The Miss Drews, Suffragists &
The Blackheath Banners
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In 1910, Blackheath became home to three new residents in the form of a talented trio of sisters Mary (1865-1938), Sylvia (1869-1961) and Joan Drew (1876-1961). They were the daughters of wealthy architect and landowner Richard Drew and his wife Ann. As women of independent means, they purchased Blatchfeld from Lady Roberts-Austen.
Over the ensuing years they did much to encourage local residents, in particular the females, to undertake worthwhile hobbies and interests and they had a profound effect on the quality of life in the Parish. All the sisters enjoyed drawing, painting, music and embroidery, each concentrated on developing her particular talent. Mary was interested in drama and woodwork, Sylvia in music and Joan became a nationally known needlewoman.
Their home was always a happy, welcoming place where the sisters enthusiastically encouraged each other’s interests. They were essentially real countrywomen, they loved their home, their garden, flowers, birds and their Chow dogs. They were once described as very 'cherished' ladies by a fellow villager.
At time the sisters arrived in Blackheath they were very active members of both the Leith Hill and Wescott Women’s Suffrage Societies. Joan and Sylvia often chaired meetings.
This area of West Surrey was home to many notable women supporting the Suffragette and Suffragist movement. The nearby village of Peaslake was described by one of the residents as a ‘nest of suffragettes.’
Whilst all of these women believed in the common goal of votes for women, the Suffragists differed from the Suffragettes in that the former believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods. The Suffragettes in contrast liked more direct and militant actions. Many of these women were often not only committed to their campaigns, but also had long associations with the Arts and Craft movement. The combination of suffrage and creativity was appealing.
Sylvia and Joan were early members of the Guildford branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, established in 1910 by Noeline Baker and Theodora Powell. Quite a few Blackheath ladies featured on their membership list, probably due to the influence of the Drews. These included Mrs Arthur Atfield, Mrs Jimmy Atfield, Lady Florence Roberts Austen, Mrs Davis, Mrs Frewer, Mrs Hoad, Miss Jelly, Mrs Lemon, Mrs Mercer and Mrs Paynter.
The Drews home Blatchfeld, was used on numerous occasions for meetings along with other local venues such as Longacre in Shamley Green, Constitutional Hall and 1 Mount Street in Guildford.
In October 1910 there was a demonstration held in Guildford. Women with banners marched around the town before attending a mass meeting at the County and Borough Hall. It was reportedly attended by over 1000 people. The Drews and women from Blackheath would have most likely been amongst them.
The village of Blackheath benefited from the efforts of these three remarkable ladies.
Sylvia Drew was the musical sister. In 1904 when Ralph Vaughan Williams founded the Leith Hill Music Festival, all three sisters participated in the choral competitions, but it was Sylvia who for many years became very involved with the annual festivals. In 1912, Sylvia formed the Blackheath Choral Society, and, with her as conductor went onto many successes. Choir practise was twice a week in the village and was well attended. In 1918 Sylvia was one of the county organisers for the Women’s Institute and responsible for trying to encourage competitive singing.
Around 1924 Sylvia was introduced to William Leslie. He was a well-known musical conductor who was also the Director of Music at Charterhouse School, a member of the Bach Choir and had been co-opted onto the musical sub-committee of The Women’s Institute. Mr Leslie taught Sylvia to be a conductor, something that she became so passionate about. She remained as conductor in Blackheath until handing over to Lady Tangley in 1948. She was then 81 years old and had led the society for over 36 years.
Sylvia was also an accomplished watercolour artist and exhibited in England in 1902, Ireland in 1910 and at the Royal Academy in 1911.
Mary Drew was not as high profile as her sisters but undertook some very worthy work with her artistic and wood carving skills. One such project was teaching handicapped boys to make small painted wooden models with the intention of them being able to make a small income. Mary also wrote many small plays, often being performed by her sisters or members of the Women’s Institute.
Joan was the artist of the family; her sketches and designs were very typically
influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the period. Her style of work is
evident in some of the little sketches she created for Blackheath. She became a
well renowned designer and embroiderer and her work is still published today.
Joan was a member of the women’s Artist’s Suffragist League. Pro-female suffrage propaganda that included posters and postcards were designed by Joan and published by the Artists' Suffrage League. One postcard depicts John Bull addressing a male and female dressed to represent the Times and Spectator as 'a little behind the times.' Both newspapers were known to take an anti-suffrage stance. John Bull was regularly used by suffragettes as the embodiment of Britishness.
Formed in 1907, the Artists' Suffrage League produced visual material to
promote the Votes for Women message of the non-militant National Union of
Women's Suffrage Societies, providing publicity and income.
There are conflicting reports of Joan’s education. Joan Edwards who wrote of Joan’s life back in 1976 stated that she had no formal education, that she had been educated at home by a governess and received no formal art school or embroidery training. Other reports state she attended the Westminster School of Arts. Whatever her education, Joan went on to become a prolific Embroiderer and a well-respected tutor of embroidery as well as receiving commissions for book illustrations. By 1920, she was the educator, conducting short summer courses at the Victoria and Albert Museum for teachers of needlework.
