Anne Knight was born in Chelmsford in the late eighteenth century above the family grocery shop. Her parents were Quakers and pacifists, who were heavily involved in the Anti-Slavery and temperance campaigns of the time and her grandfather, William Allen, had been a well-known radical and Nonconformist, so with a background like that it is no surprise in some ways that Anne went on to become such an active and tireless anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner.
What she managed to achieve in her lifetime, is truly remarkable. She was a feminist before the term had even been invented and a lifelong peace activist who passionately protested against the injustices she saw in the world.
As a young woman, living in her hometown of Chelmsford, she set up a branch of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society and organised petitions and public meetings to support the Quaker campaign to end slavery. She went on to tour the UK and France, giving many lectures on the immorality of slavery, campaigning for its immediate abolition without compensation to the slave owners.
She was also an active member of the Chartist movement; the first British working-class mass movement for political and social reform, that grew out of the injustices inflicted on the poor during the industrial revolution.
The Chartist’s campaigned for the rights for every man, rich or poor to vote. Anne challenged the Chartists, insisting they support “true universal suffrage” and support women’s rights too.
She further took up the cause for women’s rights after being banned from participating in the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because she was a woman. In 1847 she wrote the first ever pamphlet calling for votes for women:
‘Never will the nations of the earth be well governed, until both sexes, as well as parties, are fully represented and have an influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws.’
Anne helped found the Women’s Suffrage Society. In 1928 women were finally given the legal right to vote.
Anne died long before seeing this dream realised but she did live to witness the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. To honour her contribution to the anti-slavery campaign the free slave village of Knightsville in Jamaica was named after her.
Margaret Cavendish was born in Colchester in 1623 to a family of aristocrats. She was a scientist, a Duchess, a celebrity in her own time and one of the most prolific female writers of the seventeenth century. She wrote 21 books in total including: novels, non-fiction books, biographies, plays and essays. She published all of her works under her own name during a time when most female writers (and there weren’t that many!) published anonymously.
Her work was often derided in the press and she had the nickname of ‘Mad Madge’, partly due to her eccentric nature, strange dress sense, flirtatious behaviour and potty mouth (she swore a lot) but mainly because of her incredible daring for being a published woman writer in an industry dominated by men.
Margaret wrote many books, including some highly regarded important works on philosophy and social commentary as well as a utopian romance called The Blazing World, which was one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written as well as being one of the first feminist novels.
Streets ahead of her time Margaret was a groundbreaking woman. She questioned her place in society and refused to fit the mold. She was also a passionate campaigner against animal testing.
Her personal life was equally extraordinary. After her wealthy Royalist family lost their home and fortune in the Civil War, Margaret became maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria, moving with her to Paris, where she met her husband to be, the Duke of Newcastle. She later became the Duchess of that city, and was thereafter known as Lady Newcastle. Despite moving in circles of high society Margaret refused to play by the rules and was always seen as a strange outsider.
She is still highly regarded today for her many literary achievements and is now considered to be as important a seventeenth century writer and natural philosopher as her male contemporaries. She is also credited as being the first British woman to publish in her own name. What a trailblazer!
Known as ‘the Father of English Natural History’ seventeenth century botanist John Ray gained a scholarship to Cambridge University at the age of just 16, which was a huge achievement for the son of a local blacksmith from a small rural Essex village.
His mother was a very religious woman and a herbalist with great knowledge of medicinal plants, which she used to heal the sick. Her understanding of and interest in herbs and plants probably ignited John’s passion for natural history.
During his time in Cambridge John was a committed and high achieving student who spent his spare time roaming the countryside, collecting plants to study.
Ray also studied the natural sciences alongside training to become a Church of England minister. He went on to lecture at the university in a wide range of subjects including Greek, mathematics and humanities.
In the 1650s he began taking expeditions around Britain with his friends in the summer holidays, collecting and cataloguing the plants and animals of Britain. In 1663 he embarked on a three-year expedition around Europe, gathering further samples, which he continued to study for the rest of his life.
