History: Extraordinary Barking and Dagenham women who made history

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry - Credit: Archant

As the world prepares to mark International Women’s Day on Friday, assistant archivist at Valence House, Clare Sexton, tells the Post about extraordinary women from history.

King Edwards Road where Annie lived. Picture taken 1901

King Edwards Road where Annie lived. Picture taken 1901 - Credit: Archant

From the oldest surviving suffragette to a Victorian campaigner for prison reform, Barking and Dagenham has links to a string of fascinating women.

Phoebe Norris-Kirk, Christmas 1948. She's standing in the back row to the left

Phoebe Norris-Kirk, Christmas 1948. She's standing in the back row to the left - Credit: Archant

Some hit headlines for their achievements while others may have not been noticed by the masses but in their own small way made a difference.

One woman who almost certainly did appear in the press was Annie Clara Huggett (nee French). Annie, born 1892, lived in King Edwards Road, Barking and was a militant suffragette, fighting for women’s rights.

“Annie was very much part of the suffragette movement,” said Clare. “And she was often getting in trouble for her militant approach. She would have done things like breaking windows, going on hunger strike and assaulting PMs.

“We know she had the famous suffragette sisters, the Pankhursts, around for tea.”

Annie, who died in 1996, became the oldest surviving suffragette after living to the age of 104.

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Another woman from the area who pushed for women’s rights was politician Jo Richardson. She served as Barking MP from 1974 until her death in 1994 and was a central figure of the feminist left.

Jo also helped campaign for issues such as nuclear disarmament and Jo Richardson Community School in Gale Street, Dagenham, was later named after her.

A lot of people will recognise the face of Victorian prison reformer Elizabeth Fry as her face currently adorns the British five pound note. But many may not realise she holidayed at Dagenham Breach and is buried in Barking.

“Elizabeth was one of the first type of feminists, who used their standing and connections in society to make changes,” said Clare.

“She is most famous for helping make prison conditions more humane, especially those for women, which were appalling at the time. But she also did a lot of work with the poor.”

Among the women who on the surface appeared more ordinary, but made a real impact in their community was Phoebe Norris-Kirk.

Phoebe, who lived between 1904 and 2005, was one of the people who founded a youth exchange between Dagenham and the borough’s twinning town, Witten, in Germany.

“After the war she wanted to help improve relations between Britain and German so she organised for a group of young people to go to Witten and for German youngsters to come here,” explained Clare.

“She had previously invited German prisoners of war over for Christmas dinner after the war finished. She felt it was very important that everyone moved on from what had happened.”

Another woman who Clare describes as “ordinary but extraordinary”, is Madge Carter, who lived between 1924 and 1996 in Ilford, but was for a number of years the chair of the Barking and District Historical Society.

“We know a fair bit about Madge as she wrote diaries from her adolescence to her old age,” Clare said.

“I’ve read a lot of the early stuff, especially from the Second World War years. She was very much into doing her bit, helping out in any way she could.

“She also talks about the men she likes and how she loves the cinema, going about three times a week at one point. Her diaries are a fascinating insight into her life and she’s pretty funny.”

Clare will be talking more about these women and many more at Valence House Museum, Becontree Avenue, Dagenham, at 3pm, on Friday. Tickets cost £3.