5 Forgotten Heroines Of Victorian London

By Londonist Last edited 9 months ago
5 Forgotten Heroines Of Victorian London

One pioneered free schools meals. Another could dangle from a rope using her teeth. Here, Imogen Lee — a historian of London and childhood and founder of Sowing Stories — finds five Victorian heroines, and explains what they did for us.

1. The Educator: Elizabeth Burgwin

You have Elizabeth Burgwin to thank for free school meals

Ever eaten a free school meal or benefited from a teacher's pension? You have Mrs Burgwin to thank for that. Born in 1860 into a working-class family, by the time she died in 1940 she had transformed London's education system. At just 23 she took on the role of head teacher at one of London's poorest schools, Orange Street in Borough, where she witnessed such extreme poverty she felt compelled to pioneer free school meals.

Elizabeth Burgwin

Her campaigning spirit led her to becoming the first woman to be elected to the National Union of Teacher's Executive Committee, help found an orphanage and become the first person to oversee the development of 'special schooling' within a mainstream setting. The Peckham orphanage is no more, but you can still visit Orange Street School, which is now Jerwood Space, where you will find one of London's top galleries and the School House Canteen.

2. The Entertainer: Miss La La

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, which can now be found at the National Portrait Gallery

Born in the former German city of Szczecin to a black father and white mother, Anna Olga Albertina Brown was touring Europe from the age of nine, with her incredible strength and acrobatic skill. In 1879 Edward Degas spent four nights studying her routine, in which she was pulled up to the height of the circus tent by biting down on a rope. The painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, can now be found at the National Portrait Gallery, while Degas' sketches are held by Tate Britain. In 1883 Miss La La performed her critically acclaimed act, Olga and Kaira: The Black and White Butterflies in central London at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster (now Methodist Central Hall), where she would catch her partner from a height of 30 feet.

She lived in London for some 20 years, marrying a fellow circus performer, the African-American contortionist Manuel Woodson. They had three daughters together who went on to form their own circus troupe The Three Keziahs.

3. The Photographer: Lena Connell

Emmeline Pankhurst, taken by Connell

Connell's photography was driven by her feminism. From her studio at 50 Grove End Road in St John’s Wood, she not only began to photograph many of the key figures of the Suffrage movement, such as Emile Pankhurst, but because of her own commitment to the women’s movement — believing that gender was not a barrier to subject — she became the first female photographer to capture male sitters professionally, from Keir Hardie to WB Yates.

4. The Campaigners: The Matchgirls

The Matchgirls strike of 1888 has tended to be remembered from the perspective of the Fabian Suffragette Annie Bessant. Bessant reported on the hideous working conditions endured by the women and girls employed by the Bryant and May factory in Bow. The exposé has usually been thought to have led to one girl being sacked for speaking to Bessant, which in turn resulted in a spontaneous walk-out by 1,400 women. In truth Bessant's article was simply a reaction to a small group of well-organised and determined young individuals from London's Irish community, who looked to Bessant to publicise the cause. For years historians tended to see the strike as an isolated case, but thanks to the historian Louise Raw, we now know it was a key inspiration in shaping campaigns for workers' rights.

Indeed, the campaigning efforts of these twelve working-class women not only led to better and safer conditions for their fellow factory workers, but for Ben Tillett (one of the founding members of the Independent Labour Party), their efforts were, 'the beginning of the social convulsion' that created the first unions for unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. The Bryant and May Factory is now an exclusive gated community and was one of the first 'redevelopments' in the 1980s of London's East End.

5. The Doctor: Dr Rukhmabai

Dr Rukhmabai was not only the first Indian woman to gain a medical degree in London, but she did so following a great personal and political feat. Her widowed mother had re-married social reformer Dr Sakharam Arjun when Rukhmabai was nine, and at 11 she was entered into an arranged marriage with Arjun's 19 year old cousin, Dadaji Bhikaji, who came to live with the family. At 12, however, Rukhmabai, with the support of her parents, refused to consummate the marriage and Bhikaji moved out. Over the years, as her husband acquired increasing debts, he became insistent that Rukhmabai (and her considerable dowry) should live with him, which she consistently refused.

This resulted in Bhikaji taking her to court. After two trials, in which Rukhmabai successfully appealed to Queen Victoria to dissolve the marriage and sparked a public debate in the Times of India about a girl's ability to consent by writing under a pseudonym, which helped pave the way for the Age of Consent Act of 1891, Rukhmabai finally set sail for London. Here she studied at the Royal Free Hospital until she received her degree from the London School of Medicine for Women in 1894.
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On 29 April Imogen Lee and photographer Anna Southgate host a walking workshop that will provide a unique opportunity to explore photography through the histories of Mrs Burgwin and Borough.

Last Updated 05 March 2018