• March of the Women

Joan Harvey Drew (1876-1961) and her sisters

Portrait of Joan Drew, nd.
(© Lafayette Photography Ltd)

Joan Harvey Drew was born in Streatham in 1876 the daughter of wealthy architect and landowner Richard Drew and his wife Ann. She had four sisters: Kathleen (1872-1894), Dorothea (1874-1942), Mary (1865-1938) and Sylvia (1868-1961). The sisters were talented – Sylvia was musical, Mary’s forte was drama and woodwork, Dorothea an artist and book-illustrator, whilst Joan loved sewing and design.

Joan was a sickly child and had no formal education, she was taught at home by a governess whilst her sisters went off to St Mary’s School in Wantage and later studied in Paris. Receiving no training in art, Joan spent many hours at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, studying historic embroidery. Her sketches and designs were very typically influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the period. She would become a renowned designer and embroiderer and her work is still published today.

After the losing their sister, Kathleen, in 1894, their mother Anne in 1899 and their father, Richard, in 1903, the remaining sisters went to live with their younger brother, Geoffrey, at Rookery Farm, Westcott, Surrey. While living with Geoffrey the sisters became interested in the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS). The Leith Hill and District Society had been formed in 1908 and in 1909 the President was Lord Farrer of Abinger; there were over 200 members and Sylvia Drew held the position of Chairwoman. Sylvia and Joan often chaired the meetings in Westcott. They were known to perform a duologue written by Joan called ‘Dare I Tell Her’; Joan hoped it would convert anti-suffragists to the cause. Dorothea married John James Richard Oliver Aldworth in 1905.

Joan Harvey Drew postcard
(The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library)

By the time of the 1911 census Joan, Sylvia and Mary are living together in Blatchfeld, Blackheath, near Chilworth, a pretty Arts and Crafts house on the edge of the heath. Previously, for a short period in 1903, the house had been the home to Virginia Woolf and her sister. During this time Joan was a member of the Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL). Formed in 1907, the ASL produced visual material to promote the Votes for Women message of the NUWSS. Joan created designs for their campaigns and is mentioned in books and documentation about the organisation. Pro-female suffrage propaganda postcards were designed by Joan and published by the ASL between 1909 and 1914. One postcard depicts John Bull addressing a man and woman dressed to represent the Times and Spectator as ‘a little behind the times.’ Both newspapers were known to take an anti-suffrage stance. Suffragettes regularly used John Bull as the embodiment of Britishness.

Both Sylvia and Joan were heavily involved in the Leith Hill branch of the NUWSS. There are several reports in The Common Cause of Sylvia chairing meetings, some of which were held at their Blatchfeld home, while Joan is noted several times for the embroidery work she had completed and both sisters donated money to the group. On occasions an ‘M.H. Drew’ features on the subscription list and it is possible that this is Mary, meaning that all three sisters were supporting the movement. When a new NUWSS group formed in Guildford in 1910 the sisters were soon affiliated with it.

Joan Harvey Drew book plate
(SHC ref 9937/1)

The Drew sisters were actively involved in many projects in the village and they encouraged local women to undertake worthwhile hobbies and interests. The Blackheath Choral Society had been formed in 1912 by Sylvia and enjoyed much success at local music festivals. Many village women attended the twice weekly choral society meetings. Mary directed small plays and started a small industry to teach local handicapped boys how to make and paint small wooden toys.

In July 1913 over 8,000 people attended one of the biggest public meetings in North Street, Guildford, followed by a parade up the High Street. It is likely that women from Blackheath attended, including the Drew sisters.

Under the direction of Joan Drew, the village women had acquired traditional skills of sewing and embroidery to the highest of standard. A report in 1913 gives evidence of this ‘A laudable attempt to encourage the residents of Blackheath to take an interest in home arts and industries was made on Wednesday, when an exhibition of work was held in the village room. It was the first exhibition of its kind in the village, and the results were gratifying to the Miss Drew’s that organised it.’

