Who were the inspirational women in our family trees?

By Rosemary Collins, 8 March 2018 - 12:20pm

To celebrate International Women's Day, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine staff pay tribute to our courageous female ancestors

Sarah Williams' great aunt Frances Elizabeth Somerville Caldwell, centre, stares confidently at the camera as a child. She would go on to become a pioneering radio astronomer

Tracing the women in your family tree can often be frustratingly difficult. Women changed their surnames if they got married, making it harder to trace them between records, and for centuries, they faced many barriers to working in professions or owning property, meaning that many common family history resources are largely focused on men.

But many of our family trees hold the hidden stories of inspirational women, who overcame the obstacles of the time with courage and determination. At Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, we've discovered female ancestors who succeeded in male-dominated professions, travelled the world, and intervened to prevent tragic domestic violence.

On 8 March, people around the world are marking International Women's Day by celebrating women's achievements and vowing to combat the barriers to gender equality. It's also Mother's Day this Sunday, when we take time to show our appreciation for the women in our family. To celebrate these two days, we decided to share the stories of our inspirational female ancestors.

If there's a woman in your family history who deserves to be more widely known, do let us know - we'd love to hear about her.

Note that one of these stories contains details that readers may found distressing.

Frances Elizabeth Somerville Caldwell (1908-1958)

Sarah Williams (editor)



I never met my paternal grandmother's sister, who died at just 49, but she made her mark in fields that were male-dominated at a time when you needed grit and determination to do so. Although she was born in Surrey, Elizabeth (she was always known by her middle name) spent her early childhood in India, where her father was a professor at Patna College. I love this photograph of her in India (above) holding her brother and sister by the hand and looking confidently at the camera. At this point she can't possibly have known that she would become one of the first women to work in radio-astronomy and would make pioneering discoveries.

Educated at Cambridge at a time when women were still not allowed to become full members of the university, she went on to do a PhD in Geology. In 1935 she married physicist Norman Alexander and they had three children.

During the Second World War she was based in Singapore as a captain in the Naval Intelligence Service, working on radio direction-finding. Although she and her children were evacuated just before the fall of Singapore, her husband was left behind and she was wrongly told that he had died. I can't imagine how difficult this time must have been for her, but she didn't let it hold her back.

Based now in New Zealand she was made Senior Physicist and Head of the Operational Research Section of the Radio Development Laboratory in Wellington, where she remained until 1945. It was while there that she carried out pioneering research into solar interference and sunbursts, discovering what is now known as the 'Norfolk Island effect'.

In 1952, the Alexanders moved to Nigeria to work at University College Ibadan. Elizabeth returned to her first love, geology, launching the university's new geology department in 1958 as Head of Department. Sadly, just three weeks after her appointment, she suffered a stroke and died a week later. Although I never met her, I know all three of her children, and I'm proud to have such a notable woman in my family tree.


Sarah Jane Craven (b.1874)

Robbie Bennie (art editor)



My great grandfather, Robert, fought in the First World War and apparently afterwards he suffered, like a lot of veterans, with flashbacks (what would now be known as PTSD). In 1922, when my Nan was about six months old, Robert's sister Sarah Jane was staying with him and my Great Nan, Effie. Sarah Jane was woken at some point in the night by the screams of Effie. When she got up and entered Robert and Effie's room to investigate (this was also where Nan was sleeping) she found Effie covered in blood and Robert slashing at her with a razor blade.

When she could get no response from her brother and he appeared to lunge for the baby, she jumped in his way to protect her and then scooped Nan up and ran out to the road, by which time Effie's screams had alerted the village and the constable came running. As Robert was dragged away from Effie he then slashed his own throat with the blade. He died on the way to the hospital. If it wasn't for Sarah Jane, my Nan would almost certainly not have survived and I wouldn't be here.

Clockwise from top left - Robbie's Great Nan Effie; his Nan; Effie's mother Emma; Robbie's aunt as a baby

Esther Beuzeville (1786-1851)

Rosemary Collins (editorial assistant)



My 4x great grandmother was born Esther Beuzeville on 10 May 1786 to a London family of French Huguenots. Despite being raised as a Nonconformist, she married an Anglican clergyman, James Philip Hewlett, in 1809, but continued to practice her religion. She and James had five children, but after his death in 1820 left her needing to support her family, she became an author, writing a series of religious and historical books for young people, books on household management and cooking and advice for nursemaids.

A second marriage in 1827 to William Copley, another clergyman, was apparently unhappy and led to the couple separating. In the 1851 census, months before her death, Esther is living with her daughter and son-in-law in Eythorne, Kent, and is still recorded as 'Author - Literature for the Young and Working Classes'. Her gravestone reads: "Being endowed with a talent she faithfully used it to the honour of god and the good of her fellow men, ably advocating the claims of religion and philanthropy in her numerous writings."

I feel a sense of kinship with Esther, sharing her love of reading and writing, and I admire her evident strength in sticking to her beliefs and finding a way to survive the hard times in her life.

Portrait of Esther Copley (née Beuzeville), an author


Nellie Gains (1883-1965)

Jon Bauckham (features editor)


My 2x great grandmother Nellie didn't have the easiest start to life - her mother fell pregnant while working in service, and gave birth illegitimately in the Hartley Wintney Union Workhouse, Hampshire, having been shunned by her parents and employers. No father was named on the birth certificate.

Like her mother, Nellie entered service with a local family and carried on working for them when they moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which must have been quite an adventure! It was in Canada that she met my 2x great grandfather, a soldier named James Stedman, whom she married in 1904. The couple had their first child later that year, before moving to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where my great grandmother, Evelyn, was born in 1906. They returned to Britain shortly before the First World War, raising their children in suburban Woking.

Nellie lived until the ripe old age of 82, outliving her husband by 14 years. Her granddaughter (my own grandmother, Doreen) has fond memories of staying with Nellie as a child and always remembers her as a "sweet little old lady" - a sharp contrast to the strict, ex-military grandfather who terrified her! 

Nellie may not have done anything too out of the ordinary, but I wish I could hop in a time machine and ask her some questions about her journeys overseas. I'm sure she'd have interesting stories to tell!



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