Sunday, May 16, 2021

"The most merit of any woman in England"

It's been a while since I posted here. When I first started writing this blog way back in 2009, there were still not that many sites devoted to women missing from the history books; the forgotten or little-known, and the completely unheralded women who did something remarkable in their own way but were always forced to walk in the shadow of men. 

I am glad to say that since then a plethora of information is now available as other researchers rediscover their stories and share them with others, although there are always going to be more and some women will forever be elusive depending on when or where they lived or what paltry records of their lives were left behind.

Just this week, I read this interesting blog by June Watson on Northumberland Archives about Emma, Lady Tankerville, who deserves to be better-known for her scientific mind as well as her exquisite botanical drawings. 

The only available portrait of Emma. See Wikipedia

Admittedly she was an aristocrat with important connections and not many ordinary mothers with a big family would have the resources to find the time to indulge in her interests. Sir Joseph Banks was a good friend and, according to the blog ..."Banks personally named a new Chinese swamp-orchid in honour of Emma, the Phaius tankervilleae. Emma was recorded as the first person to successfully cultivate the orchid after its introduction to England in 1778."

For anyone living in the area, the Northumberland Archives advises that a display of Emma's work from her time on the island of Madeira will be exhibited 18-26 September 2021 at Alnwick Garden in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The first orchid cultivated in England. See Wikipedia

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"Epiphany in the Snows" - the lost altarpiece

This small print card in the collection of Tansley & Co, Vintage Merchants of Maldon, is signed by the artist and it may well be a scarce surviving copy of an original painting that no longer exists.

Entitled “Epiphany in the Snow”, it is an unusual variation on the Nativity tale showing Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus being visited by the Three Wise Men who have travelled far, but with reindeer, malamutes or huskies rather than on the more familiar camels.

The Star of Bethlehem hovers over the Christ Child and Mary, both of whom are dressed in ermine and wear moccasins on their feet. On their left is a man dressed as a Royal Canadian Mounted policeman, who may represent a protective Joseph. The kneeling visitor is an Inuit offering valuable walrus tusks. A Cree man holds a beaver and the crouching Hudson’s Bay Company man has a white fur in his lap, probably Arctic fox. All of these represent gifts of Canada’s wealth in a bygone age.

But the artist, Violet Teague, was an Australian, so how did she come to paint this unusual Christmas scene? And what happened to the original?

Violet was born in Melbourne in 1872 to an English doctor and his Canadian wife. Well-educated at home and at a prestigious girls’ school, she travelled widely studying art in England and Europe.

She was versatile and made woodcuts, painted portraits and both sea and landscapes, as well as writing poetry and illustrating books. She won medals for her work in places as diverse as San Francisco, Paris and London. Later in her career, she turned to religious subjects, doing altarpieces, two of her better-known Australian ones were for the Kinglake St Peter's Memorial Church and St James the Less at Mt. Eliza. For the Kinglake Church, she replaced the Nativity shepherds with Australian Lighthorsemen.

She was commissioned in 1938 to do the altarpiece for the new All Saints “Arctic” Cathedral in the remote settlement of Aklavik in the North West Territories of Canada. “Epiphany in the Snow/s” was put on show in Melbourne before being sent to be exhibited in London and then shipped to Canada where it was ceremoniously set in place by the Canadian Governor-General in 1939. (Image shows how it was placed.)

Sadly, on Palm Sunday 1974 [some sources say 1972], the Arctic Cathedral burned down. Despite much searching, I have been unable to confirm beyond all doubt that the altarpiece was lost at the time, but it is highly likely. The Cathedral was not rebuilt and most of the residents of Aklavik eventually relocated to the larger settlement of Inuvik. (Image below prior to the 1970s fire)

Fortunately, Violet’s other altarpiece called “Adoration of the Shepherds” in the Kinglake Church did not suffer the same fate in the 2009 devastating bush fires, as the congregation had wisely relocated it a few years earlier to St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and replaced it with a copy, which was destroyed along with that church. (Image shows the interior prior to the 2009 bush fire.)

