From the founder of the women’s police force and those engaged in the suffragist struggle, to the mysterious case of Lady Elizabeth Somerset’s obelisk and a co-founder of the Egyptian Exploration Society – all are examples of just a few of the thousands of women who have shaped the history of Bristol.

These powerful stories are the focus of author Jane Duffus, who through her book series The Women Who Built Bristol – currently working on Volume Three – considers the huge contribution of women to the city, and beyond.

For the huge historical contributions of women so often has been concealed, forgotten. Across the country, many accounts of place seem pre-occupied with the comparative privilege of men – the histories they have written, received. Jane is determined for that not to be the case. On moving to Bristol in 2008, she was struck by how much the narrative of the place seemed to focus on male accounts – leaving women side-lined. Dedicated research led her to discover the histories of thousands of women here working hard – and often in ingenious ways, against the odds – to not only impact the times they lived in, but to shape the future too. The first The Women Who Built Bristol book by Jane was published by Tangent Books in 2018 – considering the stories of 251 women (and three ‘she-roic’ dogs!) over the time period 1184-2018 – with 30 specially-contributed illustrations. It certainly made an impression, shaking up what so many had believed to be the set narrative of the city and surrounding area. Instead, readers were plunged into the fascinating stories of women throughout society; reformers, writers, workhouse inmates, artists, historians, inventors, pin makers, lord mayors and so many more!

Consider the fascinating life of Frances Power Cobbe for example; who although was born in Ireland in 1822, came to Bristol relatively early in her life, where she helped with the Red Lodge Reformatory (what is now Bristol’s ‘Red Lodge’). She then went on to found numerous animal rights groups, became a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage and was a prolific author of books and essays - considering everything from The Intuitive Theory of Morals (1855) to Scientific Spirit of the Age (1888)! A particularly intriguing fact is that during her first journey to Bristol– having travelled over from Ireland with her brother when she was 15 –she agreed to be winched in a basket from one side of the Avon Gorge to the other in an attempt to cross the city; as this was before the Clifton Suspension Bridge was built!

Brave, passionate and determined tales are key feature of the book… and Jane found the reception so positive, with her research into Bristol women still ever-growing, that The Women Who Built Bristol: Volume Two followed in 2019. Now working on a highly-anticipated Volume Three, Jane’s dedication to exploring women’s history is clear.

Passionate about promoting women across culture, Jane is also a journalist, public speaker, ultrarunner and women’s comedy promoter – with The What the Frock! Book of Funny Women another one of her titles, inspired by the award-winning What The Frock! comedy project that she set up in 2012. With years of experience working as a journalist and freelance editor for multiple magazines, Jane’s approach is perceptive, person-focused… and she certainly has an eye for a story – celebrating those of women that may well have been hidden or misrepresented in particular.

Jane Duffus - Jon Craig

Jane Duffus CREDIT Jon Craig

So has women’s history in been a ‘hidden topic’ for too long here in Bristol? Why? And what are some of the accounts that emerge when deciding to delve below the surface? Here at Haunt Bristol, we spoke to Jane Duffus herself to find out more...

Hello Jane. What was the initial inspiration behind The Women Who Built Bristol?

“When I moved to Bristol in 2008, I wanted to know more about my new home city. And although I wasn’t initially looking for stories about women, I soon realised I was pretty much only being told about the history of men, which was pretty annoying. In the history books that did exist, I found a few mentions of reformer Mary Carpenter and suffragette Annie Kenney in some places, but very little mention of many other women. And I thought there just had to be more than just two women in Bristol’s history who were worth remembering… given archaeological digs have found items up to 300,000 years old in parts of Bristol. And guess what? There are more than two women who did anything of interest in Bristol… there are literally thousands of amazing women, most of whom are little known today. So my mission is to honour those women by sharing their stories.”

In historical accounts of Bristol, do you think that the role of women has been misrepresented? Why do you think this is?

“Yes, definitely. In the sense that women have been excluded from many accounts of Bristol’s history. I suppose that until fairly recently, a lot of local historians - not just in Bristol but everywhere - tended to be men of a certain age, and so maybe it didn’t occur to them that anyone would be interested in women’s stories and, depressingly, they probably didn’t even realise that they weren’t writing about women. Instead, they were just writing about men like them. To earn a mention in newspapers, court reports and other historical documents (which are common places to start researching historical figures), you generally had to be a man. Because it was men making the political decisions, men running the city, men being given all the credit. But that’s only half the story. Given more than 50% of the population is female, there is a lot of history that has not been told. Until now!”

In terms of the approach of the first book – how did you go about choosing the women featured and the time period covered?

