Morley College Mosaics: Inspiring Lambeth Women
A short walk from Lambeth North tube station you can find the Morley College campus. It’s trailblazing institution with its own fascinating history, but it’s worth pausing by the building to admire some inspiring mosaics on the walls.
History of Morley College
Late 19th century Waterloo wasn’t a desirable place to live. The arrival of Railway stations did break up some of the slums in the earlier decades, however the social reformer Charles Booth remarks in 1899 that “The story Lambeth in the last ten years is a story of worsement. The fairly comfortable have left and are leaving. The poor remain and additional poor are coming in.”
In the colour coded maps produced by Charles Booth (with red showing middle class, the blues from light to dark showing increasing poverty and black representing ‘vicious, semi-criminal’) you can see that while the main roads might be middle class, much of the Waterloo area was very poor.
In the 1880s, the area became the focus for another reformer, Emma Cons. Set on improving the situation for Waterloo’s most impoverished, she took out a lease on the Royal Victoria Hall, later becoming the Old Vic Theatre.
They ran a variety of entertainment and social clubs for the local working classes, even a gymnastics club for ladies!
From 1882, one of the most popular innovations Cons introduced were the Penny Lectures. These cheap talks were on a huge range of topics, from London’s air pollution to the ‘Head Hunters of Borneo”.
Such was their success that Samuel Morley, a wealthy textile manufacturer, left money to continue this initiative in a new home. Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women was established on Westminster Bridge Road in 1924.
A new wing was added in 1937, however in October 1940 a direct hit during the Blitz killed 57 people and destroyed the majority of the building. The Queen Mother opened the new building in 1958.
Today Morley College upholds the principles of Cons and Morley, who both tirelessly pushed for social inclusion and justice as well as advocating lifelong learning. They offer short courses, and qualifications for 16-18 year olds as well as adults at any stage of their lives.
Find out more about courses and enrolling here.
Morley College Mosaics
Morley College have a long tradition of working with artists to adorn their buildings. There are plenty of site-specific artwork on the walls and in the student cafeteria you can even find huge murals with scenes from Chaucer’s Canterbury tales by Edward Bowden and Eric Ravilious.
Happily, anyone can also admire artwork on the outside of the building.
In 2012 The London School of Mosaics (previously Southbank Mosaics) unveiled 14 portraits on the walls of Morley College, a celebration of remarkable local women, past and present.
10 can be seen along King Edward Walk and 4 are on Westminster Bridge Road. Here’s a little bit about each inspiring figure…
Hester Thrale was born in 1741, initially into a wealthy family but her father went bankrupt. She found a husband, Henry Thrale who owned the large London brewing company. On paper his wealth was a good match for her social standing and the couple lived in Streatham Park, however it wasn’t always happy union.
A a keen writer, Hester’s letters recording her playful and witty thoughts and experiences. It was handy then that Dr Samuel Johnson was a good friend of Henry Thrale, often staying with them in Streatham and in 1786 Hester published ‘Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson’. When Henry died in 1781 Hester had to manage the sale of the brewery and his affairs and then married again, somewhat scandalously falling in love with her children’s Italian music teacher. She also published Retrospection in 1801, a popular history of the period which gives us a valuable female perspective on Georgian London. She died in Bristol in 1821.
Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born healer and nurse. Inspired by Florence Nightingale’s medical expeditions during the Crimean War (1853-56), Seacole applied to join her but was rejected on account of her lack of official British qualifications.
Undeterred she established her own ‘British Hotel’ near the heart of the fighting in Crimea and cared for wounded soldiers with her own mix of traditional remedies.
Such was her popularity that after the war, soldiers she had helped raised funds over a four-day charity gala. She also supported herself by publishing an autobiography in 1857; Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. She died in 1881 and was buried in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, initially with no gravestone until in 1973 her resting place was rediscovered and a reconsecrations service was held.
Unfortunately no first name is recorded for “Mrs Mallet”, born in 1840. In 1864 she became a district visitor, identifying families in need and establishing a women’s refuge in Lambeth. Throughout her life she worked to help the local poor, especially women and organised mother’s meetings, sewing classes for girls and penny dinners. She died young, in her late thirties, in 1876.
Co-founder of the National Trust, Octavia Hill is someone that seems to pop up all over London, improving the lives of the 19th century poor.
Born in 1938, Hill was a friend of Emma Cons and the two worked closely together, establishing good quality housing in Lambeth and beyond. Her biographer calls her ‘the friendly face of land lordism’ which may sounds oxymoronic today but although firm she effectively managed thousands of tenants across the city. She was also passionate that the poor should have access to green space, Redcross Gardens being one of her more famous projects. She died in 1912.