Violet died in 1951, but her altarpiece at Mt Eliza is still intact (image below) and her other work occasionally appears in art sales or auctions or can be seen in institutions around Australia.

This is the concluding extract from the Australian Dictionary of Biography and sums up Violet’s appearance and lively character:
Less than five feet (152 cm) tall, with grey-blue eyes and masses of light brown hair, Teague was …. 'a small frail person … quiet of manner, yet with a surprising vitality and a more surprising sense of whimsy … she comes out direct in a mannered way and her eyes twinkle humorously'. She 'can talk on any subject from racehorses to the decline of Western Culture exactly and wittily'.
Violet’s more detailed biography can be read here.

Some links to her art work

NG New South Wales

NG Victoria

Short film by NGA Director Betty Churcher on Violet and her friend Jessie Traill

City of Melbourne

Other Information

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Burning Questions

All this current hysteria involving the vandalising and demolishing statues of historic  individuals in various countries because of a tragic, nasty event in America that some consider to be the direct legacy of racism and slavery is worrying to all with a passion for history.  *

There is a desperate need to stop judging our ancestors through modern eyes and to recognise the past is a different country that can never be changed, but must be acknowledged. We all have ancestors who were slaves in some form - serfs, peasants, indentured labourers - as well as more privileged others such as farmers, landholders and merchants who owned or controlled them. 

Removing offending images from sight and memory will never solve current problems. If anything, people should have reminders of the wrongs of the past in order to strive for right in the present. 

History abounds with conundrums of moral conscience. A century from now, the principles and truths we hold dear may shock and horrify our descendants and memorials to our current heroes could cause some new and as yet unimagined offence. 

Thinking of examples of other distasteful monuments, I am reminded of a visit some years ago to St Nicholas Buccleuch Church in Dalkeith, Scotland, when I stood in front of an ornate and impressive wall-mounted edifice to a minister of the church that was erected by his family in his memory. The flowery Latin description indicated that he had been a venerated individual; a loved father and respected pastor of his parish for more than twenty years from the mid 17th Century.

But when I read the leaflet provided about the Church, I was horrified. Reverend William Calderwood was revered because he personally undertook the investigation, torture and condemnation of 60 local women for witchcraft and who were subsequently burned at the stake.

During his tenure as minister, trials were held weekly at Dalkeith and his partner in this "witch-pricking" was the local headmaster: two educated men from whom one would have expected enlightenment but instead they were involved in this most macabre and cruel practice. 

In his life and times, Calderwood was considered a good man for doggedly searching out what he thought were the bad elements in his society, the "Devil's spawn", and doing away with them. For this, he received the esteem of his community much as we give out medals and awards today.

(This image comes from the church leaflet and it is difficult to find any others online, my personal photos being too dark to reproduce. Perhaps being well aware of the unpleasant history behind the Calderwood memorial, the church's governing body prefers it remains low-key.)

So - if one believes that monuments celebrating historic individuals who did offensive, cruel or wicked things should be desecrated or removed from public sight, then every single statue, effigy and plaque in every historic setting needs to be examined. Who is going to decide what goes and what does not? It is a ludicrous idea not far removed from book-burning and destruction of archives undertaken by many dictatorships. 

Edinburgh Witch Burning
Germany Book Burning

There are no images of Calderwood himself to be found, but it also worth noting that the paranoia against witches in Scotland was initiated at the highest level by King James VI (later to be King James I of England).  It was he who gave free rein to men like William Calderwood, encouraging them to do their best in ridding his country of witches.

King James VI (James I) can be seen in several places - there are effigies at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and at Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as in the grounds of Glamis Castle, childhood home of the late Queen Mother.

It is doubtful anyone is going to deface or pull them down anytime soon because of the hundreds of innocent women and men who died horrific deaths as a result of his own phobia.

King James VI of Scotland and I of England
Glamis Castle, Scotland

Witches Well Memorial -
site where witches were executed outside
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
(Atlas Obscura)

The Daemonolgie, written by King James VI/James I.

Map of Scotland showing where witches were tried and/or executed. Lists 45 names in Dalkeith alone and includes a number of men.

