Today I want to talk about inspiring women. It should come as no surprise that I (and most people who see her work and hear her life story) consider Olive Edis to be very firmly in that category – she was a pioneer in so many ways, from setting up and running a successful business in an industry that was very much considered to be “men’s work”, to adopting new technology and patenting her own inventions – not to mention her commission as Britain’s first female war photographer – so it seems natural that she would be drawn to other women who were making waves in early 20th century society. Edis photographed not one but two Pankhursts (suffragettes Christabel and Emmeline), as well as Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take up her seat, and Emily Davies, champion of women’s right to higher education.
Today though, I’d like to look at two much less well known women who made their mark on the world in their own very different ways. Both were photographed by Olive Edis, and copies of their portraits are held in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Jane Joseph (1894-1929) was a talented composer and musician who tragically died of kidney failure aged just 34, with the majority of her work unpublished. Like Edis, she too was beginning to forge a career in a male-dominated field. Women composers are few and far between in the pages of most history books, and it’s only in recent years that those few names have been given the recognition they deserve.
As a schoolgirl Joseph was a pupil of a young Gustav Holst, and later became a close associate – his protegée, assistant, arranger, translator and friend. She organised the many music festivals which Holst sponsored, and worked on her own compositions around her studies at Girton College – although as a woman she was ineligible to actually receive a degree. She tutored Holst’s daughter Imogen, and and encouraged her to compose her own music. Edis too actively encouraged others to follow her into photography, including writing an article on it for a 1914 booklet about careers for women.
Though her work was well received by critics, sadly much of it was written for small-scale events and as such was not published. I can only find reference to one recording of a Joseph composition, in the British Library’s sound archive. However her talent lives on through her work with Holst, and her translations of carols are still used in churches today.
On Joseph’s death, Holst paid tribute her “infinite capacity for taking pains which amounts to genius”. He was reportedly devastated by her loss. Another friend wrote that “England won’t be the same without Jane…I can’t imagine Music without her”.
Olive Grace Walton (1876-1937) made her mark in a much more radical way. She was a militant suffragette who was sent to prison twice while campaigning for women’s right to vote – a week in Holloway Prison in 1911, and four months in Aylesbury Prison in 1912 for smashing windows. During her term at Aylesbury she went on hunger strike and was force-fed, leading to an appeal to Parliament from her local WSPU. Her family were reportedly so horrified by her actions that her younger sister refused to meet her on her release from prison. In 1913, she interrupted an opera performance and was carried out of the theatre after a ‘violent struggle’, was forcibly ejected from an anti-suffrage rally, and when King George & Queen Mary visited Scotland in 1914, Walton threw a petition to stop the force-feeding of suffragettes into the royal carriage, tied to a rubber ball. She was arrested, but the Queen asked that she should not be prosecuted.
With the outbreak of WW1, Walton joined the Women Police Volunteers, and remained in the force after the war ended. In 1920, as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (see left-hand photo above) she was sent to Dublin to work with the Royal Irish Constabulary, but a motorbike accident eventually ended her police career. She went on to work as a hospital almoner – a forerunner of the Social Work department found in modern hospitals.
Her niece recalled in an interview in 1976 that Walton used to cut her hair short “like a man” and wore a suit and tie. She never married, but eventually adopted a daughter who she named Christabel. When she died she proudly left her suffragette medal, badge and papers to her daughter.
Without Edis’ photographs, I would never have discovered these women’s stories. In her lifetime Edis both embodied and recorded the changing experience of women at a turbulent time in history. Through her work, she’s still introducing us to women who were changing their world, either quietly with music, or loudly with smashed windows.
References (with thanks):
- Wikipedia: Jane Marian Joseph
- Biography of Olive Walton, Inspiring Women: Hidden Histories from West Kent
- Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928