Two trail-blazing ladies
Today, women on television and female foreign correspondents are making the news as much as reporting it. Helen Brown talked to author Susan Keracher about two intrepid Dundee ladies in the news more than 100 years ago . . .
ONE OF the most popular displays at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, is Two Intrepid Ladies, part of the Dundee and the World exhibition. It tells the story of Marie Imandt and Bessie Maxwell, both journalists with D. C. Thomson who, in 1894, were sent off by their employer on a fact-finding mission to investigate the lives of women around the world, sending back regular reports for publication in The Courier and The Weekly News. Their journey took the best part of nine months, they covered 26,000 miles and visited 10 countries. Their articles covered everything from religion and industry to architecture and fashion; from visits to an Asian opium den and an American Indian reservation to a Parsee wedding and a dinner party in the suburbs of Tokyo.
Curator of Art at The McManus Susan Keracher explained: “While working on Dundee and the World, we decided to interpret the material we had by looking at the collectors and how what they had gathered – everything from artefacts from Ancient Egypt, via an African mask to Japanese decorative arts – came to be in Dundee.
“Objects are interesting but so are the people behind them. Those collectors fell into four broad categories – the Four Ms as we called them – merchants (like Sir James Caird), missionaries such as Mary Slessor, military personnel and mysteries, things whose provenance and history was uncertain or completely unknown.
“It was when we were researching these collectors in the Lamb collection at the library I discovered the story of the lady journalists – and I was hooked!”
So who were these “two intrepid ladies”? Franziska Maria Isabella Imandt was born in Dundee in 1860 to Prussian emigree and political activist turned language teacher Peter Imandt and his Scottish wife Annie McKenzie. She was educated at Dundee High School and gained a university qualification at St Andrews 10 years before women were allowed to graduate in the same way as men.
Her decade-younger colleague Bessie Maxwell, was also a High School pupil who studied at University College, Dundee. Her younger sister, Annie, followed her into journalism.
In 1894, both were established journalists – Imandt was described by D. C. Thomson as “our lady editor” – reporting on everything from social and artistic events to pay and conditions.
The story opened up such a wealth of fascinating information that alongside the popular exhibition, Susan has now put together a book of some of their articles.
Their exploits may not have had the uncertainty of the war zone reporting of today, but given its context, their journey and mission was extraordinary enough.
“Those who could travel in those days,” Susan said, “tended to have ‘done Europe’ but as well as taking in France and Italy, the ladies’ itinerary covered Egypt which was ‘the’ place to go at that time; India, with its strong connections to Dundee; China and Japan, just opening up to the west and the USA and Canada.
“It was a very wellorganised expedition, with contacts, many with Dundee links, secured in as many of the destinations as possible. D. C. Thomson himself had travelled to Egypt and used his connections there to ease their path. They travelled first class, stayed in the best hotels and had health checks before they went. Thomas Cook had been organising major travel tours for some years but this was still something very unusual. And instead, as many people from Dundee had done, of travelling widely for work and to live, essentially, in expat communities, these women went to observe for themselves and inform those who couldn’t travel of what they saw, the truth of women’s lives.
“And they did find themselves in situations of potential danger. When they were in the Far East, the Chinese-Japanese war was raging and being reported by their male colleagues.
“They must have been aware of the possible difficulties but seem to have treated it all as an adventure.”
Their styles were very different – Marie Imandt’s committed and emotionally engaged, Bessie’s lighter and full of humour. Human interest, atmospheric evocation and narrative became important.
Susan added: “The scope of what they produced is truly amazing. They must have been researching and writing all the time.”
When the ladies arrived back in Scotland they undertook a long series of lectures and talks about their experiences and continued to write and report. Bessie famously went down a coal mine in Fife to write about working conditions.
l Dundee’s Two Intrepid Ladies: A Tour Round the World by D. C. Thomson’s Female Journalists in 1894 is published by Abertay Historical Society at £7.50: ISBN 978 0 90 0019494.
Susan Keracher, curator of Art at the McManus.
Intrepid female reporters Marie Imandt (left) and Bessie Maxwell.