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Choosing to Challenge: Islington Women and Politics

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

The theme of IWD 2021 is ‘Choosing to Challenge’. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, and can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

We pay tribute to and celebrate inspirational Islington women who, over many centuries and across a variety of professions, have ‘Chosen to Challenge’. The contribution from Islington women to gain the vote and many other political advancements has been immense. From Ethel Bentham to Valda James, each has accelerated women’s equality and helped towards creating a better and inclusive world.

[Part 5 of 5 of Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women]


Ethel Bentham (1861-1931)

Physician and Islington’s first female Member of Parliament

Ethel BenthamEthel Bentham was born in the City of London in 1861. She was raised in Dublin where her father, William, was a Justice of the Peace. As a young girl Ethel visited the Dublin slums with her mother, which inspired her to become a doctor. For three years, she trained at the London School of Medicine for Women gaining a certificate in medicine in 1893 and, the following year, Ethel became a qualified midwife in Dublin.  She received an M.D. in 1895, after training in hospitals in Paris and Brussels.

She initially worked in London hospitals before entering general practice in Newcastle, with Dr Ethel Williams, the first female doctor in the city, and a suffragist. Ethel Bentham became a member of the executive committee of the Newcastle branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1900, and joined the Labour Party in 1902, the Fabian Society in 1907, and the Fabian Women’s Group in 1908.

In 1907, she unsuccessfully stood as the Labour Party candidate in a by-election in the Westgate South ward of Newcastle. Back in London in 1909, Ethel established a practice in North Kensington and, two years later, was behind the establishment of a mother and baby clinic in the area. The clinic was the first in Britain to provide medical treatment alongside advice. She served as its chief medical officer, and benefactor, and underwrote the clinic’s expenses.

Ethel’s political career ran parallel to her medical work. She stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for Kensington Borough Council in 1909, and the London County Council in 1910, but was eventually elected a member of Kensington Borough Council in 1912, a position she held for 13 years. Following the First World War, Ethel was appointed as one of the first women magistrates, working in the children’s courts and on the Metropolitan Asylums Board. From 1918 to 1931, she sat on the Labour Party National Executive Committee, while also serving on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations.

Ethel stood unsuccessfully as the Labour Party candidate for Islington East in the General Elections of 1922 and 1923. However, she finally succeeded and became Member of Parliament for Islington East in 1929 – Islington’s first female MP. She was also the first ever woman Quaker and doctor, as well as he oldest woman at 68 years of age, to be elected to Parliament. Ethel served in only the second ever Labour Government, headed by Ramsay MacDonald. She spoke infrequently in the House of Commons in her two years in Parliament. One of her most memorable speeches was during debate on the Mental Treatment Bill.

Ethel died on 19 January 1931, at her flat in Chelsea, just after her 70th birthday, due to heart failure following influenza. Her death triggered a by-election, held on 19 February in which the Labour candidate, Leah Manning, was elected to succeed her as MP for Islington East.


Edith Garrud (1872-1971)

Suffragette and martial-arts specialist 

Edith GarrudEdith Garrud (née Williams) was born in Bath in 1872. As a child she moved to London to live with her uncle, Henry Williams, at 60 Thornhill Square, Islington. In 1893 she married William Garrud at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Cloudesley Square.

In 1899 Edith and William attended a show of ‘wrestling’ by Edward Barton-Wright at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square. This ‘wrestling’ turned out to be a martial art Barton-Wright had learnt in Japan called ‘jiu-jitsu’. So impressed was Garrud with the art, which allowed someone as diminutive as herself (she was four foot nine) to overpower larger opponents, that she joined Barton-Wright’s school.

Garrud was soon running two dojos (training schools), one in Argyll Street, off Oxford Circus, and one on Seven Sisters Road. Originally Edith would put on jiu-jitsu shows whilst her husband explained the art, but suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst encouraged her to speak for herself. In these exhibitions Garrud would welcome a burly policeman to the stage and encourage him to attack her so she could show the advantages of jiu-jitsu by defeating him. The bobby was, of course, a fellow martial artist sympathetic to the suffrage movement, but the demonstration still got wholehearted cheers!

In 1907 Garrud starred in a film directed by one of Britain’s first film directors Alf Collins, who specialised in chase scenes. Jiu-jitsu Downs the Footpads depicts Garrud being attacked by two muggers and successfully fighting them off.

Suffragette PunchIn 1908 Garrud joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She offered self-defence courses for fellow suffragettes and wrote articles explaining basic jiu-jitsu positions in the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women. Her notoriety was such that the popular magazine Health and Strength published an article entitled ‘Jui-jutsuffragettes: A New Terror for the London Police’. The nickname was no doubt meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but Garrud approved of it! Punch magazine also published a cartoon of Garrud standing alone against a group of policemen with the strapline The suffragette that knew jiu-jitsu (see above right image).

