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 âvillage 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 itâs this connection that helped turn Roberta Wedge into a Mary champion, determined to get aÂ statue of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green. Interview by Nicola Baird
âI think Mary Wollstonecraft would recognise Newington Green today. Itâs exactly the same size and people are enjoying it in the same way â talking, picnicing and playing,â 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 sheâs 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 âIâll be clapping, not running!â In fact sheâs spent the morning at the Unitarian Church â 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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âIâd always known about Mary Wollstonecraft. I canât 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 â there was a TV series, biographies.* But 2009 was also the 250th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraftâs birth and she was nowhere,” says Roberta. “There was no big public commemoration. No TV. No Books. No exhibitions. Iâd argue that Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) changed the way men and women related to each other just as much as Darwinâs 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 Maryâs 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 âwomen were not allowed to lift a fingerâ.
- 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 â 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 Wollstonecraftâs fairy godmother,â says Roberta. âShe set up Mary and her best friend, Frances Blood, to run a school for young women. If theyâd done it without the help of a respectable widow it would have been seen as a brothel.â
- The church and Richard Priceâs 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.Â 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 âI do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselvesâ.
The birthplace of Feminism
New Unity is a very welcoming bunch which Roberta says includes atheists, humanists, Christians, ex Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Pagans â theyâve recently created a new banner to hang outside which reads âwherever 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 itâs a 300 year old building.
âI had nothing to do with creating these events, but I did get involved in publicising them,â 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.
âI was involved with the New Unity church and then circa 2009 the Newington Green Action Group, which had previouslyÂ put pressure on Islington council to improve the space, decided to work towards a memorial sculpture,â remembers Roberta.
The result of Newington Green Action Groupâs campaign was a regenerated Newington Green, which now hums with people. Thereâs a playground, lots of space for bench chats, lawn to play on and working from the old park rangersâ hut are the interesting educators from The Garden Classroom. Thereâs also a very popular cafĂ©, Lizzyâs on the Green.
Why a statue?
âThe green is used by everybody,â says Roberta. âItâs 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 Wollstonecraftâs statue which should be somewhere on the green.â
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.
âThereâs a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst pointing towards the Houses of Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens saying âthis is what we didâ. And I do a walk around London looking at female statues, but they are mostly Queens,â explains Roberta. âMaryâs statue should be on Newington Green, this is where she started. Weâve got support from Islington Council, but we need to raise ÂŁ150,000 and weâre not quite half way.â
Mary Wollstonecraft isnât 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 Maryâs 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 Maryâs life. Itâs a dream Roberta shares. âIâve already got the treatment for Mary on the Screen if anyone wants to see,â she says.
Once you start finding out about Mary Wollstonecraft itâs amazing how quickly you become an advocate for her. She was a passionate writer â 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 thereâs now a team of people wanting to create a statue for this inspiring woman, all thatâs needed to make it happen are a few extra donations.
- MAKE HER INTO A STATUEÂ 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 ÂŁ150 print of Stewyâs street art portrait. Fundraising ideas are welcome â 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 atÂ Wikipedia. âItâs a gold star article as are the articles about people significant to her and her works. Itâs excellent and a tremendous resource,â adds Roberta.
- TWO BOOKS TO READ: 1) A recent fun travelogue about Mary Wollstonecraftâs travels to Paris and Scandanavia, In Search of Mary (the mother of all journeys) by Bee Rowlatt (Alma Books, 2015), won a readersâ poll to become the best non fiction book club book of 2016 Â 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. âI think itâs the only pub thatâs ever been named after an educational body,â says Roberta.
Over to you
If youâd 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.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles or Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola