International Women’s Day: Matrons of Midtown

Despite a rich history of interesting and accomplished women, Midtown’s feminine past is often overlooked. From being a home to Mary Shelley and Dorothy L. Sayers to the stamping ground of 20th century Suffragettes, Midtown has plenty of stories to tell. To celebrate International Women’s Day, here are some of our favourite stories of the incredible women who have known Midtown in the past.

The Boxer

Next time you’re flicking through redtops of the 1720s, keep an eagle eye out for the name ‘Elizabeth Wilkinson’, the long forgotten mother of boxing. Born in the Clerkenwell area of Midtown around the turn of the 18th century, Wilkinson was the most accomplished female fighter of her time, training at Britain’s first proper fight gym, the ‘School for the Manly-Art of Self-Defence’. As well as being dangerous in the ring, Wilkinson was deadly in the papers, where she issued taunting and provocative challenges to other fighters. In one printed exchange (a fantastic example of early boxing trash talk), Wilkinson responded to a challenge from fellow boxer Ann Field by saying “the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”

Although Wilkinson’s solo crowd appeal was enormous, she also fought alongside her husband, promoter and fellow boxer James Stokes. The pair would challenge another married duo, with Wilkinson fighting the wife whilst James fought the husband. An advertisement for one such fight notes that James and Elizabeth “fight in cloth Jackets, short Petticoats, coming just below the Knee, Holland Drawers, white Stockings, and pumps”.

Defying gender stereotypes more than 250 years before gender roles were even acknowledged, Wilkinson was loved by her public and fantastically popular. Sadly, her name has largely been forgotten, sacrificed for her less successful male contemporaries. The ‘European Championess’, as she called herself, deserves a place in history.

The Activists

Midtown and it’s neighbouring streets have a deep connection to the campaigners who won the first battle in women’s suffrage 100 years ago. The Women’s Social and Political Union, the main suffragette organisation, was headquartered at 42 Kingsway, yards from Holborn Station. Moving there in 1912, the WSPU and its co-founder Emmeline Pankhurst, suffered constant abuse and harassment from the authorities. Several times the Union headquarters were raided by police, who also tried to have the phone lines disconnected (although in a surprising display of equality the General Post Office refused this demand.)

St George’s Church in Bloomsbury also has significance in Midtown’s suffragette history, as the site of Emily Davison’s funeral. Davison died after stepping in front of King George’s horse at Epsom Racetrack, and was honoured with a 5,000-woman procession from Victoria to Kings Cross, on a route flanked by 50,000 sympathisers. It’s unclear what Davison’s intention on the racetrack was, some theorising that she planned to attach a suffragette scarf or flag to a horse. The tickets back to London and to a suffragette dance that evening, and her diary with appointments for the next week, all suggest that Davison was not attempting to martyr herself.

The Writer

In the first half of the 20th century writer Virginia Woolf lived in Gordon Square, later returning to Midtown to co-found The Bloomsbury Set with other free thinkers in the area.   

In the decades following her death, Woolf became appreciated as an early feminist thinker, and for inspiring other women to take an interest in feminism. Woolf believed that female writers were under inherent constraints in a patriarchal society, and dreamt of an “Outsiders Society” where women could develop feminist thought in a private space. This dream was never realised, but the Hogarth Press, a publishing house founded by Woolf and her husband, opened up an audience for new writing.

Although she died almost 70 years ago, some of Woolf’s work still feels pertinent. In The Waves, Rhoda complains about her fellow commuters, exclaiming “Oh, human beings, how I have hated you! How you have nudged, how you have interrupted, how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube!”

Our Very Own

Last but not least, it would be an oversight not to mention our very own Tass Mavrogordato. Tass has lived and worked in Midtown for over 11 years, tangibly shaping and contributing to the community in that time. As CEO of BEE Midtown, it’s her job to work with businesses, residents, TFL and other stakeholders to plan and manage innovative developments to help the area thrive.

Tass’ most recent project at BEE Midtown is the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange, a dynamic series of debates, celebrating the eclectic innovation of Midtown and its people. The BIE kicked off in October with the goal of rethinking London’s business, economic and social future in a quickly changing world.

With plenty planned for 2018 and beyond, expect to see more improvements in Midtown and more of Tass!