Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Mayor of Aldeburgh

I was in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, over the Easter weekend and visited the parish church. To my surprise, I discovered that there was a women’s history interest. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), most famous for being the first woman doctor to qualify in Britain, was Mayor of Aldeburgh between 1908 and 1910.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson information panel in Aldeburgh parish church
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson information panel in Aldeburgh parish church

She became Mayor following the death of her husband, James Anderson, who was previously Mayor. I think this is interesting – it’s just like the first three women MPs, who all took over from their husbands. Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat for Plymouth Sutton, following her husband Waldorf Astor’s elevation to the peerage in 1919; Margaret Wintringham was the second, elected after the death of her husband Thomas Wintringham in 1921; Mabel Philipson was the third, elected in Berwick upon Tweed in 1923 after her husband Hilton Philipson was unseated on petition.

Long before she was Mayor, Elizabeth Garrett was one of the first women to be elected to the London School Board in 1870, along with Emily Davies. Patricia Hollis’s definitive book on women in local government Ladies Elect, says that Garrett’s success was crucial in establishing the right of women to stand and set precedents for school boards elsewhere. Recent research has shown that women participated in local government through a wide range of local bodies during the 19th century; the popular interest in the Parliamentary franchise has perhaps overshadowed this.

Blue plaques to the Garrett sisters, from openplaques.org
Blue plaques to the Garrett sisters, from openplaques.org

Although Garrett was the first female Mayor in Britain (confirmed by her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), her Wikipedia page is incorrect when it says she was a magistrate. Although mayors did usually become magistrates ex officio, women could not become magistrates until after the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson supported women’s suffrage, of course, and her sister Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the non-militant suffrage organisation) was born in Aldeburgh. I was delighted to find there is a blue plaque marking both sisters on the same house, although unable to find it on my visit (the location on Open Plaques is wrong!) I have since found it on Street View.

The Garrett family plot, Aldeburgh parish churchyard
The Garrett family plot, Aldeburgh parish churchyard

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is most well-known as a doctor. She enjoyed a long medical career in London, combining a successful private practice with much work for poor women and children. As you might imagine, she became the first woman doctor to qualify in Britain in 1865 only after a lengthy struggle – she obtained her licence via the Society of Apothecaries, which then decided not to admit any other women to its examinations. History repeated itself a few years later when she became a member of the British Medical Association in 1873, and the BMA then decided not to admit any other women.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson gravestone, Aldeburgh Parish Church
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson gravestone, Aldeburgh Parish Church

So although she was a pioneer, other early aspiring women doctors in Britain such as Sophia Jex-Blake were unable to follow Garrett Anderson’s route. They had to qualify abroad; Garrett Anderson also obtained her MD abroad, from the University of Paris in 1870. This picture shows her gravestone, which is in the Garrett family plot in the churchyard. It’s barely legible, but you may just about make out the ‘MD’ which sits proudly after her name (middle line, right hand side).

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