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Published on April 25th, 2013 | by The Town Crier


Sarah Grand

I had never heard of late Victorian era author Sarah Grand until visiting ‘Inspiring Women’ at
Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. An excellent exhibition about ladies of this town who
campaigned in all different ways for women’s rights, in the workplace and also in getting the vote.
Sarah Grand had already written four books before moving to Tunbridge Wells in 1898, and lived
here until 1920, when she moved to Bath. Her books encouraged ‘New Woman’ ideals, of feminist,
educated, independent career women.
Born Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke in 1854, she eloped at sixteen, marrying an older man and
gaining two stepsons, who were close in age to her. She gave birth to her only child when she was
seventeen. Her husband, David McFall, was an army surgeon, and they travelled to the Far East,
they also lived in Norwich and Lancs. A very independent lady, sales of her first book, The
Heavenly Twins, were large enough for her to divorce her husband and adopt her pen name. At this
time divorce was expensive, difficult and a social taboo, but recent laws meant women could now
keep their personal property after divorce. Before moving to Tunbridge Wells Sarah lived in
London, and travelled to France to write, accompanied by a maid. Her time here saw Sarah living
firstly at “The Grey House” in Langton Green, and then at “Bircholt”, number 10 Grove Hill
Gardens. These houses are large, and census records show she had servants at both, suggesting she
had earned quite a bit of money through writing.
In Tunbridge Wells she was president of the local branch of the National Union of Women’s
Suffrage Societies, who campaigned peacefully, unlike the more militant Women’s Social and
Political Union. Sarah was also a member of Women Writers Suffrage League, and lectured in
Britain and United States on various women’s issues.
She was a keen cyclist. She learnt to ride a bike at a cycling academy in Paris, away from the prying
eyes of neighbours, before she moved to Tunbridge Wells. She felt cycling offered good exercise to
all, particularly “women in middle life”, and it was also a way of offering freedom to women.
Originally trying to cycle in her long skirts, a couple of accidents with skirts tangled in chains lead
her to being a committee member on the Rational Dress Society, and wearing a bloomer inspired
cycling outfit.
These are the facts I’ve gathered – the fun part is now imagining Sarah living her life in Tunbridge
Wells! The NUWSS had a shop at 18 Crescent Road, did Sarah whiz along the path of Calverley
Park from her home in Grove Hill Gardens to the shop? Did she know author E. M. Forster who
lived in Earl’s Road from 1898 – 1901? Had she known fellow activist Louisa Twining (as in the tea
company) when they both lived in Kensington, before both moving to Tunbridge Wells? Sarah
wrote three books while living here: Babs the Impossible, Adam’s Orchard and The Winged
Victory, some you can read online… can you spot references to the area?

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