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Discover the Inspirational Women of Bury St Edmunds and Beyond

10 historical places where you can connect with the stories of some of the inspirational women of Bury St Edmunds and Beyond.

Northgate House

Norah Loft's home Northgate House in Northgate Street (photos by Andy Abbott)

Northgate House in Northgate Street is the former home of best-selling author Norah Lofts who lived in Bury St Edmunds from the age of 10 until her death in 1983.

It was here that Norah wrote more than 50 books, several of which were made into films. Often considered her finest work, the Suffolk Trilogy, published between 1959 and 1963, was described as “the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read” by The Independent’s Alison Weir, who calls Lofts “one of the great writers of the twentieth century”. 

These books tell the stories of a cast of characters connected with The House at Old Vine, a townhouse set in Baildon, a fictional version of Bury St Edmunds, from the late 14th century through to the 1950s.

St Mary’s Church

Photo of St Mary's Church by Tom Soper. Portrait of Mary Tudor attributed to Jan Gossaert [Public domain]

St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds is the final resting place of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's favourite sister who at 18 she was forced to marry King Louis XII of France, a man who at 52 was 34 years her senior as part of a peace treaty with France. 

Mary was actually in love with her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, but had no choice but to obey her brother. However, she made her brother promise that should she outlive him that she could choose her next husband.

When the King died Charles Brandon was sent to France to bring Mary home and there, in secret, the couple married in 1515 without the King’s consent - an act of treason. The King was furious and there were calls for Charles to be imprisoned or executed. It was only through the intervention of Thomas Wolsey and Henry’s love for his sister that the couple were eventually pardoned.

She was buried first at the Abbey of St Edmund in 1533 but when the abbey was dissolved her remains were moved five years later in 1538 to St Mary’s Church. You can visit her very modest final resting place today.

The Farmer’s Club 

Eva Wollastan Greene (credit St Edmundsbury Museums)

Eva Wollaston Greene (nee Boughey) was the first woman to serve as a councillor, the first female Mayor of Bury St Edmunds and the town’s first female Magistrate.

Eva married John Wollaston Greene, founder of Greene and Greene solicitors (John’s Great-Great Uncle Benjamin was the founder of the Greene King Brewery), and they lived in what is now The Farmers Club in Northgate Street. They had one daughter who died aged 4 in 1921 and in a lasting tribute her daughter’s bracelet was incorporated into a cross for St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s high altar. 

She was the councillor for Eastgate Ward in November 1921 and Mayor of Bury St Edmunds twice. She was also a Justice of the Peace.

Ouida Memorial

Ouida By Elizabeth Lee / 1874 photo by Adolphe Beau - Ouida: a memoir (1914), Public Domain. Photo of the Ouida Memorial courtesy of Martyn Taylor

Ouida was the pseudonym of Bury St Edmunds-born Marie Louise de la Ramee who was the highest paid female novelist of her day.

She wrote more than 40 novels, children's books and collections of short stories and essays. In her early period, her novels were considered "racy" and "swashbuckling", but later her work was more typical of historical romance, though she never stopped comment on contemporary society. 

Her children’s book ‘The Dog Of Flanders’ is still in print in Japan and Korea where it has a cult following. Her adult books are the bodice rippers of the day. A memorial tribute to Ouida can be found on Vinery Road in Bury St Edmunds which was funded by readers of the Daily Mirror, friends and admirers. The two figures on the memorial pay testament to Ouida's character - a sword depicting courage and a lady holding a dog which represents her fondness for animals.

18 Crown Street 

Rose Mead; Self Portrait c.1910 (St Edmundsbury Borough Council)

Rose Mead was a prolific artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition and the Paris Salon.

Born in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, the youngest of 8 children 6 boys 2 girls, Rose left Bury aged 20 to study at Lincoln School of Art and then the Westminster School of Art. She earned her living painting local dignitaries at her studio 18 Crown Street, opposite the Dog and Partridge pub, where there is now a blue plaque commemorating her work. 

Rose’s portraits are full of character. She liked to paint young girls, very often stopping them in the street. Whilst painting she counselled them not to get married, urging them to find fulfilment in a career. In the last few years of her life she lived at The St Edmunds Hotel next to The Angel Hotel. She sadly died after falling down the stairs at her studio.

Greene King Brewery

Eleanor Fish is Britain's last surviving WWII female pilot and flew hundreds of missions delivering war planes including 132 Spitfires which became her favourite plane. She flew 22 different types of aircraft, from Spitfires and Hurricanes to Tiger Moths. 

An action-packed life far different from the one she started with as a girl from Nottingham, training to be architect. It was while working as an architectural assistant for the Air Transport Auxiliary, she answered the call for more untrained pilots - even though she'd never had a burning ambition to fly.

