Today we celebrate much loved Henfield resident actress and women’s equality activist, Elizabeth Robins (1862 – 1952).
Born far from Sussex, in Kentucky, USA, she was an actress who, after the shock of her husband’s suicide, decided to give England a try. Arriving in London in 1888, she quickly became a fan of Ibsen and found fame playing Hedda Garbler. With theatrical friends including George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, Robins went into theatre management with Marion Lea and together they brought plays to the stage which showcased strong female characters and plots that were relevant to contemporary women. In 1894 she began a long and successful writing career, sometimes under the pseudonym C. E. Raimond. Her first novel under her own name, ‘Magnetic North’ (1904) was inspired by her own intrepid trip to Alaska to search for her brother who had gone missing. In 1907 her play ‘Votes for Women’ was the first successful attempt to dramatise the street politics of women’s fight for the vote. It was so successful it was performed all over the country and led to a flurry of similar pro suffrage plays appearing on stage, introducing the idea of votes for women to people who were not necessarily aware or supportive of the cause.
Becoming more galvanised by the suffrage movement, Robins joined both the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Social and Political Union, although she subsequently broke with the latter when their activities started to become more militant. Her best tools to rally support were her skills as a writer and public speaker and she never hesitated to speak to meetings up and down the country or write articles and pamphlets. In 1908 she joined the Women Writers Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchize League.
By 1908 she had fallen in love with Sussex and started living in a rambling 15th century property on the outskirts of Henfield called ‘Backsettown’. She was to spend over 30 years in Henfield, even, in 1917, becoming a founding member of the village’s Women’s Institute. Like many feminists she saw the 1911 census as an opportunity to make a point, and spoiled her from, writing ‘the occupier of this house will be ready to give the desired information, the moment the government recognizes women as responsible citizens’ on it. Around the same time as her move to Henfield Robins was introduced to the young Petworth-born, Octavia Wilberforce. A young woman from a wealthy background who had alienated her family and become disinherited by breaking off her engagement to an earl’s son to study medicine, Robins took her under her wing and helped to support her studies. Following the government’s cruel ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913, which sought to undermine the political impact of hunger-striking suffragettes by releasing them from prison for enough time to recover their health before returning to serve their sentence, Robins and Wilberforce set up Backsettown as a recuperation home. It’s said today that quite a few Suffragettes found a hiding place there too. From 1927, the house was to be run, under the helm of Wilberforce, as a convalescent home for professional women. Today Backsettown is a private house.
The tireless Robins was also to play an important part in the setting up and running of women’s hospitals in nearby Brighton. Working in particular with Dr Louisa Martindale, Brighton’s first GP and founder of the New Sussex Hospital for Women, Robins played a key role in the management commitees of the hospitals and, using her great writing skills and show business contacts, was an effective fundraiser of both the Lady Chichester Hospital and the New Sussex, allowing them to bring accessible healthcare to all women in the area.
Elizabeth Robins was an extraordinarily versatile woman who freely used her talents to help fight for a more equal world for women. Not only in Henfield is she rightly remembered by local people but also in Brighton where the Brighton & Hove Women’s History Group have been fundraising for a blue plaque to be erected in honour of both her and Dr Octavia Wilberforce at 24 Montpelier Crescent, where Dr Wilberforce practised and the two women lived.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett