Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Continent of Great Extent: Writing To The Fair Land

Some of you may remember Pythagoras and his theorem from maths lessons at school – and if like me you weren’t keen on maths, then I’m sure he didn’t endear himself to you. Pythagoras, who lived in the fifth century BC, had other ideas too. He believed that a great land mass lay in the southern hemisphere – the Great Southern Continent, the Great South Land, or Terra Australis Incognita. It had to exist, he argued, in order to balance the land masses of the north.  

For the next 2,000 years, men dreamed of the Great Southern Continent. They drew maps of it and they speculated about the people who lived there. One theory was that the inhabitants would have feet opposite to our own – antipodes. Others thought they had one huge foot and when they were sitting down they were able to raise the foot over their heads to keep the sun off their faces.  

Tantalised by tales of the Great Southern Continent, explorers from many nations went looking for it – Dutch, French, Portuguese, and British. In the seventeenth century the Somerset buccaneer William Dampier tried to find it. He ended up on Australia – then called New Holland by the Dutch explorers who got there before him – which he thought a poor place. 

In 1764 the British Admiralty sent John Byron – known as Foulweather Jack Byron – to the Pacific but he didn’t find anything. Some people thought he didn’t try very hard. After him went Samuel Wallis in 1766, who confidently reported sighting the continent.  

Then in 1768, the Admiralty sent Britain’s most famous navigator: Captain James Cook. Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour lasted three years and he didn’t find the Continent. He undertook a second voyage between 1772 and 1775, and it was on that voyage that he demonstrated, once and for all, that there was no Great Southern Continent. But in 1772 his second voyage had only just begun, and it was still possible to believe that the Continent existed.  

It was that point in history that caught my imagination. A time when our world was still largely unknown to us, when charts and maps had huge blank spaces in them or were purely speculative; a time when men undertook epic journeys with nothing but four inches of wood between them and destruction. I wrote To The Fair Land, a thriller set in the eighteenth century which centres on a voyage of discovery to the South Seas.

In the writing, I was also intrigued by the play between what’s “real” in a historical novel and what is not. In the eighteenth century people believed in the Great Southern Continent on no firmer evidence than that a Greek philosopher made it up. They created a land out of nothing more than their imaginations - which is exactly what I wanted to do in To The Fair Land.
At the same time, I wanted to ground the fantasy in historical fact so that I could use the mythical Fair Land as a mirror to the society the voyagers have left behind – an exploitative, unequal, commercial world. Where my voyagers see a peaceful, compassionate utopia, investors see only the opportunity to make more money – at the expense of people and the environment. And that in turn, is a mirror to the society we live in now...
For more information about To The Fair Land, see my website.

Monday, February 26, 2018


In all the commemorations around the one hundredth anniversary of votes for (some) women, it’s easy to forget that there were many women who didn’t want the vote. In 1908 a National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was formed. It later combined with the Men’s League to form the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. One of the leaders of the anti suffrage movement was best-selling novelist Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920).

Amongst my collection of suffrage books are signed copies of two of Mrs Humphry Ward’s works. The first is England’s Effort: Six Letters to an American Friend (1916) written to encourage America to join the war. The other is the 1910 novel Lady Merton, Colonist, inside which is a copy of the order of service for Mrs Humphry Ward’s funeral.

Mrs Humphry Ward made her anti-suffrage views known not only through her public speaking but through her novels. In 1915 she published an anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower, which tells the story of the eponymous heroine and her friendship with a very unpleasant militant suffragette, Gertrude Marvell.

Mrs Humphry Ward was convinced that the majority of English women did not want the vote. Her evidence for this was that only 3% of women had joined any suffrage society at all, although it’s not clear where she got the figure from. By contrast, she said, the Anti-Suffrage League had managed to gather 320,000 signatures on an anti-suffrage petition sent to Parliament in 1909.

Mrs Ward's signature in England's Effort
Pro-suffrage campaigners had often to deal with the argument that women simply did not want to be enfranchised. In a meeting on the Downs in Bristol in 1910, suffragette Dr Helena Jones, who was a medical inspector of schools, was interrupted during her speech by a man who reminded her that women did not want the vote. She replied, “It did not matter whether they wanted the vote, but it did matter if they needed it”. She added that this was exactly the stance taken by Gladstone when he extended the vote to agricultural labourers and was told they did not want it. His reply, Dr Jones said, was “that is all the more reason for giving him the vote”.

Anti suffragists fell broadly into two camps: those who believed that women were completely incapable of wielding political power of any kind, and those who, like Mrs Humphry Ward, thought that women did have a role to play in public life – but in local, not national, government. On the whole, most of those in the “women are incapable” camp were men.

Mrs Humphry Ward was not prepared to argue for the total incapacity of her sex. Indeed, she was a very capable woman who campaigned for the extension of further education opportunities for women, as well as better education for disabled children. By 1907 women had won the right to vote and stand for election on parish, rural district, urban district and county councils. It was in these areas that Mrs Humphry Ward thought women should apply themselves since issues such as education and poor law provision were natural extensions of women’s domestic role.

A signed copy of Lady Merton, Colonist
On the other hand, Mrs Humphry Ward thought that national government was men’s business: “In the field of local government…women are in their right, and the nation has given them powers of which they have scarcely as yet used a fraction…What we want now…is a strong local government movement among women, wholly dissociated from the franchise movement and opposed to it. Women’s local government societies of this kind are now beginning to spring up. The more widely they can be diffused…the more plainly [women] will they see that in a wise renouncement lies their strength, that in leaving to men the work and the responsibilities which are rightfully and specially theirs, they are not curtailing but strengthening their own influence with the nation.”

