Moves to recognise local 19th century fighter for women's rights

Thursday 8am: AS THE Society she founded in 1859 celebrates its 150th anniversary, the grave of Jessie Boucherett in North Willingham churchyard, remains largely unrecognised by the majority of visitors and worshippers to this little country church.

Jessie Boucherett, who lived at Willingham Hall just outside Market Rasen, is locally the forgotten woman in the history of the fight for women's rights and equality, and now the author of a book about her and the Society she founded is calling for a local group to be formed to tidy up her grave.

In addition to the new book, her name will gain wider recognition next Thursday, July 9, through a feature on Radio 4's Womens Hour between 10am and 11am.

Born in 1825, the youngest of four children, none of whom married, she received a sum of 10,000 (around 700,000 in today's money) on her father's death in 1857.

She was moved to found the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) after reading the journalist and writer Harriet Martineau's article 'Female Industry' in the Edinburgh Review in 1859, which changed not just her life, but those of many thousands, if not millions, of women since.

Although her home was in Willingham, the unmarried Jessie was probably in London for the 'season' when she read the Martineau article. A quarter of a century later she was to write of the influence the Martineau article had on her.

'It must have had a wide effect and inspired many with a desire to assist women to earn their livelihood. It gave me the idea of establishing a society, the object of which should be to introduce women into new employments.'

In November 1859, the Times reported on the new Society, stating: 'We sincerely hope...we may no longer see women who, like men, must needs turn often to labour for their bread, condemned, unlike men, to the ranks of one miserable and hopeless calling (prostitution), or left with the single alternative of becoming...either distressed needlewomen or distressed governesses'.

Jessie was not the first to highlight this problem of course. Barbara Leigh Smith had published a pamphlet 'Women and Work' two years before and in 1858, the first edition of the English Woman's Journal appeared, dealing not just with women's work issues but also divorce and married women's property.

Emilia Jessie Boucherett was the youngest daughter of the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, Ayscoghe Boucherett, and her family, owners of Willingham Hall, were prominent in local politics and philanthropic activities. She herself was interested in public affairs, immersing herself in reading the serious press and issues of the day and already familiar with the English Woman's Journal, which was edited by Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes, the key figures in what came to be known as the Langham Place Group.

The committee of the new Society met for the first time on July 7 1859, and comprised of 12 women and four men, and established an office in Great Castle Street in London, later moving to Langham Place, then in 1867 to Great Marlborough Street and in 1872 to Berners Street.

They had already attracted important support with Viscount Raynham MP as their first Treasurer.

The aims of the Society were clearly laid out - to open more occupations to women. Around two million women needed to work for a living and the ‘great want of employment’ for them led to distress and suffering, with the traditional occupations of teaching, domestic service and needlework, so overcrowded that employers were able to force down wages and conditions to such an extent that many were reduced to the workhouse.

Jessie Boucherett realized that unless girls had better schooling, they would not benefit from wider opportunities for employment, so she set up a school to remedy this, concentrating mainly on arithmetic, to enable them to obtain employment in occupations such as ‘clerks, cashiers and ticket sellers at railway stations’.

Public awareness of their campaign grew and Jessie, with Bessie Parkes, in November 1859 presented a paper to the annual congress of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in Bradford, which brought in much needed donations and led the association to look into the whole matter of female employment with a committee, of which both Jessie and Bessie were members.

After becoming formally attached to the association, even more important names joined the committee of the SPEW - the Earl of Shaftesbury as President, the Bishops of London and Oxford, and William Gladstone MP.

In 1865, a permanent salaried Secretary was appointed - Gertrude King - her salary of 100 being met by Jessie. She held the post for the next 50 years!

The Society grew in its influence all the time, training and placing in a wide variety of occupations, the many women who came to them.

One of the Society's many successes was to have women accepted into the clerical branches of the Civil Service, but there were many other pioneering innovations for which they can claim credit. They set up the first 'commercial' school to train women as book-keepers, sponsored the first female printing, law-copying and plan-tracing businesses, and arranged the first shorthand classes for women.

They also paved the way for many girls to be apprenticed in a wide variety of other occupations which had previously been open only to men, such as china-painting, gilding, hairdressing, photography, telegraphy and watch-making.

The Society can claim other important 'firsts', such as enabling the first two women to be accepted for training as hospital dispensers, as well as spearheading women's admittance to Fellowship of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Indeed, one of its early book-keeping students – Mary Harris Smith - became the first woman in the world to be admitted to that Institute, even though it took until 1920 for that to happen!

In 1926, after pressure from the Charity Commissioners, the Society changed its name to the Society for Promoting the Training of Women and has continued its valuable contribution to furthering the opportunities for women in employment.

Jessie Boucherett was a dominating presence in the Society for the first 50 years of its existence, using her own money, which by now had been considerably enhanced by a further inheritance of 16,000 (around 1,100,000 today) on her mother’s death in 1873 and an income of 1,000 a year from 1877 after her last brother died. She then inherited the entire estate after her sister died in 1895.

The second great enthusiasm of her life was the women’s suffrage campaign, which began in the offices of the SPEW and which she financed with its first 25 (around 2000 today).

When she died in 1905, she left the Society 2,000 (around 155,000 today) and Gertrude King personally 700.

There are now moves by the church at North Willingham to clean up the grave and for the Society to present a plaque, drawing attention to the spot, with a service in the church dedicated to Jessie’s work on improving women’s lives.

A book on the history of the Society, and the work of Jessie Boucherett, has now been published to tie in with the 150th anniversary.

‘Timely Assistance’ by Anne Bridger and Ellen Jordan, is available from Michelle Bennett, The Old Dairy, Appledore, Ashford, Kent TN26 2AJ or email priced 15 + 1.95 postage.