The Cat and Mouse Act, where suffragette hunger-strikers would be released from prison in order to recoup their strength and then rearrested, came into effect in 1913. To protect these women Garrud formed ‘The Bodyguard’, a 30 strong all-female suffragette defence force. They were trained in jiu-jitsu and would hide clubs and stones up their dresses. However, Garrud rarely fought at the front line as the suffragettes were careful not to lose their self-defence guru to imprisonment.

After the War Garrud, who had lost one of her sons in the trenches, continued as a jiu-jitsu teacher eventually selling her dojos in 1925. She died in Bromley, Kent, in 1971 aged 99.


Catherine Griffiths (1885-1988)

Local politician, nurse and suffragette

Catherine GriffifthsCatherine Griffiths was born in Glamorgan, South Wales, and was one of a family of five children. She left home when she was 17 years old and went to Cardiff to train as a State Registered Nurse at City Hospital. Soon after qualifying as a SRN she met her future husband, James, a Civil and Mining Engineer.

In the 1900s, Catherine joined the suffragette movement and the Votes for Women campaign. In protest against inequality, she smashed windows and was arrested for placing tacks on the seat of Chancellor of the Exchequer , David Lloyd George, in the House of Commons at Westminster. Found guilty, she served a short prison sentence, possibly at Holloway Prison.

At the outbreak of the First World War, as a trained nurse, Catherine went to serve in France. Afterwards, Catherine, her husband and two children settled in Finsbury (now Islington), where she became involved in local politics. By 1922 Catherine was one of the original members of the Women’s Committee of the Labour Party in Finsbury, based at the Peel Institute. From 1937 until 1965, Catherine was a labour councillor, becoming Mayor of Finsbury in 1960-61. She was particularly active in the areas of health, maternity and child welfare, housing, cleansing, libraries, and civil defence. During the whole of her service on Finsbury Council, Catherine continued to carry out her full-time duties as a State Registered Nurse. During the Second World War she served as Commandant at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in City Road, London.

In addition, Catherine served as a governor of Compton, Hugh Myddelton and Prior Weston Primary Schools and as an estate governor of Alleyn’s College at Dulwich. She also found time to take part in local Welsh affairs, and was a lifelong member of the King’s Cross Welsh Chapel, as well as being an active participant of the Glamorgan Society. In 1983, she was awarded the Freedom of the Borough (of Islington) as a mark of esteem and in recognition of over 46 years of public service.

In 1988, Catherine was guest of honour at the House of Commons for the 70th anniversary commemorations for women gaining the parliamentary vote, or universal suffrage, in 1918. Newspaper headlines dubbed her ‘the last of the suffragettes’.  A few months after her visit to Westminster, Catherine passed away, aged 102 years. Catherine Griffiths Court, residential housing in Pine Street, Clerkenwell, is named in her memory.


Valda James (1928 – )

First black woman elected to Islington Council and the borough’s first black mayor

Valda JamesValda James was born in Saint Thomas Parish, Jamaica, in 1928. She came to England in 1961, as part of the Windrush generation. After her marriage ended, Valda raised her children as a single parent, working in catering and dressmaking before becoming a British Red Cross nurse for eight years.

In 1986 she became the first black woman to be elected to Islington Council and bringing up a family as a lone parent informed her work as a councillor on the borough’s Social Services committee. She became deputy mayor of the borough and, in 1988, Valda was appointed  Islington’s first black mayor

To fulfill her role as mayor, Valda took early retirement from her regular job but this affected her pension. She was also unable to claim councillors’ attendance allowances, as mayoral duties did not give sufficient time for her to carry out the duties required of a councillor. As a result, and due to a lack of income, Valda worked as a cleaning supervisor, with a start time of 5.30am, before beginning her working day as Mayor.

In 1989, while still undertaking mayoral duties, she founded a Sickle Cell Support Group in Camden. This was set up as a forum for people with sickle cell and thalassaemia diseases to meet, discuss and support each other.

In 2018, a photograph of Valda by her granddaughter, artist Phoebe Collings-James, was exhibited on an external wall of  The Peel Institute, Clerkenwell. The photograph commemorates the cultural impact left by Valda on Islington, and was part of the LDN WMN initiative celebrating 100 years since the first women gained the parliamentary vote in Britain. It also displayed close to  where she has lived all her life.


Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women 

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Compiled by the Friends of Islington Museum / Islington Heritage Service (March 2021)

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