Where are the women?
Well, first of all, there are some statues of Women in Camden Squares!
Which, given the national statistics from the Public Monuments and Sculptures Association (PMSA), is pretty good going really.
Secondly, there are five named statues of actual women – as opposed to statues about women or by women — although one of these is a royal.
This is again a good record because an analysis of the statue data shows this to be unusual: according to Pippa Caterall (Professor of History at Westminster), only 2.7% of UK statues are of historical non-royal women, adding that “Female representation in Victorian statuary, if it exists at all, is usually anonymous and titillatingly semi-clad or naked.”
Not so in Camden!
We have a lot of squares in Camden- some 20 odd- and many of these were designed to have a statue at their centre, although some have been removed.
According to the Camden website, of statues and monuments of named people in its squares, thirteen are men and five are women – about thirty per cent then – so considerably more than the 2.7 per cent nationally.
So I am going to share with you the stories of three of the five historical women– we have already published a blog about Dame Louisa Aldrich Blake, Tavistock Square, in the Medical Blogs and the Queen- Charlotte – in the blog about Queen Square. Then I will tell the story of an abstract – Mother and Child by a female sculptor.
So first among equals is the amazing Noor!
There is a statue at the far back of Gordon Square, in the northeast corner. It is of Noor Inayat Khan. It was unveiled in 2012 by Princess Anne and was sculpted by a woman – Karen Newman.
It is there because Shrabani Basu, who wrote Noor’s biography entitled Spy Princess, raised money to set up a trust fund and got a petition and Early Day Motion in the House of Commons signed by enough MPs to make a difference. She did that because of the public response to her biography.
Noor was born in 1914 in Russia, brought up for six years in Bloomsbury near to Gordon Square, and lived in France until outbreak of WW2, when the family returned to England.
Her great-great-grandfather was the Mysore Prince and ruler Tipu Sultan – hence the Princess link – and her father a poet and Sufi preacher- who would have been a pacifist had he lived to WW2.
Noor was a quiet, charming girl who had studied child psychology and music at the Sorbonne, then becoming a writer of children’s books.
Once they had arrived back in England she signed up for the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Armed Forces) in 1940 but was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1942.
She was an unlikely spy in many ways – not very athletic- quite good at running but not jumping– worried about lying, especially to her mother- and was traumatised by the practice interrogation in training.
But she wanted to make a difference to the war effort, not least to have a Muslim woman recognised as making a contribution, while they wanted her French language and wireless operation skills. She was known as Nora Baker to her English friends and her code name was Madeline in France.
She was the first female operator to be sent over to France.
As the TV plays and the recent film about her have made clear, she was betrayed, but didn’t give any information away. She was tortured, tried to escape, imprisoned in shackles for nearly a year in Dachau because she wouldn’t promise not to try to escape, then shot. She was aged 30 years. All the doubts the seniors had about her were wrong. She was brave, stoic and loyal.
She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre but it took 70 years to get the statue and another eight years to 2020 to get a plaque put up in Tiverton Street, just round the corner from Gordon Square, to mark the place she lived in London before she was sent on her mission. She used to go to Gordon Square to read a book or eat sandwiches on her free days and recall her childhood games with her siblings there.
Just to the East of Gordon Square is Tavistock Square which is where Virginia Woolf’s Statue can be found. Erected by the Virginia Woolf Society in 2004 because they wanted her to be remembered. The sculptor was Stephen Tomlin. Unlike the positioning of Noor’s, Virginia’s bust is rather a small, low affair.
Virginia Woolf’s claim to fame is, for many people, through the ‘Bloomsbury set’, a group who, as Dorothy Parker said, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”
She should be remembered for her contribution to the English novel.
As the plaque under the statue says, she lived in 1924-39, with her husband Leonard Woolf, on the top two floors of number 52, formerly on the south side of Tavistock Square, where most of her greatest novels were written and published.
“Then one day walking round Tavistock Square, I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great apparently involuntary, rush.”
