By Catherine Walker, RPS Museum Officer
On the 17th June 1911 Alice Freke was amongst a group of women pharmacists attended a march in Westminster to demand the right to vote. Alice spent her career advocating for others, pushing boundaries and achieving much along the way.
Alice began her working life in the Post Office. She passed her civil service exam in 1883, and fifteen years later registered with the Pharmaceutical Society as a Chemist and Druggist in July 1898, joining her husband in the profession.
She continued to combine her interests in both the civil service and pharmacy. By the 1920’s Alice was managing schools for the London County Council and sitting on the juvenile employment advisory committee for the Ministry of Labour.
She worked in the same pharmacy in Brixton for her whole career, alongside her husband. It doesn’t appear to have been an easy time for the pair. In 1912 she presented a paper titled ‘Some Difficulties of the Retail Chemist,’ hinting at the hard work needed in a role that was sometimes on the knife edge of success. Whatever situation Alice herself was in, she was a keen advocate for her pharmacy colleagues.
Alice was a founding member of the National Association of Women Pharmacists and in 1923 she was voted President of the group. She was the second woman to sit on the Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, formally succeeding Mary Buchanan’s place in 1927.
During her campaigning she said “As a representative of the women in pharmacy, and as such of seven per cent of the registered chemists and druggists of Great Britain, I am in favour of men and women taking an equal share in the work and responsibilities of pharmaceutical organisation.” This photograph of her sat in the board room at 17 Bloomsbury Place gives us a sense of the confidence and self-assuredness needed to take the place at the table.
Meeting of the 1931/1932 Council of the Pharmaceutical Society at 17 Bloomsbury Square, London
We are lucky with the records we have of Alice, which give us a glimpse beyond her professional life. On many occasions she attended or organised social occasions for the pharmacy profession from Halloween fancy dress dances to games of ‘capture the flag’. On one occasion Alice and her husband went and met a rambling group with a picnic afternoon tea.
Alice had many interests including the constructed language Esperanto. She gave a lecture in 1912 on ‘Esperanto and its Relations to pharmacists’ and by 1926 was a fellow of the British Esperanto Association.
A keen cyclist, Alice was a member of the Mowbray House Cycling Association, known for its progressive and egalitarian attitude. Cycling gave women the independence to move and exercise in a way that wasn’t accessible before. The MHCA adopted ‘rational dress’, a clothing style developed to challenge the fashion of the late 19th century. It consisted of long bloomers instead of a skirt, and a looser fitting corset, which gave women the freedom to move about more comfortably.
Alice’s need for speed continued beyond the limited of the bicycle, when in 1925 she drove a motor car from London to Glasgow for the British Pharmaceutical Conference.
Alice died in 1941 and was remembered fondly by her fellow pharmacists. In her obituary in the Pharmaceutical Journal particular attention was paid to the 10 years she spent on the Society’s council, as well as the work she did for the War Auxiliary Benevolent Fund Committee. She was remembered by members of the National Association for Women Pharmacists as their ‘Little Mother’. She clearly spent her life and career for the benefit of others.
During Women’s History Month we remember the many women who, through their work advocating for and championing women, helped pave the way for us today.