Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Hastings and Brightling

One of the founders of the campaign for women’s suffrage,
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, lived most of her life in or near
Hastings, and sadly, is little known or celebrated in her home town.
I’m doing a Centenary Timeline for our WI Facebook Page, posting about every year from 1915 to 2015 – 100 years of the WI. I’ve got to 1928 now, when every woman in the UK over 21 got the vote – it felt appropriate to write about Barbara.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, painted by Mary Osborne

    She was born in 1827 in Whatlington, and was brought up at 9, Pelham Crescent in Hastings, the illegitimate daughter of an MP, Benjamin Smith.

Pelham Crescent in the 1830s

    It is possible that her illegitimacy led to Barbara’s achievements being played down, both during her life, and after her death. However, she was one of the earliest and most significant campaigners for women’s rights, initially concentrating on the legal position of married women. The work she undertook, with a small group of like-minded women, was the first organised feminist action in the UK. It eventually resulted in changes in the law allowing married women the right to their own property and earnings.
    In 1866 Barbara formed the first ever Women’s Suffrage
Committee, and their suffrage petition was presented to the House of Commons on the women’s behalf by John Stuart Mill in 1866.  The motion to amend the Reform Act to include votes for women was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Mill accepts the first suffrage petition, 1866

    Barbara wrote and published a
series of pamphlets on the subject of women’s rights, and toured the country, holding meetings on the
subject of women’s suffrage. Her speeches converted many women to the
cause, including the future leaders of the movement, Emily Davies and Lydia Becker, who would in turn recruit Emmeline Pankhurst. However, women would not be fully enfranchised on the same terms as men until 1928.
     Barbara was also passionate about improving women’s education, and in particular, opportunities for university education. With Emily Davies, Barbara raised funds for, and founded, the first women’s college in Cambridge. Girton College was opened in 1873 but no women students were admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.
    As well as being a strong-minded and charismatic political activist, Barbara was a gifted artist. She studied with the painters William Henry Hunt who lived during the winter in a small house at the foot of the East Cliff, and William Collingwood Smith.  Barbara’s work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and examples can be seen in Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.
    In 1855 Barbara stayed at Clive Vale Farm with her friend, fellow painter Anna Mary Howitt. The two women clearly found the place to be of particular interest because three years earlier, the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt had lodged and painted at the farm, producing, amongst other works, ‘Our English Coasts’. Sheep in the farmyard served as models for the ‘strayed’ sheep in that painting.
   Battleaxe also finds this of particular interest. Our house is built on the site of Clive Vale Farm. The extract below is from a book of reminiscences by another of Barbara’s friends, Bessie Rayner Parkes, ‘In a Walled Garden’ (1895). Sitting at her computer writing this blog post, Battleaxe shares the same view. The sun is indeed streaming in, and the sea is just as vast, but of course the ‘undulating green hills’ are now partly covered in housing.

    Barbara’s paintings from Clive Vale Farm were widely exhibited, and her picture of the cornfield  ‘with all the shocks tossed over by a gale’ was singled out for particular praise by Ruskin. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of these paintings are now unknown.

Barbara Bodichon, Ventnor, 1856

    In 1857, Barbara married a French doctor living in Algiers, Dr Eugene Bodichon. Although she wintered in Algiers she spent her summers in Hastings, or at a new family home, Scalands, near Robertsbridge, where she died in 1891.
    She was buried in Brightling Churchyard. Yesterday I persuaded Philosopher to come on an expedition to find her grave.
    Dating from Norman times, Brightling Church is very old, and very beautiful. It has an impressive history. William of Wykeham, eventual founder of Winchester College and New College Oxford, was Rector in 1362.
    The peaceful churchyard, overgrown, muddy and full of mole-hills, is dominated by a large pyramid, the grave of ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller (1757 – 1834), who lived next door. Fuller, a larger-than-life figure who derived his money from Wealden iron-works, could be the subject of a blog post all his own. He was an MP, a philanthropist, a builder of follies, a patron of the arts and sciences, a notorious drunkard – and a supporter of slavery.

Brightling Church
Fuller’s Pyramid

    We found Barbara’s grave, apparently it was restored by the village after a campaign by feminist academics in 2007, following many years of overgrown disrepair. Strangely, her name is not even mentioned in the church guidebook.

Barbara’s grave

    Helena Wojtczak, who was responsible for getting a blue plaque put on 9 Pelham Crescent in 2000, has written a good account of Barbara’s life, and Battleaxe would recommend this biography: Hirsch, Pamela (1998). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel.

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