The Extraordinary Women of Bicester

St Edburg’s Church was host to a Heritage Day event last Saturday. This was one of the many special events across the whole United Kingdom which make up the national Heritage Open Days every September. This year our Heritage Group, Janet and Victor Puddick. Gill King and Julie Cordingley, adopted the recommended theme from the national organisers. This, in the 100th anniversary year of (some) women getting the right to vote, was Britain’s Extraordinary Women.

So, we celebrated Bicester’s Extraordinary Women. Nominations were sought and community groups were invited to mount their own exhibitions in the Church. Around 15 community groups took part. Some such as the Kingsmere Family Ministry and the Mothers Union are part of St Edburg’s. Altogether they ranged from the Bicester Local History Society to the Bicester Ladies Circle, and from the Bicester Widows Club to the ARCh charity (Assisted Reading for Children in Oxfordshire). All celebrated the role of women in Bicester through history.

Beginning in the 7th century with St Edburg herself, who may never have visited Bicester in her lifetime though her relics were later a focus for pilgrimage in the Priory, we came down to the present day and women still living who make great contributions now to the life and well-being of the town. Attention was drawn to some of the more than 70 women recorded on memorials in the church, while the various exhibitions commemorated more than 150 individuals as well as many of the womens’ organisations in Bicester which work for the wellbeing of the community on a voluntary basis.

The range of activities and people described was wide. Some had been the great and good of their day, such as the Countess of Jersey and the Coker family. Others had figured in literature, such as Queenie from Lark Rise to Candleford. Service to the community was well-marked, for example by Joan Blackman, not just the first woman Mayor of Bicester (actually Mayor three times) but also very active in the church. There were also others who performed vital roles in the community. One such was Florence Dealey, the subject of a display by the junior members of our Church choir. Born around 1893, Miss Dealey for many years ran a sweet shop in the Market Square. She was also active as a musician and in the church, leaving her house to St Edburg’s at her death. Her life story was just one of many showing the vital role played by women in the town which has often been under-recognised.

The displays also emphasised the extent to which St Edburg’s whether as a congregation or as a building is an integral part of the town. The use of the church for events such as this re-affirms the importance of the role that we still have within the community and how the church and wider community can reach out to each other.

Christopher Young