edith’s strong, organizational mad skills.

Edith dedicated her life to challenging, questioning, and fighting social norms. With the drama and passion that her mother applied on-stage, Edith applied it to fighting injustice and inequality.

She openly lived in a ménage-a-trois with playwright Christabel Marshall (known as Christopher St John) and aritst Clare Atwood, to which her brother said was a result of her ‘hatred of men’ (really original, Edward, round of applause to you).

Edith was a wee bit of a battle-axe; she was hard-faced and uncharismatic, unlike her mother, who once said she was too afraid to kiss her own daughter, she hated affection so much.

Despite this revulsion for PDA and hugs, Edith was absolutely dedicated to her mother. 

She lived next door to Smallhythe, Ellen’s country house – although out of hatred for Ellen’s third husband, she built a hedge between their houses so she never had to see him, quite literally.  

When Ellen died, she transformed the house into a museum so that her mother’s memory would be preserved forever, and the story of her stardom would shine on. Though she was estranged from her brother (who was the father of Isadora Duncan’s daughter…), she continued to share the story their family’s life, dominated by their  mother, by going into partnership with an organization dedicated to saving stories of then nation…the National Trust. She died in 1947. Right up to her death, she flaunted social conventions, and lived life the way she wanted to.

Just like her mother.

The Favourite: Sarah Churchill’s revenge

Discover the true story behind hit film The Favourite and how Sarah Churchill used her downfall to ensure Queen Anne was forever mocked by history

We’re continuing to celebrate the current Queens of the Screen posts (go here to read all about Mary Queen of Scots’ gruesome execution), which means you can probably guess what this post is going to be about.

If you haven’t seen The Favourite – the multi-award winning, winner of the Beschdel test, beautifully described by star Rachael Weisz as ‘like a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve’, then bookmark this page and get yourself down to the cinema.

I think all history-lovers and Olivia Colman worshippers can agree that seeing the stories of three powerful women in history that isn’t Elizabeth I (god love her but girl, you have taken up too much screen time) has been massively refreshing.Not only did this incredible film give us the gift of this GIF for all occasions…

BUT it was a remarkable piece of cinema that captured one of the most dynamic relationships in British history – that of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Queen Anne. 

Queen Anne often got a bad rep in history. Remembered as overweight and dull, despite being a Queen in her own right (not a consort). Compare her reputation to that of Elizabeth I and she has been done a serious injustice.

Anne’s reign preluded the Jacobite rebellions and the political uncertainties of the Hanovers, so in comparison it’s easy to see why her court wasn’t quite as dynamic as other royals we know and love.

But as The Favourite shows, scandal and salaciousness were very much part of Anne’s court.

So why has Anne got such a bad rep? Whilst contemporaries from court did admit that Anne wasn’t the most exciting of monarchs, it was the memoirs of one courtier in particular that really painted the lasting portrait of Queen Anne and her reign of boring.

****Spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen The Favourite****

Unsurprisingly, the words that tainted Queen Anne and her reign, were those of Anne’s oldest and closest companion: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough!

Meet Sarah Churchill, proudly flexing her gold key (the symbol of just how much power she had)

Sarah had rose up from mildly humble beginnings, and had waited upon Anne since she was a princess. Sarah was five years older than Anne. And Anne, who was reserved and shy, had developed crushes on other women of the court before. So naturally, the arrival of the dynamic and confident Sarah soon dominated her world.

Her sister, Queen Mary II, had urged Anne to give up Sarah before, concerned about her influence, but did Anne listen?

Of course not! 

Sarah was married to John Churchill, an equally ambitious military man who was made Commander-in-Chief of Anne’s armies upon her ascension to the throne. Her marriage often kept her from Anne’s side, as she had several children and raised her family, and the letters that Anne wrote to her in the interim at full of love, and yearning. 

Sarah referenced her letters later on in life, quoting them throughout her memoirs, highlighting how powerful and passionate Anne’s love for her had been.

When Anne became Queen, after the death of her brother-in-law William of Orange, Sarah and her allies rose to prominence. Sarah’s influence meant that the Whig party gained power in parliament; leaving the Tories – the party the Queen had once favoured – lost their hold.

Sarah became Mistress of Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse. Anne, enraptured by her relationship with Sarah, did nothing to stem the power of her favourite…Until it all got a little complicated.And we love a bit of complicated over here at F Yeah!*sips tea*

For years, Sarah had relied upon Anne’s adoration of her to ensure she kept her place at the top. Sarah had dominated Anne without fear; she didn’t hold back, didn’t flatter, and didn’t placate the Queen at all. 

In their early relationship, Sarah had treated Anne mean to keep her keen. She had replied to her letters sporadically and held equally close, loving relationships with other women of the court. When Anne became Queen, she just continued this trait.

You may have noticed that delightful scene in The Favourite, with Sarah saying Anne looked like a badger…you get the picture of their over all dynamic!

Historians have come up with different theories as to why Anne ousted Sarah, with reasons both professional and personal. However, there was one big difference between Anne and Sarah, which would prove to be the deadly fracture to their friendship. 

Anne was a Tory, and Sarah was a Whig. 

Sarah’s continual lobbying of Anne in support of the Whigs grew overwhelming, particularly, when during one politicially charged argument, Sarah essentially told Anne to shut up.

No matter how high you’ve risen, you don’t tell the monarch to shut her trap. 

Sarah was beginning to overstep the mark, putting herself at risk of falling out of favour.

Enter Abigail Hill!

Abigail Hill (I feel kinda bad using this as my gawd does she look uncomfortable, but what can you do)

Abigail was a cousin of Sarah, who she had installed in court as a Maid of the Bedchamber.

Sarah didn’t suspect Abigail’s early nudging into Anne’s favour and it wasn’t until Abigail’s secret marriage to Samuel Masham (which Anne was invited to but Sarah wasn’t, awkward), that it became apparent Abigail was rising as Sarah was falling. 

Sarah was horrified when she discovered Abigail was a distant cousin of Robert Harley, a prominent Tory politician, and was happily chatting to Anne about politics, using a slightly more friendly and loving approach than Sarah had employed.

