10 Herts heroines who were pioneers and game changers
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From intrepid adventuring to fighting for equality, smashing stereotypes and helping to change society as they went, these 10 Herts wonder women richly deserve their places in history. There are many more to choose from but those profiled here include parachuting lifesavers who bounced back from paralysis, pioneering police officers and feminists leading the way in sport, the arts and engineering.
Dame Ellen Terry
One of the most famous leading ladies of the Victorian era, Dame Ellen Terry was particularly celebrated for her Shakespearean heroines, such as Portia and Beatrice. A young talent and beauty, she left the stage for a while after she married the pre-Raphaelite artist George Frederic Watts aged just 16 (an 1864 painting of her by Watts is in the National Portrait Gallery). He was 31 years older and the marriage only lasted 10 months before she returned to her parents and went back to theatre work.
Born to actor parents, six of Ellen's 11 siblings were also employed on the stage. Ellen appeared in her debut role as a child, as Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale at the Princess Theatre, London in 1856, with Queen Victoria in the audience. Tripping over a wagon on stage didn't prevent her from going on to enjoy a highly acclaimed acting career.
A notable part of her legacy was how she took on the male-dominated acting world by taking over the management of London's Imperial Theatre. Sadly it was a financial flop. Undeterred, she turned to touring and lecturing to pass on her skills and knowledge.
She spent many happy years living under pseudonyms in a cottage in Gustard Wood with the architect Edward Godwin.
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Before TV and long before the internet, entertainment was experienced live. Crowds would flock to the village fair and watch performers such as Edwardian parachutist Dolly Shepherd jump into thin air. Born in 1886 in Potters Bar, she made a name for herself performing the first mid-air parachute jumps and extraordinarily saved another parachutist's life after their shoot malfunctioned, but broke her back in the heroic act.
Paralysed from the accident, Dolly made it into the Guinness Book of Records after she not only learned to walk again, against the odds, but made it back up into the air, soon after. Way more impressive than anything you’d find on TikTok.
Behind every successful man is a strong woman, apparently. And, certainly, for Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine (1885-1977), this adage is true. Churchill admitted Word War II would have been 'impossible without her'.
Baroness Clementine Ogilvy Spencer Churchill GB, to give her full title, was a life peer in her own right, as well as being married to the Prime Minister. As a child she lived in Berkhamsted, where there’s a blue plaque commemorating her town house home in the High Street. As Clementine Hozier, she attended Berkhamsted School for girls between 1900 and 1903.
In the war her ability to charm allies and her humanitarian efforts on the home front earned her not only the deep respect of her husband but across Whitehall and the UK population too.
Margaret & Annie Johnson
Sisters Margaret and Annie Johnson were not just ‘doing it for themselves’ but arguably for women everywhere. As the first female police officers in Hertfordshire, the pair signed up in 1928.
Based at a station in Ware, they moved around Hertfordshire wherever they were especially needed. In a male-dominated work environment, a lot of their work related to safeguarding women and children. Yet despite their much-needed skills, they didn’t receive equal pay with their male counterparts for a staggering 45 years.
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They inspired more women to sign up to the constabulary, which in turn led to the numbers seen today. Now, approximately a third of Herts police are women and there is almost no gender gap between pay across staff. Still work to do, Margaret and Annie would no doubt say.
Audrey Collins was not only a pioneering women’s cricketer, she also taught chemistry at St Albans Girls’ Grammar School for 35 years. Born in India in 1915, she moved to England after her father died in the Great War when she was just 12. Her story proves that a turbulent childhood need not hold back success and fulfilment.
A chemistry graduate of the University of London, her talent at cricket saw her play for several teams and become an English Test cricketer, playing in the 1937 Ashes. She was later elected chairwoman of the Women's Cricket Association, further driving the women's game forward. She was awarded an OBE for her services to cricket and when she died aged 94 in 2010, the England team, on tour in India, wore black arm bands and observed a minute’s silence in her honour.
A founder of Radlett Women’s Cricket team, girls’ teams in Hertfordshire are awarded the Audrey Collins Cup, a lasting legacy to this remarkable woman.
A British engineer who worked on guided missile technology, Penny Hodges was awarded an OBE in 1972 for her contribution to the industry.
Involved in the main professional bodies as one of the leading ladies of early science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, she was also a member of Soroptimist International St Albans and District; part of a women’s voluntary organisation to improve the lives of women and girls around the world, where she spent time and energy encouraging girls to take up engineering.
Penny also won an award for her outstanding achievement in aviation, which was given to her by Prince Charles and she featured in a TV documentary entitled Woman in a Man’s World. While one would hope that programme title is now outdated, women are still massively underrepresented in the STEM industries, with the female workforce making up just 13 per cent. There is some way to go to continue Penny's work.
Margaret Murray was a British-Indian who studied Egyptology, archaeology, anthropology and folklore. Supplementing her college lecturer wages by giving public classes and talks at the British Museum and Manchester Museum, the latter led to her unwrapping Khnumnakht – one of the mummies recovered from the Tomb of Two Brothers, among the largest and most beautifully decorated tombs in Saqqara, Egypt. This earned her unique status as the first woman to publicly unwrap an ancient mummy.
She taught at University College London between 1898 and 1935, working in the field with leading archaeologist William Flinders Petrie in Egypt and the Middle East, and was a trained nurse and social worker in her early career.
She wrote several books on ancient Egypt and was an early feminist. Her influential and controversial work in the study of folklore and witchcraft theory led her to be dubbed the ‘Grandmother of Wicca’. She lived in Welwyn, where she died aged 100.
Emily Davies (1830-1921) was a feminist, suffragist and pioneering campaigner for women’s access to university. She is mostly remembered for co-founding Girton College, the first university college in England for women. The college was originally located in Hitchin but moved, in 1873, to Cambridge.
She strongly advocated an equal curriculum and quality of education for women as for men. Her tenacity was recognised with an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Glasgow in 1901.
As a suffragist, Emily headed a delegation to parliament and is known for opposing the militant methods of the suffragette movement.
An explorer, mainly active between the world wars, Violet Cressy-Marcks travelled the globe many times over. Despite being married twice, she usually went alone. Modes of transport included sleigh, canoe, horse, cars and on foot. Her brave accomplishments include being an ambulance driver with the British Red Cross during World War II and securing a job as a war correspondent for the Daily Express.
With primarily an archaeological purpose to her travels, Violet was also a capable filmmaker, photographer and author with an interest in zoology, and she reported on politically sensitive areas.
A woman of her own means, she lived (when she was in the country) at Hazelwood House (now a hotel), in Abbots Langley.
She is buried at Langleybury Church. Her will included a bequest in her name, providing a travelling scholarship for geographical research.
Lucy Kemp-Welch was an artist and tutor renowned for her paintings of horses, particularly those in military service in World War I and her illustrations for the 1915 edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Her dramatic Colt Hunting in the New Forest is in the national collection at the Tate. During her career, she had 61 paintings displayed at the Royal Academy.
She moved to Bushey to study at Herkomer Art School, before running it until 1926 as the Bushey School of Painting and then Kemp-Welch School of Animal Painting.
Lucy lived in Bushey most of her life, in later years painting gypsy and circus horses. A large collection of her work can be seen in Bushey Museum and Art Gallery. Lucy died in Watford aged 89.