extraordinary women

This series of articles considers some of the women who have been significant in Shrewsbury and Shropshire, written by either Bibbs Cameron, Martina Chamberlain or Gaynor Tate. The women included are listed below – simply scroll down the page until you reach the articles you are interested in

Margaret Rope

Julia Wightman

Katharine Harley

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Esmeralda Lock

Agnes Hunt

Blanche Parry

Celia Fiennes

Margaret Rope – stained glass artist, to whom a plaque was erected in 2018

(Article first appeared Winter 2018)

On Thursday 1 November, a plaque was unveiled on the wall of Priory House, now part of the Shrewsbury Colleges Group (Welsh Bridge campus). The plaque commemorates the stained-glass artist Margaret Agnes Rope, who was born in Shrewsbury in 1882. She designed windows for over sixty churches across the world, including sites in South Africa and Australia. Her work is now held in museums as prestigious as the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Bibbs Cameron, former vice-chairman of the society and co-organiser of this project, said: “In the year of the centenary of the vote being granted to women, it’s fitting to celebrate the work and creativity of an intriguing woman whose accomplishments have been too often forgotten.”

For the Shrewsbury Colleges Group, principal James Staniforth said: “The plaque will serve as a reminder to our students that talent and drive are powerful qualities. Margaret Rope lived in an era when lone women, such as she, had limited chances of success – but she created magnificent, enduring works of art.”

Priory House, then known as The Priory, was the home to the Rope family from 1901. Though Margaret set up a studio-base for herself in London from 1911, she never took up a permanent residence there; and was always returning ‘home’. She was drawn to the religious life, however, and entered a nunnery in 1923. It was an ‘enclosed’ convent, and so she never saw Shrewsbury again. However, she continued to work at her craft from within the convent walls until the late 1930s. Her mother carried on living at Priory House until the 1950s.

Seven of Margaret Rope’s greatest windows can be seen in Shrewsbury Cathedral, only 500 yards from Priory House. She used the house’s large kitchen table as a workbench on which to make the designs for the cathedral’s Great West Window.

The Civic Society expresses thanks for grants for the project: from Shrewsbury Town Councillor Nathaniel Green, the Rope Family Charitable Trust, and the Margaret Rope Appreciation Group. It also expresses profound thanks to the estates-staff of Shrewsbury Colleges, who made the project possible.

Julia Wightman – Christian and temperance activist

(Article first appeared Winter 2018)

Julia Wightman was the wife of the vicar of St Alkmund’s Church in Shrewsbury. Born in 1817, she married Charles Wightman, who became vicar of St Alkmund’s soon after the marriage, following on from his father. Julia’s father believed that she was the intellectual superior to Charles, and he was by no means pleased by his daughter’s marriage, but it went ahead anyway.

The issue of temperance arose when Julia witnessed their cook going to bed drunk. This did not meet with the approval of the newly wedded Julia, so the cook was replaced. From then on, all staff at the Wightman household were expected to make a pledge that they would abstain from alcohol. This was a pledge that Julia also made.

As part of their parish duties, Charles had given Julia responsibility for Butcher Row. This was a street close to the church and, at the time, could be described as a slum area. There were four public houses in the road, and Julia could see how wages were spent on drink, increasing the poverty of the families involved. Drunkenness was normal, and was an escape from impoverished lives, allowing people to forget their misery. It was also one of the very few activities available to ordinary people. True, the church did offer an alternative, but Julia discovered that, of the 43 families living in the small street, only six of them attended church.

Julia aimed to bring a better quality of life to people through abstinence and observance of Christian values. In 1858, she formed the St Alkmund’s Total Abstinence Society, and she started to write about the issue, culminating in her book “Haste to the Rescue”. It was a book that sold well in the UK and was also translated into several European languages.

Using some of the proceeds from the book, she set up a working men’s hall in Shrewsbury that could provide a social venue for people that did not sell alcohol. The hall was built, perhaps appropriately, on the site of the former Fox Inn and it opened in 1863. By that time, the membership of her temperance society was approaching 1,000 souls. By 1872, some 4,500 adults had taken the pledge, and the society was part of a national temperance movement. Julia was known as one of the main promoters of temperance, and she gave talks across the nation encouraging people to give up alcohol.

The hall in Shrewsbury, located on Princess Street, is now closed. For a brief period it was the Wightman Theatre – a name deliberately chosen to honour her memory.

