Philobiblon: How women disappear from history

Thursday, November 04, 2004

How women disappear from history

On January 20, 1802, the Friendly Female Society was instituted. It was still going strong in 1939, when, as the Friendly Almhouses, it provided homes in Brixton and Camberwell (London) for 68 women, with "a room, a small garden, the use of a kitchen, coal in winter and eight guineas a year", and pensions of £3 to £10 a year for women living in their own homes who needed extra help.

But by 1939, already the name of the founder of this modest but no doubt to its clients greatly valued institution had already been lost. Hilda Martindale, the author of a booklet obviously designed to solicit funds for it, wrote that all which could be established was that the first committee meeting was held in Haberdashers' Hall in Staining Lane on February 3, 1802. "A woman was in the chair and 15 were present."

That chair must have been pretty well connected, since the first item on the agenda announced that: "The Duchess of York had graciously condescended to become the patroness."

At the first general meeting in Chancery Lane on April 7, 1802, Dr J.H. Hunter told the gathering: You have wisely taken the management of this great concern into your own hands. You stand in no need of male assistance. You need no law to regulate your conduct but the law of mercy to the miserable and the law of kindness among yourself." (He must have known a lot about committees with that last point.)

The organisation seems to always have been run by women, with the unusual note: "Gentlemen wishing to vote are requested to send their proxies by ladies who are subscribers."

Only two women organisers appear by name in this short history: Mrs Lloyd, treasurer from 1814 for 20 years and Mrs Courthorpe, who held the office for more than 30 years, until her death in 1865.

Somehow you get the feeling that if this had been run by men, the names of the founders and subsequent dignitaries would have been blazoned all over its history.

There's also, however, a remarkable pensioner, Elizabeth Love, who died in 1838 at the age of 110. (Her picture is on the cover.)

This is from one of my E-bay impulse buys - well for £1 who could resist? (H. Martindale, The Friendly Almshouses, Unwin Brothers, Bride St, 1939)


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