Agnes Garrett

Agnes Garrett, the seventh of eleven children of Newson Garrett (1812–1893), merchant, and his wife, Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born on 12th July 1845 at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Two of her sisters were Millicent Garrett and Elizabeth Garrett.

Agnes's father had originally ran a pawnbroker's shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.

In 1871 Agnes, along with her cousin Rhoda Garrett, began an architectural apprenticeship with Daniel Cottier. He took their fees and taught them very little. The moved to the practice of J. M. Brydon. According to Moncure Conway: "They were formally articled for 18 months, during which they punctually fulfilled their engagement, working from 10 to 5 each day... When the apprenticeship reached its last summer they went on a tour throughout England, sketching the interior and furniture of the best houses, which was freely thrown open to them."

Agnes Garrett, like her sisters, Millicent Garrett and Elizabeth Garrett, was a strong supporter of women's suffrage and was a member of Central Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1872, while she was still an apprentice, Agnes on a women's suffrage tour of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire with Lilias Ashworth Hallett.

In 1875 Agnes and Rhoda Garrett set up their own "Art Decoration" business. According to Helena Wojtczak, it was the "first all-female design and decorating company, taught interior decoration and won many high-profile commissions for public buildings and private residences." One of their first commissions was the Kensington home of the composer, Hubert Parry.

Agnes and Rhoda Garrett set up home at Firs Cottage, in the village of Rustington. Their feminist friend, the composer, Ethel Smyth, went to live with them. She later pointed out: "Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, who were among the first women in England to start business on their own account and by that time were well-known house decorators of the Morris school... Both women were a good deal older than I, how much I never knew - nor wished to know, for Rhoda and I agreed that age and income are relative things concerning which statistics are tiresome and misleading."

Ethel was particurlary close to Rhoda: "I always think the feel of a hand as it grasps yours is a determining factor in human relationships, and all her friends must well remember Rhoda's - the soft, soft skin that only dark people have, the firm, wiry, delicate fingers. My reason tells me she was almost plain, but one looked at no one else when she was in a room. There was an enigmatic quality in her witchery behind which the grand lines, the purity and nobility of her soul, stood out like the bone in some enchanted landscape." Rhoda died of typhoid in 1882 and is buried at St Pauls Church.

In 1906 Agnes became a member of the London Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1912 the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies established an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support Labour Party candidates in by-elections. Agnes helped to fund this venture.

Agnes Garrett, who never married, died in 1935.

Primary Sources

(1) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

There were occasional, very occasional, holidays at home during the years of the suffrage agitation. Two that stand out especially in my memory were spent at Newtonmore in Inverness-shire. Here I was the guest of Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland. Only those who were engulfed in the preoccupations of those militant years could appreciate what it meant to us to get away from it all for a week or two, although our peace was twice invaded by the campaign we thought we had left behind, when Mrs. Fawcett (my hostess's sister) and Mrs. Pankhurst stayed with us, each in the course of conducting a speaking tour. It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills.

Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world. I thought one of her brothers summed her up rather delightfully, one day, when, contrary to everybody's entreaties and advice, she insisted on clambering down a steep incline under the unshakable impression that it was a short cut home." You must make allowances, I suppose, for her being the first woman doctor," he observed, when she had had time to realise her error and he was setting off to fetch her back. Undoubtedly, like Florence Nightingale and other reformers who have had to fight both prejudice and vested interests, if Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had been the sweetly reasonable person who always believes what she is told without questioning it, she would not have been the pioneer who opened the medical profession to women. In her own home she was a most hospitable and lovable hostess, and had a delicious sense of humour, which may have been one reason why she was instantly attracted towards the militant branch of the suffrage movement when it became prominent. Her daughter, who brought the same gifts of courage and perception, so rare in combination, to the service of the same cause, inherited all her mother's brains and culture, and more than her personal charm and gentleness. Her friendship was one of those I gained at that troublous time, and it offered generous compensation for many losses.

There was a strong family likeness in all the Garretts ; and their fine sterling qualities, added to much that was personally attractive, made me feel proud to be a member of the house party that included three of the sisters of the older generation. Miss Agnes Garrett used to accompany Mrs. Fawcett everywhere, and when they both joined us at Newtonmore, the conversation became noticeably more racy, enlivened as it was with many excellent anecdotes gathered in their wanderings about the world. Nothing seemed to daunt these doughty women, and although I have always rather prided myself on wearing suitable clothes and yielding easily to the demands of a simple country life, I felt nothing but an artificial inhabitant of cities when I saw them tuck up their skirts - there was plenty to tuck up in those days - and don indescribable boots, before starting out to brave inclement weather and face really difficult rambles in the mountains above Speyside. I wondered sometimes if, thirty or forty years later, I should be able at the same age to show half their energy and unassailable good health.