Virginia wrote an article in 1923 for The Nation attacking the shallow realism of Arnold Bennett and advocated a more ‘internal approach’ to Literature. This was the prelude to modernism and stream of consciousness. She rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description and rational exposition. Instead she focused on point of view within the head, thoughts and feelings as they passed through the mind of the character.
Sadly she was plagued with what today we would call mental health issues and episodes and what were then called breakdowns. This was exacerbated by the outbreak of WW2, and she committed suicide by putting heavy stones in her pockets and drowning in March 1941 aged 59. The impact of her work remains a strong legacy.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields
If we move right down to the very south of Camden where it borders the City of London we reach Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here we have a stone bench and wide reaching statue memorial to Ramsay Macdonald’s wife – Margaret Macdonald.
This was commissioned and paid for by Ramsay Macdonald in 1914 and it is said he designed it. So it is a tribute of a husband, who has himself experienced political power, to his wife and her work. It was sculpted by Richard Reginald Goulden.
The couple lived here at 3 Lincoln’s Inn Fields where they had their six children. She died there in 1911 of blood poisoning from an internal ulcer. She didn’t live long enough to see her husband become Prime Minister in 1924. He was the first Prime Minister from the Independent Labour Party he had helped to form along with Keir Hardie.
Margaret studied political economy at King’s College under Millicent Fawcett- suffragist – in 1888. She was a keen socialist, influenced by Christian Socialists and Fabians.
Once she left university Margaret was very active in trying to improve the lives of female industrial workers.
She joined the Women’s Industrial Council in 1894, publishing her investigations into home working in London in 1897, and helping to produce a series of studies on women workers. She was also heavily involved in the National Union of Women Workers.
According to Ramsay the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields thus became “a workshop of social plan and effort” Her “heart went out in fellowship to her fellow-women & in love to the children of the people whom she served as a citizen and helped as a sister. She quickened faith and zeal in others by her life and took no rest from doing good.”
She was extremely well liked for her unselfishness and her capacity for organisation and helpful work, as her other memorials show. These include a North Kensington baby clinic set up in 1919 in memory of both MacDonald and Mary Middleton, wife of Ramsay MacDonald’s Assistant Secretary, who died not long before her in the same year. The clinic was later subsumed into the NHS, and closed in about 1948 (see blog on “Lost Hospitals of London”). A new ward was also named after her at Leicester Children’s Hospital, now part of Leicester Royal Infirmary.
Finally there is the Mother and Child by Patricia Finch (1921-2001) in Queen Square.
It was purchased by the Friends of Children of Great Ormond Street Hospital, in memory of Andrew Meller, dating from 2001- which is the year Patricia died.
It is a modern, unsentimentalised, half figure, of a mother cradling an infant in one arm and the other resting lightly on his back, his head resting on her shoulder. A pose we can all recognise and relate to.
Patricia is also a Camden girl!
She has another sculpture in Golders Hill Park called ‘Golden Hill Girl’, another delightfully informal statue of a girl sunbathing in flipflops.
This is what the Ham and High said of it:
“It was given to the park in 1990 by its sculptor Patricia Finch. And apart from being the wife of a well-known Golders Green doctor, Finch was the mother of Lucie Skeaping who presents the Early Music show on Radio 3 and fronts a whole period-performance industry, including two notoriously arousing bands, The City Waites and The Burning Bush, from her home in Kentish Town.”
If you listen to Radio 3, and some do, you’ll know her voice because it’s been a feature of the station for some 12 years, rendering the mysteries of crumhorns, neumes and rebecs listener-friendly.’
At least it is now more commonplace to find female sculptors creating fantastic images for our public spaces, certainly much more so than in Victorian times.
I think we can all agree these women led lives that were worth commemorating. However, it is also clear that this commemoration depends entirely on the determination of those left behind, and also where they choose to place that statue. In that sense it is random. If Amy Winehouse’s statue had been in a square, I would be telling a very different set of stories!
Featured image at top of this page: Margaret Macdonald memorial by Richard Reginald Goulden, (c) S McNamara 2021