Wednesday 4 July 2018 – Part 2: Ambleside
Leaving Grasmere, Wordsworths and Shelleys behind JG and me boarded a returning 555 bus to travel the short distance to Ambleside.
The Armitt Museum is one of the smallest but most intellectually compelling museums I know.
Snuggled within the grounds of Charlotte Mason College the Armitt is a unique combination of library, museum and gallery.
The Armitt was founded as a library by Mary Louisa Armitt – known to her friends as Louie – to foster the exchange of ideas among the local community. And what a community!
Ambleside in the 1800s and early 1900s was the centre of a remarkable intellectual culture in which many of the key players were independent women. Amongst these were Mary Louise and her sisters, Sophia and Annie Maria; Harriet Martineau; Annie Jemima Clough; Charlotte Mason and famously Beatrix Potter. A powerhouse of polymaths. But had you heard of them all? I certainly hadn’t …. and I live on the doorstep!
The Armitt’s “A Woman’s Place: Ambleside’s Feminist Legacy” rectifies this.
Here are the inspirational women we met (no photos allowed so bear with my scratchy portraits):
Founders of the Armitt Library – the Armitt Sisters
Sophia, Annie Marie and Mary Louisa Armitt were seriously gifted sisters originally from Salford. Each had her own area of expertise and talent, botany, music, English literature to name a few.
Thankfully Mary Louisa ignored Ruskin’s advice to keep to women’s activities. I don’t think he would have included in those the founding of a library and we would have been all the poorer.
There is definitely something in the Ambleside water as the talented Armitts were not the only women of note drawn to the area.
The first female sociologist – Harriet Martineau (1802 -1876)
This rather doe-eyed portrait probably belies the steely woman Harriet was. Born into a Unitarian family of Huguenot ancestry she travelled widely (in those skirts?!) and was a proponent of higher education for women. Her interest in social theory earned her the ‘first female sociologist’ moniker.
She was a woman ahead of her time:
“If a test of civilisation be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power”
… and there were more…
First Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge – Anne Jemima Clough (1820 – 1892)
While losing out in the portraiture stakes (sorry Anne) Ms Clough certainly did not lose out when they were handing out brains and humanity. Anne Clough was a suffragist (akin to a suffragette but earlier and non-violent) and like Martineau was a promoter of higher education for women becoming the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge University.
While in Ambleside (where else?) she opened a school at her home Eller How for local children. Fascinated by her stories and travels her pupils couldn’t resist being drawn to her and learning through her informal methods of teaching. Moving south to help her widowed sister-in-law she initiated a scheme for peripatetic lectures which blossomed into the development of a new Cambridge college.
Homely and good humoured, like the children at Eller How, Anne Jemima’s students cherished her. While not a natural administrator her humility and ability to admit when she was wrong allowed her to work creatively and successfully with her colleagues.
She sounds great and is a bit of Her-story I have never learned about.
Home Education and the Teacher’s Teacher – Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923)
Best known in these here parts for being the light behind the teachers’ training college set up after her death Charlotte was also a supporter of home education. She co-founded the Parents’ Educational Union to provide resources for home educating parents and published the Parents’ Review a regular publication with articles on home educating.
Perhaps because of this Charlotte is well known in North America. Infact we learned that a large number of American and Canadian home schoolers visit The Armitt to find out more about her.
Last but not least …
Naturalist, artist, writer and conservationist – Beatrix Potter
(Oh the sacrilege.)
Living in an age of change Beatrix expertly followed her own path. Through her much loved Tales of Peter Rabbit and other children’s books Beatrix an astute businesswoman ensured her financial independence. She earned enough to engage in farming, assemble a great estate and become a Herdwick sheep breeder. All this from an expert on fungi!
Beatrix supported The Armitt and thanks to her beneficence the museum holds an amazing collection of her scientific drawings. They bowl you over with their detail and some are even hard to distinguish from photographs. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to see Beatrix Potter’s academic work it is astonishing.
You still there? I couldn’t stifle the urge to share these inspirational women with you I hope you enjoyed meeting them.
Until next we meet,