A letter from Master McCloud

7th November 2019
A letter from Master McCloud

Dear All

As a child I was (like my mother, who I think was rather better and ran for her county) a half decent short distance sprinter, at least within the limited confines of my peer group. My peer group might as well at the time have been all there was in the universe, for all I knew of life outside the rather oppressive small 70’s private school which tried to confine me. To be sure, there was not much else that I was notably good at, but at least I learned that in a race whether you are ahead or behind, it is wise to keep going and not slow up for the tape at the end. I suspect that such limited success as I had later in life fluking my way to winning the odd case as a barrister may well have been more about grinding down my opponents, not giving up but doggedly carrying on annoyingly to the end, than due to any great forensic brilliance. I gather the Komodo Dragon does much the same: bite the prey and then follow it for miles, sometimes nipping at its heels, until it expires and becomes the next meal. An idea for a courtroom brooch there, perhaps, but I have limited space to digress. I expect colleagues in the judiciary might recognise my persistent if unattractive ‘style’ in that regard today when it comes to occasional controversies of principle.

One of my familial ancestors was Sarah Jane Rees, born in 1839, better known by her Bardic name as ‘Cranogwen’. She won the Bardic crown for her poetry in the 1865 National Eisteddfod in Wales, and in doing so was the first woman to be honoured in that way. As an old lady she was known to my late grandmother and great grandparents, and hence through my mother I have inherited the oral history. She is not as well known in England as she is in Wales, which is a shame. She certainly was not a woman to give up.

Her parents wanted her to be a dressmaker but she insisted – this being in the mid Victorian era, I note – on not only going to sea with her father and being a sailor on cargo ships, but in studying and qualifying to be a Master Mariner. That was practically unthinkable for a woman at the time, and it entitled her to command a ship anywhere in the world. She then ran a navigation school of her own in the village and created a generation of sea captains referred to fondly as ‘Cranogwen’s captains’. She travelled to America and was a popular speaker at temperance movement meetings among local Welsh communities over there. She founded a proto-suffragette journal in Welsh and promoted the idea of proper education for girls. She strove to create a refuge for young homeless women in Wales which was created soon after her death. There is a lovely illustrated Welsh children’s large print book which shows her on the prow of a ship, hair flowing in the spray and wind at sea.

She died in 1916 and so did not quite live to see the passage of The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 but would have died knowing that times were changing and that if women carried on the struggle, things would soon change. I am doubly proud because she was also part of the LGBTQ community as we now understand it, like myself. In the coded language of yesterday she had same sex ‘romantic friendships’, in the form of two long term women partners (the first died prematurely but in her arms, and is commemorated in one of her poems). I would love to have met her and wonder what she would have made of me as someone who came out in my twenties as a woman with all that entailed, having had the interesting privilege of viewing and being in the world until then with those around me believing me to be male whilst – as the lawyers say – ‘at all material times’ actually knowing I was an agent under cover, going along with it to avoid causing the adults on whom I depended any confusion, and me any trouble.

In the end this letter is written for the centenary celebration of The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. That Act embodied a true triumph of campaigning by both women and decent supportive men, for more equal rights for women to participate in public and professional life. Reading the Hansard of the debates on that Act brings home how it truly was an example of an achievement born of the effort of both women and like minded decent men, to keep going, to press for what was right, and not to give up. The world had been upended by the mechanised human tragedy of the trenches yet from that soil the rights of women grew. Those women kept going, nobody stopped them.

So, with this Master of the Queens Bench Division saluting Cranogwen the Master Mariner and all women like her who brought us to where we are now, very best wishes to you all for the future.

Victoria

This letter was written as part of the premiere event for Victoria’s First 100 Years film. You can watch the film here.

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