Browne, Miss Annie Leigh

Browne, Miss Annie Leigh, The Hills, Sid Road, Sidmouth

Annie Leigh Browne (1851 – 1936) was born in Bridgwater Somerset on 14 March 1851. Her father was Samuel Woolcott Browne and her mother Thomazine Leigh Browne (née Carslake).  Both were Unitarians and active social reformers. Thomazine established the Leigh Browne Trust which promoted scientific research without animal experimentation. Samuel was a philanthropist associated with the Ragged School and Red Lodge Reformatory. Both grandfathers had served with Nelson on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, (Captain John Carslake and Captain George Lewis Browne).[1] Annie and her younger sister, Mary, enjoyed childhood holidays in the Sid Valley, Devon, with their Carslake grandparents.

Her parents moved to Clifton, near Bristol and she was educated at home by tutors and governesses and was a studious child preferring reading to outdoor activities, in contrast to her sister. Throughout her life she never enjoyed robust health. In 1868 she attended Queens College in Harley Street and the same year attended a very early suffrage meeting at the home of John Beddoe, a physician at Bristol Royal Infirmary, and his wife. Both Browne sisters worked with Octavia Hill at Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel, a centre for social and especially housing reform. Annie taught in the Sunday School at Little Portland Street Chapel where Dr James Martineau was minister and she encouraged him to start educational classes for women, an aspiration that remained with her all her life.[2] Annie was involved with the foundation of the Women’s Protective and Provident League, founded in 1874 by Emma Paterson, which became the Women’s Trade Union League in 1890.  In 1876 Annie and Emma Paterson cofounded The Women’s Printing Society which trained women through an apprenticeship programme in the printing trade.

Her life was shared with Mary Stewart Kilgour (see note below), whom she may have met at Queens College, and they were both campaigners for women’s education. Annie, her sister Mary, and Mary Kilgour, were prominent in the setting up of College Hall in Byng Place which opened in 1882.[3] Annie contributed funding. This was a radical enterprise as it was the first hall of residence for women students at University College and the London School of Medicine for Women. The students did not have to provide character references and had representation on the governing body of the institution. When this last controversial measure was eventually passed, it was said to be unprecedented in such an institution.[4] It housed some of the pioneering women studying at university level in London.

In 1883 Browne gave an interview for The Woman’s Herald, a weekly feminist paper, formerly The Woman’s Signal.[5] She said: ‘I am tired of being told to wait patiently and help the Liberal Party, seeing that it is 25 years since I attended for the first time a women’s suffrage meeting at the house of Dr and Mrs Beddoe in Bristol. I did not have the advantage of going to Girton or Newnham but when we came to London I attended various courses of lectures.’ She said that the writers that most influenced her were Theodore Parker, William Channing and James Martineau, all Unitarians. In 1888, through her Women’s Printing Society, Annie was important in the production of the Women’s Penny Paper.  Sidmouth Museum has a copy of the first edition.[6]

In November 1888 the ‘Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors’ was formed by twelve women. Browne helped with funding and was honorary secretary. Influential members included her friend Mary Kilgour, Millicent Garret Fawcett and the Marchioness of Aberdeen. In 1893 it became the Women’s Local Government Society and its aim was to enable women to be elected to local government.[7] Jane Cobden and Lady Margaret Sandhurst were elected to the London County Council but a court case overturned their election. The Society continued to vigorously campaign against this decision but was initially unsuccessful although married women were allowed to stand for school boards.  Eventual success was as late as 1907. In December of that year Annie received a magnificent embossed document of thanks from members of the Society with a covering letter from Mary Williams, the Chairperson, in which she writes that it is ‘…expressive of our heartfelt gratitude to you and Miss Kilgour for your work in securing the 1907 Act.’[8] The signatories to the document included Millicent Garret Fawcett and Hertha Ayrton.

Browne was on the executive committee of the Union of Practical Suffragists in 1898 and also a member of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage as well as its successor, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. In February 1907, Annie, never a very physically resilient person, took part in the gruelling Mud March organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1913 she became vice-president of the Free Church League for Women’s Suffrage. Her continued aim was the empowerment of women, not by any form of militancy, but through better welfare, housing and, above all, education.

