Whitehall Celebrates Women's History Month - Part 1
Whitehall Celebrates Women's History Month -
Written by Nicky Lawrence Gravestock
International Women’s day is celebrated on March 8th all over the world and focuses on the political, cultural, economic, and social achievements of women. Sponsored by the United Nations since 1975, it is a national holiday in many countries (1) and centres around the idea of promoting women’s rights.
Women's History Month takes place from the 1st to the 31st of March 2023.
Women's History Month is an annual month highlighting women's contributions to events in history and contemporary society (2).
Women’s History Month in the USA traces its beginnings back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911. By coincidence, in the UK this was also the year where many women protested against the 1911 Census by withholding information or scribbling comments on it along the lines of “no vote – no census” (3) (but more about this later...).
This month we want to celebrate the life of Harriett Maud Müller, one of the last owners of Whitehall Historic House in Cheam (1872–1959), who would have witnessed many political changes for women in her lifetime.
Harriett (known as Maud) and her sister Susan (known as Mary) would have been aware of key events in the Suffragette movement and the continually shifting political climate towards greater freedoms for women. As alluded to earlier, many women avoided the enumerators for the 1911 Census by ‘passive protest’. They also hid and refused to be counted, although Maud herself is counted on the 1911 return.
To put Maud’s life into context with the wider political climate:
1913 saw the passing of legislation, (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act), also known as The Cat and Mouse Act, a tactic by the government to deal with the issue of Suffragettes who were on hunger strike.
1918 bought the passing of the Representation of the People Bill, where women over 30 who were householders or married to a householder gained the right to vote.
1918 saw The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act which allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs.
1918 saw The Education Act which raised the school leaving age to 14,
1919 saw The Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 which made it easier for women to go to University and take up professional jobs as teachers, nurses, lawyers and doctors.
1928 saw the passing of The Equal Franchise Act which gave all women over 21 the right to vote.
This is a fictional account of Maud Müller’s life in the early to mid 1930s at Whitehall which was then her family home, recounted through the eyes of a domestic servant at Whitehall, Florence Gertrude Davey.
We conjecture that Florence was living at Whitehall at this time as she is listed on the 1934 rolling District East Cheam Parliamentary Constituency. She was listed with (Harriett) Maud Müller, Susan Mary Müller and another domestic servant, Lilian Young.
Florence was also listed on the 1939 Household Register with Lilian and their personal occupations were recorded as ‘paid domestic servant’. Maud and Susan were recorded as ‘unpaid domestic duties’.
(above image supplied by Geoff West)
The account is based on some accounts gleaned from newspaper reports (which were written much later in the 1950’s), official records such as the census in 1911 which showed who was living at Whitehall, and objects in Whitehall Historic House (many in the attic) that are reflective of the time period. There has been lots of guesswork and there will certainly be many historical inaccuracies (for which I apologise in advance!) The surviving photos of Maud and Mary were notoriously difficult to date. However, I hope that you, the reader, will enjoy the blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it ...
This blog will be released in 4 parts.
1934: (AUGUST) FLO’S STORY:
Lily and I are spinning around the house like wooden tops, I take the stairs as fast as I dare, lowering my head to avoid a nasty bump. Alighting at the top, I notice my breath is coming out in short ragged gasps. I pull myself together, there’s a lot to get finished before luncheon.
I shiver and rub my hands together; I need to keep moving. On entering Miss Maud’s bedroom, I observe the state of the worn down candle on the bedside table and guess she’s had her nose in that Dickens’ book, Mr David Copperfield again. I make a clicking noise with my tongue, her eyes are bad enough already, soon she’ll be using that huge magnifying glass she carries about with her permanently.
I check for stains on the elegant Oyster silk dress, its cut on the bias and has been left draped over a chair. Then the brown fur coat is carefully placed in the wardrobe, I carry it as though it were glass and try to prevent it from becoming crushed. I roll up my sleeves and methodically strip the stiff, heavy sheets on her four poster bed. Not for the first time I think about how doing chores around the farm has prepared me for a life in domestic service. Cool spare linen is painstakingly folded into capacious chests at the foot of the bed. I tidy away pearl coloured beads and delicate silver marcasite on the dressing table; I’m still spluttering from dust beaten out of bed hangings.
(Dress and Fur Coat, Attic, Whitehall)
(Photo of bedroom in Whitehall c. 1969)
By now, Lily has launched into scrubbing the wooden floorboards with red cardinal polish (my knees won’t stand for it any more). There are fourteen rooms in the house to get around (not including the scullery, kitchen and bathroom or closet). Many houses of this size now have modern conveniences such as electricity, but the sisters seem to have an aversion to such ‘new fangled’ appliances as the one invented recently by Mr Hoover. So we make do, but (if you want my opinion) sometimes I feel as though it’s a bit like living in the dark ages!
However, Lily and I are fond of the two sisters and the old house, despite all our ‘complainings’; for we’ve been with them for over a decade. They are always so good to us and I’m lucky in these times to have a Situation.
Miss Maud will be returning from the meeting at the Women’s Citizen’s Association soon. I will take up a tray set with a rose patterned bone china cup and saucer for tea and toasted buttery crumpets. Then Lily will fill the copper warming pan with coals to place in the mistress’s bed before she retires for the night.
It was Miss Maud’s birthday today. I passed by Mrs Rowe’s Sweet Shop in Cheam for she has a bit of a weakness for Fry’s Cream Chocolate. Lily’s partial to that new chocolate bar invented by Mr Mars, but I still love a Banana Glory or a Gobstopper.
In her 61 years, Miss Maud says she has seen many changes for women. I sometimes overhear her chatting to her sister about women’s rights as she has always had the notion since forever that women should be as politically active as men.
That 1911 Census certainly caused a bit of a ruckus. I remember reading in the Newspaper about some ladies having a picnic on Wimbledon Common. They carried banners protesting against the Census return which read “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted”; goodness, in Wimbledon of all places, it’s only down the road. Of course we were both young women back then and Miss Maud might not have approved of this behaviour.
“You won’t remember what Mr. Punch said back then in 1911”, I said to Lily, (she was only 3 years old then).
It was one evening after I had bought the Misses Müller’s their tea of ‘beautiful soup’ (made by boiling down beef bones (the meaty smell not so ‘beautiful’ as it remained turning the air acrid for hours; and I had a fancy to try one of those new Oxo cubes).
“What was it then?” Lily asked:
“The suffragettes have definitely taken leave of their Census”, (5) I replied.
“Honestly, what bright spark thought that one up?”
To be continued …
About the author:
Nicky is a Volunteer at Whitehall Historic House and a member of Sutton Writers. Between September 2021 – December 2022 she enrolled on three courses for Writing for Wellbeing run by Sutton College located at the Museum. She decided to stay … and as they say, the rest is history!
References and Sources:
(1) Wikapedia – see full list of countries that celebrate this day https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Women%27s_Day#Around_the_world
(3) “No vote, no Census” article, Historic UK, written by Ellen Castelow
(4) With thanks to Geoff West, Volunteer, Whitehall who supplied the 1911 Census.
(5) “No vote, no census” article, Historic UK, written by Ellen Castelow