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Why it’s time to celebrate Norfolk’s women history-makers

PUBLISHED: 07:40 08 March 2017

Author and archivist Frank Meeres with a photograph of Elsie Tileny, one of the women whose story is told in his new book, Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives.

Author and archivist Frank Meeres with a photograph of Elsie Tileny, one of the women whose story is told in his new book, Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives.

Copyright: Archant 2016

A new book looks at the lives of some of the most remarkable Norfolk women of the early 20th century. Trevor Heaton catches up with its author, local historian Frank Meeres.

The cover of 'Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives' by Frank Meeres, published by Poppyland. The cover of 'Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives' by Frank Meeres, published by Poppyland.

If the phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ probably still holds true, then – sadly - ‘history is written about men’ probably does too.

Once, only the lives of men – great and not-so-great – seemed worthy of attention.

But, happily, that is a view being increasing challenged at the national and local level, and Norfolk historian Frank Meeres is helping to underscore that with a new book which focuses on some of the county’s most remarkable women of the early decades of the last century.

From suffragettes to photographers, nurses to missionaries, these are stories of local women who achieved remarkable things in a male-centred world. The clue, as they say, is in the title: Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives.

They range from Norfolk teachers Miriam Pratt and Grace Marcon (later known as ‘Freda Graham’) - who played a prominent part in the Suffragette campaign fighting for votes for women - to Grace Bolton, born in Beeston near Mileham, and who was killed in a disaster at a munitions factory only a few months before the end of the First World War.

They also include the remarkable Elsie Tilney who saved a Polish Jew from the gas chambers, and the Norwich-born Constance and Joyce Haldinstein, who also found themselves swept up in the terrible events of the Holocaust.

Mr Meeres worked for many years at Norfolk Record Office as an archivist and then as an education and outreach officer. It was during his many researches there that he became increasingly aware that the story of women was under-represented.

“In the milllions of documents of Norfolk Record Office most of them tend to have been written by men, for men,” he explained. “It’s only when you get to the 20th century when you begin to have diaries and the like, when you start getting a strong female voice.”

Earlier centuries women tended to be seen through the prism of male interests. “In the 1530s, for example, there was a riot in Norwich market place led by women. But we only know about it from the punishments that the men imposed on them.”

Happily, in later centuries the male bastions began - slowly - to be chipped away.

Women’s right to vote might still be decades away, but Mr Meeres shows how the likes of Charlotte Lucy Bignold and Mary Anne Birkbeck - both scions of two leading Norfolk families - won places on school boards in 1881, as even the most patriachal of town hall stalwarts could see that women had a special interest in education. It was a small but significant victory on the path which would see the history-making year of 1923 with the election of Ethel Colman as Britain’s first female Lord Mayor and Dorothy Jewson as the city’s first female MP.

So many of the stories in Mr Meeres’ book are bound up in war, or the threat of war. “There was a strong anti-war movement among women in Norwich in the First World War, people like Mary Sheepshanks, but this story has been rather ignored up to now,” he said.

The internet, and the ever-increasing number of archives being digitised, has created something of a golden age for historians. And that equally holds true for this book. It has enabled, for example, Mr Meeres to finally to tell the full story of the tragic Eugenia Zagajewska.

“That is my favourite story in the whole book,” he said. “I have been intrigued for year by her grave in Earlham cemetery among those for Polish airmen.

“But it is only since the original sources have been put on the internet that I have finally been able to find out her full story.”

And ‘extraordinary’ really does sum up the women in Mr Meeres’ current book. “I feel very strongly that our children should be taught about these women and what they achieved at the local level,” Mr Meeres added. “Elsie Tilney deserves a plaque at the very least, and so does Dorothy Jewson.”

Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Lives, by Frank Meeres, is published by Poppyland, £10.95

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