Database of nearly 4,000 individuals in Scotland accused of witchcraft.

* It is often overlooked that many African slaves sent to the Americas were the victims of their own race when warring or rival tribes captured them and transported them for sale to the Europeans at the coast. The Arabs perpetuated this shocking trade until well into the 20th Century (see my earlier blog on the home for slaves in Cairo.)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Stirring the Devil's Porridge

Ask the average person what they know about Gretna in Scotland, just over the border from England, and most likely the answer will be that it's that romantic place where people used to elope to and get married over the blacksmith's anvil, i.e. Gretna Green. *

That is certainly true, but Gretna was also part of what was known as the "Debatable Land", a dangerous no-man's-land region between England and Scotland who had so often been at war with one another. In the 16th Century, it also became the haunt of the infamous Reivers who held no allegiance to either side and ruthlessly raided, pillaged and laid waste to much of the countryside on both sides of the Border. It wasn't a place where you would venture willingly.
In the early 20th Century, the region again became a deadly no-go zone as factories were built along the River Esk for the manufacture of munitions for the First World War. 

And so Gretna then became the place where they stirred the "Devil's Porridge", or Cordite.
Hand-mixing Cordite (note no gloves!)
Copyright Devil's Porridge Museum

This was a mixture of gun-cotton (nitro-cellulose), nitro-glycerine, sulphuric and nitric acids. When detonated in shells and bullets it would burn, produce gas and explode. 

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) who was said to have given the process the name of the "Devil's Porridge" when he was one of the few journalists allowed to witness the work in which women were employed to stir the stuff with their hands before it was packed and transported to shell-making factories elsewhere. At the peak of the War, up to 1,000 tons of cordite were produced every week.
Thousands of workers, most of them young women, were recruited to this work of "feeding the hungry guns". But like all munitions work it could be deadly. Turning the cordite with bare hands, their skin turned yellow due to the sulphur component and their bones suffered, with many of them having their teeth fall out.
Those female munitions workers who stirred that porridge are largely unsung and forgotten now but without them there would have been no shells, no eventual victory. 

At a time when women were grateful to have well-paid regular work as well as being of the firm belief they were doing their patriotic duty and contributing to the war effort, few of them were likely to have been troubled by any moral conscience in knowing that what they were stirring would go on to kill and maim millions. 

Getting right into it!
Copyright Devil's Porridge Museum

A lighter side to the deadly manufacture in these postcards:

(Images and information from the Devil's Porridge Museum in Scotland, also see the following links.)
* You can still get married at Gretna Green today if you so fancy!

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rebel Englishwoman: The Remarkable Life of Emily Hobhouse


Mention “concentration camps” and most people will immediately think of the Nazis and places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Ravensbruck and many others.

But once there were other concentration camps with very British-sounding names such as Balmoral and Belfast, Howick and Nigel. There was even one called America. These were located in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899-1902.

These camps were imposed by the British, under the command of Lord Kitchener, on the civilian population of South Africa. Initially set up as “refugee” camps they soon deteriorated into squalid and disease-infested open-air prisons. The numbers of women, children and elderly or sick men who died in tents in appalling conditions vary depending on your choice of reference material and which statistics you choose to believe, or whether they even bother to include the many thousands of unknown innocent black and mixed race individuals who were also incarcerated in separate camps after being swept up in this now largely forgotten war. Officially, it is said at least 27,000 died, but the record-keeping is unreliable and the figure is more likely to be over 50,000. 

Emily Hobhouse was the Englishwoman who first alerted the world to the horror of these camps. For her efforts, she was labelled as “hysterical” and even a traitor. Although she did have the support of a small group of influential liberal friends, she was overwhelmingly vilified, despised and loathed in her attempts to bring to light the conditions in the camps. In England and around the Empire no-one wanted to believe that the British were capable of such inhumanity, especially towards the families of their enemy. When she tried to return to South Africa, she was deported.

Eventually, her actions did bear fruit and there was a softening in attitude although the hierarchy did not include Emily when the suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, headed up a commission of ladies to visit the camps for themselves and recommend improvements. 

