REDRESSING THE BALANCE
On occasion of her death in April 1894 at the age of 69, the popular Evening News, while recognising her great charitable work, described Wenvoe’s Gertrude Jenner as a picturesque, eccentric and pathetic character. She was in fact a fearsome crusader for women’s issues and good causes. Her campaigns for political, legal and social justice brought her fame and influence far beyond the tiny hamlet she called home.
Gertrude Jenner was born in 1835 and was the unmarried daughter of Robert Francis Jenner of Wenvoe Castle. Miss Jenner’s activities were regularly reported in the columns of the Barry Dock News, Western Mail and Cardiff Times. The Evening Express described her as a ‘quaint little old lady with a keen, but not unkindly face.’ Never afraid of a struggle, she was a familiar figure at the High Court of Justice in London, where she appeared year on year, unsuccessfully fighting to prove her claim to part of the Wenvoe Castle Estate. She invariably appeared carrying her signature handbag and a good sized umbrella. On one occasion she occupied three hours of the court time of Mr Justice Grantham, who patiently listened to the ‘talkative little woman bedecked in frills and ribbons.’
Miss Jenner will though be remembered for much more than campaigning on her own behalf. She worked tirelessly to raise money for colliers following mining disasters, carried out voluntary work among women in colliery districts and campaigned ceaselessly for improved wages and living conditions in the mining communities. She successfully petitioned the authorities to reduce the sentences of women convicted of capital offences and was proud of having saved at least 14 women from the gallows.
Gertrude Jenner was ahead of her time in being one of the first suffragists in Wales. She was a formidable and persuasive speaker. On 25 February 1881, she presided over a meeting held in Cardiff Town Hall to ‘consider means of promoting interest in Cardiff’ towards female voting rights. This was a preliminary to a larger
meeting that was held on 9 March, attended by local dignitaries and chaired by the Mayor of Cardiff. Miss Jenner spoke passionately at these meetings, arguing that everyday life proved widows and spinsters, who contributed to the rates and taxes of the country, were too often victims of tyranny and oppression. The vote would help to redress the balance. There was loud applause when Miss Jenner exclaimed that ‘women would make as good a use of their votes as men did.’
This of course, was a small step in the long struggle by the suffragists in which many Welsh men as well as women played a part. The campaign finally came to fruition with the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, enfranchising all men, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. While this gave the vote to 8.4 million women, it was not until 1928 that the law was extended, granting the vote to all women over 21, on equal terms with men.
One final anecdote sums up Miss Jenner’s determination to fight for women and social justice. In 1896 she wrote a letter to the Home Secretary, bringing attention to the horrific exploitation of a fifteen year old Cardiff girl employed to go up in a balloon parachute at a public entertainment. The unfortunate teen was drowned when the balloon crashed into the Bristol Channel. In her letter, Miss Jenner called for an Act of Parliament to outlaw such ‘dangerous, discreditable and demoralising occupations for children of such tender years, and for the simple but glaring purpose of making money and pandering to the wishes of sensational and idle-minded sightseers.’
Gertude Jenner was buried in our local churchyard and her grave can be found barely 100 yards from her cottage across the street. The Evening News reported ‘Miss Jenner lived at Ty Pica, a cottage on the Wenvoe Estate and it was there she ended her queer, troublous little life.’ Perhaps it takes a former Spice Girl to put this description into context. ‘It’s really important to remember that most people in the public eye are human for a start and a lot of things you read in the media get slightly misconstrued and manipulated.’ (Geri Halliwell)