As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, the lives of past ordinary working women in Brighton and Hove are being honoured

It was said that being a laundress in the 19th century was as tiring and as awful as being a miner but the lives of the women who worked in the many laundries in Brighton are undocumented.

‘My great great grandmother was a laundress and she spent her life in and out of mental asylums for respite care because she was so exhausted,’ explains Jenny Stroud, committee chair of Brighton and Hove Women’s History Group, a voluntary organisation that aims to raise awareness of the contribution women have made to the history of the city. ‘Laundresses were a fascinating breed of women. Most people think Brighton has always been a fun seaside place for holidays, but in the 19th century going into the 20th century, there was a significant number of laundries and factories in Brighton.’ 

The Argus: Elizabeth Robins c1890sElizabeth Robins c1890s (Image: W&D Downey)

The lives of these working women is one of a number of topics the group will be exploring. The first uncovered the lives of local women who were involved in the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to mark its centenary, including Minnie Turner, Clementina Black, Margaret Bondfield, Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce. It also successfully campaigned for blue plaques to be fixed to the homes where they lived or the places they met, such as the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) at 8 North Street Quadrant in the city.

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With funding from a Brighton and Hove Community Grant, it published a book last year called Women of Brighton and Hove: An Anthology, which gives a snapshot of the lives of some of the women connected with the city, including suffragettes and other notable women including those still living, such as the jazz singer Claire Martin, who lives in Brighton, and her daughter Amelia Sandie, who plays basketball for the American League university team Nicholls Colonels.

The Argus: Suffragette Minnie Turner in 1909Suffragette Minnie Turner in 1909 (Image: Brighton Museums)


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The Argus: Brighton-based Mary Clarke1910 was the first suffragette to die in 1910 battling for women’s right to voteBrighton-based Mary Clarke1910 was the first suffragette to die in 1910 battling for women’s right to vote (Image: Andrew Hasson)

As a result of the campaign, a separate group was formed to raise a statue to (, the suffragette sister of Emmeline Pankhurst, who worked as an organiser for the WSPU in Brighton and in 1910 was the first suffragette to die in the movement for women’s right to vote. 

This year, the history group has a new focus: the working women of Brighton and Hove in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Its aim is to research and map significant women in the city, such as the female workers in the iconic department store Hanningtons, which closed in 2001 after 200 years of trading, and landladies, publicans and cooks in the hospitality industry.

‘The suffragettes were middle-class and educated, so they were well documented, and now we want to find women who have been invisible throughout history,’ says Jenny. ‘International Women’s Day is about celebrating what women have achieved, and, in particular, those that have been forgotten or never acknowledged.’

The group’s researchers are women who are academics or historians who know their way around family history websites and historic documents, but for the new project, where fewer historical records exist, they are appealing for people to share the stories of remarkable women in the family’s history.

‘People come up to us after meetings and tell us about a great aunt they think was special but no one has heard of,’ says Jenny. ‘In fact, that woman was special but no one but their descendant remembers them. We’ll be talking to people in their homes, asking about the women in their families, taking their oral stories.’

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In fact, it was the women Jenny uncovered in her own family that kickstarted her fascination with family history. Through trawling records, she found two cousins, Mary and Fanny, who lived in Brighton and were teachers at their sister Ellen’s school in Norfolk Terrace.

‘When Mary and Fanny retired, they went to live in Prestonville Road, at Seven Dials in Brighton, and sometimes in the records I found that Fanny was referred to as a professor of music,’ Jenny explains. ‘I started looking at all the houses on that road, which is not very long, and was astounded. In the 1911 census, one of the first where women added their professions, about 30 per cent of the people living in that road were women who identified as professional musicians - teachers of music and professors of music. And then my research led me to Molly Paley.’

Mary (Molly) Paley (1893-1974) grew up in Buckingham Road, Brighton, the daughter of GP Dr Frederick John Paley and his Australian wife Maude Attfield, and as a young woman began playing solo violin at concerts around Sussex. When the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) was formed in 1925 by the Menges family, she became its first leader, remaining so into the 1950s, and later became vice president of the Brighton Philharmonic Society. 

The Argus: Violinist Molly Paley in 1935. She was the first leader of the Brighton Philharmonic OrchestraViolinist Molly Paley in 1935. She was the first leader of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra (Image: supplied)

‘She was extraordinary,’ says Jenny. ‘At the orchestra’s first performance, 75 per cent of the musicians were women. And this is very, interesting because it has always been one of the most progressive orchestras in the country. Many of the big London orchestras were predominantly male. It was extraordinary.’