But Sarah wasn’t about to give up quite so easily. Using several underside tactics to try and discredit Abigail. She even helped send anonymous letters and caricatures attacking Abigail’s character, ‘warning’ the Queen of who she kept in her favour. 

But this didn’t get the desired result.

The Queen refused to see Sarah, and at their final meeting, she refused listen to Sarah’s complaints, only telling her to ‘put it in writing’.

Way harsh Tai…I mean Queen Anne

Sarah and John Churchill were banished from court and spent their days travelling Europe. It was only when Anne died and George I took the throne, that Sarah and John were restored to favour in the royal court, and their descendants – including Winston Churchill and Princess Diana – went on to dominate the history books and the newspapers, as Sarah would have done if she had lived today.

It was thanks to Sarah’s memoirs that Anne has gone down in history as dull, fat, and uninteresting. As she wrote of serving Anne:

‘Though it was tedious to be so much where there could be no manner of conversation, I knew she loved me and suffered by fearing I did wrong when I was not with her, for which reason I have gone a thousand times to her, when I had rather have been in a dungeon.’


Sarah and her co-authors published her memoirs soon after her ejection from court. 

They were designed to vindicate Sarah from any wrongdoing, to highlight the stubborness, belligerence, and obsession of Queen Anne and to destroy the reputation of Abigail Masham. 

Amongst some of the scathing comments on the Queen that Sarah made, she gave Anne a trait that Elizabeth I, the great queen that had gone before her, had lacked- the inability to know her own mind.

‘In thirty years’ time I never knew her to do a right or good thing of herself. She never thought of rewarding men because they were deserving, nor or easing any people because they were miserable. All such things must be put in her mind by others, and chiefly by those she loves, who will always have the real influence…’

Today we celebrate previous Queens, ruling in a world that was dominated by male power, as early feminist icons – rulers, leaders, decision makers. Thanks to Sarah, the idea that Anne was anything but a puppet of political leaders and court favourites has stuck in history, and we have never kept her on the same pedestal as our favourite Tudor lady, Liz.
Sarah did exactly what Anne wanted – she ‘put it in writing’, and thus sealed Anne’s fate in history forever.

Until now. Until The Favourite

You can learn more about Anne and Sarah’s relationship in Ophelia Field’s The Favourite, an astoundingly good biography of Sarah Churchill 

More great stuff like this:

This post was written by Helen Antrobus. A curator and historian (formerly for Manchester’s Peoples History Museum) with a passion for telling the stories of radical women and working class history.

The Trial and Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

By 1586 Mary Queen of Scots had been imprisoned by her cousin, Elizabeth I for almost two decades.

She’d lost her throne in 1657, having been forced to abdicate in favour of her baby. Then after fleeing Scotland for safety in England she’d been (at least in her mind) royally screwed over. Instead of helping Mary regain the Scottish throne, Elizabeth had her locked up.

Mary was a serious threat to Elizabeth’s rule. Viewed by Catholics as the true catholic ruler of England, there was many a plot to bump off Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne.

Thus, Mary was imprisoned. Spending year after year being dragged around England to be locked up in its various castles.

So you can see why, approaching her 20th year of imprisonment, Mary eagerly took part in plot to assassinate Elizabeth.

Enter, The Babington Plot. Put together by young nobleman, Anthony Babington and priest, John Ballard (along with other conspirators) the plot was an incredibly convoluted scheme to:

  • Start a Spanish invasion
  • Kill Elizabeth I
  • Put Mary on the throne
  • Return England to Catholicism

Whilst locked away, Mary advised the plotters, both in terms of strategy and how to ensure she’d win the English throne. And naturally as the ‘rightful’ ruler of England Mary would be the one to sign off on the plot starting. Which she did, in July 1586.

Unfortunately for Mary, the plot had been infiltrated and Elizabeth I’s own spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham had been using the letters to entrap Mary and get her to call for Elizabeth’s murder. Which by signing off for the plot to go ahead, she’d done.

Everyone involved with The Babington Plot, including Mary, was duly arrested.

The Babington Plot postscript and its secret cypher

In September 1586 the first of the conspirators were executed, including ringleaders John Ballard and Anthony Babington. Onlookers said that by the time he arrived at the execution site, John Ballards limbs were barely in their sockets, as a result of the torture he’d undergone.

One at a time, the men were hung drawn and quartered. Forced to watch their fellows dismemberment before their own death. The executions were so brutal that a public outcry meant the other conspirators were just ‘hung until they were quite dead’ before being dismembered.

With that bloodbath over, the attention turned to Mary. What could be done with the traitorous Queen?

The idea of executing a Queen was very possible. After all, Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn had been beheaded. But this wasn’t a outcome that Mary entertained.

In her mind she had been anointed by god to reign. That was something holy and untouchable. There was no law in the land that could hold jurisdiction over her, the only judgement she was accountable to was God’s.

However it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t God’s holy anointed Mary going on trial for treason, but (as the royal warrant for the trial put it) Mary, a mere woman who was:

‘Pretending title to this crown of this realm of England’

Mary’s trial hearing started on 14 October 1586. Though it operated as less of a trial and more of a really long argument between Mary and those convicting her.

To say Mary would have made an excellent lawyer would be an understatement. She rallied hard, with a stream of well thought out and articulated arguments. Always ready with something to fight the prosecutions threats and refusals to acknowledge her words.

Mary’s arguments included:

  • That she wasn’t an English subject and therefore couldn’t be held as an English traitor
  • She’d been denied legal counsel or the right to view evidence being bought against her
  • Did she mention, she was a Queen. Anointed by God. It would literally be a sin to kill her.

After Mary’s hearing was finished, the trial was adjourned to The Star Chamber, leaving Mary at Forgeringay Castle. Then on 25 October, the trial was completed…without anyone telling Mary.

The trials commissioners found Mary guilty of treason. And together with Parliament they urged Elizabeth to execute Mary as quickly as humanly possible.

