This week’s blog explores the lives of two women with connections to Weston-super-Mare. The women are novelist and writer Mary Webb and suffragette Emmeline Pethick. They both have blue plaques dedicated to them. Further information can be found at https://wsm-tc.gov.uk/our-services/blue-plaques/
The following is paraphrased from https://www.marywebbsociety.co.uk/
Mary Webb, born Mary Gladys Meredith, found fame in the early 1900s as a writer of romantic novels and poems, most of which were set in the countryside of Shropshire where she grew up. She was born on March the 25th, 1881, in a village called Leighton. Her father, George Edward Meredith, was a teacher and he shared his love of nature and literature with Mary and consequently became a great influence in her life. She was the eldest of six, and her writing started in her youth when she would write plays and stories to entertain her younger siblings.
As a child, Mary enjoyed exploring the countryside and was fascinated by nature’s wonders. This captivation with the intricacy of the natural world enriched her writing in both her poetry and prose.
At twenty, Mary developed Graves Disease (a thyroid disorder), which led to chronic health issues throughout her life and led to her untimely death at 46. It also negatively impacted the way she saw herself because of the disfiguring side effects of the disease and so she isolated herself from the rest of the world.
In 1910, Mary met Henry Betram Law Webb, who was a teacher and who also shared her passion for writing. She married Webb in 1912 and they came to live in Weston-super-Mare – Landemann Circus – for a few years before they moved back to Shropshire, where Mary had always felt a spiritual connection to the land. There, they worked as market gardeners. Mary became recognised as a rising literary star after the publication of her novel ‘The Golden Arrow’ in 1916, although her personal life was later to become fraught with difficulty as her health and marriage failed. In 1917, they moved into a small house called Spring Cottage, which Mary adored. It was there that she wrote ‘The House in Dormer Forest’ and many of her poems, as she loved to spend hours in quiet meditation in her surroundings.
Mary and her husband moved to London in 1921, hoping that she would have better literary success in the city. There, she completed a fourth novel – ‘Seven for a Secret’ – and then went on to write her most famous book ‘Precious Bane’ in 1924. All of her novels were full of folklore and humour, with complex, colourful characters. Many of her admirers were of the opinion that Mary Webb was a genius, but the public hadn’t yet discovered her talents.
By 1927, Mary had become very weak from her disorder and her marriage with Henry Webb was deteriorating, so she returned to Shropshire alone. Eventually, she died in solitude in St Leonards-on-Sea and was buried in her home county. Her grave is situated in Shrewsbury cemetery and is maintained and visited by The Mary Webb Society. Her last novel, ‘Armour Wherin He Trusted’, was unfinished.
During her life, she had won the ‘Pric Femina Vie Heureuse’ for her work ‘Precious Bane’ but it was only after the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin referred to her as a ‘neglected genius’ in the 1920s that she became more popular in the public eye. Although her output was relatively small and she received little recognition until posthumous success, Mary Webb left a beautiful legacy with her immense creativity and spirituality.
Mary’s blue plaque can be seen at 8 Landemann Circus, Weston-Super-Mare.
Emmeline Pethick was the daughter of a Town Commissioner (councillor), who owned the Weston Gazette and was said to have been a ‘natural born rebel’ – a quality he shared with Emmeline and her sister Dorothy. She had always had ambition to achieve more in life than societal expectations of marriage and children, and so as a young woman she moved to London to aid working-class women. In 1901, she married a man named Fred Lawrence and as a sign of their equality to each other they became the Pethick-Lawrences, which was unusual at the time.
Later, in 1906, Emmeline became the treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union after meeting the suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst. She brought in thousands of pounds for the cause, thanks to her skill with organisation and finance. After being imprisoned in 1912, she started the tradition of hosting lunches for women released from jail, and founded the newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ with her husband Fred. She also established the colours of purple, green and white as a visual sign of support for the suffragette movement. Emmeline never stopped fighting and campaigning for what she believed in, even after she was ostracised from the movement because of a falling out with the Pankhursts. Fred Pethick-Lawrence later became a Labour MP and so Emmeline became Baroness Pethick-Lawrence. Her sister Dorothy was also a notable activist for the suffragettes.
Emmeline died in 1954 after writing a book called ‘My Part in a Changing World’ and hugely contributing to the women’s rights movement in the UK.
Emmeline’s blue plaque can be seen on the gate pillar next to Lewisham House, 80 Bristol Road Lower, Weston-super-Mare.