The Women from Brighton

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With both a pub and a bus named after her, Martha Gunn is one of the most well-known names on this list. Martha was a Brighton resident in the Regency period, when the city was newly booming as a seaside resort. She found fame as a ‘dipper’ – a female attendant who assisted sea-swimmers change into their swimming gear and get into the water. Martha was a favourite of none other than The Prince of Wales and even enjoyed access to the kitchen at his Brighton palace, The Royal Pavilion. So strong was her association with the city, that she appeared in various popular prints of the time and even on Toby Jugs! 

Brighton has a rich history of progressive politics and Minnie Turner is a fine example – a member of the Suffragette movement, fighting for a woman’s right to vote. Minnie set up her Brighton home as a Suffragette-friendly space which was both a guest-house and activist hub. The house, marked by a blue plaque on Victoria Road, was one of the foremost meeting places in the South East for the Suffrage movement. Like many of her comrades, Minnie made sacrifices for the cause: she was arrested twice and had a spell in prison. Self-taught and with a reputation for a gentle, kindly nature, Minnie Turner was ahead of her time. 

Entertainer and male impersonator Vesta Tilley was a shining light in the Edwardian music hall scene, thrilling audiences of the time with her gender-bending performances. Vesta’s comic sketches and songs whilst dressed variously as a judge, policeman or just simply as a man challenged convention and won her masses of fans. She became the most highly-paid female entertainer on the British stage and trod the boards up and down the country. She spent the end of her life at her seafront flat in St Aubyn’s Mansions in Hove and is commemorated there with a blue plaque. 

Dr Octavia Wilberforce was not expected to become one of Brighton’s first female GPs. Born into the upper classes, she was expected to fulfil her débutante destiny and marry into the nobility. However, Octavia had other ideas: she jilted her fiancé to study medicine and open a medical retreat in Henfield that took in injured Suffragettes. She went on to become head physician at a leading hospital for women and children, and open her own practice in Montpelier Crescent, where a blue plaque stands today in her honour.

Steven Graham
Author: Steven Graham

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