A life in History: Ramsgate's first lady mayor - Laura Probert explains how the legacy of Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills lives on in
I first visited Ramsgate when I was eight years old and remember my father pointing out a house on the East Cliff to me because it had his initials WHW on the drainpipe. My father’s name was William Henry Willatts and East Court, the green tile-hung house on the corner of Brockenhurst Road was built for William Henry Wills, later Lord Winterstoke,in 1889. Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills, the niece and adopted daughter of Lord Winterstoke lived there from 1911 until her death in 1932.
Dame Janet Stancomb Wills was Ramsgate’s first lady mayor and its greatest benefactress.She was said to have had a strong character but was very kind. In a letter quoted in Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton she was described as:-
“A formidable head of an impressive household – she was extremely well-built- had an upright carriage and an ample chest which showed off jewellery to good effect.”
As she was a Wills by hyphenated adoption, rather than by birth or marriage, other members of the Wills family took care, on her somewhat dreaded visitations, to pay formal respect to her rank, and due deference to her accomplishments.
eginnings in Bristol
She was listed as being 17 years old in the 1871 census when she was living in the Clifton area of Bristol. Following the early deaths of her father and elder brother Janet and her younger sister Yda were adopted by their uncle, Sir William Henry Wills. When Lord Winterstoke died in January 1911 Dame Janet and her sister Yda were heirs toabout £1million, a vast fortune in those days.
In these days of political correctness it is perhaps right for us to consider for a moment exactly how the Wills family amassed their vast fortune. The family had made their fortune in the 18th century in the tobacco trade when slave produced tobacco was imported to Bristol from the AmericanRepublic. They gradually bought up existing Bristol firms and by the late 18th century were involved in a number of charitable activities in the Bristol area.
Sir William was said to have had a powerful physique and a twinkling eye! He had been engaged in the tobacco and snuff business since he was eighteen. He worked hard and had visited America on several occasions to study the production and treatment of tobacco. It was he who led the family firm throughthe bleak years of the American Civil War of 1861-65 when the tobacco harvest was largely left to rot as the southern states were embroiled in war. It was not until the Crimean War that cigarettes were smoked in any great quantity by the British, and they generally became popular in 1870. This was the age when it was not considered “the done thing” to smoke in front of ladies, and there was no smoking on trains.
In 1901thirteen British tobacco businesses including WD and HOWills formed the Imperial Tobacco Company to successfully fend off competition fromthe American Tobacco Company. Sir William Henry Wills was chosen as their first chairman. He held this position until his death in January 1911. Sir William had been created a baronet in 1892 and was elevated to become Baron Winterstoke of Blagdon in 1906. He was thenceforth known as Lord Winterstoke. Blagdon is a village in the Mendip Hills about 20 miles south of Bristol where Lord Winterstoke owned a 3,000 acre estate. Death came to Lord Winterstoke suddenly in his 81st year in January 1911 with Dame Janet at his bedside.
A life serving Ramsgate
Dame Janet inherited her uncle’s house in Ramsgate. She also inherited his 513-ton steam yacht Sabrina and his London residence at 25 Hyde ParkGardens. Dame Janet also inherited Baron Winterstoke’s collection of diamonds, plate and paintings, 24 of which were handed over almost immediately to the BristolArtGallery, given to the city by her uncle.
Dame Janet spent the first half of 1911 sorting out her uncle’s affairs but was anxious to move on. She decided to sell the yacht Sabrina “ as I shan’t have the heart to use her.” She moved to Ramsgate later that year and was always a commanding presence in the town being driven round in one of her Rolls-Royce cars.
In the early decades of the twentieth century Ramsgate was a very different place with a busy harbour full of trawlers and Thames barges,andlots of holiday makers. Dame Janet obviously loved the town and devoted the rest of her life to looking after the people of Ramsgate.
Encouraged by a local vicar to join the Education Committee Dame Janet was the first lady member to be appointed to Ramsgate Town Council in 1913. Councillor Bradley decided to resign rather than stand against her in Moses Montefiore Ward because in opposing her he would not be behaving as a gentleman ought towards a lady!
On 17th December 1920 a sculpture called Destiny, by the sculptor Gilbert Bayes,was unveiled in AlbionGardens as the Ramsgate Peace Memorial which was presented to the town by Dame Janet. Destiny sits with her eyes closed ‘looking’ as her sculptor said ‘beyond to a greater vision of the future’. This Grade II listed memorial was restored in 2004.
