Secret Ipswich: Three Remarkable Women by Susan Gardiner
Writing a book with the title Secret Ipswich meant that I had to avoid the inclusion of too many famous people from the town so that I could concentrate on the more obscure people and places that are also part of its history. Ipswich's connections with Thomas Wolsey, Lord Nelson and two England football managers, Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, are very well known, for example. Similarly, the Cobbold family, brewers, employers, local politicians and members of Parliament, are all too familiar as figures of local history to be included in a book about Ipswich's hidden history.
There are a few figures in the history of the Cobbold family, however, who are not as widely known as they should be. They were all women who married into the Cobbold family, and they were all in their own way remarkable. The first, Elizabeth Knipe Cobbold (1767-1824) has become better known in recent years but is still not widely appreciated. Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867-1963) was a traveller, who was the first British-born woman to convert to Islam and Lady Blanche Cobbold (1898-1987) was the first woman president of a league football club.
I have been a little unfair to Elizabeth Cobbold in Secret Ipswich, comparing her to the fictional Mrs. Leo Hunter in Dickens' Pickwick Papers. Although Charles Dickens could not have known Elizabeth, I'm convinced that this hilarious character was, at least in part, based on her. Elizabeth was a polymath, and genuinely talented but was perhaps not the greatest poet of her age and Mrs. Leo Hunter's execrable Ode to an Expiring Frog, as well as her role as a political wife, holding fête champetres in the extensive grounds of her mansion are all too reminiscent of Cobbold. There was a great deal more to Elizabeth Cobbold than this, however. John Cobbold was her second husband, her first having died only six months after they had married. Cobbold was also widowed with 14 children from his first marriage. Elizabeth bore him seven more. Despite all her other duties, she found time to write novels and poetry, and whatever their quality, they were well regarded in her time. She was also a knowledgeable natural historian and a species of shellfish, Acila Cobboldiae, was named after her.
In fact, Elizabeth's name keeps cropping up in my book, despite my wish to exclude better known Ipswich residents, because as well as producing her own literary works, she was a patron of the arts and attempted to help several writers, particularly those from labouring-class backgrounds. In 1803, she edited and assisted in the publication of poems by Ann Candler, who lived in the Tattingstone workhouse, enabling her to end her days in her own home with some dignity. Cobbold also encouraged Mary Ann Goward, the daughter of a brazier and maker of tin goods in Ipswich, to go on to the stage. Goward, who married fellow actor, Robert Keeley, went on to be one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century theatrical life.
Lady Evelyn Cobbold was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, and in many ways led the traditional life of a Scottish aristocrat, with the notable exception that she followed the Islamic faith from an early age. She was born in Edinburgh but spent much of her childhood in Egypt, where she began a lifelong passion for the Arabic language and the Islamic faith. She married John Dupuis Cobbold in Cairo in 1891, but found it difficult to settle at his home in Holywells Park, Ipswich and they formally separated in 1922. A wealthy woman in her own right, she continued to live in Scotland, where her interests included stag hunting, but also travelled in the Middle East. Her adoption of Islam and, no doubt, the fact that she was a woman, gave her access to many things that other travellers were denied, and she was able to write about the hidden lives of women in Islamic culture with first-hand knowledge. She was the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, and published a book about this experience, Pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1934. An intrepid individual she was canoeing - and apparently coming to the rescue of other canoeists - in her eighties.
Lady Evelyn Murray Zainab Cobbold died in 1963 and was buried on her estate at Glencarron in Wester Ross. At her funeral, a piper played MacCrimmon's Lament and verses from the Qu'ran were recited by the Imam of Woking mosque.
A third formidable woman to marry into the Cobbold family was Lady Blanche Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and sister-in-law to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She married John Cobbold, of the brewing family, who was known as Captain Ivan Cobbold. His great achievement, as far as many Ipswich people are concerned was to be a driving force behind the success of Ipswich Town Football Club in the late 1930s, enabling the club to become professional and join the football league. He was killed in an air raid in 1944 but had passed his enthusiasm for football on to Lady Blanche who became honorary president of the club in 1964. Her enthusiasm saw her fly to the away leg of the UEFA Cup Final against AZ Alkmaar at the Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, in 1981, where she reportedly stood on the terraces to watch her team win the trophy.
There are two particularly well known stories about Lady Blanche Cobbold. One is that when she met Adolf Hitler in the 1930s - probably through her relations by marriage the notorious, Nazi-supporting Mitford sisters - she was distinctly unimpressed. Much later, at the 1978 FA Cup final, when Ipswich beat Arsenal, she turned down the offer of meeting Margaret Thatcher saying "Good God, I'd much rather have another gin and tonic." This was no rebuttal of Thatcher's politics, however, but - as with Hitler - a manifestation of the snobbery of her aristocratic background directed towards a grocer's daughter.
It could be argued that Thatcher was thoroughly revenged on the Cobbolds though. It was her government that brought through legislation to end breweries' monopolies on tied public houses, of which the Tolly Cobbold brewery had many, thus arguably starting the decline that ended with the sale of the firm and its eventual closure.
Susan Gardiner's new book Secret Ipswich is available for purchase now.