Susan Mary Smee was the first woman Mayor of Acton and the founder of Gunnersbury Park Museum. Despite the fact that none of her private papers survive it is possible to learn a lot about this remarkable woman because of her public role from 1910 onwards.
Miss Smee was born in 1859 into a middle class London family and was well educated at a boys’ school. She later said that she knew more about cricket and football than she did about cooking and sewing. Throughout her life she was a keen sportswoman, playing golf and hockey, and was a founder member and Captain of the Chiswick Ladies Hockey Club. She also liked cycling and often cycled to various meetings. For many years she worked as the Secretary at Westfield College, a women’s college of the University of London. From about 1887 she lived with her family at various addresses in Acton.
From 1887-1900 they are listed at 2 The Avenue, Bedford Park. They lived at 10 Newton Grove, a rented house, from 1902-1912, where they had the services of a cook and a housemaid. Thereafter, following her father’s death, she lived at 10 Blenheim Road until 1926. It was a comfortable middle class existence, her father being a businessman and later a journalist. He was also a keen antiquarian and huntsman, interests his daughter later pursued.
It was not until she was middle aged that she rose to promin-ence. In 1910 she was co-opted onto the Education Committee, presumably on the strength of her experience at the College. In 1911 she took a more radical step. Though women could vote in local elections and stand as candidates for the council, very few did. Miss Smee stood for the south east ward in Acton in 1911 as an independent, explaining why she was standing:
The work of the council deals with many other matters closely affecting the social and domestic welfare of women rate payers which render the presence of a woman desirable. Foremost among many questions are those relating to sanitation and public health . . . I shall endeavour to exercise an independent judgement free from party prejudice or political bias
It may have been the case that her work at the College was coming to an end and she wanted to make good use of her time and talents. She lost, but received 335 votes so the idea of having a female councillor was not completely out of the question and she came top of the candidates who had failed to gain a seat. The local press was generally favourable towards her venture, too. She was certainly undeterred and in a by-election in the following year gained a seat, the first woman ever to be elected to Acton Council. It had been a narrow victory with 443 votes compared to her rival who had 410. She represented South East Acton, a ward including part of Bedford Park, where she lived. Some wondered whether she would be able to cope, and at her first meeting the public galleries were packed to see the spectacle of a woman councillor.
It is worth noting that there is no evidence that Miss Smee was involved in any suffragist or suffragette group. She evidently believed that she could make the most positive impact by working within the system rather than attempting to change it fundamentally. Women were sometimes co-opted on to council committees, often because they were married to committee members. However, in Ealing, Chiswick and Brentford there were no female councillors until after the First World War. The first female councillor for Brentford was elected in the 1920s, and the first ones for Chiswick and Ealing in the 1930s, but Acton voted in another female councillor in 1918, Mrs Gertrude Barnes, who became an ally of Miss Smee.
Elected to Acton Council
Initially Miss Smee was given a place on the Library Committee, a fairly traditional and safe choice for a woman. But she soon realised that her real passions were for issues which directly affected women; health and education. She became chairman of both the Education and the Public Health Committees, but had the honesty to refuse roles if she felt she had not the time to devote to them. She advocated creches and ante-natal classes for both fathers and mothers. She represented the council at public health conferences in Britain and overseas.
During the First World War the role of the state and voluntary organisations expanded considerably. Miss Smee rose to the occasion, becoming honorary secretary of the local Prince of Wales’ fund to assist the families of servicemen. She became manager of the Acton communal kitchen and day nursery for the children of female munitions workers, and was chief female investigator for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families’ Association.In 1915 she opened the South Acton Social Club for Women in Stanley Road, a club for reading, writing and conversation, with classes but no preaching.
She was also involved in work for children during the war years. She advocated a child welfare scheme for 10,000 female workers, and was chairman of the sub-committee for play centres. One unusual issue that she became involved in was that of lemon marmalade. In 1919 she argued that this commodity should be sold coupon free, for it had been rationed during the war. The local Food Committee opposed her. Apparently Kensington and Hammersmith councils were allowing lemon marmalade to be sold coupon free and eventually the Acton Food Committee gave in to her demands.
After the First World War, more women were elected to the council. Miss Smee never adopted any party label nor joined any political party. As she was definitely middle class, she defined herself as being an ‘Anti-Waste’ councillor, which usually equated with being Conservative but she was happy to co-operate with Labour members of the council if their views were similar.
Her period of greatest influence came in the 1920s. She was made chairman of the council in 1920 and was addressed as Mrs Chairman or Madam Chairman. This was another first for women and can hardly have been envisaged when she was first elected in 1911. It was said that ‘the womanly tact and womanly temperament’ had been very helpful at this difficult time when unemployment was rising.
