The role of women in history is usually under-recorded, often unrecorded and rarely promoted but in her talk on Ladies of Leicestershire Virginia Wright sought to correct this situation. Leicestershire has many examples of the important roles played by women in English history.
The stories of three of these women illustrate why their stories should be better known: Alice Hawkins, Elizabeth Rowley Frisby and Mary Linwood. Alice Hawkins and Elizabeth Rowley Frisby were both very active in the women’s suffrage movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Alice Hawkins was a worker in the boot and shoe industry and mother of six who was very committed to obtaining the vote for women. She was imprisoned several times for her suffragette activities and was instrumental in attracting Sylvia Pankhurst to visit the Leicester shoe factories to urge women to support the action of the suffragettes.
Elizabeth Rowley Frisby was equally committed to women’s suffrage and was involved in the burning down of Blaby railway station as part of the suffragette campaign. She was arrested several times but her later story was one of change from Activist to Establishment. She was involved in local politics, became a JP and finally was Leicester’s first female Lord Mayor.
Mary Linwood’s story is largely forgotten although in her time she was nationally and internationally famous. Mary came to Leicester when her mother opened a school in Belgrave Gate (a school Mary continued to run until her death).
Mary’s fame came from her talent in a form of needlework. She was famous for reproducing copies of Old Master paintings in worsted or crewel embroidery, a technique using dyed woollen threads sewn on to ‘tammy’ cloth (a worsted woollen fabric). Mary was meticulous: she used threads of different lengths and specially dyed (in Leicester) which were said to mimic the artists’ brush strokes and she produced copies of artists such as Raphael, Rubens and Gainsborough.
Her work was admired by Queen Charlotte (wife of George III), the Tsarina of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was such an admirer that he invited her to Paris in 1803 for a presentation. Her work was admired nationally and a permanent gallery of her work existed in London for over 30 years until her death in 1845. Despite her acclaim, Mary remained in Leicester and ran her school.
When Mary died the local shops were closed and crowds lined the funeral route. However, fashions change and after her death her creations were no longer desired and many works ended up in museum store-rooms. She was largely forgotten in Leicester’s history: a school was named after her but this has since disappeared.