When I lived in Wellington Shropshire during the 90s I learnt that Edith Pargeter ( better known as Ellis Peters ), had lived in the area. But it was only by chance that I found out about another Edith – Edith Picton-Turbervill . I discovered that she was by far the most important Edith. However, there wasn’t one plaque or memorial to her and she seemed all but forgotten. I read about her in a biography of Jennie Lee. My Edith had been a very early Labour Member of Parliament for the area and as I was interested in politics, I became curious to discover her story.
Where the millennium clock stands in the Church Square in Wellington (now part of Telford) is where my Edith had been cheered by the residents and voters in 1929 at the time of her election victory. The crowd of three thousand miners and their families had broken spontaneously into song with the words ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. When I delved into Edith’s past I discovered that she had also been a writer, held the post of Vice President of the YWCA and campaigned during the First World War for women hostels and canteens.
As my admiration and knowledge about her grew, so did my anger about the lack of recognition. But as a writer I realised that words and writing would be one of the best ways of restoring and resurrecting her into women’s history I purchased some of her books and read her autobiography Life is Good published in 1939.
Edith had come from a privileged background, whose father had inherited Ewenny, formerly a Norman Priory in South Wales. It had land and profitable coal mines. Born in 1872, she grew up at the time when peoples’ attitudes to women, careers, and their role had started to alter. Edith had a religious ‘epiphany’ and being of a determined character started to forge her own way in life. She had been sent to the Royal School in Bath with her twin sister Beatrice and then she persuaded her father to allow her to go and train to be a missionary with the YWCA. Here she was exposed to the poverty in the slums of the East End of London in the early twentieth century, but undeterred she went to India to set up hostels for women and girls. Later, she became disillusioned with the work in India and felt that the real needy were not being attended to.
On her return to the UK she rose to become Vice President of the YWCA and campaigned for funds to support the women munitions’ workers in the First World War. She helped to set up canteens for them in England and hostels in France. After the war she met many other women who were becoming involved with the fledgling Labour Party, and was eventually asked to join and to stand as an MP She helped in the soup kitchens in Wellington during the General Strike and then was adopted as the candidate for The Wrekin constituency there winning the seat in 1929.
She continued to work and strive for the working class, the poor and for women. She also travelled extensively. She visited Russia in the thirties and later met Kemal Ataturk . She was President of the National Council of Women Citizens. She even appeared on television in the sixties.
In her autobiography she tells us that her family were important to her, but they must have felt astonished that she was joining a political party that was not of their class. Her immediate descendants would have felt uneasy and uncomfortable when she died in 1960 and that is possibly why in the family chapel at Ewenny there is only a plaque to her with the dismissive words … ‘ Sometime Member of Parliament’. She isn’t buried there but in Cheltenham where she lived towards the end of her life.
Women in politics continue to have a particularly hard time and indeed had a very hard time at the start of the twentieth century. It was easier to come from a privileged background with money (for example, Lady Astor), and to be supported by your own class. If the women candidates were supported and backed by the male dominated Trade Unions (as in the case of Jennie Lee and Margaret Bondfield), they would also have had an easier time. Edith doesn’t fit into this mould. She certainly doesn’t fit into any mould when you realise that her own father was a coal mine owner and she was on the soup kitchens and supporting strikers of the coal miners in Shropshire! Edith never married and must have had some private income. This of course would have helped her in her political life. She also had a very large network of influential and campaigning women friends throughout her life and a large number of male friends and colleagues.
Her principles and high morals were always with her. But I don’t think It was a dilemma or a problem for her as she only ever thought that in politics the ‘Christian’ way was the right one to follow. I wanted to honour and celebrate her by bringing her to life as a person. The research showed me what an interesting and important contribution she had made to women’s history, but I also wanted to show how her thoughts and beliefs might have come about and why she forged such an independent way. So the book I wrote was a fictionalised diary. This came to be the first part of my book A Head Above Others.
Edith’s book Christ and Women’s Power seemed to me also as important for today’s women as it was in 1919. In this,she wrote to urge women, to take an active part in public life and to assert their power and influence.
The town of Wellington should be proud of what she did and who she was. I hope they will commemorate her in some way and that my book begins the process of retrieving the history of this forgotten woman. I have succeeded now in putting her on Wikipedia and am very proud of that.
Written for Sheroes of History by Sue Crampton
Sue Crampton is author of A Head Above Others – fictionalised memoir of Edith Picton – Turbervill O.B.E. (Pub. Perigord Press -ISBN 978 – 9573977 – 8 1 available on Amazon and other bookshops and as an e -book)
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