Southampton is perhaps one of the most famous cities in the UK.
These days, it is one of the country’s largest ports, and until the covid pandemic hit, it was one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the world. Carlton Cresent is perhaps one of its “poshest” historical streets, and these days the buildings are frequented by mainly expensive solicitors and up-market property companies.
I actually know it quite well as a company I once worked for hired specialist libel lawyers who had offices in this street, and I was in charge of the case! There followed a massive legal fight lasting two years and eventual victory. When I was walking to their offices one day, I noticed at number six Carlton Cresent a blue plate – Sarah Davies’s birthplace a feminist and suffragist. Most of us know the names Emiline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and Millicent Fawcett, whose surname lead to the Fawcett Society, a feminist organisation that I am a member of. Still, not so many people know of Sarah Davies, who prefered using her middle name, Emily.
Emily Davies went on to become a feminist and suffragist of the first order and a pioneer in campaigning for women’s rights in education, for example, highlighting the unfairness and inequity of not opening up universities to women. A daughter of a well to do clergyman who travelled the country, her fathers calling soon took him and his family to the north-east of England. Emily spent some years in the north-east and was dedicated to her studies.
Her dad had attended Cambridge University, became a published author and Emily wanted to follow in his footsteps, but in those days, girls and higher education was not the “done thing.” Emily was not put off though, she got involved in politics and even produced her own weekly newspaper. She made friends with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and the two of them became suffragettes and peace campaigners.
Many suffragettes, however, were frustrated at the lack of progress and became very militant. Emily Davies disapproved of the proactive methods of the Pankhursts and made her feelings known. She was a small “c” conservative, although that did not prevent her from participating in demonstrations.
Millicent Fawcett lead the peaceful National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for over 20 years, and Emily became close to her. If ‘Votes for Women’ was ever to be accepted, it had to go hand-in-hand with education access. Emily became an active member of the London School Board, which became the city’s largest educational provider, and used her position to agitate for women’s London degrees.
It was not just London that she had in her sights on though – the top universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which had been “closed shops” as far as the UK’s women were concerned.
Emily campaigned as the secretary of a committee for girls to have access to Cambridge Local Examinations (an aspiration that was duly granted in 1865 when 91 female students were permitted to enter). But this was just a stepping stone to a bigger target, the right of women to reside at a University site with Emily founding Girton, Cambridge University’s FIRST women’s college!
Emily Davies name, though, lives on in Southampton. She was the inspiration behind the naming of a Solent University hall of residence on Western Esplanade, Emily Davies House. It is entirely apt that the connection should be made between Emily and Southampton’s University, whose campus and six residences lie right in the heart of the city centre close to Carlton Cresent – exactly where it all started back in 1830.
I’m sure that Emily would have been very thrilled to see a University that specialises in medicine in her home city of Southampton, especially as a large number of its 11,000+ students are women.