Born in 1859, Annie McCall was a pioneering early Doctor, especially in the field of midwifery and childcare. She established a school of midwifery at her own home, before it expanded into the Clapham Maternity Hospital, the first to be staffed entirely by women. She was unusual in accepting poor and unmarried women without question and she later published the manual, “What to do to have a Healthy Baby” advising on diet and exercise while pregnant.
You may have seen the statue depicting Violette Szabo, opposite the Houses of Parliament? Szabo was born in Paris and her fluent French and English made her a perfect recruit for the Special Operations Executive (undercover spies) during WWII. Unfortunately she was captured during her second mission in occupied France and was taken to a concentration camp. She was executed in 1945, aged only 23.
A more recent local activist born in 1933, Margaret Mellor has supported local campaigns for forty years, most notably as part of the Waterloo Community Development Group. The aims of the WCDG is to establish and maintain key community amenities, more land for affordable homes, open space and shops that serve locals. She died in 2019 aged 86, active right up until her death, joining meetings and attending planning applications.
In her obituary the WCDG said she “probably did more than anyone since Octavia Hill to protect and create green open space in Waterloo”. She was instrumental in saving Geraldine Harmsworth garden by the Imperial War Museum and help to create the extended Jubilee Garden and Waterloo Millennium Green.
Born in 1954, Jude Kelly is a Theatre Director and Producer as well as a the Founder of the annual Women of the World Festival, a celebration of achievements of women and girls that’s held at the Southbank Centre. Kelly was the Artistic Director of Southbank Centre from 2006-2018.
Born 1955 in Jamaica, Heather Rabbatts moved to England aged 3 and then studied law at LSE. She served in local government, becoming the Chief Executive of Merton and then Lambeth Council, the youngest council chief in the UK at the time. She’s since served as the Director of the Football Association and is a broadcaster and businesswomen, campaigning against corruption and championing human rights. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2016.
If you’ve spent time around the Southbank, you’ve been in the shadow of Natalie Bell, but you might not have realised it. In 2018 the former Boiler House of Tate Modern was renamed in her honour having been chosen by a group of local neighbours.
Natalie has lived in Waterloo for over 25 years and is the Head of Youth and Community programmes at Coin Street Community Builders.
The Founder of Morley College, of course Emma Cons had to included on the wall. Born in St Pancras in 1838, Cons originally wanted to be an artist and trained at the Ladies Co-operative Art Guild under Caroline Hill, Octavia’s Mother. She was skilled across a wide range of disciplines; engraving, restoring manuscripts and designing stained glass. She left the art world after sustained harassment in a male-dominated environment and became a rent collector for Octavia Hill. In 1889 she was the first female alderman on the London County Council and would be committed to women’s suffrage all her life.
Caroline Martineau was one of the earliest teachers – then the Principal – at Morley College. She served from 1891 until her death in 1902. According to her memorial service her passing was received with “widespread and sincere regret” and the Morley College Council expressed their “sense of the deep obligation” owed to Martineau who “devoted herself unsparingly to its interests, giving her services. voluntarily”. A devoted friend of Emma Cons, she was instrumental in established Morley and drawing up its official constitution.
Eva Hubback was born in 1886 in Poland. She studied economics at Cambridge then later became the Director of Economic studies at Newnham and Girton Colleges. Her husband died from wounds sustained during the First World War and for the rest of her life she worked to better the lives of women and children through legislative reform. She was a councillor on the London County Council and became Principal of Morley College 1927-1949.
Lilian Baylis was born in Marylebone, daughter of Elizabeth Cons who was a successful singer and pianist. The eldest of six children she seems to have grown up surrounded by music and performance which would set the course for the rest of her life. The Niece of Emma Cons, Lilian Baylis took over the running of the Old Vic theatre in 1897.
For the next 40 years she oversaw the day-to-day running of the theatre until her death in 1937. It was while working at the Old Vic that she ran the successful campaign to re-open the then-derelict Sadler’s Wells. She also founded the companies that would become the Royal National Theatre, The ENO and The Royal Ballet. Bayliss died aged 63 of a heart attack, the night before the opening performance of Laurence Olivier as Macbeth at the Old Vic.
More Hidden History in Waterloo
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you’re interested in discovering more hidden history and inspiring character of Waterloo, I run a regular public walk. You can find out more here.
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