Circle of Six: biographies

Find out more about each of the 6 women:

Eileen Tirzah Garwood (11 April 1908 to 27 March 1951): Artist

Eileen Garwood was born on 11 April 1908 at Kingswood Villas, Gillingham. The third of 5 children, her grandmother wrote enquiring after ‘Little Tertia’ (meaning the third in Latin) and after this her siblings gave her the biblical name Tirzah.

Tirzah’s father, Frederick Scott Garwood, was an officer in the Royal Engineers. This meant that from a young age the family moved with him to various postings that finally took them to Eastbourne.

In 1925, Tirzah enrolled in the Eastbourne School of Art, where she met Eric Ravilious, who taught wood engraving and became her tutor.

Tirzah excelled at this and in 1926 she started to produce wood engravings that gained recognition for the high quality and interesting subject matter. Compared to traditional wood engravings, Tirzah’s works showed people, animals and domestic scenes that captured moments in everyday life. They were often in an unconventional, humorous manner.

Tirzah Garwood's first wood engraving, Spring (1926), was exhibited at London's Redfern Gallery in 1927. The following year, 3 of her engravings were shown at the annual exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers and were highly praised by The Times newspaper.

Several commissions by the BBC followed, including the illustration of composer Neville Bantock’s oratorio opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Tirzah designed book covers and other illustrative work, and by the late 1920s was one of the most esteemed wood engraving artists of her day.

In July 1930, Tirzah married Eric Ravilious, who was by then a famous artist, and they had 3 children.

The couple began to collaborate, producing a notable mural for the Midland hotel in Morecambe. Tirzah mastered the craft of making hand-marbled papers, and she excelled at this.

After Eric Ravilious’ unexpected death in 1942, Tirzah started to create collages, models of houses and painting in oils. She remarried in 1947 but sadly died of cancer on 27 March 1951 at Copford Place, a nursing home near Colchester.

Verena Winifred Holmes (23 June 1889 to 20 February 1964): Inventor and engineer

Verena Winifred Holmes was born in Ashford in 1889. She was one of the 2 founders of the local Gillingham engineering firm, Holmes and Leather.

Verena's career path led her from attending Oxford High School for Girls, to working at the Integral Propeller Company in Hendon when World War 1 broke out. During World War 1, women were employed to work in positions men had held until then. Inspired by this experience, she started to attend night classes at Shoreditch Technical Institute.

She moved on to the engine manufacturer Ruston and Hornsby in Lincoln, where she completed an apprenticeship.

In 1919, Verena started to work in the Ruston and Hornsby drawing office. The firm continued to employ Verena after the war, and she studied in the evenings, graduating in 1922 from Loughborough Engineering College with a Batchelor of Science (BSc) degree in engineering.

A talented engineer, Verena Holmes worked on marine and locomotive engines, as well as diesel and internal combustion engines. She was a brilliant inventor, holding at least 12 patents for inventions ranging from medical devices to various engine parts and rotary valves for internal combustion engines.

Verena was a strong advocate for the movement of women in engineering and helped to establish the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919, becoming the society’s president in 1930 and 1931.

In 1925 she was a delegate at the first International Conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce.

Verena Holmes was the first woman to become an Associate Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, finally becoming a full member some 20 years later in 1944.

Verena created the Women's Technical Service Register, where women could enrol to train for positions including junior draughtsman and laboratory assistant.

During World War 2, Verena Holmes worked on naval weaponry and became an adviser on the training of munition workers to the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin. She held the post of headquarters technical officer with the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1944.

It was after the war in 1946 when Verena Holmes, together with Sheila Leather, a fellow Women’s Engineering Society member, founded the engineering firm of Holmes and Leather based at Beresford Road, Gillingham. The firm employed ‘women only’, demonstrating that women can succeed in engineering. They developed the first safety guillotine for paper, also suitable for schools.

In 1964 Verena Winifred Holmes passed away aged 75 in a nursing home in Sussex.

Her many outstanding achievements have been recognised with the new £65 million STEM building named after her in her honour at Canterbury’s Christ Church University, which opened on 8 March 2021.

Dr Lorna Wing (7 October 1928 to 6 June 2014): Pioneering psychiatrist

Lorna Wing was born on 7 October 1928 at the Royal Naval Maternity Nursing Home in Gillingham, Kent, where her parents lived in Harold Avenue.

Lorna attended Chatham Grammar School, then went on to study medicine at University College Hospital, London, specialising in general psychiatry. It was there that she met her future husband, John Kenneth Wing.

In 1956, Lorna gave birth to their first child Susan, who would shape her parent’s work over the following decades as she was diagnosed with autism from the age of 3.

In 1962, Lorna Wing helped to establish the Society for Autistic Children, the first parent-led organisation for autistic children, which later went on to become the National Autistic Society.

Lorna worked to develop educational programmes that specifically catered for autistic children.

She also persistently lobbied the departments for Health and Education, arguing that new approaches to autism were needed and that new curriculum should be provided for children previously considered ‘ineducable’. Due to these campaigns, in 1970 the government recognised autism as a condition that required special educational support.

In 1981, she coined the term Asperger's syndrome (after Hans Asperger, an Austrian doctor who first recorded autistic tendencies in children with high IQs), which is a sub-group of autism without learning disability.

In 1991, Lorna Wing established the Centre for Social and Communication Disorders in Bromley under the umbrella of the National Autistic Society.

Dr. Lorna Wing was appointed an OBE in 1994. She died on 6 June 2014 in Bessel’s Green.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843 to 1880): African Princess and Goddaughter to Queen Victoria

Originally named Aina, Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born a Yoruba Princess in Nigeria in 1843.

When she was 5 years old, her parents were killed during a raid on her village, and Aina was captured and given to King Ghezo of Dahomey (now Benin).