The women of Blackheath were very fortunate to have embroidery classes in the village and those who studied under Joan Drew spoke of her as a ‘splendid teacher’. Under her direction, village women had acquired traditional skills of sewing and embroidery to the highest of standard. A report in 1913 gives evidence of this ‘A laudable attempt to encourage the residents of Blackheath to take an interest in home arts and industries was made on Wednesday, when an exhibition of work was held in the village room. It was the first exhibition of its kind in the village, and the results were gratifying to the Miss Drew’s that organised it.’
In 1919 the “Blackheath Home Crafts Exhibition” had become a two-day affair, using not only the village room, but also the “congregational hall” (now a private house called Chapel End”).
By this time Blackheath Women’s Institute was officially formed (in January 1919), the Drews and the women of the village had already sewn the seeds far earlier of a Women's village group, and as the Miss Drews had taught most of the members, they were already proficient at singing, handcraft and particularly embroidery. In 1921, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes held an exhibition in the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, and Blackheath ladies earned this glowing report: -
“Blackheath Women’s Institute, at the great exhibition in London, has done credit to the village, winning the banner for the greatest number of awards in all England and Wales, another banner for the best needlework in all England, and a third for part-singing. First class medals were gained by Miss Ladworth, Miss O. Chitty, Miss M. Drew and Miss R. Leigh, and second-class medals by Miss J. Drew and Mrs. Brown. The country dance team also gained warm commendation for their good of dancing.”
The younger girls of Blackheath also benefited from the tireless encouragement of the Drew sisters. The children spoke lovingly of their classes with the the Drew's, held at Blatchfeld. This is particularly evident when Joan led a team of girls in the making of a wonderful small banner in commemoration of the First World War. A group of Blackheath girls aged between 10 and 12 who experienced at first hand the absence of their fathers whilst serving in the war effort, embroidered the moving heartfelt tribute. Each girl worked on her favourite flower and her name.Joan Drew also added her name beside her choice of embroidered snowdrops and pussy willow along with her title of ‘teacher’. The banner is small and simple in style and brings to mind one of Joan’s favourite quotes ‘Often ornateness goes with greatness, oftener felicity comes with simplicity’. The banner is in excellent condition today thanks to the loving care of Mrs Billie Hockley.
Between 1912 and 1919, Joan created five large hand embroidered banners or panels as they are sometimes referred to. Joan had designed banners in previous years for the NUWSS. These banners were to hang in the village room (village hall). The designs varied from a colourful design of St. George and the Dragon embroidered in silks (1917), to appliqué and embroidery with more muted tones of dark satanic mills. The banners hung in the village hall until 1975 when a village committee decided to give them away. Three of them were donated to the Embroiders Guild. These now regularly tour the country on exhibition loan and were recently featured in an exhibition of embroidery and the First World War.
The remaining two banners have survived, but due to unsuitable storage
conditions they are in a fragile condition. They are important historical items
not only to our village but also to the wider artistic audience and urgently need
to be restored. This will be a future project to raise funds for. We are very fortunate as a village to have something so unique and our quest is to conserve them.
By 1926, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd had published a portfolio of Joan’s embroidery designs entitled ‘These for your Delight’ and later in 1929 they brought out a book by Joan entitled ‘Embroidery and Design’. Her object in writing it was, of course, didactic. ‘I offer this book she wrote, ‘to all embroiderers humble as well as ambitious, in the sincere hope that it will encourage them to go further afield in the exercise of their art’.
In 1928, Joan Drew made an important and far-reaching contribution to the life of Guildford, she prevailed upon the authorities at the Castle Museum to accept a collection of old embroideries that she and her friends had formed. From this modest beginning has grown the collection of smocks and samplers for which the museum is now noted.
Joan wrote articles for 'The Embroideress 'and 'Embroidery'; she taught at the Embroiderers’ Guild, and contributed to exhibitions. In 1936 when the building of Guildford Cathedral was underway, Joan worked on several kneelers and is believed to have been one of the very few embroiderers who were allowed to us their own designs in preference to those provided by the architect, Sir Edward Maufe. Undoubtedly Joan undertook a lot more work for many churches, some are known but sadly there are no record of this work many are not recorded as being her work.
Joan was described by her niece Kathleen Aldworth as a ‘lovely woman who had a great knowledge of stitchery and a sense of colour with a sensitive ear for music and words and introduced rhyming couplets into her embroidery’.
In 1936 after Mary’s death, Sylvia and Joan moved to Albury Heath. Sylvia continued with her links to the Blackheath choir. Joan continued with her needlework and during World War Two Joan kept diaries in which she eloquently recorded life in the area, accompanied by little watercolour illustrations. To support the war effort, Joan was making specialist ‘minesweeper’ gloves for the sailors who were working in cold and dangerous conditions at sea and the sisters would drive into Guildford Station with baskets of sandwiches to hand out to servicemen passing through on the troop trains.
Later Sylvia and Joan moved to ‘Brantyngeshay’, a nursing home on the Blackheath and Chilworth border, where they both passed away in 1961.