Florence Hobson, Ireland’s First Female Architect

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By M.J. Neary, author of Martyrs and Traitors

“Those who want a mask have to wear it,” Florence Fulton Hobson declares in an unsigned article in the December 23, 1911 edition of The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper. She counsels young women to do thorough soul-searching before embarking on any professional pursuit. “Only those should adopt architecture as a profession who feel that through the medium they can express their artistic ideas.”

Self-knowledge and self-realization were Florence Hobson’s life-long guiding principles. Her pioneering artistic achievements were the product of an energetic nature and a candid, uninhibited disposition that stopped short of being rebellious. She did not engage in any sort of conscious activism. Challenging conventions and breaking boundaries were not her primary goals. One could argue that as a child, Florence was not even fully aware that these boundaries existed. Born into a middle-class Quaker circle in Belfast, an oasis of prosperity, sobriety and progressive thought, she did not brush with destitution, addiction or gender discrimination. Her mother, Mary Ann, a radical Yorkshire-born feminist and freelance archeologist, raised her with the idea that there was nothing a bright, disciplined young lady could not accomplish. Together, they would go on explorative expeditions, measure underground caves in Ulster and later present their findings at various lectures and publish them in archeology journals. In her circle, educated ladies were encouraged to engage in scientific and explorative work.

Artistic and imaginative, Florence had her heart set on pursuing architecture as a profession, inspired by her maternal grandfather, John Bulmer. Even though there were no official laws banning women from this particular field, there was deep-rooted general prejudice against them. No female architects were articled in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century, though there were the two Charles sisters in England belonging to the Royal Institute of British Architects. Florence did not realize what exactly she was up against until her trip to London, where her ambitions were met with a condescending remark: “If you were a little less good-looking, you’d have a better chance.” Finding someone who would be willing to take a woman as an apprentice proved to be the biggest challenge. Florence reflects on her experience in a 1911 edition of “The Queen,” listing various reasons employers had cited for not hiring a woman or taking her on as a pupil, “The fear that it might be rather disturbing to have a lady in the office, and there are those who imagine that the young men might become distraught, and that from the hour of her entrance concentrated work would cease.” Another popular excuse for not taking a female apprentice was that “offices are small and that there would not be room for a lady” given her full skirts and wide sleeves.

Eventually, she was accepted by James Phillips, a leading designer of Methodist churches. After completing her apprenticeship, she moved to London and worked with Edward Guy Dawber and James Glen Sivewright Gibson. The experiences proved to be frustrating and unfulfilling to her, as her mentors focused on huge commercial buildings, and her personal interest lay in small residential homes. In addition to her main job at the Royal Commission on the City of Belfast’s Health and Housing, she had a handful of private clients, mostly women of leisure. Being a feminist’s daughter, Florence was rather ambivalent on the topic of gender roles. The thought of women staying at home did not make her seethe with indignation. Her goal was to give middle-class housewives comfortable, esthetically pleasing homes where they could raise their families. “Homes designed for women by women,” became her slogan.

As for her own domestic life, it revolved around her liberal and supportive parents who never pressured her into marriage. The fact that her mother, Mary Ann, produced three children in the first four years of her marriage and none afterwards lends itself to certain speculations regarding this woman’s procreative endeavors. She was twenty-eight at the time her youngest son was born. In light of Mary Ann’s radical feminist views and her various interests outside the home, it would not be outlandish to suggest that she resorted to contraceptive methods. Limiting the size of her family would give her an opportunity to spend more time with each child. In her letters to Roger Sawyer, Roger Casement’s biographer, Florence reflects on her idyllic childhood that had lingered well into her late forties, until her father’s death. A noted beauty, with golden-brown hair and big blue eyes, she had access to many successful bachelors in the British Isles and on the continent where her work frequently took her, yet she remained single until her late sixties. A year after her mother’s death, she married William Forbes Patterson, an English writer. In spite of being twelve years younger, Patterson was worldlier and more experienced, his first marriage having ended in a divorce. The couple alternated between County Down and London. To have lived in the Irish Republic dominated by the Roman Catholic ethos would have proven problematic, given the unorthodox nuances of their relationship.