Emily made it her life’s purpose to promote the rights of women and the cause of peace at all costs, and her actions are beautifully detailed in this magnificent biography by ElsabĂ© Brits. With the aid of family archives hitherto unavailable to other biographers, the author reveals new information and delves deeply into the character of this committed and admirable woman.

Even after the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902, the camps continued for a long time as Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy meant there were no homes or farms for many to return to. Her efforts to create work for women and girls by way of introducing lace-making and spinning and weaving schools were remarkable. In spite of poor health and diminished funds, Emily continued to travel endlessly promoting peace and finding ways of helping those affected by war. 

During the First World War, she again embarrassed the British by flaunting European travel restrictions in order to liaise with senior Germans in attempts to organise a peace process, for which she was castigated severely and narrowly escaped imprisonment. After the war was over, she organised food for thousands of Germans left to starve in Leipzig. 

In spite of her enormous humanitarian efforts and commitment to peace, even today she still remains a controversial character with some (mostly conservative male) historians. Emily certainly had her faults in obstinacy and a refusal to compromise her ethics and beliefs, but the best summation of her came from her friend General Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa:

"Let us not forget Emily Hobhouse. She was an Englishwoman to the marrow, proud of her people and its great mission and history. But for her patriotism was not enough. When she saw her country embark on a policy which was in conflict with the higher moral law, she did not say: ‘My country, right or wrong.’ She wholeheartedly took our side against that of her own people, and in doing so rendered an imperishable service, not only to us, but also to her own England and to the world at large.
For this loyalty to the higher and great things of life she suffered deeply. Her action was not understood or appreciated by her own people … Emily Hobhouse will stand out … as a trumpet call to the higher duty … and loyalty to the great things which … bind together all nations as a great spiritual brotherhood …"
Today, Emily is still revered by descendants of the Boer women and children she strove to help and after she died in 1926, her ashes were buried at the base of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein.

A five star biography about a five star woman.

Detail - National Women's Monument, Bloemfontein
(Emily Hobhouse witnessed this very scene and worked with the sculptor in its design.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annie Egan and the Spanish Flu

Although plagues might not be one's choice of entertainment at the present time, I highly recommend this informative podcast by Michael Adams telling the story of nurse Annie Egan and how the Spanish Flu impacted on Australia.

Forgotten Australia

Thursday, February 27, 2020

'Even a Woman Can Do It'

First Officer Everard-Steenkamp was the last ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) Spitfire pilot to die in the line of duty shortly after the end of World War II. 

On 19 March 1946, while on a routine service delivery flight of a Spitfire XIV between Hampshire and an RAF base in Shropshire, the plane's engine inexplicably failed and it crashed into some trees at Button Oak at full speed. Death was instantaneous. 

Joining the ATA in 1944 and chalking up 4,000 flying hours in every type of aircraft available, Rosamund King Everard-Steenkamp was to become the first recorded woman to pilot a jet when it was still in the experimental stage. Wing Commander H. Bird-Wilson had asked her to fly the Meteor Mark III to show that "even a woman can do it". She reached the speed of 600km per hour. In her personal log book she recorded the flight with one word: "Wizard!"

Rosamund the pilot
(South African Military History)

As one of the often-unheralded female pilots of the ATA, Rosamund should be assured of her place in World War II history, but she was so much more. She had been a farmer, a qualified judge of Ayrshire cattle and a wool classer. She was an excellent rider and shot. In addition she was a musician but it is as an artist that she received her greatest acclaim. Her work is still in demand with art collectors today. 

Still Life with Erythrina Caffra,

Born on 20 July 1907, at Bonnefoi in the Carolina District of the Transvaal, South Africa, Rosamund was the second daughter of trader and farmer, Charles Joseph Everard, and his artist wife, (Amy) Bertha King. All the women in the family were destined to be artists of note. Rosamund's elder sister, Ruth, her daughter Leonora, and then granddaughter, Nichola Leigh, have continued the family tradition to the fourth generation. 

