Jessica Hope uncovers the stories of women who have been forgotten from Bath’s history, but now have the spotlight in a new exhibition at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Caroline Herschel – all women who you have probably heard of if you’re a resident of Bath or a regular visitor to this historic city. But what about Adela Breton, Catherine Macaulay, or Dame Sarah Grand? Does Hannah More ring a bell? How about Elizabeth Montagu and Ann Thicknesse? All these women have made significant contributions to history – whether it’s as an anti-slavery campaigner, an archaeologist, or an accomplished musician or writer – and yet their work, and connections to Bath, have often been overlooked.

But now, in a new exhibition at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, the names and remarkable lives that these women led will be on show for visitors. Extraordinary Women in Bath spans more than a millennium and brings the work of a range of women who have associations with Bath to the fore, as well as displaying items from the BRLSI’s vast collections.

The idea for this exhibition came about when BRLSI volunteer Jane Sparrow-Niang was researching the life of artist and archaeologist Adela Breton (1849–1923) for a monograph, published in 2017. Jane soon discovered that there are great numbers of women in history that have connections with buildings around Bath, and yet there’s very little information about them and their significance around the city. This is reflected in the fact that only 11 out of the 80 plaques erected around the city are for women – two of which only appeared in 2017, one dedicated to Breton on Camden Crescent, and the other for Mary Shelley, the author
of Frankenstein, in Abbey Churchyard.

In the hope of making the lives of these historical figures more accessible, the BRLSI will soon publish a walking trail guide so visitors can wander the streets of Bath and see the places where historical women lived and worked, to coincide with the exhibition.

Under the guidance of curator and volunteer Jude Harris, Extraordinary Women in Bath demonstrates how women had an impact on the city and beyond, socially, culturally and politically over the centuries. Many of the women featured are also connected, especially in intellectual circles. The famous Bluestockings Society, founded by Elizabeth Montagu (who lived in the Royal Crescent) in the mid-18th century, became a hub for discussion, debate and education among women, and philanthropist Hannah More and singer Elizabeth Linley moved in these social worlds.

One of Jude’s favourite women on display is Ann Thicknesse, who lived at the Royal Crescent. A gifted linguist, singer and musician, she shocked Bath society when artist Thomas Gainsborough painted her portrait with her legs crossed, which was seen as scandalous. Later in life, while travelling Ann was imprisoned in a convent during the French Revolution.

Catherine Macaulay (1731–91), who lived on Alfred Street, is another character with an extraordinary story to tell. She was a radical political writer and historian who published the eight-volume History of England, and was invited to visit Mount Vernon as a special guest of George Washington in 1785.

The exhibition will feature works by London artist Louisa Albani, who has created beautifully engaging pieces of art of author and advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who famously published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and came to Bath in 1778 as a lady’s companion (much to her frustration and distaste).

Drawing on works found in the vast BRLSI library, a variety of educational, scientific and social commentaries written by women, some dating back to the 18th century, will be on display.

The exhibition also explores women’s suffrage, and the establishment of Eagle House in Batheaston as a place for suffragettes to recuperate after imprisonment, and highlights some of the local women at the forefront of the women’s rights campaign in the early 20th century.

Also featured are collections donated by women to the BRLSI including the pages from a herbarium by Lucy Sarah Atkins
from 1825, which formed the core of the institution’s botanical collections.

As well as women from centuries gone by, the exhibition brings us up to the modern day with names such as the queen of cakes Mary Berry, Prudence Dufour (who established Dorothy House Hospice Care), author Jacqueline Wilson, and local sport stars Amy Williams, Lizzy Yarnold, Anya Shrubsole and Stephanie Millward.

You may not initially recognise the names of some of the women included, but you’ll leave with an abundance of stories about local female role models, and can play a part in keeping their legacy alive.

Extraordinary Women in Bath runs from 5 January – 2 March at the BRLSI, 16–18 Queen Square, Bath. Free entry.


Main image: Mary Wollestonecraft by Louisa Albani