Browne became involved in women’s suffrage activities in Devon initially by participation in the activities of the Devon Union of Women’s Liberal Associations. As a member of the Executive of the London Women’s Liberal Association she was in attendance at Devon meetings as early as 1898 when she seconded a motion opposing the re-enactment of the Contagious Diseases Act in India.[9] She was described as a patron of the Devon Union in 1903[10] and was elected President for 1906-7, including presiding over a meeting where a motion in support of women’s suffrage was passed.[11] As a past president she was then regularly re-elected as Vice-President.

It is likely that it was the links that such staunch suffrage activists as Browne and her sister had with Sidmouth that led to the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) determining that Sidmouth would be one of the first places in Devon selected for the creation of a branch. Margaret Robertson, one of the NUWSS’s national organisers, came to Sidmouth at the end of 1908 with ‘a list of prospective members’[12] and hosted a preliminary meeting at the end of which ‘a number of ladies’ remained behind to discuss forming a local branch.[13] The branch was launched at the end of February 1909[14] with a speech by Lady Frances Balfour. Although Browne did not take office in the Sidmouth and District Women’s Suffrage Society she was a staunch supporter of its work. She represented the branch at external events such as Lord Lytton’s visit to Exeter as chair of the Conciliation Committee;[15] appeared on platform parties and lent Woolcombe House for meetings.[16] She also took part in the planning of campaigning activity.[17] Once the Representation of the People Act 1918 had been passed she supported the venture to create a Sidmouth Citizens’ Association, and its expansion to cover the whole district[18]

Browne’s link with the Sid Valley was life-long. She divided her time between London, 58 Porchester Terrace, and Sidmouth where she lived at The Hills on Sid Road, a family property. In 1885 Sidmouth’s first cottage hospital, May Cottage, was the result of the generosity of several individuals including Annie Leigh Browne who paid the rent for the first five years.[19] Additionally, in about 1900, she bought about 20 acres of land on both sides of the River Sid, which had been in a very poor state, between Lovers Walk opposite Lawn Vista and Sid Bridge at the bottom of Sid Lane.  Her aim was to protect and enhance the landscape. (This land was gifted to the National Trust on her death.)

In 1908 she and her sister Mary bought at auction for £680 Woolcombe House, adjacent to the Byes.[20] This fine medieval property needed repair but it was now possible for Annie to make a real difference at a local level. Within a year she had developed and improved the grounds with both lawn tennis and croquet facilities. Asking ‘nominal’ charges she was specifically attracting tradespeople, office workers and shop assistants. Meetings for up to 60 people took place on the first floor in the house and again for only a small charge.

Several new activities started during the Great War. In 1915 a Naturalists’ Club was formed, affiliated to the Sid Vale Association of which she was a member. There was a wide range of weekly talks costing only 1d, ranging from migration of birds, tree recognition, evidence of evolution and the modern-sounding ‘wild life gardens’. On the first floor local fossils, shells, feathers, crystals and old prints were on public display on two days a week. A junior branch of the Sid Vale Association was formed and young members were allowed small plots of land to plant vegetable seeds and take away their own produce. Additional ground belonging to the house was used, during the war years, to cultivate potatoes which were offered to the VAD Hospital Peak House. In 1916 Annie offered free use of the facilities to enable Belgian refugee children in the town to learn English.

An important and far reaching initiative, also in 1916, was the Maternity and Infant Welfare Centre which was available on the ground floor. Practical advice to young mothers was now available for the first time. In 1923 classes were available for local young adults to learn practical skills, including carpentry, wood carving, leather working and engineering drawing, to enable them to more easily find employment. She was looking to help the less well off in the community and ‘education’ in the broadest sense was a guiding principle in her life.

Annie had strong ties to the Old Meeting (Unitarian Chapel) and, with her sister, paid for a window and plaque in memory of the Carslake family. She was a very generous benefactor to the Chapel and left money in her will for a school to be erected adjacent to it. This was built in 1939 and is now a meeting room named the Leigh Browne Hall.[21]

Annie died on 8 March 1936 of respiratory-related disease. She left £5000 to “my beloved friend”, Mary Stewart Kilgour, and her house The Hills, during her lifetime.