“The time period dictated itself, in that I will include any woman of interest who has a connection to Bristol but is no longer alive. Consequently, both books cover about an 800 year period. The women featured are a mixture of women who achieved ‘obviously’ great things, such as Dorothy Peto who founded the women’s police force, suffragists such as Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Maria Colby, or artists including Ellen Sharples and Mary Fedden. But I am also keen to include women whose stories are not ‘obviously’ great and who would probably be very surprised to know that they have been included in a book of exceptional women.

“I am keen to champion working-class women, because their stories are so little heard. Grocer Harriet Lewis is one of my favourites. On the face of it, she is ‘just’ a grocer from Easton, so what? But really, she is a working-class, poorly educated woman who was left a widow and single-mother at the age of 25 after her husband was killed in the mines. She fought hard to raise the money to buy a grocery shop that she ran successfully so that she could look after her family and eventually buy her own house. That’s an impressive woman in my eyes, and she was doing all this in the 1910s at the same time that the suffrage struggle reached its peak - something that she would neither have the time to be involved in, nor benefit by when a small change to the law came in 1918, given that she (and many of the women who did campaign for votes for women) didn’t meet the stringent criteria set by the government. It’s very interesting when you consider what these women were doing in the circumstances that surround them. Nothing happens in isolation. Harriet is an extraordinarily interesting and important woman, but you won’t find her in any other history books, sadly.”

It must have been a fascinating learning process. Are there any stories or individuals that stood out to you especially or particularly surprised you?

“Given this is for Haunt Bristol, I will mention a few of the spookier stories. And the story of teenager Lady Elizabeth Somerset is certainly a spooky one.

“The Dower House in Stoke Park (the big yellow house on the hill that you see as you leave Bristol by driving up the M32) was originally built in 1553 and rebuilt in 1760 for use by the widow of the estate. Perhaps a deciding factor for rebuilding the house was the death of the residents’ daughter, Lady Elizabeth Somerset, who fell off her horse while riding in the grounds and fatally broke her neck. Does Elizabeth still haunt the park? Despite the fact horses have not been ridden in the grounds for decades, there have been numerous reports of galloping hooves being heard. Following Elizabeth’s death, her family built an obelisk on the hill where she died and it is claimed that if you stand beside the obelisk and hear three knocks, then Elizabeth’s spirit is close by. The area has been regularly visited by paranormal investigators, one of whom had his photograph taken next to the obelisk. When he looked at the developed picture, he saw a figure standing just behind his shoulder… despite there having been nobody there when the picture was taken. Make of this what you will…

“While in 1761, some terrifying events took place at the Lamb Inn, near Old Market. Landlord Richard Giles had two daughters who had reportedly been possessed. Molly, 13, and Dobby, eight, experienced unexplained fits and said they could hear voices. Each night, something was pricking them with pins, and furniture flew around their room. Eventually, the forces behind these activities began throwing the girls out of their beds and even four men could not hold each girl down. Henry Durbin, a pharmacist from Redcliff Street, saw furniture flying in the girls’ room and the pin pricks on their bodies. He also saw a wine glass being thrown by an unseen force from the table straight into a nearby woman, and saw Molly’s cap rise four feet above her head, followed by the sound of someone hitting the headboard of the bed as if it was a drum. It was believed the truth lay in witchcraft. Richard Giles had recently started a fast-paced horse-drawn coach service between Bristol and London and one woman to whom he had given a lift was a witch from Mangotsfield, who had been paid by a rival driver to ruin Richard’s business. It was believed that in addition to cursing his daughters, the witch conjured up a spirit who spooked Richard’s 18 horses so badly that the coach was overturned in Hanham. Many people believed the whole thing was conjured up by trickery but so much of what happened could not be easily explained and remains clouded in mystery.”

The Women Who Built Bristol: Volume Two, was published in October 2019. In the course of putting the books together… can you tell us a little more about people’s reactions? Have you had interesting accounts come to light, for example?

“I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the response to the first volume, which was originally going to be a standalone book. The response to it triggered the writing of volume two, and of volume three which I’m working on at the moment. I’ve been invited to give a huge number of talks all over the place, at venues ranging from school assemblies to local cemeteries and even the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. People are really inspired by these stories of forgotten women who they haven’t been able to hear about before. I’m also flattered by some of the spin-off projects that people have started off their own backs, such as a mural of women from Cliftonwood and Hotwells on the Cumberland Basin, various school projects and a community woodcut of suffragist Mary Blathwayt.”

Keep an eye on Jane's website for details of talks in the future

Find out more about Jane below:


Twitter: @Bristol_Jane


By Emily Oldfield