Sydney Mary Bushell made significant contributions to the field of housing in the 1920s, particularly women’s housing, with the Garden City and Town Planning Association and Women’s Pioneer Housing. Born in Greenwich and raised in Liverpool and Formby, Sydney attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls. After working as a welder in the First World War, Sydney enrolled as a student at LSE in 1918 where she became interested in housing. Sydney’s second connection with LSE was her aunt Christian Scipio MacTaggart, School Secretary 1896-1919, and later Dean. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain if those two connections are related, writes Lynne Dixon.

Sydney – perhaps an unexpected name for a female – was in all probability named after the place where her parents were married. In 1879 Menie MacTaggart married Edward Hunter Bushell in Sydney. He was a naval engineer who had travelled there as a crew member on the same boat in November 1877 as had Menie, a passenger who had family members in Australia. Knowing each other beforehand seems a likelier explanation than meeting on the boat but either explanation is an interesting one.

Sydney was born at the beginning of the following year when her parents were living in Greenwich, where her father might have been working at the Naval College. After a period in Liverpool where a second child – a son – was born the family settled in Formby, Lancashire where we might assume Sydney had her early education. But one or both of her parents must have believed in education for women and she was sent, on the recommendation of a fellow Formby resident, to the North London Collegiate School for Girls in 1894. She would have been there during the last year of the well-known founder and head teacher, Miss Buss.

School group featuring Sydney Bushell. Credit: North London Collegiate School

School group of boarders at Montague House, featuring Sydney Bushell far left, second row. Credit: North London Collegiate School for Girls

There are no clues from the school records as to what her interests and achievements were although from a school magazine we learn that she once played the piano at the Literary Society – a skill that could have come from her mother who had attended a music school in her youth. After leaving school, she returned home to live with her father and in the 1901 census is recorded as a teacher of gymnastics. Ten years later, still with her father in Formby, she is shown without an occupation.

The outbreak of the First World War must have provided some stimulus for a change because records show she spent at least part of the war years as a viewer and then an acetylene welder in aeroplane factories. A small but significant number of women became welders during the war. They were trained either at specially established schools (the first was founded by Miss EC Woodward in Notting Hill Gate) or in the factories themselves. The fight for the training and equal payment of these women were being supported by the work of the Society of Women Welders set up in 1916 with Ray Strachey as its adviser.

Something in this period – either the experiences themselves or an opportunity to meet her aunt, Secretary and then Dean of LSE – must have influenced Sydney in her next move – to enrol at LSE in 1918 to study for a social science certificate and then a diploma in Sociology. In one or more of her courses she gained experience in the Octavia Hill system of property management, a distinctive approach to managing privately let property which had grown out of Octavia’s commitment to the welfare of working people.

Close up of Sydney Mary Bushell

Close up of Sydney Mary Bushell. Credit: North London Collegiate School for Girls

It was perhaps through these experiences that Sydney became interested in housing. At the point when she was turning 40, Sydney began to make significant contributions in the field of housing showing initially at least an interest in women’s issues. The two organisations she became involved with were, initially, the Garden City and Town Planning Association (GCTPA), which had a women’s section at this time, and then in 1921 Women’s Pioneer Housing (WPH). LSE might have provided her with a connection with the first of these organisations because a member of the GCTPA committee, Captain Richard Reiss, gave lectures at LSE. Christian Scipio MacTaggart who by that time had retired as Dean of LSE, too was involved with the GCTPA as a member of one of its sub committees in 1921-2.

The WPH was set up in 1920 to provide housing for single women, many of whom were working in professions and occupations relatively newly open to them because of social changes during the First World War. At least some of the women involved in setting up and running it had connections with the movement for women’s suffrage but we cannot tell if this is true of Sydney.

Sydney’s role on committees for both of these organisations shows she was a strong minded and independent thinker, proposing and seconding some quite controversial motions. She showed her belief in the Garden City movement by moving to Welwyn Garden City with her father when it was first established in the early 1920s. One particular interest in housing seems to have been that of labour saving devices and not only did she publish articles and leaflets on this and other subjects, she also spoke across the country and on that relatively new device, the radio.

Sydney’s work was probably all on a voluntary basis and she seems never to have been in paid employment. There may have been a small income from her talks and publications. Perhaps her father helped to support her and he left her a substantial sum when he died in 1931. She was able to travel and a couple of journeys are recorded on the internet – to Buenos Aires in 1928 and to New York in 1932. There may have been other under recorded travels.

Sydney died on 16 June 1959 in Welwyn Garden City aged 79.

Contributed by Lynne Dixon, a volunteer on the U3A preliminary pilot study with Women’s Pioneer Housing, helping to research their origins and early days as they approach their centenary in 2020.

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LSE’s “Deputy director, hostess, accountant, and lady of all work” – Christian Scipio Mactaggart, 1861-1943

Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE

Visit the North London Collegiate School Archive

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