BUT Elizabeth didn’t want to execute Mary.

Though there’d been a lot of bad blood between the pair of Queens, there had also been a kind of respect. They were so similar in so many ways. Cousins thrust into positions of power considered above their gender. No matter how begrudging, there was a bond there.

After Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley died in an incredibly suspicious explosion, Elizabeth wrote to Mary, urging her to distance herself from the scandalous tragedy, as:

‘I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you.”

But even more than the bond Elizabeth shared with Mary, she didn’t want to execute her because it set a deadly precedent. To lawfully kill a sovereign.

Elizabeth had hoped she’d be able to pardon her cousin. That Mary would beg for forgiveness. But none of that happened.

As pressure mounted from her councillors and parliament, Elizabeth had no choices left. On 1 February 1587 she signed Mary’s death warrant.

Elizabeth’s signature of Mary’s death warrant

With the warrant signed, Elizabeth’s councillors decided to carry out the execution immediately – without telling Elizabeth.

On the evening of 7 February, Mary was visited at her prison of Fotheringhay Castle and told she was to die the next morning.

Her last hours were spent both in prayer and sorting out her affairs. Sleeping would be near impossible, thanks to the incessant loud hammering as the execution scaffold was hastily erected.

Early on the morning of 8 February, Mary serenely entered the castles great hall to face the scaffold. And after that everything turned into a shit show.

Mary bids her servants farewell in a 19th century re-imagining (which explains the sheer drama here)

To kick things off, Mary was curtly informed that she was to go to her death alone. This was a shock.

Traditionally women of Mary’s status were allowed their ladies around them on the scaffold. They not only gave one last herald of the condemneds status. But, perhaps more importantly, the women provided comfort before the ax fell and then shielded the broken body. Offering dignity in death by not subjecting the woman to being stripped by men for burial.

To be rejected this right at the last minute was a huge blow.

Though she maintained a calm exterior, Mary begged to be allowed her ladies. She was rejected, but refused to give up. Pleading for this, her final right.

Eventually the councillors gave in. On condition that Mary’s ladies didn’t loudly weep, wail, or generally erupt into female hysteria.

And so Mary climbed the stairs of the scaffold, her ladies in tow.

As Mary waited for the death sentence to be read out, a man burst forth from the crowd. Dr Fletcher, The Protestant Dean of Peterborough proclaimed that it wasn’t too late for Mary to save her soul and convert from Catholicism to the Protestant faith.

Mary ignored his loud protestations and prayers, until eventually breaking and saying:

‘Mr. Dean, trouble not yourself any more, for I am settled and resolved in this my religion, and am purposed therein to die.’

In response, the Dean fell to his knees on the scaffolds stairs and started loudly praying at her. Mary politely turned away and began her own prayers.

Despite the Deans complete inability to read a room, Mary finished her prayers. With this over she stood, readying herself for this final act of ceremony.

She paid the executioner, forgiving him in advance for what he was about to do. Then Mary’s ladies helped her remove her black gown. Revealing a red petticoat with deep crimson sleeves.

This colour wasn’t a a random choice, but the red of catholic martyrdom. Mary was making a clear statement – she was anointed by God, to kill her was a sin and in death she would become a holy martyr.

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots, artist unknown

The wordless statement from Mary’s blood red petticoat rang throughout the great hall. Even as Mary was blindfolded, laid her head on the block and stretched her arms wide to signal the executioners axe.

The first blow hit the back of her head.

Accounts vary on if Mary cried out from the pain or remained silent. However as this was a chop wound (a mix of sharp force and blunt force trauma) its most likely that Mary felt excruciating pain for a few seconds, before losing consciousness.

The axes second blow hit her neck, severing it almost entirely. With one third chop needed to separate Mary’s head from her body.

The executioner then picked Mary’s head up by the hair, held it forth to the crowd and proclaimed

‘God save the Queen’

At which point, he lost grip on the head as Mary’s wig fell off, revealing her greying hair (something people were shocked about, despite the fact she was 44 and they’d just witnessed her bloody execution)

And with that macabre farce, the story of Mary Queen of Scots came to an end.

A 1791 deception of Mary Queen of Scots burial

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? Choosing just one book on Mary Queen of Scots is impossible, so here are some of my favourites:

The women who transformed modern tattooing

The tradition of tattooing dates back thousands of years all across the globe, from Ötzi the 12,000 year old ice mummy found in the Alps whose skin shows the oldest tattoos on a specimen, to Ancient Egyptians using tattooing to heal various ailments.

Tattooing is steeped in tradition and has an incredibly rich and diverse history. And there is just way too much of it to fit into one article, so today we’re going to focus on the women who transformed the art-form at the start of the 20th century.

1.Maud Wagner – The First Female Tattoo Artist

Maud was born on February 12th 1877, in Lyon County, Kansas. From a dirt poor family, there were little opportunities for her future. So when Maud was a teen, she ran away to join the circus.

By the time Maud met her future husband, Gus Wagner, in 1904, she was a famed contortionist and aerialist. He was a sailor who was covered in tattoos he’d picked up during his travels, and Maud was utterly entranced by his artwork. Gus also had a reputation as quite the tattoo artist.

Gus, Maud and their baby, Lovetta ❤️

Smitten, Gus asked Maud out and of course, she said yes… on the condition he teach her how to tattoo!

Instead of dates, they had lessons. Maud learned a traditional hand poked tattoo method. This is where a single needle is dipped in ink then pushed under the skin by hand over and over to create a pattern. It quickly became her preferred method (in fact, Maud would never use a tattoo machine!)

Maud quickly grew one of hell of a collection of tattoos on herself, thanks to Gus and his lessons, so she became a tattooed lady attraction.

But after Maud and Gus tied the knot, they left the circus to tattoo full time, travelling around around with Vaudeville shows, county fairs, circuses and curiosity exhibits.

Not long after they were married Maud and Gus had a daughter, Sarah, born in 1908. Sadly, just one month after her birth, Sarah died. It crushed Maud, so understandably when the couple had another daughter, Lovetta (born two years later in 1910), Maud was a very overprotective mum.

