Victorian Women Research Project

As part of our partnership with York Museums Trust we have been working with students from the University of York to research Victorian Women from York.

Mary Ann Felgate (sometimes spelt Mary Anne Felgate) was born in 1839, and worked at the Retreat, previously known as the Friends Asylum for the Insane, as a lady’s companion. She was born in London, and lived in Paddington, Middlesex, and Kensington during her lifetime. Mary moved to Walmgate, York during the 1880s. The asylum was one of the first in the world that believed psychiatric patients should not be mistreated; Mary Ann’s role was vital for this process as her role encouraged patients to feel comfortable and at home during their stay. Mary was not a nurse; instead, she provided the patients with comfort and support, and was one of the two women responsible for this role within the Retreat. During her time at the asylum, a number of new buildings were constructed and the hospital expanded widely.

Download Mary Ann’s research sheet here

Download Mary Ann’s presentation here

Lucy Sturdy (b.1860)  is just one woman  among many who was disenfranchised by a system of crime and poverty in 19th century York. At the age of 14, poverty forced Lucy to steal for survival, trapping her into a cycle of crime and by 1885, she had already been arrested four times. A child-bride, this was only made more inherent when Lucy had her first-born aged 15. By 1885, aged 25, Lucy was declared unfit to plead due to insanity after being caught for stealing a coat and a postal order and was committed to Clifton Hospital. Lucy only spent one month in the prison; she stole the keys, escaped under the cover of night and seemingly disappeared from the records. Lucy’s story is one of hardship and survival, a narrative not uncommon for working-class women in Victorian York. Trapped in a cycle of crime and survival, Lucy is just one victim in a wider historical trend. 

Download the research sheet here

Download Lucy’s presentation here

Mary Stubbs was a plaintiff in a sexual slander case that took place in the court in York. She sued a man named Israel Bradley for sexual slander after he called her a ‘bloody thundering whore’ and claimed that he had ‘connection with her in every part of the house even in the cellar’ outside of the Bay Horse Inn on Blossom Street. The case occurred between 1841 — 28/7/1842. Bradley was given the full fine which he was unable to pay and therefore was imprisoned.  

Mary married Samuel Stubbs in 1839 in Knaresborough, who later became the innkeeper at the Bay Horse Inn. At the time of the case she had been married for 2 years. There is no evidence that she had any children and she and her husband are seen living alone in the 1881 census. She died in York in 1888 at the age of 75. 

Download Mary’s presentation here 

At 27 years old Gertrude Watson was admitted to the Retreat on request of her father even though there was ‘no mental or bodily disorder’. 

The Retreat pioneered a seemingly revolutionary approach to mental health treatment in the Victorian era. This approach was known as moral treatment; it was seen to be more humane. Gertrude’s case is interesting as it highlights a more problematic side to moral management. Why was she being held despite lack of symptoms and this being questioned at the time? Rising concern at the time about wrongful confinement in private asylums contextualises the potential immorality of Gertrude’s confinement.  

Evidence The Office of Commissioner’s concern for the justification of her confinement suggests that Gertrude’s confinement could have been wrongful. R. Baker’s response highlights the power medical men had over patients. The focus was on the request of Gertrude’s father, not Gertrude’s mental state. 

Download Gertrude’s research notes here

Sarah Smithson belonged to the middle-upper classes of York who helped propel the cause of Women’s Suffrage through political connections and their education status. Sarah was secretary of the York Women’s Liberal Association, and Worked for the Ladies Education Committee, as secretary for the “Ladies lectures,” a group that pioneered the education of adult women who had otherwise lost out on the opportunities of higher education 

In  1877,  five awards handed out to women by the Cobden Club, a London based academic “gentlemen’s club” in recognition of the most successful students of political economy in connection with the Cambridge University wider lecture syndicate, Sarah Smithson was one of these women. 

Alongside her husband, and Joseph Rowntree, Smithson petitioned for education rates in schools to be lowered, as well as against the domination of the church over education. She became a notable member of York high society, often reported as in attendance of various liberal meetings and events, in the company of J. S. Rowntree.  