Kilgour, Miss Mary Stewart

Mary Stuart Kilgour (1851 – 1955) was born at Longford, Tasmania on September 24 1851. She was the daughter of Dr John Stewart Kilgour (1815 – 1902) who was a medical officer in the forces. Her mother, Susan Anne, was the daughter of the Hon. Thomas Archer, one of the six original members, in 1827, of the first Legislative Council granted to Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania). Mary was the third of 13 children. In 1854 the family came to England and initially lived in London, Exmouth and the Isle of Man before settling in Cheltenham in 1860 where her father went into private practice. At the age of nine years Mary attended a private school before entering the Ladies College Cheltenham. In 1874 she went to Girton College Cambridge with a scholarship (Clothworkers Exhibition) and obtained the challenging Mathematical Tripos in 1878. Until 1906 she taught mathematics at various schools and was a visiting teacher at Queens College. Her formal teaching career ended at this time but she remained passionate about women’s education for the rest of her long life.[22]

By 1880 she was already campaigning with Annie Leigh Browne (see above), and Annie’s sister, Mary (q.v., as Mary Lockyer), to open College Hall. In 1888 ‘County Councils’ were formed and Kilgour and Browne campaigned to elect women to the London County Council. Two were elected but the decision was overturned in the Court of the Queen’s Bench. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal. Mary Kilgour and Annie helped found what became the Women’s Local Government Society.[23] Mary was treasurer from 1892 to 1900.

Mary herself sat on Paddington Borough Council from 1912 to 1919. She helped found The Union of Practical Suffragists which was formed within the Women’s Liberal Federation in 1896. Mary authored a number of papers. One in 1896 had the unlikely title of Women as Members of Local Sanitary Authorities. Others included The London Government Act: The Latest disqualification of Women (1899), ‘Position of Women in Secondary Education’ (1899) and ‘Women and Citizenship’ read to the Association of University Women Teachers. It included the sentiment, “…without enfranchisement the status of women must in every way be depressed.”[24]

Kilgour and Browne divided their time between London and Sidmouth. When Annie died in 1936 she left management of her estate, including Woolcombe House, to Mary. Additionally she left her £5000 and her house, The Hills, during her lifetime. Mary moved to Sidmouth permanently in 1937. Mary supported the idea, suggested in the 1940s, that Woolcombe House should become the town’s first museum, with a permanent collection and curator.[25][7]  In June 1950 the Museum opened and Mary, now 99 years old, spoke of her memories of Annie and was presented with a bouquet of carnations.



Entry created by Nigel Hyman, Sidmouth Museum, December 2018

[1] Diana Bowerman, ‘Sidmouth philanthropist was staunch suffrage supporter’,  Sidmouth Herald, 28 Feb 2012.

[2] Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928, Psychology Press, 2001, p.85-86.

[3] College Hall, UCL Bloomsbury Project online. Available at Accessed 28 Dec 2018.

[4] The Times, 22 Feb 1884.

[5] The Woman’s Herald, 4 Feb1893.

[6] Sidmouth Museum Archives.

[7] David Douglas, Peter Gordon, Dictionary of British Women’s Organisations, 1825-1960, Woburn Education Series, 2014, p.223-224.

[8] Embossed manuscript and letter in Sidmouth Museum Archives.

[9] Devon and Exeter Gazette (DEG), 18 Jun 1898

[10] Western Times (WT), 6 Feb 1903.

[11] WT, 11 Oct 1906.

[12] Common Cause, 29 Apr 1909.

[13] WT, 27 Nov 1908.

[14] DEG, 27 Feb 1909.

[15] WT, 8 Nov 1910.

[16] DEG, 14 Sep 1912.

[17] WT, 31 Oct 1913.

[18] WT 30 Sep 1919; DEG 23 Dec 1919.

[19] Julia Creeke, ‘May Cottage’, from A Guide to the Blue Plaques: Life and Times in Sidmouth, Sid Vale Association, 2019.

[20] Nigel Hyman, ‘Woolcombe House’, from A Guide to the Blue Plaques: Life and Times in Sidmouth, Sid Vale Association, 2019.

[21] Julia Creeke, ‘The Old Meeting’, from a Guide to the Blue Plaques: Life and Times in Sidmouth, Sid Vale Association, 2019.

[22]  Sidmouth Herald, 9 April 1955.

[23] Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928, Psychology Press, 2001, 86.

[24] Sidmouth Museum Archives.

[25] Sidmouth Observer, 1 Mar 1950.


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