Maud actually banned Gus from ever tattooing their daughter. And though Lovetta grew up to become a tattoo artist just like her parents, she never had any tattoo’s. When Gus passed away in 1941 Lotteva said she’d never get tattooed, because if it wasn’t her Dad’s then what was the point (and also, because there was still no way in hell that her mum, Maud, would tattoo her baby girl!)

Lotteva holding a famous pic of her Mum, Maud

As time went on, Maud found fame as America’s first known female tattoo artist. This kept her in demand all over the country, and she worked right up until her death in 1983.

Her last tattoo was a traditional rose she tattooed on fellow artist Don Ed Hardy.

The Wagner family helped bring tattooing inland, popularising it not just in the coastal and Naval towns in America.

Maud is still celebrated as the first known female tattooist in the USA and she influenced so many other artists who came after her. Including…

2.Millie Hull -The Mother of Modern Tattoo

Mildred Hull, known to her friends as Millie, was a marvel of the tattoo world. In the 1930’s she was the only woman tattooing as part of the legendary Bowery tattoo group. The group that would become known as the originators of modern tattooing.

Born in 1947, she lived in the rougher (putting it mildly) areas of New York City. A school dropout aged 13, Millie soon joined the circus (you can see a pattern emerging here) and started working as an exotic dancer.

Millie with her tattoo gun

A sideshow spotter told Millie she’d make way more money as a tattooed lady, earning up to $80 a week.

So she met with famed tattooist Charles Wagner and began the very painful process of covering her body in tattoos in just a matter of WEEKS! (if you’ve ever had a sleeve done, then you can imagine the pain of covering your whole body in a few weeks!!)

Millie talked through the process in an interview in the late 30’s and she clearly comments on how she felt forced into getting tattooed so she could make more money, but she also had a wicked sense of humour about it.

“I had a few weak spells as a result of the tattooing, but mainly I suffered anemia of the bankroll”

So, Millie ditched the sideshow, learned the tattoo trade and opened her own tattoo parlour, The Tattoo Emporium, in Bowery at the back of a barber shop (most of the tattoo shops down Bowrey were in tiny spaces at the back of other businesses)

Millie tattooing a customer at her Bowery shop

The fact that Millie had her own business was an unbelievable achievement. At the time, tattooing was totally dominated by men. And with Bowery being a really rough area to live and work in – EVERYTHING was against her.

Millie didn’t care. She held her own and grew The Tattoo Emporium into a successful business.

She sat at the heart of an ongoing tattoo revolution. With the Bowrey tattoo artists creating the traditional bright and bold styles that are still used today.

More than this, Millie gained a kind of mainstream fame. Just to give you a flavour of her success, In 1936 Millie appeared on the cover of Family Circle, a famed women’s home and life magazine that gave tips on interior design and the best recipes for meatloaf. Stars on the cover tended to be wholesome Hollywood stars, and there was Millie front and centre – tattoos on show!

Sadly, Mille had a tragic ending. She suffered with depression throughout her life and in 1947 she committed suicide. Consuming poison while sitting in a restaurant in Bowery. She left behind a huge legacy, firmly cemented as the founding mother of modern tattooing.

3. Jessie Knight

Jessie is a slightly more well documented figure in tattooing. She was famed for being the first documented British female tattoo artist! Born in 1904 in Croydon, London Jessie was part of a large family, with seven other siblings. Her Dad was a Captain in the Navy, a tattoo artist and sharpshooter, while her Mum was a poet and Illustrator.

Jessie tattooing a servicewoman in 1952… Ouch

Jessie was another circus gal! Her whole family was in the game. She worked as a human target and a sharp shooter. In 1933 she appeared on the BBC with her sister and brother in a knife throwing act, one of the first circus acts ever televised! Her career in the big striped tents came to a premature end though when she was shot in the shoulder during a terrible accident.

She then decided to follow in her tattooist father’s footsteps and took up a tattoo gun of her own swapping it out for her rifle. She started tattooing with her Dad in 1921 in Barry, South Wales. By the time Jessie was 18 she already had quite a large client base at her Dad’s tattoo shop and was well liked in her local community in Wales.

Jessie’s style of tattooing was bold and colourful. She worked freehand, meaning she drew her designs straight onto her clients skin, she didn’t use stencils (a method of pre drawing and outlining a tattoo design). This made her even more of a novelty in the tattoo world!

Her tattoos were getting a stellar reputation, and in 1955 Jessie won second place in the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England for her tattoo of a highland fling. This was a monumental achievment for Jessie. Female tattoo artists were totally unheard of, so this award generated huge buzz around Jessie’s work.

Jessie’s Award winning Highland Fling

After this success Jessie went on to open her own tattoo shops, first in harbour town Portsmouth and then later one in Aldershot. Again, her achievements with this are utterly incredible. She had the means and the popularity to own her own business and tattoo her way. Tattooing still wasn’t in the mainstream, so not many artists could do this.

It wasn’t easy though. Other tattoo artists would spread rumours about her being unsanitary, called her a whore and vandalised her shops. She was robbed and had her designs stolen, so much so that at one point she had a bodyguard help her take her shop money to the bank to deposit it.

In another dark chapter Jessie was married when she turned 27, but he was an abusive nightmare, after 8 years things came to a head and Jessie shot and injured her husband with a gun she’d exchanged with a client for one of her tattoos. Her husband had kicked her dog down the stairs… I would have shot him too.

This didn’t stop Jessie, she loved tattooing and in 1968 Jessie moved back to her beloved Barry, Wales (Apparently with her 30 something year old lover!) and though she’d officially retired from tattooing in 1963, she kept on doing what she loved. Most of her clients were now women! Attitudes were changing and shifting. Jessie was at the forefront of that and is remembered fondly by everyone who knew her.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history. J

How show girls bolstered the blitz

In September 1940, when bombs first fell on London, there were forty two theatres in the city’s West End. But as the dust settled, only one remained, its lights on, the show still going.

