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Women's History Month: Remembering Dunoon's Female Trailblazers

The month of March marks Women’s History Month. This aims to recognise, commemorate, and celebrate the often forgotten achievements of women throughout history. It is important that we remember their accomplishments and understand how they fought to pave the way for women today. For many of the women discussed here, they were not only stepping into unknown territory and carving out a path for themselves, but often battling the societal prejudice that worked to halt or erase their progress.


Many of the stories included in this post can only be rediscovered today as they were published in newspapers as a source of amusement or shock. The achievements of individual women were also often difficult to trace as their first names were commonly replaced with 'Miss', known only by the name of their husband or father. However there is also evidence of publications that proudly proclaimed the achievements of these women and recognised their importance to the fight for women’s rights. This post discusses just some of the achievements made by women within our town around one hundred years ago, but the ripple effects of these are still felt today.


Read on to find out more about Dunoon’s female trailblazers of the past. 


Margaret Howie Strang Hall: ‘Scotland’s Lady Lawyer’ 


Illustration of Margaret Howie Strang Hall. Content provided by the British Library Board. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).


Margaret Howie Strang Hall, known locally as Minnie, was the first woman in Scotland to apply to become a lawyer. Born in Glasgow, Hall’s family had moved to Kirn after the death of her father. The 1901 census shows that she grew up here with her mother, grandfather, and two sisters, living in Kirn Brae House.  Hall had attended Dunoon Grammar School, and achieved top marks in her studies. A prospectus from the Museum collection shows that Hall was the winner of the ‘William Hunter’ prize in 1899. This was awarded to the female dux of the school. Researcher Lindsay has found that Hall won prizes at school due to her impressive abilities in German, French, arithmetic, and drawing, showcasing her wide range of talents.  Interestingly, Dunoon-born suffragette Arabella Scott reflected on Hall’s case in her own autobiography. She stated that the ‘broadminded outlook’ on female education held by their headmaster Rev. William Dock had contributed to the fighting spirit of both herself and Hall. 


Prospectus from CHM Collection


Once Hall had left school she worked for a local solicitor, and then applied to become a lawyer in her own right. In 1900, at the age of eighteen, she submitted a petition to the Court of Session to be allowed to sit the Incorporated Society of Law Agents exams. As well as being the first woman in Scotland, she was also the youngest woman in the United Kingdom to attempt this. Ultimately Hall’s case was refused, and women remained banned from entering the legal profession. Although the rules of the Court of Session stated that they could admit ‘persons’ to the legal profession, and that this was a vague term, they decided that this only applied to men. Although Hall was unsuccessful in her pursuit to become Scotland’s first female lawyer, she drew a great deal of media attention to her cause and outlined this injustice. Two decades later, Madge Easton Anderson won her own case and became the United Kingdom's first female lawyer in 1920.


Maud King: ‘Argyll's First Lady Cab-Driver’


Little historical information has survived about Maud King, but in March 1916  she became the first woman to be granted a cab-driver’s licence in Argyll. Described in the Daily Record as a partner in the Dunoon-based firm 'Messrs A. E MacDougall & Co,' she had applied for her own licence as she ‘had been driving for the past fortnight’ and had ‘been accustomed to horses all of her days.’ Town Provost Tannock echoed this, and stated that ‘some women can drive horses better than men.’ Her licence was to be temporary until the next magistrates meeting two months later. Wartime conditions may have influenced this decision, with the male partner of the business absent due to this. We are still working on uncovering more information about King, but she seems to have been among the first women in Scotland to be granted a cab-driver’s licence. Her appointment certainly pre-dated her contemporaries in other areas of Scotland like Dundee and Edinburgh.


Isobel Dorothy Banks: First World War Ambulance Driver


Banks family photo of Isobel at work in France.

Born in Dunoon in 1893, Isobel Dorothy Banks served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital during the First World War. A desire to be involved in healthcare may have ran in the family as her father Dr John Banks worked as Dunoon’s Medical Officer of Health. The property 'Redhurst' on Royal Crescent was built for the Banks family. Isobel Banks served as an ambulance driver, or ‘chauffeur,’ at Royaumont War Hospital in France during 1917. She worked under the direction of the French Red Cross. Royaumont is remembered as the only French War Hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Twentieth-century author Navvaro wrote that there was a ‘restless fleet’ of women working as chauffeurs at Royaumont, with each chauffeur responsible for two vehicles. Banks appears to be one of only three chauffeurs from Royaumont whose names have survived. They worked long hours, tackled difficult situations, and were exposed to all weathers. After her service she returned to Dunoon and got married at St John’s Church. Although her time at Royaumont had been completed, she remained involved with ensuring their work was not forgotten. She acted as the Treasurer for the Royaumont Society during the 1930s, organising their annual dinner and emergency loan fund. 


Bell Weir, Jean Gainford, and Mrs Grier: ‘The Hardy Women Swimmers’


Image of another Cloch to Dunoon swim, 1928.


A swim race from the Cloch Lighthouse to Dunoon made headlines during 1928. This was as three local female swimmers had beaten their male competitors and swam this distance of about two miles. They were named as Dunoon residents Bell Weir, Jean Gainford, and Mrs Grier. There was reported to be ‘a strong current flowing,’ and a number of 'liners and passenger vessels’ to negotiate during their race.  The men had abandoned their attempt due to the extreme cold, but ‘hundreds of spectators’ were said to have cheered the women on as they completed the race. Bell Weir was the fastest, taking just one hour and sixteen minutes to complete this. She had achieved this feat at just fifteen years old, and it was reported that she hoped to go on and swim the English Channel, and maybe ‘something even bigger.’ Newspapers expressed astonishment at Mrs Grier completing this race as ‘the mother of three children.’ All three women were members of the Cowal Amateur Swimming Club. They were also remembered for their previous achievement in a race across the Clyde, which they completed despite a dozen men collapsing from the cold and needing to be rescued from the river.


These stories make up only a few pieces of the rich tapestry of the history of female trailblazers from our town. We have a small display on the work of the suffragettes in Dunoon, and would love to share their stories with you. We also have a Dunoon Suffrage Trail available to purchase. Castle House Museum reopens on the 2nd of April, why not pay us a visit?


We are also always on the lookout for more stories from the past which will help us diversify our knowledge about women's history in our town. Often the tales which have been documented omit the experiences of working class women and women of colour. If you feel you can help with this, please get in touch at info@castlehousemuseum.org.uk.


References:

7. De Navvaro, A. 1917. The Scottish Women's Hospital at the French Abbey of Royaumont. George Allen and Unwin. 









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