For a long time, Republican Ireland hesitated to admit Florence Hobson into its pantheon of great Irishwomen. This exclusion was due in part to her Ulster domicile, her predominantly English association reflected in her surname and her seemingly insufficient sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause. Florence became identified with the isolated province of Ulster that was regarded as a separate universe as opposed to Ireland as a whole. Northern Protestants of English stock were not viewed as truly Irish. In her youth Florence was a frequent guest at Ardigh, Francis Joseph Bigger’s house that served as a miniature university of Gaelic revival, but she never joined the Gaelic League or any other nationalist organizations that admitted women. Her businessman father, Benjamin Hobson Jr., was a Gladstonian Home-Ruler, and seeing Ireland totally free from England was not exactly her most sacred dream. If anything, the pacifist in her must have been deeply disturbed by the bloodshed in Dublin on Easter 1916, the event that ended the political career of her younger brother Bulmer, a prominent Fenian whose aspirations to public life fizzled after his attempt to stop the Rising. As a dutiful Quaker she viewed freedom as something that could be achieved on a spiritual and intellectual level, independent of one’s political circumstances. Florence supported nationalism as long as it remained a benign cultural movement. She did not believe in shedding blood for one’s country – or for anything else for that matter.

It is very easy to deify flamboyant figures like Maud Gonne and Constance Markiewicz, who had kicked their aristocratic roots aside for the sake of the Irish cause and fed orphans from their own hands. Helena Molony, an Abbey actress and trade unionist with whom Bulmer was involved romantically, was arrested in 1911 for throwing rocks at royal portrait and tried to dig her way out of prison in 1916 with a spoon. Molony is another whose melodramatic activism contrasts starkly with Florence’s disposition. In conversation with her family members, Florence tended to downplay the seriousness of the love affair between Bulmer and Molony or avoid the subject in general. She was, undoubtedly, relieved that the relationship did not lead to marriage. A psychologically unbalanced alcoholic prone to self-destructive belligerence would not fit very well into a polite, upstanding Quaker family. Bulmer eventually married Mary Clare Gregan, a flighty bohemian secretary from Carlow whom he had met through his involvement with the Irish Volunteers. Even though the marriage was dysfunctional and ended in a separation, Florence regarded Gregan as the lesser of two evils and positioned her as her brother’s one great love. While Florence may not have been thrilled about Bulmer’s choice of companions or his willingness to put his life in danger, she did not openly condemn his political activities. After all, following one’s own conscience was a key Quaker principle. It just happened that her brother’s conscience led him to advanced nationalism. She later recognized his commitment to the nationalist cause, likening him to John Mitchel, an iconic Northern Protestant patriot.

The playwright Sean O’Casey, a colleague, comrade and ardent admirer of Helena Molony, criticized Bulmer Hobson for his lack of concern for the poor. Social justice was a major agenda item in the advanced nationalist coalition that formed in the run-in to 1916, and Bulmer did not seem to care enough for the working class and remarked on more than one occasion that Ireland was not made up of beggars exclusively, and that the interests of the poor should not be put on the top of the list, lest socialism should overshadow nationalism. O’Casey claims to have spotted Bulmer rolling his eyes, sneering and yawning whenever the subject of the labor wages and worker unions came up. It is likely that Florence shared her brother’s sentiment. Her writings indicate that she did not step outside her immediate socioeconomic tier frequently. She harbored no resentment towards her socioeconomic superiors and did not regard them as oppressors. More than that, in her adolescence she collected postcards bearing autographs of titled aristocrats with the same fervor modern children collect posters signed by rock stars. Her brother’s political association with the likes of Roger Casement and Countess de Markiewicz must have been a source of great fascination and even envy for Florence. However, it is unlikely that she suffered from the Cinderella syndrome. She looked up to the members of the Ascendancy as potential patrons and advocates, without aspiring to enter their circle. Working a few hours a day in pleasant conditions and being well-compensated for her expertise, she was far removed from the realities endured by the working class.

And yet, the Hobson siblings should not be accused of malicious callousness. In their defense, the privilege into which they were born was not decadent in nature but rather industrious and obliging. Education and prosperity came with responsibility. Even if they did not throw all their efforts into relief for the destitute, they were as compassionate as one could expect from members of their circle. Bulmer had spent the years leading up to the Rising living in voluntary poverty, engaged in uncompensated work with the Irish Volunteers, which he helped found. His immediate needs were covered by sporadic journalistic assignments and a small bequest from his English grandmother. Denis McCullough, Bulmer’s close comrade, remarked on his carefree generosity and his fiscal cluelessness, “He’d give the last shilling he had to anybody.” One thing Bulmer did not inherit from his Quaker father was business aptitude. As for Florence, she devoted her free time to doting on her parents. As a sign of filial gratitude, she built a house for them. Benjamin Hobson must have been delighted to see a feature article on his daughter in the 1937 edition of The Crystal magazine shortly before his
death. The author of the article establishes Florence as a wholesome and formidable figure in the canon of professional Irish women, “Her large eyes and fine brow indicate the possession of the artist’s imagination which is the traditional gift of the real architect.”

