Meet Barbara Bodichon
Queen Victoria took over the throne in 1837. Despite a female monarch reigning, women had very little in the way of rights at that time. Women did not have the right to vote or sue. When a woman married, her wages, all of her physical property (excluding land property), her rights and all other cash generated once married became that of her husbands. Under the law, the married couple became one legal entity represented by the husband. To marry and have children was seen by society as women's destiny and for all classes, marriage remained the main goal of a woman's life.
At the same time, women were a large part of the paid workforce - and in increasing numbers following the Industrial Revolution of the 1750s to the 1850s.
Feminist ideas spread among the educated middle classes and the women's suffrage movement gained momentum into the last years of the Victorian era and into the 1900s. The first organised movement for British women's suffrage was the Langham Place Circle of the 1850s, led by Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes. They campaigned for improved female rights in the areas of law, employment, education, and marriage.
Barbara was born in Whatlington, Battle in 1827. At the age of 27 she published her influential 'Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women in 1854' - she made a great impact of the advancement of women’s rights throughout her life. She died aged 64 at Robertsbridge and is buried at nearby Brightling.
Her birth had been the cause of a great scandal as she was born of an affair. Her mother Anne, a hat maker, lived in Derbyshire and met a wealthy politician, Benjamin ‘Ben’ Leigh Smith. He lived in London but had inherited wealth which he invested by buying properties in and around Battle, including at Robertsbridge. He was a benevolent man and made considerable contributions to the wellbeing and education of the poor during his life.
Ben visited his sister in Derbyshire, met Anne and one thing led to another (!!!). He then took this pregnant ‘lady-friend’ Anne to Whatlington where he housed her in a rented property and called her ‘Mrs Leigh’. The couple did not marry, and they went on to have more children after Barbara. Anne’s last child was born in 1833 and she passed away in 1834, when Barbara was aged just seven.
Ben sent all his children to the local school to learn alongside working-class children, rather than sending the older boys to boarding or an elite day school. He later shared financial arrangements equally with all the children, both male and female, giving each an income of £300 per annum from the age of twenty-one (about £25,000 today).
Ben’s sister Frances had married William Nightingale and together they’d had a daughter ... who went on to become the world-famous nurse ... Florence.
Another of Ben’s sisters Joanna, married the MP John Bonham-Carter - ancestor of actress Helena Bonham-Carter.