In January 1922 The Mayor of Ramsgate Borough Council, Alderman Arthur Larkin,proposed that Dame Janet be given theFreedom of the Borough “in recognition of the signalservice which she has rendered to this borough” and for “the many acts of benevolence and generosity towards the people of Ramsgate” and for her “noble example displayed in the difficult days of the war”.Mayor Larkin praised Dame Janet’s bravery in remaining in the town during the First World War despite the fact that her house was especially exposed to danger from air raiders and bombardment from the sea. She also provided comforts and essential items for those who sought shelter in the air raid shelters in the cliffs.
Dame Janet was to bepresented and in establishing a Roll of Freemen of this Borough a double honour would be bestowed upon her as she would be the first name to be inscribed upon it. The Council unanimously carried the resolution and it was suggested that townspeople could subscribe towards the cost of the casket which would contain the scroll. A small panel on the front of the casket displayed the Borough Coat of Arms, and on the reverse the Star of the Order of the British Empire conferred on Dame Janet in 1919 for her generosity to the war effort in helping to fit out ships for the Royal Navy.
After the handing over of the casket the Mayor referred to Dame Janet’s many acts of generosity to Ramsgate and her tireless efforts to collect artefacts for the town’s museum above Ramsgate Public Library which opened in October 1912. The museum unfortunately perished in August 2004 when the Ramsgate Library was burnt down. Dame Janet’s casket wassaved but badly damaged.
Dame Janet’s interest in the Fire Brigade had begun in May 1915, when the first Zeppelin raid made her aware of Ramsgate’s inadequate provision against fires. She presented the first motorised fire engine for Ramsgate in October 1915 and named it Lord Winterstoke after her uncle. The fire engine made a ceremonial tour of the town amazing the inhabitants by its ability to climb hills at a full 30 mph. The fire brigade appointed Dame Janet an honorary Chief Fire Officer.
Over two thousand townsfolk attended the opening of the WinterstokeGardens on Ramsgate’s Eastcliff on June 20th 1923. Special attention had been paid to the choice of plants, scented varieties being favoured so that blind war veteransmight enjoy the gardens as well.
A fitting tribute
When Dame Janet became the first woman Mayor of Ramsgate in November 1923 she focused on the two most pressing issues – unemployment (especially during the winter months) and whether Ramsgate Corporation should take over the running of the RoyalHarbour.
At a banquet to honour the ex-mayor in November 1924 Dame Janet announced that in commemoration of her year in office she was giving Jacky Baker’s farm to the town. She hoped that the name Jacky Baker’s would always be associated with the land as it had been known by that name for at least 200 years. Dame Janet hoped that “ In providing the ground for the young people of the town a new lung had been added to the borough which would be appreciated not only by those alive now but by their children’s children.”
In thanking Dame Janet Councillor Larkin, the Deputy Mayor, said “ She had done so many things for Ramsgate that it was perhaps not altogether surprising that her year in office was to be commemorated in such a gracious way. Ramsgate was the first Kentish Borough to choose a lady mayor and it had been a fine experiment.”
The Nurses’ Home at Ramsgate GeneralHospital was opened in August 1927. Itcontained 30 bedrooms and offices was built at Dame Janet’s expense. Then atthe end of January 1931 Dame Janet’s sister Mrs Richardson officiallly opened the new maternity ward. HM Queen Mary had given a cot cover to place on the first baby born in the new ward.
Good causes to the end
Of course Dame Janet did not just have interests in Ramsgate, she continued to support many of her uncle’s charities and good causes, especially in the Bristol area, but also found many worthy causes of her own to support.
Dame Janet befriended Sir Ernest Shackleton and helped to fund many of his expeditions to the Antarctic. He frequently put in at Ramsgate to see Dame Janet and their conversations were often interrupted by the sound of gunfire from Flanders drifting through the window.The amounts of money Dame Janet gave to Shackleton have never been disclosed. Dame Janet remained his confidante until his death in the South Atlantic in 1922.
Dame Janet’s health began to fail in the late 1920s and she was forced to resign from some of her committees. Shedied in her bedroom at East Court in Ramsgate in August 1932. Following her funeral service at St. George’sParishChurch in Ramsgate she was cremated at Golders Green crematorium.
Unfortunately Dame Janet did not live long enough to see another of her projects completed. The DameJanetSchool in Newington Road was opened in September 1933 by Mrs Florence Dunn, Mayor of Ramsgate, who had been a close friend of Dame Janet.. Amazingly the school still have all the admission books dating back to 1933!
This school which bears her name is one small reminder of all that this incredible woman did for the town.