The Windmill Theatre, known for its show girls, fan dances and naked tableaux, was the capitals unlikely Blitz stalwart. But what made this little strip show that could even more incredible was that it not only positioned itself as London’s go to wartime theatre, but actively worked to make itself a key player in the allied fight to win WW2.

Press photo of The Windmill Theatre and its infamous ‘We Never Closed’ signage

In the early 1930’s, Laura Henderson (more commonly known as ‘Mrs Henderson’) bought The Windmill Theatre. Previously a cinema, she had it totally pulled apart and transformed into a tiny theatre that she hoped would celebrate Britain’s many storied variety acts.

Sadly for Mrs Henderson, variety was on its last legs. The audience were nowhere to be found, and down and out variety performers far outnumbered those in work.

So Mrs Henderson roped in entertainment maestro, Vivian Van Damm (more commonly known as VD) to think up a way of making her variety theatre a sell-able form of entertainment.

VD re-branded the theatre as an all British home for a truly British art form and its homegrown British acts (can you see a theme here?). Alongside the patriotic love fest, The Windmill was also sold as a sort of charity, after all, Mrs Henderson was giving previously unemployed performers work, which if you squint hard enough, could technically be counted as charity.

But all of this wasn’t enough to put the theatre in the black. You see, no matter how much you re-branded it, at its core The Windmill just wasn’t doing anything different. It was still just another theatrical revue.

So, with rival revues running all over London, ones that offered tons of acts and ran all day long, why pick the Windmill over anything else?

Answer: Naked Tableaux

A 1934 tableaux, entitled, My Pearls

The brainchild of VD, the idea of naked women on a London stage was at once, new, taboo and a must see ticket.

Sure the idea of half dressed women creating a picture on stage, had clear roots in regency era theatre, BUT it hadn’t been done to the level that The Windmill was offering.

Which is exactly why The Lord Chamberlain took such an interest in The Windmill girls.

The Lord Chamberlain was the censor for all theatrical pursuits and thus the person who could license The Windmill’s use of nudity to this level. But, a stiff upper-class Lord, licensing erotic theatre in the 1930s? Doesn’t seem likely right?

Enter Mrs Henderson… who just happened to know Lord Cromer, the current Lord Chamberlain. Mrs Henderson hounded Cromer, showing him how The Windmill ran and that everything was above board, crucially arguing that her show wouldn’t be titillating audiences, but would in fact be a true artistic endeavour.

After all, you wouldn’t argue that the Venus Dimilo put her boobs away. So much like a statue, if the naked windmill girls didn’t move, they couldn’t possibly be considered ‘vulgar’ public pornography.

And so, The Windmill not only got their license, but censorship backing that prevented morality groups from forcing them into closure.

Programme from a 1930s-production at the Hammermsith Lyric direct from the Windmill Theatre

Throughout the 1930’s, The Windmill ran under the banner:

‘Naughty specialities, gorgeous girls and comics who are destined to go places’

Female dancers, singers and show girls, were sandwiched between male comedians sets, with the highlight of each show being the multiple nude tableaux’s, offering depictions of art, historical events and fiction all told by nude female live statues.

Suddenly The Windmill ticket office was buzzing! But if you thought that audience inside the theatre would be the same, you’d be wrong.

Audiences to the show were often deathly quiet. And as one former Windmill Girl, Doris Barry remembered, much of the audience were:

‘Men with raincoats over their knees, half of them playing with themselves’

It was far from a good experience for the girls on stage. Many of whom were young and wanted to perform, not be openly masturbated at.

Then WW2 hit and everything changed.

Staged photo of Windmill dancers performing in gas masks

After the blitz truly started in 1940, The Windmill found fame as one of the only theatres not to close up shop. Dubbed the ‘Great little windmill’ by press.

But just staying open when there was no bomb insight, wasn’t good enough for VD. He wanted The Windmill Theatre to never close.

The theatre’s layout meant that -hypothetically- bombs could be raining right outside it’s doors, but those in its theatre would still be safe.

The way VD saw it, The Windmill could and should be the one place in London that could keep its lights on during those hellish nights and do it with laughter and a healthy dose of nudity – it was a hell of a way to give Hitler the middle finger!

And so, VD militarised The Windmills workforce. Staff were put on bomb and fire watching rotas and they strengthened the theatre exterior with sandbags.

Most of the company moved into the theatre itself, both to be able to take on extra shows and for safety, with an emergency bunker being installed.

Shows were altered to include wartime themed numbers and tableauxs. With VD ensuring around 500 free tickets per week were given to soldiers. Soon the brigade of creepy mac wearers were gone and The Windmills audience were allied soldiers from all over the world.

The girls became pin ups, not only during performances but in the everyday. With staged pictures of their ‘daily lives’ in their new underground dorms being released to the public. Catipulted into a strange type of duel celebrity, the Windmill Girls became postcard pin ups for soldiers a long way from home. But they also served as a type of propaganda on the home front, providing Britain with a much needed reminder that life, laughter and fun could still go on.

Staged photo of Windmill performers sleeping

And this really cannot be overstated: The Windmill girls, were risking their lives to do their jobs.

They were working right in the middle of the blitz, in a target area. Members of The Windmill’s staff died whilst working there.

A bomb actually landed on the doorstep of The Windmill and though it did not explode, it lay there, a ticking time bomb. Upon seeing the bomb, VD purportedly proclaimed:

‘Get this bloody bomb off my doorstep! I’ve got a show to put on’

Often the girls on stage could hear the bombs falling right outside. Yet only a few times did a girl make any movement whilst in their tableaux. Once when a bomb dislodged a dead rat from the rafter and it fell at her (who wouldn’t have moved for that, to be fair)

On another occasion, a bomb hit a hotel in the same street. At the sound of the enormous impact, one of the women performing supposedly turned her head ever so slightly in the direction of the bomb and thumbed her nose at it.