Unsurprisingly, Florence Hobson did not find much favor from Eamon de Valera, one of the members of the IRB Military Council which had conspired against Bulmer and the leadership of the Irish Volunteers in 1916. The only surviving Commandant of the Rising (on account of his US citizenship) de Valera took over the leadership of the Volunteers which he re-named Oglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Republican Army. He also took on the leadership of Sinn Féin. His opposition to the Anglo Irish Treaty led to a twelve-month civil war, on which he was on the losing side. He then abandoned militarism for full–time politics, set up a political party and newspaper and became head of government in 1932. De Valera openly rejected the equality of men and women in the workplace which Florence, a professional Protestant woman of predominantly English stock embodied. She certainly was not a poster girl for Irish womanhood. Instead of pursuing political martyrdom, religious vocation or traditional Catholic motherhood, Florence focused on a competitive and well-compensated career, which would have been identified in de Valera’s Ireland with being English. Today, more than a decade since the Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended the sectarian conflict between nationalisms in Northern Ireland, a cultural and political dialogue is being established between the Irish Republic and the North. More Ulster figures are being included into general Irish encyclopedias. Florence Hobson is listed in the latest edition of the Dictionary of Irish Biography. The contributor lists her under her maiden name, since she had used it throughout her professional life. However, her letters to Roger Sawyer at the Public Records of Northern Ireland were signed Florence F.H. Patterson and are catalogued as “Patterson papers”. She was already a widow when she wrote them.

Sawyer contacted Florence in early 1970s in hopes that she would share her personal memories of Sir Roger Casement, who had been close friend of Bulmer’s and a regular visitor to the family home, for his new biography, and she responded most enthusiastically, seeing it as a chance to restore Casement’s heterosexual image. Even though Florence was ahead of her time on many topics, she still struggled with the idea that generosity and chivalry could coexist with homosexuality. She insisted that the infamous Black Diaries were forged and claimed that Casement was in love with Ada MacNeill and simply could not marry her because of financial difficulties. Her brother had tried clearing Casement’s name as early as 1930s. While some historians have argued that Bulmer believed that the diaries were authentic but tried to cover up the truth, it is probable that Florence’s attempts to position her old family friend as a heterosexual were sincere. Being anxious to see Casement’s biography published, Florence gave the author extensive advice on how to find a publisher.

Her correspondence with Sawyer reveals a stoic attempt at maintaining a sense of humor. In her youth she was known for her gentle wit and spunk. In her twilight years her wit took on a bitter undertone. “There is nothing much about me except that I am now an ancient monument … The doctor is not to be here for eight weeks – so he evidently thinks I will survive that long.”

Florence lived to be ninety-seven and retained a lucid mind. Almost an entire century passed before her eyes. She witnessed the progression of women’s wardrobes, from corsets and bustle skirts to mini skirts. She also witnessed, albeit from the periphery, a great deal of turmoil and suffering: two world wars, an insurrection that had nearly claimed the life of her brother, the Irish War of Independence, followed by the civil war, economic war, decades of border conflict culminating in the outbreak of “The Troubles.” Her house stood on the shore of Belfast Lough, about ten miles from Belfast city centre. Listening to the reports of new casualties, she was probably relieved that her brother, who had once breathed romantic patriotism, who had once dreamed of a progressive, prosperous, united Ireland, was no longer alive to see this travesty. “Irish nationalism had been dragged through the mud by the IRA,” she laments in one of her final letters. Imbued with the philosophy of egalitarianism and tolerance, she never really developed a philosophical immunity to violence and bloodshed. Armed conflicts continued to distress her. Florence was fashioned for peace and self-realization, and the notion of intense ethnic hatred was foreign to her. She had a heart of a playful, trusting, inquisitive child, a heart with a great capacity for pain. Even though she had never tasted of poverty or domestic oppression, she had her own cross – to bury her loved ones.

A fruit of the Edwardian era, just a few steps ahead of the mainstream, Florence Fulton Hobson did not open any doors. She was simply the first one to walk through the door that was already open – Ireland’s first female architect and an inspiring emblem of optimism and achievement.

 

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