Alice Rosa Barker, was born in Wolverhampton in 1843 and was possibly the child of her mother’s 20th pregnancy. She arrived into a world of great change, energy and creativity – only a month after the launch of Brunel’s SS Great Britain. With motion at the very heart of nineteenth century industrial expansion – wider access, for women in particular, to news and books, was unprecedented and immense. Women like Alice could not read or hear enough about foreign adventure and travel – especially by intrepid women like Lucy Walker who climbed the Matterhorn in 1871.
Alice was the youngest daughter of John and Theodosia Barker. Her father was Ironmaster of the Chillington Works in Wolverhampton, benefiting greatly from the railway boom in the 1840’s thus ensuring a very comfortable lifestyle for his family. Alice, a typical Victorian woman of ‘independent means’ took every advantage of the growing opportunities for women to travel in Europe and beyond. She is photographed above, in Alexandria, setting off on a tour of the Holy Land with her brother , Vectis, in 1874. This tour lasted for nearly 3 years! Indeed, it seemed that she and numerous brothers and sisters were never happy unless they were travelling and that included hunting. However women’s clothing, in particular, the bustle, did nothing to reflect women’s increasing independence and mobility – hence the title. The only photographs we have of Alice feature an extraordinarily tight waist and bustle. Even if her stays were loosened to climb a peak, take a fence out hunting (side-saddle) or cope with the heat of the desert – the damage to the rib cage and lungs had already been done.
Following the death of their father, in 1863, Alice and other members of the family eventually moved from their manufacturing roots in Wolverhampton to the more socially acceptable, upwardly mobile, Chorlton House in Binswood Avenue, Leamington Spa. She lived here for 20 years with her older sister and brother-in-law, Kate and Henry Hickman. They were high-Victorians who did not approve of Alice’s ‘modern’ independent outlook and lavish lifestyle. They felt she should conform to their idea of Victorian propriety , that a woman’s place was to preside over the silver tea pot in the drawing-room at Chorlton House . Alice was a keen huntswoman and rode with the Albrighton Hunt, still in existence today. Following a serious hunting accident, Alice took up mountaineering – the thought of remaining in Leamington Spa for another moment was simply out of the question. In 1872 she climbed the Marmalada mountain in the Dolomites (possibly the first woman to do so). She died in 1887 attempting to descend from the Cacciabella Pass in the Bregaglia region of the Swiss Engadine.
Alice Barker, was a woman of her time who took full advantage of her independence to escape the stuffy drawing rooms and social pretensions of Wolverhampton and Leamington Spa . She undoubtedly blazed a trail for women who began, across society as a whole, to believe that they too could attain this precious freedom.
Alice Fookes, June 2013