Women of Portsmouth

When we talk about the most famous and revered people to have come out of Portsmouth, there are a few names that crop up more often than others: Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells being the prime candidates. To leave it there, however, would be to do some of the city's most famous female inhabitants a disservice. We have, after all, been home to some eminent women over the generations.

So, to commemorate International Women's Day, it's time to focus on the great women who have lived and worked in our island city.

Hertha Marks Ayrton

Hertha Marks Ayrton was born Phoebe Sarah Marks on 28 April 1854 on Queen Street, Portsea. The rather drastic name change is thought to have emerged from her agnosticism, with Ayrton adopting the name 'Hertha' after the eponymous heroine of an Algernon Charles Swinburn poem. In the poem, Swinburn's character questions the validity of an all-encompassing God through the Teutonic goddess of fertility. One stanza reads:

            Mother, not maker,
                        Born, and not made;
            Though her children forsake her,
                        Allured or afraid,
Praying prayers to the God of their fashion, she stirs not for all that have prayed.

When her father Levi Marks died in 1861, the six year-old Hertha took the responsibility of caring for her four younger siblings. Within three years her aunts intervened, taking her to the school they ran in London. It was here that the "fiery, occasionally crude" Hertha began studying mathematics - and set her on the path for which she would earn an enviable reputation.

A place at Cambridge University's Girton College beckoned, and it was here that Hertha's prodigal talents truly began to show. She constructed a blood pressure monitor, founded the Girton fire brigade, formed a maths club and led the choral society. Yet despite all this, Cambridge only awarded Hertha a certificate and not a full degree, as this was its practice for women at the time.

Hertha's output continued after university, when she developed and successfully patented a line divider to be used by artists, architects and engineers. This was to be her first patented invention of some 26.

Over the course of her lifetime, Hertha was elected first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, became the first woman to be nominated as Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and was only the fifth person to be awarded the Royal Society's prestigious Hughes Medal.

More recently she had the honour of being commemorated as a 'Google Doodle' on what would have been her 162nd birthday.

Michelle Magorian

Anyone who has read Goodnight Mister Tom, or watched the immensely popular film adaptation featuring John Thaw, will be aware of Michelle Magorian's incredible storytelling prowess. What they may not realise, however, is that she comes from Portsmouth.

Michelle's story is a truly global one, being born in Portsmouth to a Welsh mother and an Irish father with an Armenian surname. Whilst she lived in Portsmouth until the age of 18, Michelle also had a couple of stints in Singapore and Australia.

Her first foray into the arts wasn't writing, but performing. Michelle was no stranger to the Kings Theatre stage and carved out a name for herself as an actress (that name was Mikki Magorian). During her studies at The Rose Bruford College of speech and drama, Michelle started writing more regularly, turning her attention to the genre of children's stories that she so loved.

Her debut novel, Goodnight Mister Tom, originated as two short stories but was eventually combined into one. It remains not only one of Michelle's most loved books, but also one of the most celebrated children's books of its kind.

Today, Michelle lives in Petersfield and continues writing books for children.

Freda Swain

It could be said that Freda Swain's future was written long before she was born on Hallowe'en 1902. Her father, Thomas Swain, was a musical instrument dealer and it's thought her grandfather was a bandmaster in the Royal Marines.

Freda's instrument of choice was the piano, which she studied with Dora Matthay and later Arthur Alexander (who she went on to marry in 1921).

At a very early age she had won both an Ada Lewis Scholarship for piano at the Royal Academy of Music and the Portsmouth-Whitcombe Scholarship for composition at the Royal College of Music (RCM). She chose to study at the RCM where she was one of the last pupils to be taught by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. This wasn't Freda's only time at the RCM, though, as she would return later as a professor.

Freda began her career as a concert pianist, during which she saw her work ‘The Harp of Angus’ for violin and orchestra performed by Achille Rivarde at Queen’s Hall.

In 1936, Freda founded the British Music Movement, to help promote new music from young composers and artists. She later set up the ‘NEMO’ Concerts, promoting the music of her contemporaries following the Second World War.

Though she toured globally (including shows in South Africa and Australia), Freda still kept Portsmouth close to her heart. Once composition was even titled 'The Lark on Portsdown'.

Freda Swain died in 1985 but lives on through the lounge at Portsmouth Guildhall that today bears her name.

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