Katharine Harley – Suffragist, Nurse and War Hero

(Article first appeared Spring 2019)

Katherine Harley lived at Condover Grange, just outside Shrewsbury. She had been a typical wife and mother, but following the death of her husband in 1907, she turned into active campaigner for women’s suffrage rights, along with her sister, Charlotte. In 1913 she suggested that a march of women to London should be organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The NUWSS was a movement for suffragists, which is often confused with the suffragette movement. In fact, they were two distinct groups, and the suffragist methods were far less confrontational than those of the suffragettes. In the event, some 50,000 women participated in the ‘suffragist pilgrimage’ to London.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, many of the suffragists chose to divert their energies away from the campaign for women’s votes towards helping with the war effort. This was the case with Katherine. Her brother was Field Marshal Sir John French, who was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Katherine was quick to offer her support, and on 17th October 1914 she advertised in the Wellington Journal for more motor ambulances. This was because of the need for speedy transport away from the front line for injured British troops. Katherine hoped that the ladies of Shropshire might equip and send out a new ambulance to help the army in France.

She was later to be put in charge of what she termed a ‘Flying Column’ to evacuate wounded soldiers from France. She then went on to Serbia, where she led a team of 40 British nurses, later being awarded the Legion of Honour for her work at the French hospital in what was then Salonika. However, on 7th March 1917, having spent the morning distributing food to hungry Serbs in Monastir, Katherine was hit by a piece of shrapnel from a shell that exploded near the house where she was stationed. She died immediately.

Katherine was buried in Salonika, and a memorial was erected to her memory over her grave by the Serbian Army. This had the inscription: “The generous English lady and great benefactress of the Serbian people, Madame Harley, a great lady. On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there for your wonderful acts. Your name shall be known from generation to generation.”

There is also a plaque to her memory at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, and her name is inscribed on the Stone of Remembrance at St Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury.

Aethelflaed – Lady of the Mercians

(Article first appeared Summer 2019)

Aethelflaed was the first-born child of King Alfred the Great. During her early years she would have been a witness as her father took back English territory from the Vikings. Eventually, Alfred reclaimed land for his own kingdom of Wessex and for the northern kingdom of Mercia. Mercia had not been an independent entity for some time. Its eastern sector was directly controlled by the Vikings, whilst the western side was in effect a puppet kingdom of the Vikings. In 882, the rulership of western Mercia fell to Aethelred, and he began a campaign to retake control of the whole of Mercia.

It is thought that Aethelred sought the support of Alfred in order to succeed in his campaign. Alfred was happy to oblige. A pact was signed, whereby Mercia acknowledged Wessex as the foremost Anglo-Saxon power in central and southern England, and to seal this pact, Alfred married his daughter, Aethelflaed to Aethelred.

Alfred was succeeded by his son, Edward, in 899, and Aethelred continued to lend Mercian support to Wessex. However, Aethelred fell ill in 902, and withdrew from political life. Aethelflaed became the effective ruler of Mercia, and finally took over complete control in 911, when Aethelred died. Known as the Lady of the Mercians, Aethelflaed was a warrior queen, and took an active role in the warfare of the time, leading her forces on successful military expeditions in the East Midlands. It is generally agreed that she was also responsible for the fortification of several Mercian towns, known as ‘burra’ or ‘burhs’.

In Shrewsbury, Aethelflaed is credited with the founding of St. Alkmund’s Church, endowing it with land to support its existence. She is said to have preferred building churches over fortifications because she thought the enemy was less likely to destroy churches!

In 917, she enhanced her reputation by capturing the Viking stronghold of Derby. However, her military policies were not confined to the frontiers of Mercia. She was aware of the threat posed by Scandinavian settlements in northwest England. According to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, she formed a military alliance with the Scots, her aim being to offer a unified challenge to Ragnall, a northern leader. She was leader of this coalition and, when the allied forces met Ragnall’s Vikings at Corbridge in 918, she sent a contingent of Mercian troops.

Aethelflaed came to dominate the political scene in central and northern England. However, her historical reputation may have suffered somewhat at the hands of Wessex chroniclers, who may have wished to downplay the significance of Mercia in the history of these times!

