Aldeburgh’s First Lady

On the centenary of her election as Britain’s first female mayor, Andrew Mackay looks at the life of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

On November 9th, 1908, Aldeburgh’s councillors gathered in the timber-framed Moot Hall, a few yards from the North Sea. They unanimously elected as their leader Mrs Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who duly became Britain’s first female mayor. Her first act was to send a telegram of congratulation to Edward VII, it being the king’s birthday.

So began a second pioneering career for a seventy-two-year-old, already famous as Britain’s first female doctor. Newson Garrett, Elizabeth’s father, had taken the enlightened step of educating his daughters. Elizabeth had proven a capable and enthusiastic student. At the age of twenty-two, unable to countenance a lifetime of embroidery and parasol-carrying, she set herself the goal of a medical career. It was an ambitious project. ‘It is indeed high time that this preposterous attempt ... to establish a race of feminine doctors should be exploded’ thundered the British Medical Journal. Elizabeth had ignored all criticism, working as a nurse at London’s Middlesex Hospital and studying doggedly in the evenings. Newson, himself three times mayor of Aldeburgh, funded private tuition and hammered loudly and publicly on doors which were slammed in her face. She achieved her goal in 1870, six days after her thirty-fourth birthday. Now retired to her childhood home, the mayoralty was  a natural culmination to an eminent career of practice and teaching.

Elizabeth was, of course, a strong supporter of women’s advancement in other fields and perfectly conscious of the wider import of her medical achievements. She chose, however, to lead by example rather than by beating the political drum, reflecting perhaps that one pioneering struggle at a time was quite sufficient. The life’s mission of this independent and pragmatic Suffolk lady was to heal the sick and to show that women professionals could complement, rather than challenge, the work of men.

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