It could not have been a better day to go on a stroll around Brighton. The sky was blue and the sun was shining down as a group of us met in the St Nicholas Church graveyard. We were greeted by our tour leader Louise Peskett, who was very friendly and had a pleasant nature. Louise works a few different jobs and one of those is being a tour guide around the Royal Pavilion, so we knew we were in knowledgeable hands. She proceeded to tell us that she had gotten a bit sick of only talking about men in her other tours and, when she tried to find tours about Brighton’s women, there were none to be found, so she decided to fill the gap herself.
If you’re a Brightonian like myself, it is very special to learn about the history of your city.
The word “notorious” sounds like the women we were going to learn about would be criminals or murderers, which admittedly some of them were, but the majority were notorious for their formidable and pioneering lives. The reason we began in St Nicholas Church is because two remarkable Brighton women are buried there. The first is Martha Gunn, probably the most famous Brightonian female, who was an entrepreneur from humble beginnings. She bought her own line of bathing houses and was known as a “dipper”. This terminology was used because women were only allowed to be “dipped” in the water rather than bathed. The second was Phoebe Hessel, who is famous for disguising herself as a man to serve in the British army.
We strolled down the hill and stopped off at Wykeham Terrace, which used to be a house for so-called fallen women and also housed actresses, such as Pauline Henriques who was the first black woman to be honoured with an OBE, as well as murderer Constance Kent. All the while, our tour leader Louise, tells us this information with passion and empathy, engaging us all with the fascinating stories of these women.
We then wandered through town to the Hippodrome, where we learnt of an incredible revolutionary Drag King named Vesta Tilley and other notable female performers. Then to the town hall and the Quakers Meeting House to learn of such important literary figures as Constance Garnett, who was the first person to translate War and Peace from Russian to English. Finally, even though the tour was technically over, Louise wanted to tell us of Ellen Nye Chart, who managed the Theatre Royal, paving the way for other women to be seen as capable of having careers.
If you’re a Brightonian like myself, it is very special to learn about the history of your city. In a way, it’s unfortunate that there have to be special tours set up to ensure that the women of Brighton are also celebrated, but thankfully there are, and there are people like Louise representing the women of Brighton that history tends to forget. Louise does other tours about the women of Brighton in both Kemptown and Hove throughout the year. I’d really recommend you attend, as they remind you of why you should be proud to be part of this daring and unique city.