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Rebecca Dering: clinging to the past in a time of great change

Meet Rebecca Dering, a controversial woman with a colourful life.

Laura Noble
Sketch by Rebecca Dering
Sketch by Rebecca Dering (DR759/4)

Rebecca Dering was born in Ireland in 1829 or 1830. She went on to live a long and colourful life, which bore witness to the beginnings of massive social change in Britain. After years of travelling around Europe with her aunt Georgiana and Georgiana’s husband Edward Dering, Rebecca married Marmion Edward Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton in 1867. The two couples lived in the stately home of Baddesley Clinton, where they were known as the “Quartette” and spent their time indulging in the arts. Rebecca painted throughout her life, into her 90s, and much of her work survives today.

After the death of her husband and aunt, Rebecca was left everything. She and Edward were married 18 months later and continued to live in the house together, until his death in 1892. Rebecca Dering found herself in a unique, even modern, position as the Catholic female owner of a large stately home at the turn of the century. In some ways she was very old-fashioned and she refused to have electricity installed in her home, but this quality is more strikingly seen in her attitudes to women’s suffrage.

In a letter to a Miss Mary Grafton from 1907, Rebecca pleads with her friend ‘Don’t please encourage women[‘s] suffrage! Think what it would be for poor old me!’ These words seemed rather shocking to me as a modern reader, as I think we tend to assume women must have wanted the power of a vote (especially those who were rich) and would want to be treated as political equals to their male counterparts. 

Letter by Rebecca Dering
Unpublished letters from the Baddesley Clinton deposit (DR650/44)

As I read on, the different motivations behind Rebecca’s opinions we revealed. ‘I drive to the Poll with a lot of rough people + force my way with the crowd. As it is the carriage has to go all day carrying my tenants as voters to the poll, + if women also, where would end the fatigue and bother. This is a low view to take I know, but one has to consider how things work in practise.’

In Britain in 1907, the women’s suffrage movement was beginning to become more militant. Two years previously the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) adopted a ‘Deeds Not Words’ motto. In the months before Dering wrote her letter, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) organised the ‘Mud March’ where over 3,000 women marched from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in the rain and mud to protest for the right to vote. A month later, Dora Thewlis and 75 other suffragettes were arrested for attempting to storm the Houses of Parliament.

Rebecca didn’t see why she herself would need a vote because she already had a significant influence in local politics, as she goes on to say ‘I got all my people to vote right + secured the thanks of the member Sir A Muntz’, the local MP.

Despite her reservations, Dering did live to see the Representation of the People Bill being passed in 1918 and partial suffrage achieved. But it wasn’t until 1928 – six years after Dering’s death – when everyone over 21 years old was entitled to vote, after hundreds of women dedicated their lives to the cause and spent decades trying to change the minds of a nation. 

Sketch by Rebecca Dering
Sketch by Rebecca Dering (DR759/4)

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