First female mayor
Acton achieved borough status in 1921; a great moment in local civic history in which Miss Smee had played her part as chairman of the council in the preceding year. It was therefore only right that she became Mayor in 1924, Acton’s first female mayor. She explained what her duties were. They were not all about attending social functions, dinners, and dispensing money. She had to be in the Mayor’s Parlour at 10 each morning, to deal with the chairmen of committees, council officers, people seeking homes in Acton, and people leaving Acton and seeking accommodation elsewhere. There was also much correspondence to deal with. One unusual request was from a Turkish woman who needed help with the formalities involved in returning to her native land. Another unusual event was to attend the Colchester Oyster Festival, as well as numerous bazaars.
At the end of her mayoral year Miss Smee was presented with a framed tinted photographic portrait of herself in mayoral robes and insignia. She was praised by her fellow councillors in glowing terms: ‘The public honours that have come your way have indeed been well earned by your 16 years’ hard service. Acton owed much to you . . . In your case the qualities displayed make it clear that there was both room and necessity in the municipal world for ladies’. Miss Smee preferred that the portrait hang in the council chamber and said that though she was the first female mayor, she hoped she would not be the last, and that there would be many more to follow. However, there was to be only one more female Acton mayor, and that was nearly four decades later: Mrs Lilian Maud Walker, in 1960-1961.
Miss Smee was an alderman by now, and became chairman of the Finance Committee, a great honour indeed, and a testimony to how much her fellow councillors valued her competence. By this time, everyone wondered how there could have been any doubts about the importance of women in local politics, and this in part was due to her. Although her days as a councillor were numbered, she thought her time spent there had been worthwhile, ‘I have never regretted having been elected to the council. It brings you more vividly in touch with the town, its concerns and its belongings’. She had also attended more meetings than most councillors; in 1920/1 she had only missed two out of 22 meetings of the full council and 33 of the 144 committee meetings.
On retirement from the council, Miss Smee went to live at 56 Woodstock Avenue, in 1927, sharing the house with another well-to-do single woman, Miss Ethel Mary Jennet Veal (1877-1945), who had been born in Gunnersbury. They had been friends since early days in the Hockey Club. They had three servants, one of whom wrote a brief account of her life there, and this is at Gunnersbury Park Museum. It seems that the two ladies had four course lunches, five course dinners and they always changed for dinner. ‘She was so proud of the work she was doing for Acton’, the maid recalled. ‘As well as being Acton’s first female councillor she was also Acton’s first female justice of the peace (indeed the first in the county),being appointed in 1921’. As a commentator observed, ‘There is room on the Bench for one or two women of experience in public affairs’. As a Petty Sessions court it was the lowest rung of the justice system, being able to give a maximum fine of £25 or six months in gaol at most. Only about 5 per cent of defendants were female, and then mostly for theft or assault. She retired from the Bench in 1940, where she had been an advocate of mercy, when such was proper.
Gunnersbury Park & Museum
Miss Smee played an important part in the acquisition and development of Gunnersbury Park and its Museum. This had been a home of the Rothschild family, but in the early 1920s they wished to sell their land in west London. Most of the land north of Pope’s Lane as far as Ealing Common was sold in this decade to property developers and builders. But the 186 acres of grounds and the houses therein were another matter. After the estate and the two mansions had been successfully acquired for the Boroughs of Acton and Ealing in 1926 Miss Smee resigned as a member of the Gunnersbury Park Committee. Yet her interest was undimmed.
She helped negotiate the sale to the Museum of Major Sadler’s antiquarian collection, which was paid for by public subscription. This large collection of prehistoric artefacts, books, prints, maps and documents, amassed by Major Frederick Sadler, Acton’s former Borough Engineer and Surveyor, formed the nucleus of the Museum’s collections. It was not thought necessary to appoint anyone to be in charge of them. So when an offer of artefacts was made in 1928, it was addressed to the Parks Superintendent who passed on the question to the Committee, who decided to view them, but eventually did not accept
Later in 1928 Miss Smee asked the Committee if she could put together an exhibition of the Sadler collection and a few other prints, maps and artefacts, for display in two or three rooms in the Mansion in 1929. They agreed to her kind offer. She arranged this collection and catalogued some of the Museum’s artefacts. In this she had the help of Professor Fox and a Mr Rochester. This was the nucleus of the Museum, and soon glass show-cases were purchased to display them securely. It was with this exhibition that the Museum was officially opened on 19 October 1929, and would thereafter be open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 4pm.
In 1929 Miss Smee wrote to the Committee asking whether they would like her to work as honorary curator, and they agreed with thanks. She took up her duties in the following year. This appointment was annual and was renewed throughout the 1930s, the Committee often stating ‘It was unanimously resolved that Miss S M Smee, JP, be appointed Honorary Curator of the Museum for the ensuing year, that the Committee’s appreciation and grateful thanks for the valuable services rendered by her in connection with the Museum be recorded on the Minutes, and the Superintendent was instructed to convey to Miss S M Smee, JP, the Committee’s warmest appreciation’. She occasionally attended Committee meetings along with the other key Parks officials.
