By Helena Wojtczak
Local historian- Helena Wojtczak has released a new book this week. Notable Sussex Women is a richly illustrated collection of 580 short biographies of outstanding, eminent, eccentric, famous or rebellious women who were born, lived or died in Sussex. The book is in stock at Spike’s Cafe and Jacobin in Norman Road, at Salmon’s and Waterstone’s in the town centre, at Pomegranate Café in George St, the Fishermen’s Museum and the Shipwreck Centre in the Old Town and online at www.hastingspress.co.uk.
Among the fifty who lived in the Hastings area was the world’s first qualified female doctor and a writer who lived opposite her in Exmouth Place on the West Hill.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born near Bristol and raised in the USA. In 1845 she decided to study medicine, although it was considered ridiculous, indecent and even dangerous for women. After a succession of sixteen medical schools refused to admit her, she was eventually accepted by Geneva College, New York, where she was greeted with blatant hostility, barred from classroom demonstrations and ostracised. Despite everything, in 1849, ranking first in her class above the 150 men who had opposed and taunted her, she became the first woman in the world to qualify as a doctor.
Working in a midwifery school in Paris she lost the sight in one eye through infection, preventing her chosen career of surgery. She moved to London in 1850, but no practice would employ a female doctor, so she opened an infirmary and a dispensary for poor women and a private practice, and worked as a professor of gynaecology at the school of medicine for women. In 1858 she became the first woman on the newly-founded British Medical Register. This was deeply distressing to many male doctors and foreign qualifications were immediately deemed no longer acceptable for registration. In 1879 she leased Rock House, Hastings, where she lived with her adopted daughter Kitty Barry (who was secretary, housekeeper and companion) and two servants. Two years later she co-founded the Moral Reform Union and opened a branch in Hastings.
She wrote several books, including The Human Element of Sex (1884) and Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895) and sent articles and letters to the local press about conservation, the environment, the East Hill funicular railway and the tramways.
Dr Blackwell died at Rock House, her memorial service was held at St Clement’s Church, she was buried in Scotland and has a blue plaque in London. In 1914, when Hastings held a Pageant of Heroes, a long procession of girls and women marched to Rock House, where suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett unveiled a memorial plaque.
Isabel de Giberne Sieveking (1857–1936) was a writer and suffragette. A cousin of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and daughter of the Chief Justice of Bombay, she was born and raised in Surrey, where she learned French, German and Greek and studied the great writers. After her marriage in 1891 she lived at Harrow and raised four children while writing magazine articles.
By 1909 she was a widow living at 1 Exmouth Place, Hastings. She joined the local suffragettes, although health concerns limited her activities to writing and public speaking. Between 1909 and 1912, under the name I.G. Sieveking, she wrote a novel and several important works of biography and history. During the First World War she founded The Hastings Herb Depot at 9 King’s Road, St Leonards, working in the shop daily for several years. Her mission was to teach people the medicinal use of herbs and how to use free food, such as edible fungi. After the war, then in her sixties, she founded the Fellowship of Women, to ameliorate the loneliness of elderly widows and spinsters.
“Hastings Town” July 2008
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