Louisa Martindale

Louisa Martindale

Louisa Martindale, the eldest daughter of James Spicer and Louisa Edwards, was born in 1839. James Spicer, the owner a large wholesale paper business, and Louisa, were committed Congregationalists, and brought up their ten children to believe in religious and moral reform.

After leaving school Louisa involved herself in charity work and helped form a Mutual Improvement Society and a Congregationalist Sunday School. She also began to take an interest in the newly emerging women's movement.

In 1871 Louisa married William Martindale, a widower with four young children. In the next four years Louisa had two children of her own, Louisa (born 1873) and Hilda (born 1875). After the death of her husband Louisa moved to Lewes in Sussex.

Louisa Martindale had recently read a book by Mary Wollstonecraft called A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Louisa agreed with Wollstonecraft that girls should have the same educational opportunities as boys. However, this was very difficult, as there were few schools in the country that provided a good academic education for girls. At first she tried to start her own school for girls in Lewes, but she experienced so much opposition from the people in the town she decided to abandon the project. In 1885 she moved to Brighton so that her two daughters might attend the Brighton High School for Girls.

Once she had settled in Brighton, Louisa began to play an active role in local politics. She was a prominent member of Brighton's Women's Co-operative Guild and wrote several pamphlets on the movement.

Louisa also helped start a Brighton branch of the Suffrage Society and with the assistance of Marie Corbett helped form a woman's suffrage group within the Liberal Federation.

Louisa's home in Brighton became an important centre of the women's movement in Sussex and it was here that Margaret Bondfield, then a young shop girl, had her first chance to develop her political ideas. Although Louisa Martindale had many friends in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) she remained a loyal supporter of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Louisa set up a dispensary for women in Brighton and with the help of her two daughters, Louisa and Hilda and two other feminists in Brighton, Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce she was able raise the funds for the building of the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton. Louisa Martindale died in 1914.

Louisa's two daughters both played important roles in feminist campaigns. Louisa Martindale (1873-1966) was a member of the national executive of the NUWSS and although not a militant, she did help to hide members of the WPSU from the police. Louisa wrote a pamphlet on prostitution for the NUWSS but when it was published members of the House of Commons described it as obscene and called for it to be withdrawn.

In 1906 Louisa became the first woman GP in Brighton and later became the senior surgeon of New Sussex Hospital for Women. By the 1930s Louisa Martindale was considered one of the world's leading experts on Obstetrics and Gynaecology and toured the world giving lectures on the subject. Louisa wrote two books on her medical career: The Woman Doctor and Her Future and The Woman Surgeon.

Hilda Martindale (1875-1952) became one of Britain's first women factory inspectors. In 1903 she wrote an influential report on lead poisoning in brickworks. This was followed by an investigation into women outworkers in Ireland. By 1914 she was a Senior Lady Inspector and played an important role in dealing with the difficulties involved in the substitution of women for men in industry.

In 1933 Hilda Martindale joined the Treasury and became one of the first women to reach the higher levels of the Civil Service. As a member of the Whitley Council Committee on Women's Question she argued strongly for equal pay and the right of women to choose whether or not to leave their occupation when they got married. After retiring in 1937, Hilda wrote several books including Women Servants of the State: 1870-1938, A History of Women in the Civil Service, Some Victorian Portraits and a book on her family, One Generation to Another (1944).

Primary Sources

(1) In her book From One Generation to Another, Hilda Martindale described her mother's relationship with Margaret Bondfield.

My mother kept open house for another set of women whom she began to think were oppressed, as undoubtedly they were in the eighties - shop assistants. Among them came an eager, attractive, and vividly alive girl of 16, Margaret Bondfield. She was working in one of the large draper's shops in Brighton and was not happy. She needed sympathy and was ready to talk when she found her hostess really wanted to listen. She told her about "living in" and all that it meant - sleeping in bare, dingy, stuffy dormitories, intolerably hot in summer, miserably cold in winter; never being alone, even to wash; no place to keep one's things except a box under the bed, fines for entering the dormitory in the daytime, nights spent with a poor consumptive girl who coughed and coughed… My mother gained not only a friend who has always remained faithful to her memory, but an insight into the conditions under which shop girls were employed.

(2) Mrs Louisa Martindale died in 1914. On hearing the news, Margaret Bondfield wrote a letter to Mrs Martindale's two daughters, Louisa and Hilda.

Your mother is one of the great immortals who cannot die as long as memory lasts. She was a vivid influence in my life, the first woman of broad culture I had met, she seemed to recognize me and make me recognize myself as a person of independent thought and action… my first talk with your mother was the great event of that period of my life…. She put me in the way of knowledge that has been of help to many score of my shop mates. She lent me books on social questions, which prepared me to take my proper place in the Labour movement.

(3) In 1906 Mrs Louisa Martindale set up a dispensary for women and children in Brighton. After qualifying as a doctor, her daughter Louisa became a voluntary worker at the dispensary. Members of the Women Suffrage Society in Brighton decided to try to convert the dispensary into a hospital for women and children in the town. People involved in the campaign included Dr. Louisa Martindale, her mother Mrs Louisa Martindale, Hilda Martindale, Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce. Hilda Martindale wrote about this campaign in her book From One Generation to Another (1944).