As well as leading the BPO, Molly was also a professor of music and conductor of the orchestra at Brighton School of Music in Marlborough Place and conducted many chamber orchestras and other smaller orchestras around Sussex. She led the orchestra under world-famous conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult and Richard Austin, and worked closely with Herbert Menges, the BPO’s first conductor and its musical director for 47 years. 

The Argus: [pic: Brighton Women's History Group committee] [cap] Jenny Stroud (right), chair of the Brighton Women's History Group committee, with committee members (from left) Gerry Holloway, Valerie Mainstone and Maria Hogg[pic: Brighton Women's History Group committee] [cap] Jenny Stroud (right), chair of the Brighton Women's History Group committee, with committee members (from left) Gerry Holloway, Valerie Mainstone and Maria Hogg (Image: supplied)

Jenny has made it her mission to uncover the stories of women musicians in Brighton and Hove for the new project, and she has kickstarted it with a profile of Molly Paley.

‘She was a hugely influential person and very talented, but I’d never heard of her,” she says. ‘I wanted to make sure people know about her and to highlight her achievements to encourage people to come forward with stories of the lives of remarkable women in Brighton and Hove - women we’ve never heard of but whose stories should be part of its history.’

To take part in the Working Women of Brighton & Hove in the 20th Century research project, email

Brighton Women’s History Group is holding two events to mark International Women’s Day.

A talk called Unsung Heroines of Brighton will take place at the Jubilee Library, Jubilee Street, Brighton BN1 1GE, on Tuesday March 7 from 5.30-6.30pm.

On Saturday March 11, the group will have a stall from 11am-4pm at the Brighton Dome, Church Street, Brighton BN1 1UE, as part of the International Women’s Day Celebration jointly held by the Brighton Dome and Brighton Women’s Centre, where copies of its book, Women of Brighton and Hove: An Anthology, will be on sale.

Dr Louisa Martindale

A new building at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton will be named after her

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Among the women whose lives are documented in the Brighton Women’s History Group’s anthology is Dr Louisa Martindale (1872-1966), a pioneer in medicine and medical education for women.

It has been announced that the new building at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton is to be named after her when it is expected to open to patients in the spring.

A general practitioner and surgeon in Brighton and London, Dr Martindale became a world-renowned gynaecologist, becoming the first female member of the Council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1937. Earlier, in 1920, she had been instrumental in setting up the New Sussex Hospital in Windlesham Road, Brighton, and before that, in 1909, she had written a book called Under The Surface, which discussed the then-taboo subjects of prostitution and venereal disease. 

First female physics professor 

The Argus: Professor Antonella De Santo, the University of Sussex’s first ever female professor of physicsProfessor Antonella De Santo, the University of Sussex’s first ever female professor of physics (Image: supplied)

One of the missions of International Women’s Day is to enable women’s careers to thrive and to celebrate their achievements.

In Sussex, one of the best examples of this is Antonella De Santo, who became the first female professor of physics at the University of Sussex a decade ago.

‘It’s rewarding but humbling that I was the first,’ says Professor De Santo, ‘because you realise it took this long for a woman to become a professor. I’m happy for my colleagues that it was also possible for them to reach that goal. I don’t know if I opened the door for them - I certainly pushed the door open for the first time.’

Professor De Santo, who has worked at the university since 2009, founded and leads the Sussex team working on the ATLAS experiment at the CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) laboratory near Geneva in Switzerland, where she works on the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle ‘smasher’ ever constructed. 

Using data from the ATLAS experiment, which investigates a wide range of physics, she is making world-leading contributions to the search for evidence of supersymmetry. She received a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award for her research achievements and has presented her work at a number of Royal Society Summer Exhibitions.

‘I became a professor because I’m a good physicist, not because I’m a female,’Professor De Santo says.

She follows in the footsteps of a number of women in Sussex’s history who paved the way in the field of science:

Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont (1769-1822), pursued her scientific interests at her home, Petworth House, where she established her own laboratory and won a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts for her ‘mechanical invention’ of a cross-bar lever for the purpose of lifting stones.

Palaeontologist, marine biologist and scientific draughtswoman Mary Buckland (1797-1857), who spent her later life in St Leonards-on-Sea, was reading scientific studies by the French naturalist and zoologist Georges Culver in her teenage years and sent him specimens and illustrations. She and her husband, the geologist and palaeontologist William Buckland, spent their honeymoon on a geological tour of Europe, and she carried out important fossil reconstructions that are held today by the Oxford University of Natural History.

Arabella Buckley (1840-1929), who was born in Brighton, was secretary to the geologist Sir Charles Lyell and went on to popularise science for children. In a lecture titled 'The Two Great Sculptors - Water and Ice', she described how water and ice create hills, crevasses and valleys much as a sculptor will create a statue using a chisel.