The Noble Women of the Lady Chapel

Josephine Butler window etching

A blog from Pauline Lewis, Chair of the Josephine Butler memorial Trust

Last Thursday Dean Sue welcomed the Josephine Butler Memorial Trustees, friends, and guests to a special evensong during which we dedicated the newly refurbished Josephine Butler Space in the Lady Chapel of our wonderful Cathedral.

We are particularly pleased that the dedication falls within the week of International Women’s Day (March 8th) which seeks to celebrate the acts of courage and determination of ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities

 Josephine Butler, perhaps one of our least known,  is one of the 12 Noble Women depicted in windows in the Lady Chapel.

These are among the oldest windows in the Cathedral and ahead of their time in honouring women, but for many years have been hidden in a dark, neglected corner.

I first encountered the Noble Women windows in 2010 when I volunteered to help at a dramatic event to mark the cathedral’s centenary, entitled Walking Through Windows. I was to be a guide, suitably dressed in Victorian costume. I had to do a lot of research into the lives of the women and this was when I learned of the amazing work of a woman I had never heard of before,  Josephine Butler.

So who was she and why is she important?

Well, she was a devout Christian for a start and her enduring Christian faith was the foundation of everything she did. She lived in Liverpool for many years whilst her husband was headteacher of Liverpool College. But she was certainly not merely someone’s wife!

Josephine Butler (1828 – 1906)  was a 19th-century social reformer and feminist who campaigned for the rights of women, especially the marginalised. She actively promoted women’s education and gender equality, alongside speaking out about sex trafficking and the need for moral reform on behalf of the prostitutes/streetworkers of her day, resulting in the raising of the age of consent to 16 and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Incredibly, she achieved this and more in the face of sometimes violent opposition from the oppressive Victorian patriarchy in which she lived. Her legacy reminds us that many women would not be where they are today if not for her pioneering work.

 As Trustees we wanted to celebrate the life and work of Josephine Butler and the other women by opening up the space, creating light and peace as a place for reflection and learning. In 2018, in conversation with a newly installed Dean Sue, I shared the Trustees’ long-held vision of transforming the dusty space. And that was it! The ball was rolling! Dean Sue loved the idea and we set to work presenting our intention.

Dean Sue, Mike Eastwood, and Cathedral Chapter were delighted with our brief, and Mike Darwell, the architect was commissioned along with artist and designer Sarah Galloway to create the space. The intricately etched glass screens, based on symbolic flowers representing Josephine’s values, are the stand-out feature and on entering, the newly installed lighting draws attention to the Noble Women. The Cathedral maintenance team skilfully carved the interior wooden seating.

Our hope for the future is to provide small exhibitions and educational materials and digital information about issues affecting women today including domestic violence, modern Day Slavery, trafficking, and FGM. Issues that Josephine Butler would certainly have engaged with were she here.

The Trust is delighted with the completed work and it is our wish that the newly furbished space may challenge us to promote Josephine’s vision and will offer a place of reflection, contemplation, and learning for everyone.

I hope you will come and visit this beautiful space soon to experience it for yourself.