6 Hackney women who made history

8 Mar , 2017  

By  -  
Writer and journalist, currently at City, University of London.

Wednesday is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women’s contributions to society. Let’s look back at six Hackney women from history who really made a difference.


Hannah Woolley (1622 – c.1675)

Hannah Woolley

Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

Hannah Woolley came from a family of nurses and midwives, and spent most of her life in Hackney. After she was widowed in 1661, Woolley began to write and publish books about medicine, cooking, household management, etiquette, embroidery, and perfume-making. She is thought to have been one of the first women ever to make a living as a writer.


Celia Fiennes (1662 – 1741)

Though little known today, Celia Fiennes was an important figure in the development of travel writing. Fiennes never married, and when she wasn’t travelling around Britain writing about her journeys — which she undertook to improve her health, but also simply for pleasure — she lived in Hackney with her sister. Her work in travel writing predates that of Daniel Defoe, who also grew up in Stoke Newington, and has remained popular. She is also an ancestor of fellow traveller and intrepid explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. Credit: Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons

The writer and philosopher, often credited as a founding mother of feminism, was born in Spitalfields and grew up in and around Newington Green and Hoxton. She was a member of radical community surrounding the Newington Green Unitarian Church, which was also frequented by American founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Wollstonecraft’s most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), radically argued that women were not inferior to men, but simply appeared to be so because they lacked access to education.


Anna Sewell (1820 – 1878)

Anna Sewell

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The novelist, best known for Black Beauty, lived in Stoke Newington for four years as a young woman. It was while living here that she slipped one day when walking home from school and severely damaged both of her ankles. She was left unable to stand without a crutch or walk for any length of time, and turned instead to horse-riding. This passion would later inspire the novel for which she is known today.


Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915)

The celebrated British nurse, executed by the Germans during the First World War, worked for a time before the war at Shoreditch Infirmary, now St Leonard’s Hospital. In 1915, Cavell was court martialled by the German military on charges of helping Allied soldiers escape to Britain from occupied Belgium, where she had been working as a nurse for the Red Cross. The anniversary of her death, 12 October, is commemorated in the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints as a mark of her bravery and dedication to her work.


Marie Lloyd (1870 – 1922)

Marie Lloyd

Credit: National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

Marie Lloyd, born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood, was one of the biggest music hall stars of her day, and pushed the boundaries of taste and decency with her use of innuendo on the popular stage. She made her name performing in the pubs and clubs of Hoxton — the area where she had been born — but later made it to the West End. At the height of her fame, she toured France, America, Australia and Belgium as a solo performer.

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