Sidmouth philanthropist was staunch suffrage supporter

Annie Leigh Browne gave The Byes and a hospital to Sidmouth

SHOULD new apartments built on the site of Fortfield Hotel be named after one of the town’s benefactors or keep Fortfield in its title?

As the debate continues, following Sidmouth Town Council’s suggestion the building be called Annie Leigh Browne Court, Nostalgia takes a look at this remarkable Sidmouth resident.

Born in 1851, she was elder daughter of Samuel Woolcott Browne and Thomazine Leigh and, with sister Mary – later Lady Lockyer – granddaughter of Captain John Carslake, RN of Cotmaton Hall, who fought under Admiral Lord Nelson on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, along with her paternal grandfather, Capt George Lewis Browne.

She was 17 when she attended her first meeting in support of women’s suffrage, a cause she remained committed to for the rest of her life.

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Sidmouth Museum holds a banner from the Sidmouth and district branch of the Suffrage Movement. It also holds a wealth of material about Annie’s family.

Writing for Sid Vale Association, Bernard Myers states: “As a young woman, Miss Leigh Browne took an ever-growing interest in the empowerment of women, not by any form of militancy, but rather seeing the way forward through their better welfare, housing and education.

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“In the 1890s, the sisters were able to found a college hall for women students at London University.”

Having moved to London with her family in 1868, Annie taught in the Sunday school at Little Portland Street Chapel, where Dr James Martineau was minister, and encouraged him to open his educational classes to women.

While supporting her mother Thomazine’s various social causes, Annie helped form the Women’s Industrial and Provident League, an early trade union for women.

In an article about her, Brian Packer of Sidmouth’s Old Meeting, Unitarian Chapel, writes: “At a time when women were excluded from the printing trade she helped to found and was a director of the Women’s Printing Society.

She and her sister were also instrumental in setting up the first hall of residence for women students in London (College Hall) in 1882.

A tribute after her death, aged 85, in 1936, says: “To work for the promotion of public morals and purity of individual life, she gave tireless and devoted help and support.

“A firm and consistent believer in an equal standard of moral responsibility for men and women, and convinced that ‘law, administration and custom must uphold and act upon a single standard of morals, equally applied to men and women alike’ she became an early, active member of the Ladies’ National Association, formed for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.”

Her main work was to secure full, legal co-operation of women with men in local government and she founded the Women’s Society for England and Wales in 1888.

It took 30 years of hard work and pressure on Parliament, by Annie and her life-long friend, Mary Kilgour, before this was achieved.

With her grandparents buried under the Old Meeting, Unitarian Chapel, Annie had strong links with the building and there is a memorial window and plaque to the family; the latter erected by her and Mary.

She left money to build an adjoining hall, dedicated as the Annie Leigh Browne memorial room (school room) in 1939.

Bernard Myers writes: “Annie was an active member of SVA from 1907 until her death. Her sister was treasurer of SVA in 1914 and was still serving as such when she died in 1943.

“The River Sid and its banks were in a very poor condition and early in the 20th century the SVA struggled to get improvements made. The area came under Honiton RDC, who would not help. The SVA tried to improve the state of the river themselves.

“Eventually Annie acquired the banks on both sides of the river between Lovers Walk opposite Lawn Vista and Sid Bridge at the bottom of Sid Lane – except for one plot. When she died, she left this land to the National Trust [now The Byes].”

Annie bought Woolcombe House in the early 1900s. The ground floor was used as a children’s clinic, and the first for SVA activities. In 1950 it became the museum and now houses Sidmouth Town Council.

She bought May Cottage in Blackmore View, built in the 1600s, which she let to the town at a peppercorn rent when it became the town’s first hospital in 1885-9 with four beds.

“She was a great philanthropist for the town and I think she deserves having the Fortfield development named after her,” said Bernard.

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