Unfortunately, Mrs Humphrey Ward contradicted her own argument by involving herself in national politics (as did many other women). During the election in January 1910 she campaigned for her son, Arnold, when he stood for election. The WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, commented, “Mrs Humphrey Ward, who thinks that other women are not sufficiently intelligent to exercise the vote, has been writing letters on behalf of her son, instructing the electors of his would-be constituency. He was defeated.”

For all that her anti-suffrage views aren’t likely to win much sympathy nowadays, I think it’s a pity if Mrs Humphry Ward’s achievements are forgotten. And while it’s true that some of her novels aren’t much to modern taste – Delia Blanchflower ends with Delia seeing the error of her ways, marrying and looking forward to having lots of babies with a husband whose “tenderness will be the master-light of all her days” – I think she is sadly under-rated as a novelist. Her 1888 novel Robert Elsmere, which explores the contemporary crisis of religious faith, was a ground-breaking book which challenged religious dogma.

So I’m pleased to own my two little bits of anti-suffrage history!

The order of funeral service tucked inside Lady Merton, Colonist

You can find out more about the life of Mrs Humphry Ward in the Spotlight OnArchive (opens as pdf document). 

And for more on the anti-suffrage movement, read Julia Bush’s excellent book Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Spotlight On: Mabel Tothill 1869-1964

Mabel Tothill was a Quaker, a tireless worker for social reform , and a non-militant suffragist. She was born in Liverpool and her family moved to Bristol when her father retired from business. Mabel went to Clifton High School and later lived in Clifton with her sister, but they moved back into the family home in Cambridge Park, close to the Downs, after her mother’s death.   

In the 1890s she was a member of the Bristol branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), as well as the Independent Labour Party. Her labour politics was to lead to a breakaway from the Bristol branch of the NUWSS when in 1912 the NUWSS formed an alliance with the Labour Party. The NUWSS had lost patience with the Liberal government which stubbornly refused to give women the vote, and had decided to work with the Labour Party which they thought was now the party most likely to help women to the franchise. However, many of the NUWSS's members weren’t happy about this and a large number resigned. The Bristol branch did not welcome the new pro-Labour policy and so Mabel Tothill, with NUWSS organiser Annie Townley, set up a new branch in East Bristol. Mabel Tothill was elected President of the East Bristol NUWSS.

In 1911 Mabel Tothill was one of the first women workers to move into the Bristol University settlement at Barton Hill (see Note). The Barton Hill Settlement provided meals, medical care and schooling for poor children on land which Mabel had purchased and given to the Settlement. When the Clifton High School Old Girls’ Club, as charitably minded as Bristol university students, set up a club for working girls, Mabel Tothill purchased a house for them in Hebron Street.    

When the First World War began, women workers were badly hit by unemployment as people retrenched their expenses and sales of fashion and luxury goods dropped. Women in the textile industries were particularly affected. Mabel Tothill was involved in schemes to alleviate women’s unemployment, such as offering training for unemployed seamstresses at Barton Hill. Women’s war-time unemployment was, however, only a temporary issue. Before long women were much in demand to take over men’s jobs as men joined or were conscripted into the armed forces and there was no longer a need for such schemes.

Mabel Tothill had other work to do. Acting on the Quaker peace testimony to oppose all war, she became secretary of the Bristol Joint Advisory Committee for Conscientious Objectors. This group looked out for the interests of imprisoned objectors, and campaigned against the war. 

In 1915 Mabel Tothill was involved in controversy after she wrote a letter referring to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organisation, on Barton Hill note paper. This, together with her well-known involvement in peace work, was one of the incidents that led to accusations against Bristol University that it was riddled with pro-German pacifists. However, a Lord Mayor’s enquiry found no evidence of pro-German sentiment at the University, and in order to avoid further embarrassing the University Mabel Tothill left the Barton Hill Settlement.

Mabel Tothill continued to campaign for peace. She set up a Bristol branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1923 she took part in a No More War Demonstration on the Downs.

After the war Mabel Tothill stood as a Labour candidate for St Paul’s in the municipal elections of 1919. By this time she had left the house in Cambridge Park and was living in the much less salubrious Rosemary Street, which was bombed during the Blitz and has now disappeared under Broadmead. Here she helped found the Rosemary Lane Nursery School for poor children, which still exists today as Rosemary Nursery School. 

Mabel Tothill argued that women were needed in local politics because they were concerned in issues such as nursery provision, improved education for poor children, and the need for new houses. Lloyd George had famously promised homes fit for heroes to the returning soldiers, but it was not a promise that was kept. As well as better housing, Mabel Tothill also campaigned for the provision of bath houses, and public toilets for women – not a very exciting issue perhaps but one that affected women’s ability to move around in public spaces.

Mabel Tothill was not successful in the 1919 election, but in 1920 she was elected onto the city council for Easton Ward. She was Bristol’s first woman councillor.

Unfortunately, she lost her seat a few months later. She was however co-opted onto the city council’s education committee and continued to work for education provision, particularly for poor children.

In the mid 1920s Mabel Tothill moved back to Clifton. She lived in Berkeley Square, and then in Pembroke Road – where her home was burgled. She was a governor of Badminton Girls' School in the 1930s. By 1939 she was living in Sandford, a village in the parish of Winscombe, where she was active in the local Women’s Institute, and a member of Winscombe Parish Council.

Mabel Tothill, Bristol’s first woman councillor, died in 1964.

Note: Settlements originated in the Victorian era. They were often associated with universities, and were established in poor areas as places where young educated people could live while doing community work.