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Heritage: Votes for women - and more cupboards in Gidea Park

PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 December 2019

The statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Picture: PA

The statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin tells how a pioneer feminist helped shape a Romford housing development

Until recently, only famous men were commemorated in the statues in London's Parliament Square.

In 2018, a statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett gave Parliament Square its first woman. It marked the centenary of the winning of votes for women, a campaign she'd led for 30 years.

Millicent came from a remarkable family. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, overcoming dogged male skulduggery aimed at blocking her.

Millicent's marriage to politician Henry Fawcett placed her at the centre of events. Although blinded in an accident, he became a cabinet minister. As both wife and secretary, Millicent briefed him on policy issues from confidential documents. She proved that women could be trusted with responsibility.

In the 1870s, Millicent helped establish Newnham College at Cambridge, an institution for the higher education of women. In 1890, her daughter Philippa Fawcett beat all the male students in the university's maths examinations.

After Henry's death in 1884, Millicent campaigned for women to be allowed to vote. People often associate that struggle with Mrs Pankhurst and her militant suffragettes. In fact, Mrs Fawcett's non-violent movement had 50,000 supporters, while Mrs Pankhurst's breakaway group - which Millicent opposed - attracted only around 2,000.

Wealthy entrepreneur Herbert Raphael planned a "garden suburb" around Romford's leading mansion, Gidea Hall.

Raphael knew philanthropy was good business. In 1904, he gave part of the Gidea Hall grounds to the community: Romford Council would pay to run Raphael Park, adding an amenity for his new estate.

When the Great Eastern Railway opened its station at Squirrels Heath in 1910, his Gidea Park housing project went ahead. The station was renamed in 1913.

To promote the scheme, he asked famous people to advise on house design. Flattered, many responded. As Britain's leading campaigner for women's rights, Mrs Fawcett was an obvious target.

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In 1911, Raphael held a marketing exhibition to sell the houses. The catalogue featured the celebrity replies, passed off as endorsements.

Novelists Thomas Hardy and E.F. Benson pleaded for ensuite bathrooms and central heating, luxuries that took decades to arrive. Sci-fi writer H.G. Wells disliked open fireplaces; Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men In A Boat, disagreed. The headmaster of Eton recommended glass-panel sliding doors.

Arthur Benson, who'd written the words for Land of Hope and Glory, favoured "anything that tends to diminish unnecessary labour for servants." Gidea Park had its origins in a bygone age.

Only the evolution theorist Alfred Russel Wallace politely refused to comment.

Typically, Millicent Fawcett thought deeply before responding, consulting other women activists for ideas.

"Inattention to aspect" was the worst fault in modern houses, she insisted. The best rooms were usually situated closest to the road. They should face south, no matter the street frontage.

Even if the site didn't face south, "the maximum of sun should be aimed at".

It would be "a great practical convenience" to design small rooms so "they could be thrown together to make one large room".

"Water supply should be arranged so that it can easily be entirely cut off during frost to prevent damage from burst pipes." Did the leader of the women's movement think up the external stopcock?

Of course, Millicent Fawcett approved of indoor bathrooms, but she added a feminist angle. "Smaller baths than those usually supplied would suffice for every need." If large men had to bathe with their knees under their chins, tough luck!

She condemned architects who built fussy and expensive roofs, which caused "a very serious deterioration" of the awkwardly shaped bedrooms below.

But perhaps her most serious concern was storage. She insisted that "the cupboard accommodation in most modern houses is inadequate".

Winning the vote for women was a step towards creating a better world - one in which women would insist on homes with cupboards and sunny living rooms.

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