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Under the microscope: London’s great women

Guided by author Rachel Kolsky, Maggie Gruner takes a female-themed tour through the capital

23 March, 2018 — By Maggie Gruner

Birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, who opened Britain’s first family planning clinic, in Holloway

THERE they are on their podiums – statues of statesmen and male military leaders hogging London’s limelight. As Rachel Kolsky points out in her new book, Women’s London: A Tour Guide to Great Lives, there are very few statues in the capital commemorating women – unsurprising as research showed just 2.7 per cent of statues in the UK represent non-royal females.

But more sculptures of women are on the way, including a statue of suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, due to be installed at Clerkenwell Green, and one of campaigner Millicent Fawcett, who lived in Bloomsbury, will be unveiled in Parliament Square.

And Rachel’s book shows London bristling with reminders of influential women, many of whom lived or worked in Islington and Camden – where a bronze, life-size statue of singer Amy Winehouse, unveiled in 2015, stands at the Stables Market, Camden Town.

The statue of Amy Winehouse in Camden Town

Billed as the only travel guidebook that focuses on the women who have shaped London through the centuries and the legacy they have left behind, the book is packed with thumbnail biographies and photographs of people, places and memorials.

Among those spotlighted are early equality campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in Bloomsbury and Somers Town and birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, who opened Britain’s first family planning clinic, in Holloway.

The book also includes a timeline that illustrates starkly how long it has taken for women to get top jobs. For example, last year’s appointment of Cressida Dick as the first woman Metropolitan Police Commissioner came 98 years after the Met got its first female officer, Sofia Stanley.

Rachel – a prize-winning London Blue Badge Tourist Guide – takes readers on a journey landmarked by plaques, statues, murals and significant buildings. En route she introduces us to women including suffragette Edith Garrud (1872-1971), commemorated by a metal sculpture outside Finsbury Park station and by a plaque at her former Thornhill Square, Islington, home. The plaque notes that she was ‘the suffragette that knew jiu-jitsu.’ She trained 30 women as a bodyguard to protect suffragette leaders from arrest.

Rachel Kolsky

Rachel’s “Bloomsbury Women” tour celebrates artists and writers including Virginia Woolf. And in Gordon Square, a bronze bust commemorates Second World War hero Nora Baker – born in Russia as Noor Inayat Khan – who spied for Britain, was executed at Dachau and posthumously awarded the George Cross. It was the first public statue to an Indian woman in Britain.

Tavistock Square has a statue of Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925), the first British woman to gain a Masters degree in surgery, and surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital.

Among others flagged up are Clerkenwell-born restaurateur Elena Salvoni (1920-2016), host to many celebrity customers, and Lily Montagu (1873-1963), women’s rights campaigner and co-founder of Liberal Judaism.

In Westminster, women including Millicent Fawcett watched Commons debates from a Ladies’ Gallery with heavy metal grilles, known as the “cage”, and the book’s Hampstead tour includes snippets about former residents including artist Ethel Gabain, novelist Daphne du Maurier and cellist Jacqueline du Pre.

The author said: “Having devised women-themed walks since 2005 I had been researching London’s women for over 11 years before the book was written. It was the result of prompting by my loyal walkers.”

With self-guided walking tours, specially commissioned maps and fascinating insights, the book is handy for exploring London on foot and equally engaging for the armchair reader.

Women’s London: A Tour Guide to Great Lives. By Rachel Kolsky, IMMLifestyle Books, £14.99

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