Windmill girl, Sonia Stacpoole walks the corridors of the windmill with both her costume and helmet

An example of just some of the immense bravery shown by these women, is the story of Margaret McGrath. Who was one of the Windmill’s most beloved performers (in 1942, she was actually named The Windmills no1 girl, by Life magazine!)

In addition to her work on stage, Margaret took turns on fire watch, looking out from the theatres rooftop to ensure that no spreading blaze was coming close. Then in October 1940, Margaret was thrown into action when a bomb hit a cafe, which sat just opposite the theatre.

Bodies and debris were strewn across the street. Worse still, The Windmill staff quickly realised that someone was missing, a teenage electrician who’d been by the cafe at the time of the explosion. He was also the brother of one of Margaret’s fellow showgirls.

Someone needed to go out into the street, walk amongst the pile of bloodied and mangled bodies and identify if their boy was one of them. Margaret stepped up.

Almost immediately after, she was back at work. Which was fortunate for those around her, as pretty soon after, a fire bomb hit some stables right by the theatre.

Margaret put on her metal helmet and rushed to the blaze, along with fellow Windmill girl, Annie Singer.

The fire was ferocious, killing several people. None the less, Margaret and Annie managed to rescue six horses.

They then led the panicking horses through Piccadilly Circus, singing the whole time to calm both themselves and the horses. Until another bomb hit. The horses bolted, but Margaret and Annie stayed firm, despite the very obvious continuing danger. Going after the terrified animals and eventually leading them to safety.

All this and still, when she was aged 97, Margaret told the Daily Mail:

‘The war years at The Windmill were the best of my life. And boy, have I had a life!’

Pin up postcard of Margaret McGrath

Margaret was not a rare case! All The Windmill girls stepped up and risked a lot, many being only being in their late teens or early twenties.

They witnessed horrors right outside their front door and went on stage minutes later. They met and fell in love with soldiers by the stage door, who were killed just days later. And yet no matter what, these women acted as the positive, cheerful, sexy, fun face of the war effort.

And of course, they did all this whilst being publicly put on trial by the morality police.

And still, STILL, they got up every day and did it all again. That is bravery.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? – check out Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, by Judith R Walkowitz. It’s a fantastic read and contains so much more info on The Windmill

Natasha Tidd is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s worked at museums and heritage sites across the UK. A huge history nerd, she will happily talk your ear off about women’s history, over several glasses (be real, bottles) of wine

Mary Ellis: The Fierce Female Flyer of WWII

Mary Ellis lived an extraordinary life. She was an active flyer and British ferry pilot during the second world war. Later flying jet engines for the RAF, a claim only a handful of women would ever proudly hold.

Mary would put her life on the line to do what she loved. Completely fearless she knocked down whatever barriers faced her. Refusing to let anything, be that sexism or enemy fire, stop her from getting in her plane cockpit:

“I am passionate for anything fast and furious. I always have been since the age of three and I always knew I would fly.”

Pilot Mary Ellis in her cockpit.

Born Mary Wilkins, in February 1917, to a farming family in rural Oxfordshire, Mary’s passion for aviation was clear from the get go. Growing up close to Royal Air Force bases in Bicester and Port Meadow. She never missed a flying demonstration and her father, keen to fuel her dream, took her to as many shows as he could.

When Mary was 11 years old a flying circus came to town and her father paid for her to have a ride on a biplane (a thing you could totally let children do then…oh and if you were wondering, the plane was a de Havilland DH.60 Moth)

Like that, she was hooked. Mary was determined to become a pilot and spend the rest of her life in these magnificent flying machines. 

So, when she was 16 she started flying lessons and pretty quickly had her very own pilots license.

Hardly out of puberty AND already owning the skies – nice work Mary

In 1941 a call went out from the UKs ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) for pilots to help transport planes across the Chanel to the WWII front line. Naturally, Mary wanted to help the war effort in any way she could, so signed up and with 167 other brave female pilots who flew aircraft from Britain over to the front line flying squadrons. As well as transporting planes from factories to airfields over the UK too.

During the war Mary flew an estimated 1000 planes made up of 76 different types of aircraft, including 400 Spitfires, which were Mary’s favourite. She said of them:

“I love it, it’s everybody’s favourite, I think it’s a symbol of freedom.”

But, no matter her flying prowess, Mary didn’t always get the respect from others around her – sexism was a daily part of her life. 

Once when she flew a Wellington bomber to an airbase, the crew there refused to believe she’d been the one who flew the plane. They even searched the cockpit for the ‘real’ pilot. Mary remembered:

“Girls flying aeroplanes was almost a sin at that time.”

And it wasn’t just the troops. The press were very against the idea of women pilots seeing it as unbecoming and ‘unfitting of their sex’.

Mary’s mother also had her reservations about her daughter flying these monster machines. BUT, Mary refused to let anyone’s opinions stop her.

She loved being in the air. She loved to serve her country. And nothing could stop her from doing what she loved. 

Get it girl!

The job Mary, and the dozens of other women just like her, were doing was a dangerous one. Often the women had to fly a plane new to them, with no chance for test flights. They just had to rely on pilot’s notes to get the landings right.

And if they were taking a plane to the front line, the risks of getting shot down were high. In all 15 female pilots were killed while working for the ATA during WWII.

After the war Mary continued working with the RAF becoming one of the first female pilots to fly a Gloster Meteor Jet Engine, which had speeds of up to 616 miles per hour (991km/h)! They were absolute BEASTS!

In 1950 Mary moved to the Isle of Wight so she could take over running Sandown airport, she became the first woman air commandant, in charge of an airport in Great Britain!

While working there she met her future husband Don Ellis, a fellow pilot and they married in 1961, living in a house next to the Sandown runway. Now, Mary never needed to be away from her planes.

She managed Sandown for 20 years and founded the Isle of Wight Aero Club during that time too.

Mary with one of her beloved Spitfires

When Mary turned 100 (!) she was recognised for her contribution to aviation by RAF base at Brize Norton by a plaque celebrating her achievements.

Then in 2018 the Isle of Wight gave her their highest honour, the Freedom of the Isle of Wight.

