With International Women's Day just around the corner (March 8 to be precise), this is a great time to celebrate the life of the prominent Kent feminist, Francis Heron Maxwell, and her remarkable influence on everything from from clothing to cricket.

Frances Heron-Maxwell, known to her friends as ‘Max’, was an early feminist, a Suffragette and a well-known figure locally in Kent. Max was influential in setting up the Women’s Institute in Kent and later became vice-chair of the Women’s Land Army in Kent from 1939-1945.

When she arrived at Great Comp, though, in 1903, with her husband Patrick, it was the age of Edward VII, Mrs Pankhurst and Lloyd George.

Great British Life: Patrick Maxwell left and Frances Heron Maxwell, second to right, drinking tea on the lawnPatrick Maxwell left and Frances Heron Maxwell, second to right, drinking tea on the lawn (Image: Great Comp)

Max was, by all accounts, a formidable female - the heroines of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were not for her: Max was a woman of action. She was a member of the Rational Dress Society and wanted the wider Edwardian society at large to accept women’s need to wear more sensible and practical clothing. Indeed she was well-known in the village of Platt for her rational dress code, which consisted of “useful” tweeds, a blouse and tie and an old Henry Heath 'Trilby' hat. This daytime costume never varied, whether she was chairing a committee meeting or attending a more important occasion - not even the colour of the tweed. For evening occasions, she was always to be found in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. Occasionally she was seen riding a bicycle wearing ‘Bloomers’, a sight that shocked the locals at the turn of the century.

From her place on the sandy-ridge at Great Comp, Max energetically set about revolutionising women’s hockey and cricket in the country.  An ace hockey goalie, Max founded The Pilgrims, a well-known hockey team that toured Britain, and she was also president of the Women’s All-England Hockey Association in 1913 before turning her attention to women’s cricket.

HOWZAT! When the Australian Women’s Cricket Team
came to Sevenoaks

Great British Life: The Cricket Pavillion at Great CompThe Cricket Pavillion at Great Comp (Image: Great Comp)

It could be said that Max was one of the most influential women in cricket in this country. She was was an energetic cricket player and laid out her own grounds at Great Comp Garden, naming it her ‘Oval’. 

Taking the model used for the Women’s Hockey Association, Max was influential in setting up the Women’s Cricket Association (WCA) and targeting girls' schools and universities to encourage take-up in the sport.

While Max was chair of the WCA, the government passed legislation that enabled women’s sports teams to apply for grants and land.  This innovative move engendered new interest in the sport and and by the 1930s the WCA sent a team to tour Australia in 1934-1935.  

In 1937 the Australian Women’s Cricket team were invited to England and received a warm welcome at Great Comp where they practised on Max’s ‘Oval’ and some of the team were even billeted in the 17th century manor house on site.   

Max and the WCA arranged for coaches to transport the Australian team around the country so they could enjoy the beauty of the countryside.  The team also met with Prime Minister Sir Stanley Baldwin in Downing Street. 

The Australian team must have enjoyed practising at Great Comp because they won the first match.  Looking at the records the series was drawn 1 - 1, with a win apiece and a drawn match.

The cricket ground is no longer in existence at Great Comp but back in the day it was described as ‘one of the loveliest in the country’.

Many of the English Women’s team were either suffragettes or children of the suffragette movement.  They were pioneering women who did their best to advance the cause of the women’s cricket, even in the face of resistance from the men involved in the game. 

Max and the arts

The current garden at Great Comp in Platt owes its beauty to the combined vision of Roderick and Joy Cameron, who bought the premises in the 1950s. However, Frances Heron-Maxwell was also a keen gardener at Great Comp and was the first person in the 20th Century at the garden to bring craftsmanship to bear. A keen potter with her own kiln, she encouraged crafts like spinning, weaving and bee-keeping as well as the artistic pursuit of photography.

Perhaps of most significance, though, was her friendship with Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst (both were on the Kent Land Army Committee) and Vita wrote a poem about Max on her retirement from the County W.I Committee:

"The one Max that never relaxes,

In the thousands of stitches she may sew;

The Max that scales mountains with axes,

And tramples her boots in the snow".

It is believed that these keen plantswomen often exchanged plant, including ‘Campanula lactiflora’ which still grows at Great Comp today.

As Vita’s poem suggests, Max was indeed a woman of action. She carried on with her many activities well in to her 80s and didn’t retire from the W.I County Committee until 1954 at the age of 91.

At the age of 92 she journeyed to Switzerland to see her beloved mountains. She loved gentians and wanted to see them but this required a trip in a chair lift - it would prove to be her final trip, though, as her heart gave way and she died later in hospital in Berne on July 5 1955.

Great British Life: The house at Great CompThe house at Great Comp (Image: Great Comp)

This extraordinary women who set up, encouraged and championed the Kent W.I, Kent land Army, was president of the All-England Women’s Hockey Association, first chair of the West Kent Federation of Women’s Institutes and served on the W.I National Executive Committee excelled at everything she tried. She was a formidable figure who was remembered in the local area well into the early part of the 21st century, and whose lasting legacy is still enjoyed today.

Great Comp Garden is open daily to visitors from March 1 until November 30, greatcompgarden.co.uk