City celebrates a true female inspiration

Councillors, visitors and staff outside Motive8 building, Portsea, Portsmouth where the plaque was unveiled in tribute to Hertha Ayrton. Picture: Habibur Rahman

SHE is regarded as one of the foremost female scientists in history, helping to make key advances in electronics.

And now Portsmouth has revealed its latest tribute to scientist Hertha Ayrton, who was born in Landport.

A painting of Hertha Ayrton, the scientist and inventor, by Mme Darmesteter (Phoebe Sarah)

A blue plaque was yesterday unveiled at the Motiv8 building in Queen Street to honour Hertha’s work, which including battling for women’s rights in the suffragette movement more than a century ago.

There was also a celebratory ceremony at Hertha Ayrton Way in The Hard to highlight women’s achievement, with speeches from Portsmouth City Council boss, Councillor Donna Jones, Professor June Purvis, of University of Portsmouth and Jane Prescott, headteacher at Portsmouth High School, plus a performance by Portsmouth High Junior School Chamber Choir.

The commemoration comes as The News launches its own effort to find modern-day women with the suffragette spirit during the centenary year of women gaining the right to vote.

Cllr Donna Jones said: ‘It’s important to celebrate the lives and achievements of women frorm and in the city and reflect on what women have achieved since they were given the right to vote just 100 years ago.

‘There is still much more to be done to achieve full equality but the Suffrage movement showed that progress and change is possible.’

Hertha Ayrton was a pioneering physicist and promoter of women’s rights.

She was born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Queen Street, Portsea, on April 28, 1854 and was the third child of a Polish Jewish watchmaker named Levi Marks, an immigrant from Tsarist Poland, and Alice Teresa Moss, a seamstress.

Her father died in 1861, leaving Sarah’s mother with seven children and an eighth expected.

At the age of nine she went to live with an aunt in London and was educated with her cousins and adopted the name Hertha in her teens.

She attended Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied mathematics.

While at the institution Hertha constructed a sphygmomanometer to measure blood pressure, led the choral society, founded the Girton fire brigade and, together with Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematical club.

In 1880, she passed the Mathematical Tripos, but Cambridge did not grant her an academic degree because, at the time, the college only gave certificates and did not grant full degrees to women.

She passed an external examination at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree in 1881.

After graduating Ayrton earned money from teaching and embroidery, ran a club for working girls and cared for her invalid sister.

From 1884 until her death, Ayrton was a prolific inventor and registered 26 patents: five on mathematical dividers, 13 on arc lamps and electrodes, and the rest on the propulsion of air.

One included an anti-gas fan which proved crucial in pushing out poisonous mustard gas used during in the trenches during the First World War.

In 1885 Hertha married William Edward Ayrton, a physicist and electrical engineer who supported her work.

She made a significant discovery in the development of electric arc lighting used for public lighting by stopping the flickering in 1895.

Following this, she became the first woman ever to apear before the Institution of Electrical Engineers and was elected the first female member of the institution soon after.

As well as her scientific credentials, Hertha was a noted supporter of women’s rights and of the suffragettes in particular.

Her most significant role came during the operation of the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act of 1913, under which suffragette prisoners on hunger strike were released, only to be incarcerated again when they had sufficiently recovered.

Former MP for Portsmouth South, Flick Drummond, said: ‘She was an outspoken suffragette and was frequently present at women’s rallies.

‘There is an English Heritage blue plaque for her at her house in Norfolk Square, Paddington.

‘We are delighted now that we have a blue plaque in Portsea which we hope will inspire future generations of scientists in this centenary of women’s suffrage.’

As previously reported, The News has teamed up with Amnesty International in a bid to celebrate leading female figures across the community as part of the Suffragette Spirit campaign.

Together, readers are being urged to nominate the incredible women who are working to make a real difference in their community today.

To nominate a woman, visit amnesty.org.uk/suffragettespirit. All women must have carried out work to help others in their local area within the last 10 years.

All successful nominees will be contacted to give consent prior to being placed on the Suffragette Spirit Map of Britain.

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