Mary Ellis passed away this year on July 24th at the amazing age of 101, she was remembered by her family as being an amazing, warm and driven woman. Her story shows that courage and determination can get you so very far.

That was interesting, where can i find out more? Well there’s a magnificent biography on Mary: A Spitfire Girl: One of the World’s Greatest Female ATA Ferry Pilots Tells Her Story by Mary and Melody Foreman

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The time the Red Cross tried to fix WW2 with doughnuts & dames

Meet The Clubmobile and the badass women who risked life and limb to travel to the front line…and deliver coffee and doughnuts to homesick troops. It might sound daft, but this scheme was crucial in boosting morale and keeping soldiers going during WW2.

Taking part in any active duty during a war is tough, but when you’re hundreds of miles from home in a totally different country hounded by the constant threat of death, it’s gonna make you miss home comforts. Which is why during WW2, The American Red Cross came up with, erm… a truly innovative way to give their boys overseas a taste of back home (and by innovative, we of course mean batshit)

America joined the war effort in December of 1941. And pretty soon, The good old US of A was getting reports back that their overseas troops were miserable. Unsurprising, considering war is an utter horror!

So the American Red Cross decided to try and bring US home comforts to Europe. They set up clubs and lounges in a blitz torn London and at some surrounding army barracks, where there were dances, coffee, food and good times all round. But what about the boys about to be shipped off to France? After all, they were feeling the fear most of all!

The Army asked The Red Cross to step in again and help. New York banker Harvey. D Gibson, happened to be the American Red Cross Commissioner to Great Britain and he had an idea! What if they could give the American’s the same home comforts, but on wheels! Thus, the Clubmobile was born.

A hot cup of coffee would be easy enough to serve up. But what about classic American food? Now obviously, they couldn’t serve up hamburgers from a tiny wagon on wheels that was parked next to a battlefield. So they came up with a close second, something that would surely bring a tear of joy to every traumatised soldier – doughnuts.

Me too… 🍩

A prototype Clubmobile was quickly pulled together, from an adapted Ford truck with a 10 horsepower engine that was dubbed the ‘St Louis’. Inside the truck was a little kitchen complete with doughnut maker and a hob to boil up water for coffee. 

Next they had to staff it. So a call was sent out across America for Clubmobile Girls. You had to be between the ages of 25 to 35 (so, hardly a girl then) and have some college education or work experience. You also needed to be ‘healthy, physically hardy, sociable and attractive.’

They were inundated with applications from women who wanted to help with the war effort and have an adventure overseas. These girls were quickly recruited and trained up on how to use the doughnut machine and make coffee by the bucketload…I guess they hoped that dodging bullets would hopefully just come naturally. 

A trainee Clubmobile girl Rosemary Norwalk  wrote to her family in 1943 that

“The biggest surprise to me has been the girls – almost without exception they‘re a cut above, and for some reason I hadn‘t expected that. There‘s not a dull one in the bunch.”

Group K Clubmobile girls in Leicester, England 1944

The initial pilot Clubmobile was a roaring success! So the Red Cross adapted a handful of London Green Line Buses to become Clubmobiles. These ones even had a small lounge, complete with a victrola, records, and paperback books!

The ‘girls’ also fought to get more useful items added to their clubmobiles, asking for gum, cigarettes, candy and (of course!) first aid kits for the soldiers. These women were looking out for their boys.

But these women were about to need A LOT more than first aid kits, because the Allied Army was cooking up something big: The Normandy Invasion of 1944. And, of course, for such a big fight, they wanted the Clubmobiles along to follow the army and keep troops morale up.

These brave women didn’t hesitate to say yes. But they couldn’t take the buses overseas. So the super hardy armoured Clubmobile was born. Made from converted 2 and a half ton GMC trucks. They had the kitchen and the lounge room (that doubled as bunks if the women couldn’t get to the base) and they even adapted one as a mobile cinema.

The Clubmobile girls would be driving these trucks and were trained on how to maintain them throughout their time overseas. Suddenly these women were learning new skills and being given responsibilities some of them never dreamed they could have.

Advert for Clubmobiles. Because of segregation there were seperate ones for white & black troops.

100 Clubmobiles were made, and then after the Normandy Invasion, 10 groups of Clubmobile girls and 8 Clubmobiles were initially sent over to follow the Army through their retaking of allied territory.

These women were in the thick of war and experienced the hardships and horrific injuries the soldiers faced every day. They took their role as relief from the fighting seriously.

Most of the women were single, with a few exceptions. Eleanor Stevenson, worked as a Clubmobile girl so she could follow her new husband, soldier William Edward Stevenson, through enemy territory and keep involved in the war effort.

That right there, is true love

It was hard work operating the Clubmobiles, shifts started at all hours and women did regular shifts from 8pm to 7am. The conditions were hellish and they were expected to stay open through all weather. Not all of the women could do it.

Mary McLeod from Oregon lasted 6 months on the Clubmobiles before ill health had her request to be sent back to a land club, she was in her early 30’s during her stint as a Clubmobile girl. She wrote home in 1944 that working took a:

“―terrific toll… you have to be the Amazon type and on the young side, and I am neither.”

Mary Metcalfe Texford was in the first group of women to land on Utah beach after the invasion and she wrote about her experiences following the Army. The devastation they saw and even on one occasion having to stay up all night because the threat of Nazi’s launching an attack was a very real possibility. They witnessed horrors too, with Mary recalling she saw a:

“boy get blown up by a mine while eating his doughnut and coffee.”

But Mary had to continue serving and got on with her work.

And it wasn’t just the boys they served who lost their lives. Clubmobile girl, Elizabeth Richardson lost her life in 1945, whilst transferring to join the troops in Germany, when her Red Cross plane crashed.

Elizabeth Richardson with her clubmobile, just a few months before her death

The Clubmobiles and the women who ran them, stayed with the Allied Army Forces through until the end of WWII on the 2nd of September 1945. A small number of Clubmobiles stayed behind in occupied Germany and some in London to keep the American troops who stayed behind in doughnuts and coffee.