Captain Frederick Forbes of the Royal British Navy met Aina whilst visiting King Ghezo during an anti-slavery mission across West Africa and was impressed by her.

The story that followed has 2 versions. The first says that the King included Aina in the gifts that were usually exchanged at such visits. The second says that Captain Forbes, concerned about Aina’s future, persuaded King Ghezo to allow her to come with him to England to present her to Queen Victoria.

Aina left Africa with Captain Forbes, who had her baptised Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after his own name and that of his ship.

They then travelled to England, where Sarah was presented to the Queen. Queen Victoria was so taken by her charm, vitality, and keen intellect that she gave Sarah an allowance.

Sarah initially lived with Captain Forbes’ family and, as he noted, she "very quickly spoke fluent English and showed a great talent for music".

Sarah’s health deteriorated in the English climate as she was suffering from coughs, and so she was sent to the Church Missionary Society School in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1851. The aim was for her to become a missionary.

During her time in Freetown, Queen Victoria sent her presents and books. Sarah was not happy in Freetown, and after 4 years she returned to England to live with the family of Jacob Schön at Palm Cottage, Gillingham.

Their daughter Annie, who taught Sarah French and English, said that Sarah loved studying. She also said that Sarah regularly visited the Queen at Osborne House or Windsor.

After 6 happy years with the Schön family in Gillingham, Sarah moved very unwillingly to Brighton, where the Queen had arranged for her to be introduced to 'Society' by Miss Welsh. Sarah had become a celebrity in England, and newspapers regularly reported about her achievements.

When Sarah was 19, James Davies, a young and wealthy businessman asked for her hand in marriage. Initially reluctant, Sarah wrote a letter to Mrs Schön in Gillingham saying "I know that the generality of people would say he is rich and you're marrying him would at once make you independent, and I say ‘Am I to barter my peace of mind for money? No – never!".

However, the Queen approved of the match and arranged a lavish wedding surrounded by much public interest.

In 1863, Sarah gave birth to a daughter who she called Victoria, with the blessing of the Queen who became the child’s godmother. 2 more children followed, but Sarah’s health began to decline due to tuberculosis.

Hoping to recuperate in a warmer climate, she went to Madeira but died at 38 years old. She was buried on the island.

Dame Kathleen D'Olier Courtney (1878 to 1974): Suffragist and peace campaigner

Born on 11 March 1878 at 1 York Terrace, Gillingham, Kent, Kathleen was the youngest of 5 daughters and fifth of 7 children.

She attended an Anglo-French school in London as well as boarding schools in Malvern and Dresden before studying at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Due to her background Kathleen had the opportunity to devote her life to social causes and world peace.

After a short period of volunteering at the Lambeth Constitutional Girls' Club, she became involved in the non-militant suffrage movement. A constitutionalist, she believed in education, argument, and reason.

After some time in Manchester from 1908 to 1911 as secretary of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage, she moved to London and was honorary secretary (1911 to 1915) of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett. After the onset of World War 1, she found herself in conflict with the war effort of the NUWSS and resigned.

Kathleen devoted herself to the British Women's Peace Crusade, launched in 1916, and was honorary secretary in the 1920s and chair in the 1930s.

She was one of the founders of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and for 10 years chair of the British section.

Kathleen had not forgotten the importance of extending the vote and became an active officer of the National Council for Adult Suffrage in 1917. She lobbied Members of Parliament for extension of the franchise until the act was passed in 1918.

She was vice-president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (as the NUWSS was renamed in 1919) and became involved in the work of the family endowment committee. With Eleanor Rathbone, she introduced the idea of family allowances.

In 1945, Kathleen Courtney became deputy chair of the United Nations Association, a voluntary non-governmental organisation formed to support and publicise the UN charter ideals by educating and campaigning. Kathleen was an active member of UNA well into her 90s, still traveling to Canada and USA in her 80s.

She was awarded a CBE in 1947 and the UN peace medal in 1972.

In 1968, she made a noted speech in Westminster at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the granting of votes to women.

Dame Kathleen D’Olier Courtney died on 7 December 1974. A memorial service to honour this tireless peace campaigner, suffragette and social justice activist was held on 11 April 1975 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

Rosemary Desmond Boswell Tonks (17 October 1928 to 15 April 2014): Poet and novelist

Rosemary Tonks was born at Larkfield Maternity Home on Junction Road, Gillingham.

Her career as a published writer began in 1948 with the children’s book On Wooden Wings: The Adventures of Webster, which she also illustrated.

Tonks’s poetry began to appear in magazines in the 1950s.

Her first collection, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms, was published in 1963 and established her as a distinctive contemporary poet.

Tonks’s first 2 novels, Opium Fogs and Emir, were also published in 1963, and further novels in the same satirical approach followed, all inspired by her own life. These included The Bloater (1968), which drew on her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on the experimental poetry programme Sono-Montage, broadcast in 1966, Business Men as Lovers (1969), The Way out of Berkeley Square (1970) and The Halt during the Chase (1972).

Her second and final collection of poetry, Iliad of Broken Sentences, was published in 1967.

In 1968, the sudden death of Tonks’s mother flung her into a spiritual crisis, and she explored Sufism, spiritualism and Taoist meditation before returning to Christianity.

In 1979, having divorced her husband and partially lost her eyesight, she sought to all but obliterate her past, burning an unpublished novel along with printed copies of her published work.

She died of ovarian cancer in Bournemouth on 15 April 2014.

Interest in Tonks’s poetry was revived in 2014 with the posthumous publication of Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems and Selected Prose by Bloodaxe Books.

Her novel The Bloater, was the subject of an episode of Backlisted podcast in 2021. The book is to be reissued in the UK in 2022 by Vintage Books and in North America by New Directions and is set to be translated across the globe.