All over the world women are campaigning today under the hashtag #BalanceforBetter as they work toward a world that is more fair.
While I was researching Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol I came across the stories of so many inspirational women it was impossible to choose a favourite. I’m telling the story of Ada Vachell here, as she overcame both disability and the major handicap of being born a woman in Victorian Britain. She made life better for hundreds of Bristol’s poor and disadvantaged. Her bright ideas had knock-on effects for the disabled which endured long after her death. Here’s Ada’s story…
Ada Vachell (1866-1923) was a champion of the disabled at a time when they received no government help. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, disability was often seen as something shameful to be hidden away. Ada helped to change attitudes. Born into a wealthy family, she was left frail and deaf after an almost fatal attack of scarlet fever. Despite that, she never let her own poor health hold her back for a minute.
Ada drove her parents mad with her enthusiastic schemes. On one occasion she hired a horse-drawn bus to take all the local servants on a day trip to the seaside. She became a helper at a club for poor girls who worked in the local factories. Inspired by what she heard and saw on the streets of Bristol, she founded the Guild of the Brave Poor Things in 1896. She delivered invitations to the Guild’s meeting by hand around the worst slums in Bristol. Anyone with disabilities was welcomed into the Guild. Instead of sitting around at home, frustrated, miserable and bored, they could escape every week for a couple of hours of crafts, lectures, games and chat.
The Guild grew fast. Ada found jobs for its members with local employers, and opened a purpose-built holiday home for members in Churchill, Somerset. For the first time, Bristol’s disabled children and adults could enjoy a break in country air. Back in the city, Ada’s Guild opened the first building to be specially designed for the needs of the disabled. It had wheelchair-friendly access, a gym, a large hall and plenty of room for arts and crafts as well as lectures.
Ada Vachell worked hard all her life for Bristol’s poor and disabled in the days before the welfare state. She died of pneumonia, aged only fifty-seven. Who knows what else she might have achieved if only she’d lived longer?