By late 918, Aethelflaed had persuaded the city of York to pay homage to her. She never got there, however, dying in Tamworth two weeks before she had planned to visit. She was later buried in Gloucester. She was succeeded by her daughter, Aelfwynn, but this arrangement did not last long, because Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward, ousted Aelfwynn and annexed the kingdom of Mercia into Wessex. Anxious that she did not become a focus for Mercian uprisings, Edward then ‘persuaded’ Aelfwynn to ‘keep a low profile’. Consequently, Aelfwynn spent the rest of her life in a nunnery.

However, Aethelflaed may have had further influence on English history after her death. The first ‘King of the English’ is generally acknowledged to be Athelstan, son of Edward of Wessex and grandson to Alfred the Great. Athelstan’s later education is thought to have been at the Mercian court of his aunt, Aethelflaed. It is therefore likely that he gained his political and military training during her campaigns against the Vikings.

Esmeralda Lock – Romany and Traveller

(Article first appeared Autumn 2019)

Esmeralda Lock (or Locke) was born in 1854 to a Romany family that often pitched their tent on the banks of the River Severn in Bridgnorth. This land belonged to the town clerk of Bridgnorth, a local solicitor by the name of Hubert Smith.

When she was 16, Smith invited Esmeralda and her two brothers to spend the summers with him in Norway. He was later to publish a book about this period. Although he was in fifties, he became besotted by Esmeralda and proposed marriage. She is said not to have felt the same about him, but came under pressure to agree to the match, and so they were married in 1874. They lived in St Leonard Close in a house that is still there and is known as the Mundens.

However, the marriage, perhaps not surprisingly, did not run smoothly. Esmeralda tried running away from her husband and back to the Romany lifestyle, only to be returned to Smith by her father. On another occasion she is said to have made an escape from her husband by knocking him out with a candlestick.

One day a young scholar, Francis Hindes Groome, turned up in her life. He was studying the Romany lifestyle – and Esmeralda fell in love with him. After he left, Esmeralda told her husband that she had been bewitched and needed to go and speak with a wise man in order to get cured. This wise man turned out to be Groome, and the couple ran off to Germany, where he worked as a translator. Esmeralda brought in more money by singing and dancing. They eventually moved on to London and Edinburgh.

Unhappy about this situation, Smith attempted a reconciliation. He met his wife in a hotel in Scotland and they are said to have spent the night together. In the morning, she told Smith that she had had a dream in the night. This dream had shown the suicide of Groome, which could only be prevented if she said a final goodbye to him. Smith agreed that she could see Groome for two hours. Esmeralda left – and never came back.

Smith then filed for divorce, and after that was granted, Esmeralda and Groome married and settled. They became known in artistic circles, and, at one point, the pre-Raphaelite artist Rossetti painted Esmeralda as one of his idealised erotic women.

However, Esmeralda never really lost the Romany habit of moving around, and often returned to her parents to travel with them. This eventually became too much for Groome, and the couple separated. Groome died in 1902. Allegedly he wrote to Esmeralda a few years beforehand that they should ‘never meet again this side of the grave’. They never did.

During the First World War, Esmeralda ended up in Prestatyn, where she remained for the rest of her life. She was knocked down and killed by a bus in 1939 and duly buried in Rhyl.

She has been referred to in several books, including ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ by Anthony Sampson and ‘Songs from the Roadside’ by Jeremy Sandford.

Agnes Hunt – Nurse and Joint Founder of the Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital

(Article first appeared Winter 2019)

Agnes was born in London in 1866 to Rowland Hunt (1828-1878) of Boreatton Park, Baschurch and Florence Marianne. She was the sixth of eleven children. As a child, Agnes had suffered from septicaemia, which led to the disabling condition of osteomyelitis of the hip – an inflammatory condition of the bone. This was a chronic condition and it taught Agnes about being crippled and being in perpetual pain. In the 19th century, being a cripple normally meant that the sufferer would spend an inactive lifetime, but Agnes would not countenance this.

She was brought up in Baschurch until 1882, when the family moved to Kibworth Hall in Leicestershire. They later moved to a small farm in Australia. Agnes returned to England in 1887 and began training as a ‘lady pupil’ nurse at Royal Alexandria Hospital in Rhyl. Later, she founded the Baschurch Children’s Hospital at Florence House, which was a family property. This hospital was attached to the Salop Infirmary at Shrewsbury and was intended for crippled children.