(2) Ethel Smyth, Impressions that Remained (1919)

Barbara Hamlet had often spoken to me of Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, who were among the first women in England to start business on their own account and by that time were well-known house decorators of the Morris school. Agnes was sister to Mrs Fawcett and Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - Rhoda, their cousin, rather older than Agnes, daughter of a clergyman whose second wife had practically turned her predecessor's children out of the house to fend for themselves. Late in the autumn of 1880 Barbara introduced me to these great friends of hers, and during the next two years their house became the focus of my English life owing to the friendship that sprang up between Rhoda and me.

Both women were a good deal older than I, how much I never knew - nor wished to know, for Rhoda and I agreed that age and income are relative things concerning which statistics are tiresome and misleading. How shall one describe that magic personality of hers, at once elusive and clear cut, shy and audacious? - a dark cloud with a burning heart - something that smoulders in repose and bursts into flame at a touch. ...Though the most alive, amusing, and amused of people, to me at least the sombre background was always there - perhaps because the shell was so obviously too frail for the spirit. One knew of the terrible struggle in the past to support herself and the young brothers and sisters; that she had been dogged by ill-health as well as poverty - heroic, unflinching through all. Agnes once said to me, 'Rhoda has had more pain in her life than was good for her,' but no one guessed that like her brother Edmund - champion of Rhodes, youthful collaborator with Lord Milner, cut off at the zenith of his powers - she carried in her the seeds of tubercular disease. And yet when the end came there was little of surprise in one's grief; thus again and again had one seen falling stars burn out.

I spoke of her humour; on the whole I think she was more amusing than anyone I have ever met - a wit half scornful, always surprising, as unlike everyone else's as was her person ... a slim, lithe being, very dark, with deep-set burning eyes that I once made her laugh by saying reminded me of a cat in a coal scuttle. Yet cat's eves are never tender, and hers could be the tenderest in the world.

I always think the feel of a hand as it grasps yours is a determining factor in human relationships, and all her friends must well remember Rhoda's - the soft, soft skin that only dark people have, the firm, wiry, delicate fingers. My reason tells me she was almost plain, but one looked at no one else when she was in a room. There was an enigmatic quality in her witchery behind which the grand lines, the purity and nobility of her soul, stood out like the bone in some enchanted landscape. No one had a more subtle hold on the imagination of her friends, and when she died it was as if laughter, astonishment, warmth, light, mystery, had been cut off at the source. The beauty of the relation between the cousins, and of that home life in Gower Street, remains with us who knew them as certain musical phrases haunt the melomaniac, and but for Agnes, who stood as far as was possible between her and the slings and arrows which are the reward of pioneers, no doubt Rhoda's life would have spent itself earlier. Her every burden, human and otherwise, was shouldered by Agnes, and both had a way of discovering waifs and strays of art more or less worsted by life whose sanctuary their house henceforth became.

I think I have never been happier in my life than at the old thatched cottage they rented at Rustington. An exhausting fight against the stream of prejudice, such as the Garretts had waged for many years, was not to be my portion till later. Of course both cousins and all their friends were ardent Suffragists, and I wonder now at the patience with which they supported my total indifference on the subject - an indifference I was to make up for thirty years later.

Their great friends the Parrys had a house close by, and besides helping me with invaluable musical criticism and advice Hubert Parry lent me a canoe, in which on very calm days, cautiously dressed in bathing costume, I put out to sea. There too I got to know the Fawcetts, and saw how that living monument of courage, the blind Postmaster General, impressed the country people as he strode up and down the hills in the company of his wife. I thought Mrs Fawcett rather cold, but an incident that happened the summer after the death of Rhoda, to whom she was devoted, taught me otherwise. One day when I was singing an Irish melody I had often sung at Rustington - 'At the Mid Hour of Night' - I suddenly noticed that tears were rolling down her cheeks, and presently she got up and quietly left the room. After that for many years I never saw her. Then came the acute Suffrage struggle, during which the gulf that separated Militants from National Unionists belched forth flames, but through all those years, remembering that incident, I always thought of Mrs Fawcett with affection.