My sister joined the staff, which was heavily overworked, some eight thousand patients being seen yearly. But she soon discovered that all the more serious medical and surgical cases needing in-patient treatment had to be sent to the County Hospital. As there seemed no chance of a medical woman being put on the staff of that hospital, my mother, sister and others interested in the Dispensary felt that the only solution to the problem was to take a house adjoining and open there a small hospital of twelve beds for medical and surgical cases.

The opposition to this scheme was at first very strong. It seemed impossible to get money. Everything was wanting except the patients, and they were always there with their insistent demand to get a 'lady' to look at them because she would 'understand'. My mother became chairman of the committee… bringing all her organizing power, her clear sense, and unshakeable faith, to the service of this building. In due course this little hospital grew to be one of the five general hospitals for women in Britain officered by women doctors.

In 1911 and my sister became the senior surgeon. Undoubtedly all the original work of establishing the hospital was due to my mother and also the breaking down of opposition and prejudice; the development of the hospital and its removal to Windlesham House came four years after her death and was due to my sister, who was recognised on all sides as the Founder of the New Sussex Hospital as it then came to be called.

(4) In 1911 Octavia Wilberforce met Dr. Louisa Martindale for the first time when she took Janet, her housemaid, to be X-rayed at Brighton Hospital. She wrote about this experience her book, Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

Three or four doctors in surrounding villages had seen Janet at my request and they each assured me that her cough was nothing serious. They said it was magnified in her own mind by the fact that her mother had died of consumption. They were wrong. Janet herself accepted the cough as more or less normal and thought I was being unduly fussy.

I insisted on her seeing a woman doctor, Dr. Louisa Martindale, a friend of Elizabeth Robins. The X-ray confirmed that she had tuberculosis. I was enraged by the delay in not catching the trouble at an earlier stage. I took her to Brompton Hospital. 'Too advanced for admission'. I boiled over with fury; after all, if I with only my eyes and no stethoscope had been able to diagnose all those months ago I could be a better doctor myself.

In a mood of complete despondency I grumbled to Elizabeth Robins. In my abysmal ignorance of what medical training involved, I told her that my observations and common sense had proved me right in diagnosis. 'Why couldn't I become qualified and be a doctor'. She turned and looked at me with flashing eyes and an expression I'd never seen in them before and burst out: 'Now that would be a worthwhile life. My father wanted me, urged me, to be a doctor,' and with passionate enthusiasm, 'It's the greatest profession in the world.'

(5) Louisa Martindale became interested in the subject of women's rights in the 1860s and eventually became a leading figure in the Sussex Women's Liberal Association. Hilda Martindale wrote about her mother's involvement in the movement in her book From One Generation to Another (1944)

In the 1860s mother began reading widely, and learnt how Mary Wollstonecraft had vindicated the rights of women in burning words, how Caroline Norton had struggled for her rights over her children, and how Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson showed what determination was needed by young women who wished for academic or professional education. She read Barbara Bodichon's Englishwomen's Journal, which discovered and exposed the obstacles to the employment of educated women, and she learnt about Florence Nightingale and her work on the vast problem of nursing and sanitary administration. In the 1860s women realised that the only way to civil rights, higher education, and equal status lay through the parliamentary franchise… My mother became friends with Marie Corbett of Danehill, a remarkable woman who not only threw herself heart and soul into the cause, but also educated her daughters (now Mrs Margery Corbett Ashby and Mrs Cicely Corbett Fisher) to take the leading place they have in public life.

The overwhelming victory of the Liberal Party at the polls in January 1906 gave them fresh hope but many of the most ardent women political workers were disillusioned; amongst these was my mother…. Henceforth she worked chiefly for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which was carrying on the work of organisation amongst those women who believed that the cause of freedom could be won without violence.

(6) In 1901 Hilda Martindale became a factory inspector. She soon discovered that women and children were often working in terrible conditions. She described the problem in her book From One Generation to Another (1944).

In 1901 children in industry was not a small problem. In the textile factories in the United Kingdom over 32,000 children from 12 years of age were being employed on the half-time system; in addition, many thousands of children of 13 years upwards, were employed full-time - 60 hours a week - as industrial workers, in non-textile factories and workshops. The number of children engaged in their own homes on some of the sweated trades of those days could not be counted. The illegal employment of children in factories was also prevalent. The hours of employment permissible under the Factory Acts in 1901 were long. Women and girls over 14 years could be employed 12 hours a day and on Saturday 8 hours. In addition, in certain industries, and dressmaking was one, an additional 2 hours could be worked by women on 30 nights in any 12 months.

Workrooms were often overcrowded, dirty, ill-ventilated, and insufficiently heated. The employment of little errand girls, usually only 14 years of age, soon attracted by attention. Their work was very varied - running errands, matching materials, taking out parcels, cleaning the workrooms, and often also helping in the work of the house. To be at the beck and call of all employed in a busy workshop was arduous and fatiguing. They could work legally from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and often were sent out from the workshop a few minutes before 8 p.m. to take a dress to a customer living some distance away, which resulted in their not reaching home until a late hour. It was not surprising that the young persons in those workshops often looked weary and overdone; but there were plenty of girls to take their place, so they would not give in.