Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 59 seconds
Everybody has a story. This is the 200th interview on Islington Faces. Newington Green is sometimes called the “village that changed the world. One of its famous residents was so-called Mother of Feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who moved here in 1784 to run a girls’ school. During this time she worshipped at the Unitarian Church on the north side, And it’s this connection that helped turn Roberta Wedge into a Mary champion, determined to get a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I think Mary Wollstonecraft would recognise Newington Green today. It’s exactly the same size and people are enjoying it in the same way – talking, picnicing and playing,” says Roberta Wedge tucking her red cycle helmet under the park bench to survey Newington Green.
Roberta is wearing cycle bloomers that she made herself by following a genuine Suffragette pattern. Over this she’s donned a Mary On The Green running vest to help publicise the 10k run through Central London due to take place on Sunday 10 July to raise money for Mary on the Green, pointing out that “I’ll be clapping, not running!” In fact she’s spent the morning at the Unitarian Church – where she even knows the pew that Mary Wollstonecraft used to sit – and now given up her Sunday lunch to talk to Islington Faces about Mary Wollstonecraft.
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“I’d always known about Mary Wollstonecraft. I can’t remember when I first heard about her. But what struck me so strongly was that in 2009 Charles Darwin had a major celebration to celebrate 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species, and his 200th birthday Darwin was everywhere – there was a TV series, biographies.* But 2009 was also the 250th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birth and she was nowhere,” says Roberta. “There was no big public commemoration. No TV. No Books. No exhibitions. I’d argue that Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) changed the way men and women related to each other just as much as Darwin’s Origin of Species changed the way we relate to the world. But the only group of people I could find anywhere in the world celebrating Mary’s birthday with a series (rather than a one-off) of public events was New Unity at the Unitarian Church.”
These celebrations included a lecture, a discussion led by women MPs, a sermon by current Unitarian Church Minister Andy Pakula, an exhibition, a pilgrimage from Newington Green to St Pancras Old Church where she was buried and a man-made lunch followed by men washing up and at which “women were not allowed to lift a finger”.
- Newington Green really punched above its weight. It was The Village That Changed the World because so many dissenting ministers (1 in 10 were ejected from the Church of England in 1662 because they valued their conscience more than their living). Many then set up dissenting academies* (boarding schools) in the large town houses around the green.
- In 1758 Richard Price (d1791) moved into 54 Newington Green, the brick terraced houses which are said to be the oldest in London, though they were built when this was miles from London. He was Minister at the chapel for decades. This was the high point of Newington Green when the radicals and revolutionaries came here to listen to Richard Price preach and visit his home – people like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (the second president of the US), Tom Paine, scientist Joseph Priestly and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
- Mrs Burgh, was the widow of James who ran a school teaching young men, and wrote about education. Mrs Burgh devoted her whole life supporting James but when he died she became 25 year old Mary Wollstonecraft’s fairy godmother,” says Roberta. “She set up Mary and her best friend, Frances Blood, to run a school for young women. If they’d done it without the help of a respectable widow it would have been seen as a brothel.”
- The church and Richard Price’s house could be seen from the school which Mary Wollstonecraft ran from 1784-1786 but the exact site of the building is no longer there. The exact site of the school is unknown, but it may well have been on the north-east corner, roughly where Newington Green Primary School is today. On the school, by the bus stop, is a plaque to her.
- Mary met her future publisher, Joseph Johnson, through the people she met at Newington Green. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. One of its main messages is “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves”.
The birthplace of Feminism
New Unity is a very welcoming bunch which Roberta says includes atheists, humanists, Christians, ex Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Pagans – they’ve recently created a new banner to hang outside which reads “wherever you are from you are welcome here”.
The original building on Upper Street was destroyed by the Luftwafte in World War Two, so replaced in the 1950s. Whereas on Newington Green it’s a 300 year old building.
“I had nothing to do with creating these events, but I did get involved in publicising them,” explains Roberta who now sits in the same pew that Mary Wollstonecraft sat, and for some years even ran a twitter account speaking as if she was the voice of Mary.
“I was involved with the New Unity church and then circa 2009 the Newington Green Action Group, which had previously put pressure on Islington council to improve the space, decided to work towards a memorial sculpture,” remembers Roberta.
The result of Newington Green Action Group’s campaign was a regenerated Newington Green, which now hums with people. There’s a playground, lots of space for bench chats, lawn to play on and working from the old park rangers’ hut are the interesting educators from The Garden Classroom. There’s also a very popular café, Lizzy’s on the Green.
Why a statue?
“The green is used by everybody,” says Roberta. “It’s what every neighbourhood should have. To use a metaphor the action group baked the cake and now they want a cherry on the top. And that cherry is Mary Wollstonecraft’s statue which should be somewhere on the green.”
There are few statues of women in London as was wittily pointed out in this short film (1.42min) on the Mary On The Green website.
“There’s a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst pointing towards the Houses of Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens saying ‘this is what we did’. And I do a walk around London looking at female statues, but they are mostly Queens,” explains Roberta. “Mary’s statue should be on Newington Green, this is where she started. We’ve got support from Islington Council, but we need to raise £150,000 and we’re not quite half way.”
Mary Wollstonecraft isn’t just the first feminist, or the mother of Frankenstein writer, Mary Shelley. She was also an intrepid traveller – as many people recently discovered when Bee Rowlatt gave a brilliant talk about her prize winning book In Search of Mary at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2016 in the Unitarian Chapel. In Search of Mary follows Mary’s journeys through the French revolution and then with a baby around Scandinavia. Bee, who interviewed Roberta while researching her book, is convinced there should be a film about Mary’s life. It’s a dream Roberta shares. “I’ve already got the treatment for Mary on the Screen if anyone wants to see,” she says.
Once you start finding out about Mary Wollstonecraft it’s amazing how quickly you become an advocate for her. She was a passionate writer – producing many books and pamphlets of which her Vindication for the Rights of Woman is the star. But it is her demand for equality, in the 18th century, which makes her voice stand apart from all others. Thankfully there’s now a team of people wanting to create a statue for this inspiring woman, all that’s needed to make it happen are a few extra donations.
- MAKE HER INTO A STATUE Go to www.maryonthegreen.org to help create a memorial for Mary Wollstonecraft.
- BE A FUNDRAISER At www.maryonthegreen.org you can make a donation or purchase Mary on the Green items, such as the £150 print of Stewy’s street art portrait. Fundraising ideas are welcome – donations have included a burlesque cabaret night, cake sales, pub quizzes and sponsored runs.
- FIND OUT MORE For more about Mary Wollstonecraft have a look at Wikipedia. “It’s a gold star article as are the articles about people significant to her and her works. It’s excellent and a tremendous resource,” adds Roberta.
- TWO BOOKS TO READ: 1) A recent fun travelogue about Mary Wollstonecraft’s travels to Paris and Scandanavia, In Search of Mary (the mother of all journeys) by Bee Rowlatt (Alma Books, 2015), won a readers’ poll to become the best non fiction book club book of 2016 2) Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon.
- Newington Green Action Group always needs members, see more at http://newingtongreen.org.uk/
- The Charles Darwin anniversary was celebrated in Islington at Caledonian Park, N7 when the first UK Charles Darwin trail was opened by his great great grandson, Randal Keynes in July, 2009. Charles Darwin used to buy finches at the market which used to be held under the Caledonian clock tower.
- Find out more about Charles Darwin here, http://darwin-online.org.uk/2009.html
- The Nobody Inn, now the Lady Mildmay, was called the Dissenting Academies. “I think it’s the only pub that’s ever been named after an educational body,” says Roberta.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.