As 2018 is the centenary of (some) women’s right to vote, it seems appropriate to mark that suffragist, Edith Gray (or Grey) Wheelwright lived at 52 Sydney Buildings with her mother Mary Caroline between 1910-1912. When starting my research I thought it would simply be a case of exploring Edith’s role in the Bath suffrage movement, however as I delved further into Edith’s history I found her a fascinating subject!
Edith Gray Wheelwright was born in Crowhurst, Surrey in 1868, the daughter of George Wheelwright, Curate of Crowhurst, and Mary Caroline (nee Gray). George Wheelwright died in 1875 and by the time of the 1901 census Edith and her mother were in Bath “living on own means”. They later moved to Sydney Buildings and at the time of the 1911 census Edith describes her occupation as “voluntary work in Women’s Suffrage and educational movement”.
Clearly Edith was an intelligent and educated woman (at the inquest into her death it was reported that she had studied botany and geology at Oxford). She was a social critic, novelist and a writer of popular science. Whilst still a teenager Edith started to enter essay competitions in the Girl’s Own Paper, a British story paper catering to girls and young women, and she contributed articles on popular science in magazines such as Great Thoughts, an evangelical penny weekly. In 1890 she won the Great Thoughts Literary Circle essay competition with a piece on “The Intellect of Women” and later published three novels, The Vengeance of Medea(1894), Anthony Graeme (1895) and A Slow Awakening(1902), all of which received good national reviews. “The Vengeance of Medea by Edith Gray Wheelwright, is one of the finest works of fiction we have seen this year…”
During her time in Bath, Edith became a suffragist and leading member of the Bath Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) serving as Secretary from 1909-13. It seems that she had been a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union but had distanced herself from their militant activities and returned to membership of the non-militant NUWSS. She had close links with the Blathwayt family at Eagle House, Batheaston which had become known as the Suffragette’s Retreat. Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, following their release from prison after hunger strikes, were invited to Eagle House to recuperate. The Blathwayt family created ‘Annie’s arboretum’ (named after Annie Kenney a leading suffragette) where holly trees were planted to celebrate women working for the cause whereas those militant women who had been imprisoned were celebrated with a conifer. There are charming photographs in local archives of Edith, elegantly dressed, planting an Ilex Aquifolium in October 1911 with a plaque which is now in the Roman Baths Museum.
Edith suffered a couple of mysterious and traumatic incidents which were reported in local and national newspapers. In October 1912 whilst walking to visit a friend one evening she was chloroformed from behind and robbed of a ring, her attacker later confessed and the ring was recovered. A few months after that, Edith was found unconscious in the canal whilst botanising amongst the water weed and was “restored to animation by artificial respiration” by a passer by!
The incident is also referenced in The Women’s Suffrage Movement – a reference guide 1866-1928 by Elizabeth Crawford:
“… A rather disturbing figure, Miss Wheelwright had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908, but like Mary Blathwayt had returned to the NUWSS fold. She was found unconscious in the canal in Bath in February 1913. The story put about recorded by Mary Blathwayt was that she had fallen in while collecting water weed. A few days later Lilias Ashworth Hallett told Mary Blathwayt that Miss Wheelwright had gone into an asylum”.
However, no further evidence has been found about Edith entering an asylum. It is known that soon after she left Bath she was living in Buckinghamshire where, during the First World War, she became an assistant to Maud Grieve the founder of “The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm” at Chalfont St Peter which offered courses in herb growing and drying.
It was exciting to also discover that by 1916 Edith had developed a friendship with Beatrix Potter through their mutual interest in gardening and medicinal plants, and Beatrix Potter’s membership of the National Herb Growing Association of which Edith was a founder member. Edith visited Beatrix Potter at Near Sawrey as evidenced by a letter BP wrote to her sister-in-law:
“Miss Wheelwright left this morning, I asked her about your aconite root she says the great trouble is that the druggists want a particular sort and they can only identify it by the flower, which I suppose is over? I think she said the right one flowers early. My double camomile is [the] wrong sort too. We have sent our 20lbs dried foxglove leaves back to town with her.” (7 September 1916)
It seems the two women kept in touch for many years, possibly until Beatrix Potter’s death in 1943. There is a charming Peter Rabbit postcard in the Lear-Potter Collection at Connecticut College, USA that Beatrix Potter sent to Edith with the inscription “To Miss Wheelwright, Greetings from Beatrix Potter for New Year 1928”.
Edith moved back to the West Country in later life settling in Tickenham near Clevedon. During the 1930s she wrote five books on gardening and medicinal plants, one of which The Physick Garden has the inscription “To Beatrix Potter in memory of the summer when I found the Grass of Parnassus on the mountain side, and we dried the foxglove leaves in her barn”.
Edith died on the 24th September 1949 at the age of 81 in Clevedon Cottage Hospital from coal gas poisoning. The inquest stated that she was found at her home in Tickenham in front of a gas cooker that was turned on but unlit. She had apparently become rather forgetful and weak, the verdict was accidental and there was no suggestion she had tried to take her own life. Not surprisingly it was also said that her garden in Tickenham was a great source of admiration.
This was a sad ending to the life of a remarkable woman, who was well respected as a champion of women’s suffrage and for her passion and authority on botany and medicinal plants. To quote Edith’s own words from the introduction to her book The Physick Garden:
“…For all civilization is built up upon the relation between man and the plants which enter into every human activity, giving us food, clothing, and fuel: they were the beginning of the progressive life of the world, and remain the background of all human organizations…”
During the course of this research, I have come across many newspaper articles and references to Edith Gray Wheelwright but I feel my research is still a work in progress and there is so much more to discover.
I would like to thank the following for their kind assistance: Elizabeth Crawford, Gareth Evans and Dr James Mussell for permission to reference their work; Linda Lear and Derek Ross for permission to reproduce the Peter Rabbit postcard which is on loan to the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives, Connecticut College and to Rose Oliveira of the Center; Bath in Time for permission to reproduce photographs from their archive.
Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement – a reference guide 1866-1928, 2000.
Gareth Evans, A Tale of Beatrix Potter’s War, Herbs, Vol 41, No 4, 2016.
James Mussell, Private Practices and Public Knowledge: Science, Professionalization and Gender in the late Nineteenth Century, Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, Issue 5.2 (Summer 2009).
Sydney Buildings is a road on the edge of Bath, which is a UN World Heritage Site. It follows a contour on the lower slopes of the hill leading up to the Bath University campus. Beside it is the Kennet and Avon Canal, connecting Bath to a national network of inland waterways. There are still reminders of the working days of the canal, but the road has always been predominantly residential. It is an easy walk to the Roman Baths, the Spa, Bath Abbey, Bath’s Georgian architectural treasures and most of the city’s sights and amenities. Like Australia’s biggest city, Sydney Buildings and a number of nearby roads and gardens are named after Thomas Townshend, Viscount Sydney, who was a British government minister (Home Secretary) under George III.
This website provides information about Sydney Buildings and the activities of the Sydney Buildings Householders’ Association.