In 1901, seeking treatment for her own condition, she consulted Robert Jones. Based in Liverpool, he was a Welsh orthopaedic surgeon. Invited by Agnes to visit her hospital, Robert ended up visiting regularly in order to treat the children.

By 1907 they had built an operating theatre and they began the diagnostic use of X-rays in 1913.

During the First World War, the Hospital was used to treat wounded soldiers and, in 1918, Agnes was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services during the war. She was later to be created a Dame Commander of the British Empire (1926).

In 1919, funding was given to move the facility from Baschurch to a one-time military hospital near Gobowen. The facility was then renamed the Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital, and it was also to provide training for nurses. During the Second World War, the hospital was again used to treat wounded soldiers.

In 1948 a fire caused much damage, requiring the hospital to undergo a period of reconstruction and expansion. This, however, developed it into what is now known as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital.

She died in 1948 at the age of eighty-one. Her ashes were interred in the parish churchyard at Baschurch, where there is also a plaque inside the church that reads: “Reared in suffering thou shalt know how to solace others’ woe. The reward of pain doth lie in the gift of sympathy”.

Blanche Parry – Attendant to Queen Elizabeth I

(Article first appeared Summer 2020)

In the southwest of Herefordshire, in the quiet village church of Bacton – a place that would have been as much Welsh as English for centuries of its history – can be found two intriguing relics of the life of a 16th century local woman, Blanche Parry, and her close, life long relationship with Elizabeth I.

Blanche, the daughter of Welsh border land-owning gentry and Welsh speaking, was the queen’s most high-ranking attendant for most of her adult life, wielding huge personal influence at the Royal Tudor court. Introduced there by an aunt as a young woman, she looked after the Queen from birth, and was to remain her loyal intimate for 56 years until Blanche’s death at the age of 82.

This has given rise to the idea that Queen Elizabeth may have spoken Welsh. I think it plausible she would have gained some knowledge of the language through this quasi-maternal relationship, an interest potentially sharpened through the Welsh origins of the Tudor dynasty with the queen’s red hair a visible reminder of it.

Blanche had commissioned a sculpture before her death, depicting herself with the queen, and containing a revealing epitaph she wrote herself. It was for her local church in Herefordshire and would enshrine the two women together for posterity.

Simply dressed, Blanche is kneeling at the queen’s side who is facing forwards, bejewelled, crowned and seated, in all the magnificence of her regal office. But the two women shared something, something that had perhaps deepened their bond through the years together for in conclusion, Blanche writes: “A maid in court and no man’s wife …with maiden Queen a maide did end my life.” She had remained a maiden (virgin) and some historians see this as primary evidence that Queen Elizabeth did so too. For Blanche would have known, as chief gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber where she controlled all access to the queen, and not have lied to God on a religious monument in her intended final words.

Another interesting facet of Blanche’s heritage is her family connections to the Lollards. The Lollards were a pre–Protestant Christian movement who followed John Wycliffe, an Oxford University theologian and Christian reformer who translated the Bible into vernacular English. In this period, the sect remained active in the largely uncontrolled area of the Welsh Marches.

Interestingly the Bible was first translated into Welsh during Elizabeth’s reign with an Act of Parliament passed within five years of her accession. It ordered the Bible and prayer book to be translated into Welsh by Saint David’s Day (1 March) 1567. Any suggestion that Blanche played a part in this would be highly speculative but that does not exclude the possibility that she did so.

And finally that other relic that graces the church and I find even more moving as an artefact, in what could be viewed as a reciprocal gesture. The Bacton Altar cloth, a beautifully ornate embroidered fabric, has been proven to be the only known remaining part of one of Elizabeth I’s dresses in existence (She had 1,900 dresses when she died.)

It did not arrive at the church until after Blanche’s death, so it is reasonable to assume that the queen had the cloth made from the luxurious fabric and sent to the church in memory of the friendship.

But I conclude with a mystery, and a Shropshire connection. Medieval stain glass windows depicting Blanche’s grandfather Miles ap Harry (meaning son of Harry and becomes Parry, the origin of many Welsh surnames) his wife Joan and 19 children are in St Eata’s church, Atcham. They were moved there from Bacton in the early nineteenth century. There is also a nineteenth century window commemorating Blanche herself.