In fact, the Clubmobile was such a success that a variation was used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well some of the Club Girls have memoirs! Mary Metcalfe Rexfords’ Battlestars & Doughnuts and Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys by historian James H Madison on the experiences of Rosemary Norwalk are both a look back at life as Clubmobile Girls.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The forgotten women behind our rights revolution

On the 8th October 1929 Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough-commonly described as the ‘fiery particle’, gave a rousing speech on a visit to the Manchester, Salford and District Girls’ Club.

Ellen was known for her speeches that packed a punch. So it was no surprise that when talking about women in industry – hard-working, independent women – she summarised them in a pretty apt way.

‘The young woman who shrinkingly retired from view and distinguished herself by her love of housework, cooking and sewing lived up to an ideal that had now been broken down due to modern life. Girls had to live in the modern world, and the ideal of implicit obedience and complete ignorance of the dangers that had to be faced left them unfitted to face the world they now live in.’

How can I get somebody to start calling me a fiery particle?

Why was this speech important?

This speech was meant to rally young women (who at the age of 21 were able to vote) to the cause of the modern woman.

Ellen Wilkinson herself represented the ideal of the ‘modern woman’. This was a working woman; a woman with a trade, with experience – an unkept woman; somebody outside of the traditional roles of mother, daughter, and spinster.

There was no better embodiment of this than Ellen. Before all women aged 21 and over won the vote in 1928, Ellen spoke out in the House of Commons, stating that these young women were the women who needed the vote the most! She dedicated her life to working women having the right to equal pay and equal rights, because if they were doing the same job as a man, then why were they being treated as a second class citizen?

It was a rallying cry that awoke a new kind of woman. 

BUT these women did not come into existence in 1929 when Ellen Wilkinson made her famed speech. Nor was the ‘modern woman’ an idea that had trailblazed into parliament with the fight women’s right to vote.

The women that forged the fires that bore the modern woman, the right to equal pay, the right to vote, the right to have rights, lie forgotten. And its with this in mind that I want you to introduce to:

The Herring Girls

If you go up to a tiny heritage centre on the Isle of Barra, out in the Hebrides – well…well done, you’ve carried out an exhausting journey. A five hour ferry from Oban, or perhaps a short flight from Glasgow, landing on the white sand beach, before driving over the single track, swirling roads of the island. Even with our ease of modern transport, these journeys are difficult, painful, and long.

So imagine making such a journey in 1882 as a young women, never having left your home, and travelling from Barra down to Great Yarmouth?

Well, that’s exactly what the Herring Girls of Barra did!

The Scottish Herring Girls – women travelled from all over the Hebrides and beyond to follow the Herring season

The Herring Girls of Barra, you say? You’ve probably never heard of them, and no wonder. This is a story of modern women that has remained largely forgotten in this year celebrating women.

At a time when the women of the metropolitan areas of London, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh were strengthening their campaign to achieve suffrage for women, the women of Barra were experiencing a journey of independence, hard work and emancipation from the traditional role of the wife and the mother – the woman as the domestic servant.

It’s also a story of migration.

The Herring Girls followed the fish down the coast, leaving behind a home they knew, and being thrust into a different world. From the small communities of the Outer Hebrides to bustling ports of Great Yarmouth, the young women couldn’t have felt more like a fish out of water.

Think about how arduous that journey must have been!

I know I could not have done it!

These women, from working class families, were young and unmarried, and usually fresh in the trade from leaving school.

The work that they carried out – gutting, cleaning and packing the herring – was gruelling, and whilst it was skilled work, requiring precision and speed, it would often leave their hands covered in injuries, not helped by the mass of salt that would be rubbed into them during the curing of the fish.

Now, in this heritage centre – where I first stumbled onto the Herring Girls, a small display is made up of ceramics, trinkets, and ornaments – inexpensive items that seem not to have travelled far from the mantelpieces of 20th century homes.

These are the gifts that the Herring Girls brought home, for family and friends, in their kists (massive trunks that make you wonder how the heck they got them on and off a train). They are relics of adventure, of freedom, of the first modern, industrial women.

From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, every summer, the Herring Girls of Barra would march across the island, carrying their almost empty kists, and board a ferry. Then, they would catch a specially chartered trains down the country to Great Yarmouth (there are accounts of them alighting to dance the Highland Fling in Carlisle, natch), onwards to their cramped lodgings, and to two long months away from home.

By 1931, over 5000 women were travelling from Scotland down to Great Yarmouth during the Autumn herring months. The conditions of the outdoor working areas were grim – it was only in 1903 that flushing toilets were installed on the site. The women were expected to work long hours, and the work, as mentioned, was gruelling. But they achieved something else: unexpected emancipation.

To be young and away from home, with hundreds of other Gaelic young women, was an adventure. Dances and parties, jokes, laughter, romances – all happened in Great Yarmouth. Highland dances, music, enjoyment followed them wherever they were sent, and, earning their own money, the treasures that travelled home with them in their kists is a testament to this new found freedom.

But these women were not just socially liberated, oh no. They were fighting for equality on a different frontier.

After years of generation after generation travelled up and down the coast, these women gained the strength and the solidarity to strike, just as their male colleagues did.

Most notably in 1936, the women at Yarmouth demanded 2d more per barrel – and went on strike, sending the industry into disruption, and costing the company a great deal of time and money. According to the Angus MacLeod archive, when the older women were reluctant to support the strike, the younger women were sent to persuade them.

‘They did not waste too much time in reasoning with these ‘blackleg’ girls but turned the powerful sea water hose on their hesitant colleagues and very quickly achieved full and unanimous support for the strike.’

One of the Herring Girls Mairi MacDonald, recalled the arrests of some of the strikers, but the women did not relent, and after only two days of striking, and hordes of herring being left to stink in the harbours, the women won their strike, and returned to work.

Well done Herring Girls!

I like to think that they celebrated with a Highland fling and that, after carrying their kists laden with trinkets back up the Hebrides, they shared their stories of triumph and adventure with their friends and families, inspiring more generations of independent, industrial women.

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