Monday, 20 February 2012

Architects, Angels, Activists and the City of Bath

Hot off the press is Canadian academic Cynthia Hammond’s respectful appreciation of the unacknowledged work of women over the past centuries in creating the city of Bath as we know it - Architects, Angels, Activists and the City of Bath 1765-1965: Engaging with Women’s Spatial Interventions in Buildings and Landscape (Ashgate, £65). 

Divided into three sections, the book covers the lesser known female architects who are largely forgotten in the wake of men like John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger; a section on the representation of angels in the city, remarking on the relative absence of female angels at the famous Abbey and affecting to remedy this with a performance piece; and lastly a beautifully detailed section about the trampled Suffragettes’ Wood at Batheaston (see also this post from a few weeks ago).

While the whole book is fascinating, my main interest is the third section. I’d vaguely known of a Suffragettes’ Wood in Somerset for some time, but it was only after making contact with Dan Brown in early January that I gained access to his book (compiled with Hammond last year), and found long-lost books by Victoria Nimmo (Women of Violence, 1985) and Beatrice Dobbie (A Nest of Suffragettes in Somerset, 1979) in Bristol and Bath Libraries.

For those who don’t know about the Suffragettes’ Wood, please have a quick read of my previous post. And once you’re up to speed, revel in the fact that Hammond uses this book to take the research a step further and bring it up to date. Brown and Hammond’s previous book is more of a historical analysis and document, stating what happened and cataloguing as many of Colonel Blathwayt’s photographs as possible. 

What Hammond now does is retrace the steps of the suffragettes around Batheaston and Eagle House, and in the process she finds two (now elderly) women who used to play in the Suffragettes’ Wood as children, which enables Hammond to construct a detailed map locating where all the bushes and trees would have stood, and the location of each of the photographs.

What struck me the most was the amazing task Hammond undertook in attempting to rebuild the arboretum as far as humanly possible, given the fact the site is now a housing estate. She bought trees and conifers, and delivered them to all the residents of Eagle Park, inviting them to plant and care for the trees, and letting them know about the history of the site upon which they now live. 

Hammond’s respect for this task was extremely moving, and showed through as an intensely powerful gesture of support for the history of women in the United Kingdom. However, is it not shameful that we needed a Canadian woman to do this for us – was there really no one in England for cared enough to ensure the memory of the arboretum never died?

Hammond is rightly recognised as an authority on this subject: she has given papers about this at Bath Spa University, and written elsewhere about the arboretum. I hope her work never ceases, and that she continues to turn over more stones to unearth yet more amazing stories about this trampled site. Although, with it being 113 years since the first trees were planted at Eagle House, and about 40 years since the bulldozers demolished history, there cannot be many people alive who still have living memories of the arboretum. Which makes it all the more wonderful that Hammond managed to find two women who could share their memories with her. I can only image how her spine must have tingled as Hammond listened to these women speak – because my spine tingled when I read what they had to say.

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