Celia Fiennes – A 17th/18th century woman for our times

(Article first appeared Winter 2021)

In her day Celia Fiennes would have been the only woman ‘travel writer’ for people to have ‘followed’, if such communications and ‘following’ were a ‘thing’ or even thought necessary in 17th century England. In fact, she was the first woman to have travelled the length of England and into Scotland visiting every county in England. Even more remarkably, she travelled the 1,551 miles on horseback which she rode side saddle, as was the custom of the day, and therefore hardly the easiest or most comfortable of methods.

The journeys which she wrote about daily in notebooks took place between 1685 and 1700, though the journal she compiled in 1702 was just for her family. It was a descendant, Emily Griffiths, who transcribed, edited and published the journal in 1888. It was titled ‘Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary, Being a Diary of Celia Fiennes’.

Why is she of interest to us in Shropshire? Because in 1698 she undertook what she described as her “Great Journey” from London to Carlisle into Scotland and on her way down to Land’s End she passed through Shropshire detailing her thoughts and impressions of the towns and areas she rode through and stayed at.

Celia was born in 1662 in Salisbury into a wealthy family of viscounts and colonels, although her family were staunch parliamentarians, and her father Nathaniel Fiennes was a colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s army. In her youth she travelled with her mother or sister by coach, but by 1685 she set out on horseback accompanied only by two men servants and maids.

Her decision to set out on such a quest would certainly have been unusual, with the majority of women at that time living sheltered lives. Apart from trying to escape a humdrum life, she stated that her explorations started as a way “to regain my health by variety and change of aire (sic) and exercise”. It also was a way to visit relatives and satisfy her increasing curiosity about what she would discover on such travels. It is thought that her family’s wealth and the fact that she did not marry, unusual for the period, gave her the freedom and opportunity for such travel.

Celia was a plain-speaking woman and thought everyone could benefit from travelling more in their own country. The introduction to her journal stated such travel would be a (sovereign) remedy to cure or protect from epidemic diseases or vapours or even laziness! In her own words “would be a souveraign remedy to cure or preserve ffrom these Epidemick diseases or vapours, should I add Laziness!” (sic)

She came across danger on her entry into Shropshire – her party’s approach towards Whitchurch, after crossing the Great Road which passed from “Nantwich to Chester”, was the only time she encountered highwaymen. Two men, wearing greatcoats in which pistols were concealed, came out of the woods and harassed them, trying to jostle in between her and her servants. She writes “ 2 fellows all on a suddain from ye wood fell into ye Road, they Look’d truss’d up with great Coats and as it were bundles about thm wch I believe was pistols (sic)”. Luckily it was market day in Whitchurch and many people were heading home. In addition, the highwaymen spotted peasants haymaking in nearby fields – so they called each other off and turned back. The experience didn’t put her off and she carried on into Shropshire.

Celia’s thoughts on Whitchurch are detailed – she described it as a large market town with two very fine gardens. One, full of fruits and greens, belonged to an apothecary and the other was at The Crown Inn where she stayed, which she notes ‘is very neat with orange and lemon trees, myrtle, holly trees, box, firs and merumsuratum which makes fine snuff’. Celia then rides 14 miles to Shrewsbury, which she felt was long. She disliked the cold wind and was glad it wasn’t yet winter as the Causeway into the town would be bad. Her first view of Shrewsbury was of a “town which stands low, with spires of two churches standing high and appearing eminent above the town”.

She noted remains of a castle, and a grand view of the town from her walks along town walls and battlements. The River Severn she esteemed one of the finest in England as it twisted and twined itself around the town and carried such a depth of water 80 or more miles to the sea at Bristol.

In the town she noted a fine Market Cross, an old house known as the Council House, a hall for Welsh manufacture, a Water house supplying the town through pipes, but she was pleased to learn a water engine was to be installed as she felt the horse-drawn system was not efficient. She appears impressed by the discovery of three free schools so that children both from the town and, if spaces allowed, from all over England, could be taught English till they were fit for University. Some 300 children could be accommodated across the three schools. The Abbey Gardens she hails as having fine grass, flowers, plants and walks and comments that every Wednesday most of the town’s “Ladyes and Gentlemen walk there as they would in St James Park in London”. Celia commented “there are abundance of people of quality in Shrewsbury, more than in any town except Nottingham”. Praise indeed – in fact she didn’t praise a town lightly, as some towns we would view as grand places to visit in the 21st century such as Harrogate and Bath, got very unfavourable comments!