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Independent Women

From the mid-19th century, increasing numbers of educated women sought paid work as writers or in the growing professions of teaching, philanthropic social work and nursing. This employment enabled many of them to remain unmarried and form their closest emotional ties with other women.  

Their love might be expressed in very erotic terms, though not necessarily self-described as sexual. Conventional notions of middle-class femininity emphasised women’s sexual innocence and asexuality.

Social work and environmentalism

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was one of Victorian Britain’s most important social reformers. In the early part of her career she used her skills as a manager of working-class housing to create healthier communities and trained other women to do the same. She established the idea of personal case work, the importance of good maintenance of housing, and believed in self-help rather than hand-outs for the poor.

Portrait of Octavia Hill.
Portrait of Octavia Hill, c.1885 © Public Domain

Hill coined the term ‘the green belt’ and worked for its preservation to give Londoners access to the countryside. Her ideas paved the way for modern town planning. She was instrumental in saving open space for recreation in inner-city London. Her work to preserve the Lake District from encroaching railway companies contributed to the setting up of the National Trust in 1894 of which she was a co-founder.    

Octavia Hill had a passionate intimacy with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first woman doctors. Subsequently, Octavia Hill’s long-term companion was Harriot Yorke, who lived and worked with Hill for 30 years. They lived together in Marylebone Rd, London and in Kent. Hill and Yorke are buried together in the churchyard at Crockham Hill, near Edenbridge, Kent.

Headstone with text 'In loving memory of Miranda Hill...and of her sister Octavia Hill 1838-1912, Harriot Yorke 1842-1930.'
The grave marker of Octavia Hill and her partner Harriot Yorke in Holy Trinity Chuchyard, Crockham Hill, Kent © julia&keld

There is a monument to Octavia Hill at a Surrey beauty spot, on the summit of Hydon Ball hill (now owned by the National Trust). After her death, her family erected a stone seat there, from which walkers can enjoy views over the Surrey countryside.

Stone bench engraved with 'To the honoured memory of Octavia Hill...'
Octavia Hill's Bench on Ide Hill, Kent © Creative Commons/David Anstiss

Improving women’s education

Pioneer educationalist Constance Maynard founded Westfield College, London in 1882 to prepare women students to take University of London degrees. Her personal life was characterised by her search for close and intense homoerotic relationships with other women. During a difficult period in one such relationship she wrote in her diary, in 1891:

As I left she said with gentle hesitation, 'You never bite my fingers now, as you used to do.' 'Oh no, never,' I replied lightly. 'And you never snarl and growl like a jaguar when you can't express yourself. I never heard anyone growl as well as you.' … The sweet low voice went on, 'And you never rock me in your arms and call me your baby.' 'No, I said in the same even tone, 'I've been cured of that too.'

Constance Maynard
Westfield College, Hampstead.
Westfield College, Hampstead, was founded by Constance Maynard in 1882 © Public Domain

Women’s networks in Lambeth

In north Lambeth, a network of women established and ran significant institutions for social work, education and the arts: the Lady Margaret Hall Settlement in Kennington, the Old Vic and Morley College. For these women, female friendships and same-sex relationships were paramount.

Emma Cons, formerly a close friend of Octavia Hill, and also a housing worker, managed and built workers’ housing in Lambeth. She set up clubs and services for the women in the area. Cons was ‘a bit of a tomboy… she always carried a knife and a piece of string in her pocket, even when she was wearing evening dress’.  

Black and white photo of exterior of the Old Vic.
Emma Cons opened the Old Vic in 1880 © Historic England DD000617

In this area of crime and poverty, near Waterloo station, Emma Cons decided to set up a temperance music hall, and opened the Old Vic in 1880. Cons shared a home in Lambeth until her death with her niece Lilian Baylis (manager of the Old Vic and later Sadler’s Wells Theatre).

Blue plaque stating 'Lilian Baylis 1874-1937 Manager of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres lived and died here'.
A plaque on 27 Stockwell Park Road, where Emma Cons and Lillian Baylis lived © Creative Commons

Emotional intimacy characterised these women’s relationships, irrespective of how we label their sexuality. Emma Cons’ closest friends included Ethel Everest, at whose country home, Chippens Bank, Hever, she spent most of her weekends. Her ashes were scattered in the woods there.

Morley College

In the late 1880s, Emma Cons opened Morley College, offering adult education classes to working people at the Old Vic. In 1921 Morley College moved into its own premises at 61 Westminster Bridge Road.  

Black and white photo of members of the public reading, writing and browsing the shelves of a library.
Morley College library, 1944. In the late 1880s, Emma Cons opened Morley College, offering adult education classes to working people at the Old Vic. In 1921 Morley College moved into its own premises at 61 Westminster Bridge Road © IWM (D 20423)

Women’s participation was written into the founding principles of Morley College, and its early and subsequent principals were feminists who prioritised women in their personal lives.

Black and white photo of people photographed from behind walking up steps into 'Morley College for working men and women'.
Morley College, 1944. In the late 1880s, Emma Cons opened Morley College, offering adult education classes to working people at the Old Vic. In 1921 Morley College moved into its own premises at 61 Westminster Bridge Road © IWM (D 20420)

Lilian Baylis guarded her private life. She had very wide networks of friends among other independent unmarried women in national and London theatrical and professional circles. They included composer Ethel Smyth, feminist Cicely Hamilton, and Miss Gordon Holmes, a stockbroker, all of whom had relationships with other women.

Independent Women Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • A Russian language class at Morley College
  • Classical dance class at Morley College
  • Blue plaque on wall commemorating Emma Cons
  • Mosaic on wall of Lillian Baylis
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