In 1667 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and went on to become an extremely important figure in the history of British botany and zoology.
'Most accurate in observation, the most philosophical in contemplation,
and the most faithful in description of all the botanists of his own or perhaps any other time.' (Sir James Edward Smith (1759 - 1828), Founder of the Linnean Society) In 1679 after his mother died, he moved back to Black Notely in Essex. Towards the end of his life, Ray worked as both a scientific and theological writer, having some success publishing his work. He died in 1705 and is buried at the local church in Black Notley.
John Ray inspired generations of botanists after him to classify, document and collect organisms in order to properly study species.
Born near the village of Black Notley, near Braintree, Essex
"Of all my English friends, you are by no means the least."Gandhi on Muriel
Muriel Lester had a privileged childhood, growing up in a beautiful middle class home in Loughton, Essex. Despite her comfortable background Muriel turned down the chance to attend university and decided instead to devote her life to social justice, believing helping others was an important part of her Christian faith. She became a dedicated humanitarian, non-conformist and committed pacifist as well as being a great friend of Mahatma Ghandi.
In 1908 Muriel and her sister Doris moved from Essex to Bow in London's East End where they became actively involved in providing social and educational activities for the poor community living there at the time. They used money left by their brother Kingsley (who died in 1914) to buy a disused chapel, which they turned into a ‘teetotal pub’ and community centre for local people. During theGeneral Strikeof 1926, Kingsley Hall became a shelter and soup kitchen for workers.
Muriel was also a passionate campaigner for women’s rights as well as being a founding member of the Christian pacifist organisation, the Fellow of Reconciliation (FoR). In 1926 she travelled to India to meet Mahatma Ghandi and this meeting was the beginning of a long and deep friendship.
When Ghandi visited London in 1931 to attend a conference he stayed with Muriel at Kingsley Hall. In 1934 Muriel accompanied Gandhi on his tour of the earthquake-shaken regions of Bihar.
In 1934 she began working as the Travelling Secretary for FoR and during the next few years she travelled across the globe, spreading the word of Christian non-violence to war torn areas. She gave passionate anti-war speeches in America, which caused her to be imprisoned in Trinidad in 1941.
Like Ghandi she preferred to spend her time with the poor but she impressed many influential people of the time, including Clement Attlee, H.G.Wells and Elanor Roosevelt.
As well as being a global peace messenger Muriel was also a widely published author, who wrote numerous articles and over twenty books, including two autobiographies, It Occurred to Me (1939) and It So Happened (1947).
During a trip to Japan she was named the Mother of World Peace and in 1964 her great contribution to world peace was recognised when Muriel was awarded the freedom of the borough of Poplar.
Muriel died on 11 February 1968 at her home, Kingsley Cottage, back in her childhood village of Loughton in Essex.
Grew up in Loughton
There is a blue plaque to the Lester sisters on the cottage, no.49 Baldwins Hill, Loughton
Kingsley Hall the Lesters' foundation at Bow where Gandhi stayed
Lady Gwendoline Guinness (nee Onslow) was the daughter of the fourth earl of Onslow, she grew up in London, in a family committed to public service. When she was just a child she became her father’s secretary when he was the governor-general of New Zealand.
When she was 22 years old she moved to Southend, when she married the brewer Rupert Guinness from the Anglo-Irish Guinness brewing dynasty. They had five sons and three daughters. Her husband was a conservative MP for the town and she helped him through nine election campaigns for the Guinness family seat at Southend, which stretched back to 1912.
Her practical experience in politics (extremely rare for women of that time) and her social standing made Gwendoline the perfect choice for chairwoman of the Conservative Party's women's advisory committee, a role she held from 1925 to 1933. She also became chairwoman of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations in 1930. When her husband Rupert Guinness stood down as Conservative MP for Southend after inheriting the Guinness empire, Gwendoline stepped in. Despite her tremendous wealth, The Countess of Iveagh, as Gwendoline was known, chose to spend the rest of her working life supporting the town of Southend. She stood for MP in 1927 and won the by-election on 19th November taking 55% of the votes. In 1931 she reached 85%; the following year she was granted the freedom of Southend.
She was the 4th female MP to ever take a seat in the House of Commons and her election led the way for women in society to become increasingly more involved in politics.
In 1928, women were finally given the vote on the same terms as men via The Equal Franchise Act in. Even though she had previously described herself as anti-feminist, when the right for women to vote was under attack from the Daily Mail and some right-wing tories she strongly defended the policy.
Between 1929 and 1935 Lady Iveagh remained an inconspicuous back-bencher in Westminster, giving loyal support to party leader Stanley Baldwin. She was an extremely glamorous woman and MPs were said to crowd into the chamber for to see her fashionable outfits. She served Southend as an MP for eight years until her retirement at the 1935 general election.
Outside parliament and the Conservative Party, Lady Iveagh involved herself in the Overseas Training School, whose aim was to prepare young women who planned to settle in the colonies by teaching them cookery, preserving, dairying, and poultry-rearing to ‘smooth the rough places of colonial life’.
Gwendoline also took part in philanthropic work, and during the First World War she organized relief efforts for prisoners of war, she was awarded a CBE in 1920 for this work.She was an influential figure who used her wealth and place in society to good use.
Edward Whymper was an English mountaineer, a talented artist and an explorer, who is best known for being the first person to climb the Matterhorn (one of the highest mountains in the Italian Alps).
His father was a wood engraver and Edward inherited his artistic skills. In 1860 he went to Switzerland to make sketches of the Alps and this is where he began his mountaineering career, exploring the landscape, climbing higher and higher to find the best view.
From about 1900 when he was in England he lived at a boarding house at 4 Cliff Town Parade (which is now a B&B) although he was absent for long periods of time, travelling a great deal.
In 1906 he married his housekeepers niece, Edith Lewin, who was forty-five years younger than him! They had a daughter Ethel, who lived in Leigh and also became a mountaineer like her father. Edward probably settled in Essex because his family ran the Anchor pub in Hullbridge for many years.
Edward became obsessed with climbing the Matterhorn and with the physicist John Tyndall they raced to see who could reach the top first. He had eight unsuccessful attempts before finally becoming the first person to reach the summit on July 14th 1865. He must have been extremely brave and determined, making the ascent by the Swiss ridge, along a steep and dangerous passage that had previously been thought of as too difficult to climb.
On the descent one member of his climbing party slipped, pulling down the other three tied to him, all four men died. Whymper had a lucky escape, the rope snapped and he was saved. This terrible accident is described in Whymper’s book Ascent of the Matterhorn 1871, which is filled with beautiful engravings of the landscape also by Whymper. In this book he writes:
‘Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.’ The accident had a profound effect on him and whilst he continued to climb other mountains he never returned to the Alps again.
He became internationally famous after reaching the summit of the Matterhorn and he travelled around the world giving talks and lectures about his experiences.
Whymper wrote several other books on mountaineering. He publishedTravels Amongst the Great Andes of Ecuador(1892), which contained valuable information for geographers, geologists, and mountaineers. He also wrote two handbooks on the climbing of Chamonix (1896) and Zermatt(1897).
He was a brave explorer who took expeditions to Greenland, a place that had barely been visited before by Europeans, whilst there he made important advances in Arctic exploration. He also made first ascents on theMont Blanc massifand in thePennine Alps, South America, and theCanadian Rockies and climbed Chimborazo in Ecuador, the highest continuously active volcano.
During his expedition to Ecuador he studied altitude sickness and the effect of reduced pressure on the human body, his findings were written into a book and The Royal Geographical Society awarded him the Patron's medal for his ground-breaking work on altitude sickness.
He was a brave, adventurous, brilliant Essex man, as well as a skilled artist. His expeditions paved the way for many others and his pioneering work on altitude sickness has saved thousands of future mountaineers from death.
Lived at 4 Cliff Town Parade in Southend, there is a blue plaque on the building today recognising him.