Rosamund the artist

To learn all about the Everard Group, please follow the link. The following is an extract from that website:

'Ruth and Rosamund had inherited their mother's adventurous and determined spirit. After their unorthodox education on a remote South African farm, the girls were taken to Europe to further Ruth's artistic and Rosamund's musical studies. Here they were exposed to the vibrant and stimulating Parisian Art scene of the 1920's. Ruth and Rosamund developed the same liberated and strongly independent spirit that characterizes other remarkable women of the era.
Uninhibited, unconventional and beautiful, on their return to South Africa in 1926, the sisters brought back something of the glamour of the jazz age to their farm on the highveld. Always the extrovert, with the latest Art Deco- inspired dresses and jewellery from Paris, Rosamund threw extravagant parties and Bonnefoi became the social hub of the region.
Rosamund's paintings of the time dazzle with the enjoyment of Clarice Cliff type colour. The landscape undergoes an artistic transformation in a Rosamund painting as the mountains and valleys become a decorative pattern of flattened and simplified forms.
Although a successful farmer, Rosamund could not adapt to the conventional role accorded to women in farming communities and so, in 1935, embarked on a career as an aviatrix.'

Rosamund had also studied violin at the Paris Conservatoire.  An extract from a biographical article about her in the South African Military History Journal has this to say:
 ' idealist, in search of truth and beauty, her music lifted her up to sing among the clouds and inspired her with a passion for flying. As she wrote in her diary, "I sometimes felt I was walking on the clouds."'
Rosamund took up flying with her brother Sebastian and came to love the landscape of the Transvaal with its:
'... panoramic views of the limitless, rolling veld where great billowing thunderheads came rolling over the green grass and the rainwashed sky was intensely blue.' 
Exhibitions of her paintings were held Europe in the 1930s to which she flew in her own de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft. After qualifying for a commercial licence, Rosamund took part in the Hendon Air Pageant and her solo tour of Europe and North Africa culminated in an official reception in Turkey where she was the guest of Kemal Ataturk

Rosamund and her plane

Komati Pool

After gaining her Navigator's and Instructor's licences, Rosamund flew aircraft deliveries in Kenya. At the outbreak of war, she became the official flying instructor at the Witwatersrand Technical College and trained many pupil pilots who later distinguished themselves in the South African Air Force. Together with other female pilots, she flew Lodestar passenger aircraft on the shuttle service between South Africa and Cairo. 

One of her students had been Hermanus N. F. Steenkamp whom she married in 1940. Sadly, their marriage was shortlived as her husband died in 1942 (exact cause unknown, but possibly as a result of either war service or accident). Rosamund felt his loss keenly and was convinced that an all-female flying war ambulance service could have saved the lives of many men like her husband, but her attempts to get this off the ground were met with official disapproval.

This extract from the biographical article gives us further evidence of her determination to have women aviators recognised:

'Hearing that the Russians employed women pilots, she decided to join the Russian Air Force. Getting a lift from the USAAF, she proceeded to Teheran, the wartime communication centre between the Russians and the Allies.
At the Russian military headquarters she met nothing but suspicion and distrust. Air Commodore Runciman and the British Ambassador, Sir Reader Bullard, with whom she lunched, advised her that, even if the Russians did accept her, they would not give her the work she wanted to do but would callously try to break her spirit. Thus, all her dreams and schemes to achieve a more effective role for women pilots in the war were once again frustrated.'

The closing paragraph of the article well sums up the amazing and courageous life of Rosamund Everard-Steenkamp:

It is significant that she met her end as a Spitfire pilot and thus emulated some of the immortals of the Battle of Brtain in her own 'finest hour'. Of Rosamund Everard-Steenkamp, talented musician, artist, agriculturist and flyer, it may be said, 'Whom the gods love, die young.'

Find-a-Grave, All Saints Cemetery, Maidenhead, Berkshire
Epitaph reads: Great-Hearted, Greatly Loved
Death has no dominion
over her.

Follow these links to learn more

Take a tour to the Abandoned Town of Bonnefoi

Artnet Collection of paintings by Rosamund.

South African Military History Society 

Auction prices for Rosamund paintings

Life with Art page on Rosamund

A book was written in 1980, The Women of Bonnefoi, but it is rare and copies are pricey.