Louise Peskett guides a number of fascinating historical walks around Brighton and Hove – including Notorious Women of Kemptown.
Her next walk will be on Saturday, July 14 at 1030, starting at St George’s Church
“I think there is something about the seaside that attracts a little bit of eccentricity maybe – the possibilities that being beside the sea give you. Kemptown has always had the reputation of attracting creative people – and I suppose it’s a legacy too. People want often want to belong to a tribe, to feel at home.
A lot of the women I talk about on my walk were not born in Kemptown but they chose to live here. I very much like a woman called Dorothy Mills, who lived for a few years in a hotel called Steyning Mansions Hotel on the seafront. She was born in 1896 and died in 1959. She was born into an aristocratic family, the daughter of an earl and an American railway heiress. She married a Captain Arthur Mills and intriguingly, when they married, he gave her a wedding ring made out of a bullet that had been prised out of his leg when he had been shot in the first world war, but the marriage didn’t last. Dorothy Mills led the conventional social life of a wealthy woman and then she went – as people did back then, for a rest cure in Algeria. That seemed to ignite a passion for exploration. She just took herself off to places and wrote about it for newspapers in the 1920s. She went to Liberia, to Palestine, to Senegal. She went to South America in an attempt to find the source of the Orinoco river and she is credited as being the first European woman to reach Timbuktu. Lots of dramas seemed to happen to her. I don’t know if it was because she made money from writing for newspapers, and they liked her stories to be as dramatic as possible — but she always seemed to be getting carried off by people, or left stranded without water, that kind of thing. And her readers really lapped it up. She also started to write novels as well and seems to have invented a genre – exotic sci-fi. Her books had strange science-fiction plots set in exotic places like Africa.
Another woman with ties to Kemptown, and who for a while actually lived in the same hotel as Dorothy Mills, is the novelist, Georgette Heyer. I think she is interesting because she invented this kind of romantic regency romance genre, with heaving bosoms, Mr Darcy characters and so on, and was phenomenally successful as a writer – yet has a reputation for being flimsy and for dashing novels one after the other. I feel quite defensive of her. At a time when a lot of women didn’t have careers, or were doing careers that perhaps they would not themselves have chosen, there was Georgette Heyer, doing something she was extremely good at. She was the main breadwinner in her family and she sold lots of books – and a lot of people really enjoyed her work.
People also don’t tend to realise how accurate she was – she really did her research and it’s very difficult to find something which she might have got wrong. I also work at the Royal Pavilion and I am always bumping into people who say, “The reason I came to visit is because of Georgette Heyer – that’s how I got interested in Regency.” Maybe her readers go on to read Jane Austen, maybe not. Maybe it makes them more interested in history. So good on her.
There is another woman I very much like, Pearl Binder, who lived at 17 Lewes Crescent. She was a fantastic artist but did many other things. She wrote, she illustrated, she designed for Wedgewood, she was a stained glass artist, she sculpted, she designed costumes for the theatre. She was particularly fascinated by the East End of London and did these amazing lithographs of life there, which really brought things to life. She was also TV presenter – she presented a programme about the history of fashion in the late 1930s called Clothes Line and incidentally she was actually the first visibly pregnant woman to appear on British TV. She was from Salford originally but settled in Kemptown in her later life.
My current hero is Mercedes Gleitze, born in the Queens Park area. She was a champion swimmer, who, in 1927 was the first British woman to swim the Channel and, some years later, broke the world swimming endurance test by swimming for over 40 hours in a swimming pool in Worthing. She gave much of her prize money to charity and set up a home for homeless people in Leicester.
My use of the word ‘notorious’ in the title of my walk is a little tongue in cheek — but it is clear many of these clever and talented women were considered very unusual in their day and that in itself was a kind of notoriety. When I started the Notorious Women of Kemptown walk a few years ago, I did wonder if I would just have women coming on it, so in my first leaflets I did stress that men were also allowed – but I needn’t have worried. All sorts of people come along. Quite a few are locals who are very interested in local history and just want to know more details about where they live. I also get lots of people from out of town, people who might be coming to the Festival, and have a show or cabaret booked for later in the day and come on my walk first. Some are students, some are what I would call feminist activists – people who are involved in other things to do with women. I have also had quite a few mothers and daughters coming along together, which is really nice.
There is an essential kit I take with me: a cagoule is a must, sensible shoes and some pictures – because it’s a lot for people to take in, if it’s just words. I take along my trusty file with a few notes in it, but I don’t like too many notes as there’s a danger that you’ll just put your head in it and read from it. The walk lasts an hour and a half – and I do like to foster a chatty atmosphere. I love it if as we walk from place to place people who might have come along on their own or with partners of friends start to chat to others in the group and meet people as they go along.”
If you are interested in attending one of Louise’s walking tours of Kemptown, you can contact her through her fun and informative website, www.historywomenbrighton.com