After the war Eleanor became Eleanor Wadsworth and moved to Bury St Edmunds where she worked at Mann Egerton and Greene King. She celebrated her 101st birthday in 2018.

Royal Bank of Scotland, 90 Guildhall Street

Artist Sybil Andrews was born in the flat above Andrews and Plumptons Ironmongers shop now the Royal Bank of Scotland in Guildhall Street. Her early homes were Greyfriars in Whiting Street and 117 Northgate Street.

Whilst in Bury St Edmunds she worked alongside notable artist Cyril Power in the Crescent House Studios on Angel Hill and he was to have a major influence on her artistic future.

In 1947 Sybil moved to Canada where she further established her importance as a great artist and her lino cuts are highly collectable.

Perhaps her greatest contribution to her birthplace is the wonderful banner to be found in St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It is silk on handwoven linen depicting the martyrdom of St Edmund. The Sybil Andrews Academy in Bury St Edmunds is named after the artist.

Angel Hill Surgery 

Ella Joyce Cockram MD was the first female doctor in Bury St Edmunds and set up the first blood bank in England here in the town.

Born in Bridgewater, Ella moved to Bury St Edmunds as a house physician and pathologist based at Angel Hill Surgery and remained until 1972.

During that time she was Chairman of the Hospital Management Committee, a Justice of the Peace, founder of Bury St Edmunds Diabetic Association, having set up a diabetes clinic in the town, a Lay cannon of St Edmundsbury Cathedral and President of Bury Bach Choir Society. There is a ward named after her at West Suffolk Hospital.

Ickworth House

Photographs by kind permission of the National Trust

The legacy of Lady Theodora can be seen in Horringer, just outside Bury St Edmunds in the stunning Ickworth House which she gave to the National Trust in 1956 so that visitors today could discover its beauty.

Alice Frances Theodora Wythes, known as Theodora or ‘Dora’ to her family, was born in 1875 in London. Theodora was a member of the second generation of rich, entrepreneurial, middle class families; thanks to her paternal grandfather who was a self-made millionaire railway contractor. When he died in 1883, his personal estate passed to his grandchildren and Theodora became a wealthy woman!

Captain Frederick Hervey, a navy man, and Theodora were introduced in Winchester and supposedly fell in love over a plate of macaroons. Frederick was not the original heir to Ickworth, however his brother died, leaving him to inherit in 1893. Despite both families disapproving of the relationship, Frederick and Theodora married in 1896 followed swiftly by two daughters Phyllis and Marjorie.

The family moved into the East Wing following renovations which included seventeen new modern bedrooms for the servants. Extensive work was also carried out in the Rotunda to create an impressively lavish setting for entertainment. A thoroughly modern woman, Theodora also installed electricity, new heating systems and an up to date kitchen in the basement of the East Wing.

Theodora is remembered for her love of history of the Hervey family. She preserved and conserved the collection, tracking lost artefacts, restoring objects and compiling scrapbooks to record the details. Her last action was offering Ickworth and its estate to the National Trust in 1956 so they could continue her legacy of conserving Ickworth for future generations.

Clare Priory and Ancient House Museum in Clare

Elizabeth de Clare courtesy of John Faber Sr. after unknown artist [Public domain]. Photo of Clare Castle by Rebecca Bacon

East Anglia’s wealthiest and most powerful woman of all time, Elizabeth de Clare, Lady of Clare, founded Clare College, the second oldest college in Cambridge, and assembled possibly the most massive collections of estate and domestic accounts to survive in our national archive. 

Elizabeth, cousin of Edward II, was widowed three times by the age of 26, helped overthrow a king, and pledged to defend Suffolk against French invasion.

Her great wealth came mainly from Suffolk lands known as the ‘Honour of Clare’ that the king confirmed were hers in November 1317. It included Clare castle and manor and Clare borough.

The Lady of Clare “appears to have been a woman of singular enlightenment in a dark age, the statutes she gave to the college illustrating the liberal views she entertained of the proper scope and value of education,” wrote historian J R Wardale in 1899.

Elizabeth's story can be found at Ancient House Museum in Clare and you can see the remains of the 13th Century stone Clare castle today. Her mother, Joan of Acre, a daughter of King Edward I, is buried at Clare Priory.

‘Ladies of the Town’ Tour for Mother's Day

A 90 minute special guided tour of Bury St Edmunds called Ladies of the Town will take place on Mother's Day (March 31).

Let the Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides take you on an informative and entertaining voyage of discovery highlighting Bury St Edmunds women of local and national fame, spanning Politics, Religion and the Arts. 

The Tour starts 10:30am from the War Memorial on Angel Hill. Tickets priced at £6 (children under 16, accompanied by an adult free) can be booked online at burystedmundstourguides.org or pay on the day  (subject to space availability).


Our grateful thanks to Catherine Buchanan for her help with research for this blog.