When Sarah Forest moved into a two-up two-down Victorian terrace next to what was once the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, she was intrigued to uncover the history it held inside of its walls.
But rather than housing asylum guards or attendants, as the 31-year-old had expected, the property had once been home to a remarkable academic and educator, whose work not only contributed to the understanding of complex physics but also transformed a college that was among one of the first places in Britain where women could access higher education.
“She is somebody who came from a Victorian two-bed terrace and through her talent, gift, grit and determination, went on to achieve remarkable things in science and education,” says Sarah.
She has taken the lead on researching Dame Elsie Marjorie Williamson for the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project, a group bringing to light the stories of pioneering and influential women from the area’s past, and fighting to the make the city one of blue plaque parity.
Dame Marjorie moved with her parents to what is now Sarah’s home on Belgrave Terrace in Wakefield shortly after her birth in Burton-Upon-Trent in 1913. An only child from a modest background, she spent her formative years at Wakefield Girls High School on a scholarship scheme, before attending Royal Holloway College for women.
After graduating with degrees in maths and physics in 1936, she taught at the establishment for several years before joining to the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth as a lecturer during the Second World War.
In 1945, she joined Bedford College to teach physics, where she also undertook PhD research in the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and electromagnetic theory.
From 1955 to 1962, she was principal of St Mary’s College in Durham, before being appointed to the same role at Royal Holloway, though she continued teaching too. During her time at the latter, she embarked on a transformational process, including expanding the site with new buildings and academic departments and the admission of men for the first time.
On her retirement in 1973, Dame Marjorie, who died in 2002, was made DBE in recognition of her work.
“She would have been a bit of an outlier,” Sarah says. “It was rare for women to go to university at the time unless they were going to be teachers or nurses, let alone to study physics.
“She was imposing and yet approachable, someone who was really admired and respected. She was a leader in science, someone who was quite remarkable and someone that also inspired others.”
Later this month, as part of Wakefield’s Festival of the Moon, a 14-day programme of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 lunar landing, the Forgotten Women project, alongside Wakefield Civic Society, will unveil a blue plaque for Dame Marjorie, whose academic papers supported work around space travel.
The Forgotten Women scheme will also honour her achievements by bringing her story to life in a series of performances of a piece entitled Professor Quantum.
“Dame Marjorie is truly a forgotten woman in Wakefield,” says Sarah. “She is somebody that led a remarkable life, who came from Wakefield and had her early education years here.
“That led her to go on to become a remarkable academic both in science and as a leader to modernise education - and she was doing that a time when it wasn’t easy for a woman, particularly one from such a modest background.”
Wakefield College students will perform Professor Quantum, starring Lucy Trantor (inset) as Marjorie Williamson, at 4pm, 6pm and 8pm on August 28, when the blue plaque will be unveiled. The Festival of the Moon runs from August 23 to September 8.