It would seem that potential donors contacted her and then she would report back to the Committee to confirm whether the donations offered should be accepted. It was certainly a diverse collection; including a traveller’s guide of 1805, pamphlets relating to Acton charities, antique toys, seventeenth century clay pipes found in Hanwell and Chiswick, a painting of the interior of East Acton Manor House and a fragment of the Gospel Oak as presented by Sir Montagu Sharpe. Also Tudor house tiles from Burlington Cottages, Chiswick were accepted. Some items had to be bought, including a collection of prints and paintings of Hanwell and Ealing. It seems that the Committee always went along with her recommendations.
Various exhibitions were put together by this indefatigable lady including one in 1931 about Mrs Siddons, the actress who had once lived in Acton, and died in 1831. In 1937 she arranged an exhibition there of 40 packs of playing cards collected as the result of a public appeal and was very busy cataloguing the new collections and encouraging donations. In 1940 she put together an exhibition called Bygone Ealing to be used as a travelling exhibition in aid of the Red Cross.
Miss Smee had left west London by 1940 and moved to Taunton, presumably due to the blitz, and she and Miss Veal lived in a hotel there, not uncommon among elderly people of means at that time. Yet she retained her honorary post as the Museum seems to have been closed in the winter months of the war. But she desired it be re-opened from May to September 1942, and it was. Many of the exhibits had been packed away in 1939 and stored in the cellars. However in 1942 Miss Smee and Miss Veal travelled from Taunton and spent some days unpacking and rearranging the exhibits prior to re-opening. She did likewise in 1943. For two elderly ladies this was quite an achievement.
In 1944 she rejected the notion that the Museum building be used as a teacher training centre as it would entail the dispersal of the artefacts stored there, and one of the conditions of the purchase of the Museum had been that the park be used as a recreation ground. Not all agreed, for Acton’s mayor was sympathetic to the idea, but it was rejected.
After nearly two decades as honorary curator, Miss Smee tendered her resignation in 1945. Apart from both old age and distance, another deciding factor might have been the death that year of her long term companion, Miss Veal, who had also been the assistant honorary curator of the Museum. The Committee resolved to accept the resignation ‘with regret’ and to convey ‘their thanks and appreciation for her services in getting together the Museum collection, and for her long period of curatorship’.
In August 1946 Miss Smee visited visited Gunnersbury Park, being pleased to see how well the park was looking. She suggested that Ronald Gordon Rivis ‘would be a very good person to be entrusted with the replacement and general care of the valuable collection now stored’. He had helped Miss Smee in the past and so knew the collection well, though as a professional solicitor would only be able to devote his leisure time to the Museum.
In October 1948 she was recalled to re-open Gunnersbury Park Museum. She had not lost her sense of humour, declaring that the Committee were ‘digging out an old fossil like me to open up this museum of older fossils to public view’. Miss Smee died on 4 January 1949, aged 89, having spent her last years at Crag Head, Mansion Road in Bournemouth. Her will left £13,323. Her death was reported in the Acton Gazette and the Council and Magistrates’ Court stood in silence as a mark of respect. Percy Harris JP, stated that she had been ‘a great personality and from the very start of her work in Acton she made her mark’.
In her methods, her politics, or lack of them, and in much of her work, Miss Smee was very much a traditionalist. Her major concerns were for work amongst women and children in health, housing and education. The fact that she was an independent councillor throughout her tenure in office is another indicator that she eschewed the masculine world of party politics. There is no evidence that she was sympathetic to the tactics and possibly even aims of the militant suffrage movement which was a strong force prior to 1914, or belonged to any feminist political group after the War.
In other ways, Miss Smee can be portrayed as a role model for women, and a radical by her very example. She was a woman of actions as well as of words in Acton from 1911 until 1927 and beyond. The very fact that she was the first in so many ways – the first female councillor in Acton, the first female chairman of important committees, the first female chairman of the council, the first female mayor and the first female JP, and the founder and Honorary Curator of Gunnersbury Park Museum – are testimony to her very real skills, hard work and tireless devotion to the public good of the district. She was a pioneer, and helped other women to follow her example, such as Mrs Barnes in 1919, and also Labour women in the same period. But regardless of her sex, she was a strong and purposeful character in Acton in the first half of the twentieth century. There is no plaque or monument to her, but perhaps she would be happiest to see Gunnersbury Park as the most fitting monument to her life and achievements. As she said, ‘Gunnersbury Park was its own reward, and every time she visited it, she rejoiced to see that it was being used by all sections of the community’.
Minute books of Acton Council and the Gunnersbury Park Committee
The Acton Gazette
Census returns, street directories and electoral register
Dr Jonathan Oates has been Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian at Ealing Library since 1999. He has written two books about Acton’s history and many more about local, family, criminal and military history. This article is based mainly on sources located at Ealing Library and Gunnersbury Park Museum.