This month is the anniversary of the first Women’s Institute (WI) opening in the UK, on September 16, 103 years-ago the first group started in Wales. 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, bringing about women’s suffrage in the UK. To mark these occasions, this month, RH History Uncovered looks back on the life of Lady Denman, one of Sussex’s early feminists.
Lady Denman was born Gertrude Mary Pearson in 1884, known as Trudie to her family, she was the daughter of Sir Weetman Pearson, industrialist and Liberal MP who was a noted supporter of women’s suffrage, and Annie Cass, a member of the Women’s Liberal Federation. When Gertrude was 10, her father was made a baronet and purchased Paddockhurst, a country house and estate in Worth. Despite the family move to rural West Sussex, she continued her education at a day school in London and private tutoring before at 16 she completed her formal education at a finishing school in Dresden.
In 1902, Gertrude met Thomas Denman at a social event, a 28 year-old Liberal peer, Lord Denman, the son of a Sussex squire. The young peer had been wounded whilst serving as an officer in the South African War, he had returned home and entered political life. The couple married in Westminster in November 1903 and within two years, Trudie would give birth to the couple’s first child, a son, Thomas. In late 1905, Trudie’s father, Sir Weetman Pearson bought Gertrude Balcombe Place. The house became her home for the rest of her life and where second child Judith was born in 1907.
Gertrude would later run the Women’s Land Army from the Mid Sussex estate, providing food and vital support during the First and Second World Wars. She would go on to be recognised for her hard work in both the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Institute, of which she was a founder member. As the founding president of Britain’s Agricultural Organisation Society – forerunner to the WI, and director of the Women’s Land Army, Denman devoted her life to the rights of women in society. Throughout her life, she was a passionate advocate for women’s rights right up until her death in June 1954, aged 69.
What Is In A Name?
In 1948, the WI bought Marcham Park in Berkshire and converted it into a short-stay residential adult education college. The college would be named Denman College in honour of Lady Gertrude Denman.
Today, the learning and resource facility is simply referred to as Denman, it has grown and developed over the years and is a well-appointed adult education centre attended by approximately 6,000 students each year and is open to non-members as well as members. The WI Cookery School at Denman offers a range of more than 100 day schools, residential courses and family courses.