The story of Gillingham's feminist history told in art

  • Watch the full report by ITV Meridian's Derek Johnson

Gillingham town centre has been transformed into a makeshift art gallery telling the story of some extraordinary and inspirational women.

Their portraits are now on display on hoardings next to a construction site - part of the Circle of Six Women project which is highlighting local feminist heroes with personal connections to the town.

Medway council commissioned artist Nicole Mollett to create the artworks which are on temporary boards placed around the Jeffrey Street site.

The Six Women are: Suffragist and peace campaigner Dame Kathleen Courtney; pioneering psychiatrist Dr Lorna Wing; poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks;  inventor and engineer, Verena Holmes; artist Eileen Tirzah Garwood and African Princess and friend to Queen Victoria, Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Artist Nicole Mollett and Sarah Jenkin from Medway Libraries.

Nicole Mollett said: ‘My first challenge was to find the right pictures to draw from as none of these women are alive anymore. All six women lived during early photography, pre-internet generations, and so there is little visual documentation evidence of their existences online or in archives. 

"The photographs I found were black and white, and some were very grainy. I was adamant that I wanted to make the women seem alive. I had to observe these images carefully to add in fine detail and colour, to give a fuller sense of their different personalities. 

‘’I believe when you draw someone’s portrait you get to know a little bit about them, to a certain degree. Whilst I was drawing I spent a lot of time researching online, listening and talking about each individual woman.

"Slowly I started to piece together who I felt they were. It was an exciting process uncovering forgotten lives, full of new discoveries.’’

Those chosen for the project were born, grew up in or lived in Gillingham at one point.

Dame Kathleen Courtney was one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and chair of the British section for ten years. She was a strong voice in the suffrage movement before and after the Great War and was granted the UN peace medal in 1972.

The portraits are on show in their current location for a year.

Dr Lorna Wing worked tirelessly to develop educational programmes that catered for autistic children. She helped establish the Society for Autistic Children - the first parent-led organisation for children that later went on to become the National Autistic Society.

Rosemary Tonks was the author and illustrator of children’s books and also wrote novels and poetry. Her career as a published author began in 1948 and she continued to be published into the 1970s. Interest in her poetry was revived in 2014 with the posthumous publication of Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems and Selected Prose.

Verena Holmes was one of the founders of a Gillingham engineering firm that employed only women. She was a strong advocate for women in engineering and helped establish the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919. During World War Two she worked on naval weaponry and became an advisor on the training of munitions workers.

Eileen Tirzah Garwood was a talented artist who worked with wood engravings and was awarded commissions such as illustrations for the composer Neville Bantock’s oratorio The Pilgrim’s Progress. She also designed book covers. She went on to create collages and models and produced paintings in oils. Her husband was the artist Eric Ravilious.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born a Yoruba princess in Nigeria in 1843. Captured as a child, she was gifted to a British naval captain and taken to England. Queen Victoria took her under her wing, and by the time she reached adulthood she had taken her place in Victorian high society and become a celebrity – as well as part of the contemporary debate about race, slavery and empire.

Carol Stewart from the Medway African and Caribbean Association said of Sarah: ‘’At that time to have a black person in the Royal family was something that was not widely recognised. I think having this image of her in Gillingham at the place she lived for a while is quite significant.’’

The inspiration for the mural project came from Sarah Jenkin from Medway Libraries. She is project lead for the Six Women of Gillingham project, and has spent ten years researching the women.

‘’Medway has a diverse and fascinating history’’, she said. ‘’It’s not just Charles Dickens and a dead, dusty dockyard. I came across these women quite by accident and I was astonished that such a variety of women existed and worked in Medway and Gillingham specifically.

‘’The thinking (behind the project) was to excite and encourage and inspire the next generation. It’s so easy to feel downhearted, especially after the rough couple of years we have had. The idea is to say these women lived here and they made an impact and shaped the world.’’

The portraits will be on display for a year and after that it’s hoped to find a permanent home for them somewhere in the town.