Download Sarah’s research notes here

Download Sarah’s presentation here 

Born in York on the 15th September 182611 to Isabella and Joseph Hick, Mary Ann Craven went on to run a successful confectionery company until her death on the 31st July 1900. After becoming a widow at thirty-three (1862), she had three children and a full time business to run. She was an admirably formidable woman – rumoured be “stronger” than her husband –  who merged two major companies so successfully that she was in a position to purchase a notably large house in the 1870s on Heworth Green. Despite her hardships, she was a “wonderful little old lady” who frequently participated in charity work; visiting “sick workers with blankets, clothing and food.”

Download Mary Ann’s research sheet here

Download Mary Ann’s presentation here

Annie Coultate‘s (b.1856) role as part of the vanguard, along with Violet Key-Jones,  in the establishment of the WSPU in York – the support of her family on this political matter is suggested by their boycotting of the 1911 census – Annie indicates the network of political activism within the community in York 

Her role as a professional throughout her adult life, progressing from the 19th into the early 20th century, despite the expectations placed upon women to remain in the house after marriage/having children – Annie shows the traits of tenacity and determination that are admirable in any woman today.

Download Annie’s presentation here

Ann Swaine was a British writer, suffragist and philanthropist concerned with improving higher education for women; she has been described as “an active, clear-thinking woman who divided her time between philanthropy, feminism, publishing, translation, and domestic and familial duties 

Swaine was one of the first three women in York known to have lent their names to the women’s suffrage campaign (along with Emma Fitch and Agnes Smith) as part of the first mass women’s suffrage petition presented to the Commons in June 1866. 

Her father, Edward Swaine advocated universal manhood suffrage but for “the exclusion of women and others from the franchise” because he felt that it was “not conceivable that the condition of women… would be improved by their admission to a personal voice in the legislation of the country. 

She wrote a collection of short biographies called ‘Remarkable Women as Examples for Girls’ for the Sunday School Association that was published in January 1882.

Download Ann’s research sheet here

Download Ann’s presentation here 

 The York suffrage movement has been quite well documented in the city, taking shape in the form of a community play and research undertaken by the York Castle Museum. When we think of the opposition to the movement, often think of misogynistic men. However, it would be interesting to challenge our collective memory by acknowledging the role of seemingly ‘unfeminist’ female anti-suffrage activists.   

As a wealthy, powerful and independent woman, Edith Milner could be considered a prime candidate for the Suffrage Movement. However, Edith’s involvement with the York’s Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (WNASL) is insightful in showing how anti-suffrage is not necessarily connected to anti-feminism.   

Additionally, Edith Milner encapsulates the inherent tension within the anti-suffrage movement. As Bush asserts there is an “implied contradiction between women’s public campaigning for anti-suffrage and their advocacy of a quieter, more domestic role for women”. 

Download Edith’s research notes here

Download Edith’s presentation here 

Hannah Hodgkinson was born in 1869 in Stockport and first came to York in August 1884 as a student of the Quaker School, the Mount School. While Hannah was at Mount School a handful of female Quakers began attending university after the University Act of 1871.

Between the years 1885 to 1886, Hannah kept a diary where she would detail her classes, what it was like to board at the school, as well as personal interests. It becomes apparent through reading her diary that Hannah was an avid reader taking inspiration from American novels; What Katy did at School and Gypsy Breynton. These texts were not the typical Quaker texts of the time and featured unconventional, tomboy-ish heroines, and so Hannah would read them with her friends away from the prying eyes of their teachers. This ‘secret book-club’ was later named ‘The League of the Jolly-cum-profs.’ 

Her diary concludes on the 22nd June 1886 when she scrawled in her diary “LEFT SCHOOL THE END”. What we do know of Hannah, is that after leaving the Mount, Hannah did not marry nor have any children. This is most unusual for Quaker women during the nineteenth-century and may signify a possible LGBTQ+ representation but at the very least a woman who chose not to conform to traditional social conventions and expectations in the nineteenth to early twentieth-century. 

Download Hannah’s research notes here

Winifred Naish née Rowntree (1884–1915) was the youngest child of philanthropist Joseph Rowntree and, as in tradition with other members of the family, was active in her local community. At 17, she established her own organisation in the Leeman Road area of York that aimed to instil honesty and kindness amongst its members, and provide entertainment and education for local girls. The Honesty Girls Club (1902-1940) catered for girls aged 5-25 or until marriage, offering weekly classes in a variety of areas, such as morris dancing, copper work and needlework. Winifred sat as president of the club from its creation in 1902 until her death in 1915, during which time the club’s attendees increased from 24 members to 200. Winifred lived in York her entire life, marrying in 1907 at the Friends’ Meeting House, and had three children with husband Arthur Duncan Naish. 

Download Winifred’s research sheet here

Download Winifred’s presentation here

Ethel Maud Steigman[n] was a black and white photographer born to German immigrant parents. She presents as a person of interest in contextualising foriegn integration into the York community at a time of growing anti-german sentiment, and the growing photographic market that working class women were increasingly able to be a part of.  

Download Ethel’s research sheet here

Download Ethel’s presentation here

Mary Ellen Best was a watercolorist native to York who set up as a semi-professional artist in the city as soon as she left school. She would mostly find work through her social connections, she had a large social circle and so would be commissioned by friends and acquaintances. 

Ellen did not stay in York her whole life, she had a passion for travel, and she embarked on several continental tours. In her work she often depicted women servants and working-class people. 

Mary married a schoolteacher, Johann Anton Phillip Sarg and Ellen provided the main source of income from her inheritance, so her husband could be a “typical gentleman of leisure”. There was a drastic change in her paintings following her marriage- she stopped portraying herself as an artist and she often depicted her husband and children but seldom showed herself taking part in family scenes which could show she was unable to identify fully with her domestic role. 

Download Mary Ellen’s research sheet here

Download Mary Ellen’s presentation here 

Susanna Wells was a student and then teacher at The Mount Schools for girls. Susanna was a pupil from 1871-7 and was the first to attend university from the Mount. 

At the school, there were four different classes, each class corresponded with ability rather than age, the first class was filled with the highest achievers on exams, and the fourth class held the lowest achievers. Susanna Wells occupied the first class, presumably for most, if not all, of her subjects during 1875-6. Susanna was also a “trainer” at the school, which therefore indicates her parents were not amongst the wealthiest Quakers. 

Susie Wells and M.J.T had domestic/servant jobs because they were “trainers”, in 1875 they were ‘to keep the lavatory tidy and see that no hats, shawls, &c., were left about in the “corridor”, but hung upon their right hooks.’  

Susannah Wells attended university at a time where most women were not entitled to an intellectual education. Most of the lower-class women learnt basic literary and religious skills, whilst middle-class women learnt accomplishment skills, such as art and music. Furthermore, without women like Susannah, women would not be able to attend university today, or at least not under the same circumstances. 

Download Susanna’s presentation here

Violet Key-Jones was joint secretary, with Annie Coultate, later treasurer and finally official York organiser of WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). Violet preferred militant tactics like smashing windows to show “an earnest spirit”.  In February 1911, York’s suffragettes performed three plays in the Assembly Rooms which Violet acted in. Violet, her brother and Captain Ranson produced three plays in association with the Actresses’ Franchise League.  This was formed in 1908 as a method of demonstrating support for women’s suffrage.  

Violet, like many other suffragettes, evaded the 1911 census. It is thought that three to four thousand women protested through evading the census. Violet drummed support for the evasion and took on a leadership role as the organiser.  

In March 1912, WSPU infiltrated an anti-suffrage meeting in the Exhibition Buildings with sufficient numbers to defeat an anti-suffrage motion when it was put to the vote (Violet was definitely there). She tied herself to a chair and had to be forcibly removed when heckling Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden (anti-suffrage politicians) in March 1913.  

To help Harry Johnson escape detectives from a house in Heworth, Violet dressed Johnson as a woman and herself as a man to evade detection (this was one of the more militant tactics of the York suffrage movement along with the arrest of Annie Seymour Pearson in London).