Many of the village girls were also learning these skills, becoming accomplished needlewomen and dress makers. Joan led a team of girls in making a banner to commemorate the First World War. Each girl aged between 10 and 12, embroidered a pretty colourful flower alongside her name. Joan added her name along with the title of ‘teacher’. The banner is small and simple in style, it provides a moving, heartfelt tribute and is in excellent condition thanks to the loving care of current resident Mrs Billie Hockley.

Banner worked on by Joan Harvey Drew 1914-1918
(Blackheath Village Archive)

Around 1918 Joan and others completed five large banners which were hung in the village hall until 1975. The designs varied from a colourful design of St. George and the Dragon to more muted tones of ‘dark satanic mills’. Three of them were donated to the Embroiders Guild and have been used in exhibitions, the other two have survived but are in a fragile condition and in need of conservation.

In 1918, Sylvia was one of the Surrey Voluntary County organisers for the Women’s Institute. Records show that she put forward a scheme to encourage choir singing competitively. She became heavily involved in the Leigh Hill Music Festival and worked with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams at the very successful 1914 festival. In 1924, after a stay in Wales, she was introduced to the well-known musician and organist of Trinity College, Dr Alan Gray. He in turn introduced Sylvia to Mr W H Leslie, who taught her to be a conductor.

Joan and Sylvia Drew
(Blackheath Village Archive)

Elsewhere, in 1923 Joan encouraged women teachers to join the ‘Guild of Learners’ to raise the standards of craft teachers. In 1926 she published a book of paper patterns titled ‘These for Your Delight’, and went on to lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

After Mary’s death in 1938, Joan and Sylvia moved a few miles away to Albury Heath. During World War Two Joan kept diaries in which she eloquently recorded life in the area, accompanied by little watercolour illustrations. To support the war effort, Joan was making specialist ‘minesweeper’ gloves for the sailors working in cold and dangerous conditions at sea and the sisters would drive into Guildford Station with baskets of sandwiches to hand out to servicemen passing through on the troop trains.

Sylvia and Joan moved to ‘Brantyngeshay’, a nursing home on the Blackheath and Chilworth border, where they both passed away in 1961. Joan, was described as a ‘lovely woman who enjoyed her dogs, flowers, garden and watching birds, had a great knowledge of stitchery and a sense of colour with a sensitive ear for music and words and introduced rhyming couplets into her embroidery’ (Kathleen Aldworth, Joan’s niece).

Contributed by Jayne Barlow of Blackheath Village Archives, for The March of the Women project.


Joan Drew’s 1940 diary – with kind permission of Tim Goad, her great nephew.
For archives of the Surrey Federation of the Women’s Institute, Blackheath branch, see SHC ref 7650/84/-
Other records of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes are held at London University: London School of Economics, The Women’s Library
The National Needlework Archive
LSE, Women’s Library
Blackheath Village Archive interviews with Billy Hockley
Blackheath Village website
For a printing block designed by Joan Drew in the Leith Hill Music Festival material, see SHC ref 8030/6/1
For five decorative cliché verre glass plates and four prints including a bookplate depicting pastoral scenes with a woman and children, by Joan Drew, nd [c.1900-1910], see SHC ref 9937/1
For family information about the Drews
Joan Drew is featured in Elizabeth Crawford, Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists (2018)
Kathy Atherton, Suffragettes, Suffragists & Antis: The Fight for the Vote in the Surrey Hills, (2017)
Drew, Joan. Portfolio of Designs for Embroidery (1929)

One thought on “Joan Harvey Drew (1876-1961) and her sisters”

  1. Sue Hamilton-White says:

    Hi, I am their great great niece (Suzanne Hamilton-White, nee Hamilton, b. 1971). Please could I have Tim Goad’s contact details? I would like to discuss her artwork with him. Many thanks for putting this information together. Warmest regards, Sue

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