Alumni interview: Jane Duffus, author of The Women Who Built Bristol

Image credit: Jon Craig

Jane Duffus (MA 2010) is on a mission to celebrate the incredible women who have made Bristol brilliant. The first book in her The Women Who Built Bristol series was published in 2018 and includes the stories of 250 inspiring women from Bristol’s history. From a heartbroken barmaid from Easton, to an abducted heiress – each story tells the tale of a vibrant woman who changed the city of Bristol in her own unique way.

After the success of her first book, Jane went on to publish The Women Who Built Bristol: Volume Two and she’s now hard at work writing Volume 3. We caught up with her to find out more about her time at the University and her writing process.

What initially made you want to study at the University of Bristol?
I moved to Bristol from London in 2008 and it was a city I knew fairly well as I had grown up in Somerset. Bristol was the nearest big city and it was where my friends and I would come to go shopping and to see gigs. But I didn’t really know anyone in Bristol at the time I moved here, so doing a degree seemed like a good way to get to know the city.

What kind of student were you?
A mature one! I was in my early 30s when I took the Cinema Studies MA at Bristol and was the oldest on my course, so my Uni friends used to call me ‘granny’! I guess I was a typical mature student in that I was pretty diligent and keen and spent a lot of time in the library researching. A skill that has since come in handy for my books.

What inspired you to write about the unsung women of Bristol’s past?
Reading many of the existing history books about Bristol and visiting museums, it immediately became painfully obvious that we weren’t being told a balanced history of the city. We were only being told the history of men in Bristol. And while I wasn’t initially looking for stories about women, it soon became apparent that it was the same handful of women who popped up again and again. It didn’t ring true that in 30,000 years of Bristol’s existence there were only four or five women who had done anything of interest. And turns out I was right. So far, I have uncovered almost 1,000 women who have done interesting things in Bristol. And that’s still just the tip of the iceberg!

Image credit: Jon Craig

How do you go about finding and researching the women that you celebrate in your books? Has your process changed over time?
So many ways! I get asked this question more than any other, and so there is a long chapter at the start of Volume Two of The Women Who Built Bristol which seeks to answer this. I can’t really sum my answer up in a pithy paragraph here as there are so many different paths to finding and researching these fascinating and diverse women. The takeaway point is that the absence – until now – of any resources collecting together these women meant that there was no easy way to find them all.

Do any University of Bristol alumnae appear in your books? If so, would you be able to tell us a bit more about a few of them?
Absolutely loads of them and many more to come in Volume Three. The obvious ones such as Nobel Prize winner, Dorothy Hodgkin and Winifred Shapland, who was the first female Registrar of any British university but also more obscure ones such as Isobel Powell and Grace Reeves. You can read more about a few of the University’s women in my books here.

Where is your favourite place to write in Bristol?
In my study at home, which is really our spare bedroom… except there’s no room for a bed in there anymore because it’s so full of my books and papers and piles of research. So heaven help anyone who wants to stay at our house because they’ll have to make do with a cushion on the floor and a stack of Spare Rib magazines for a pillow.

As we go through these uncertain times, are there any stories from women in your books that we could draw inspiration or resilience from?
Emily Caswill from St Philips initially worked in a corset factory (Bristol had a booming corset industry back in the day) and quickly decided she wasn’t content with being an employee – she wanted to be the employer. So she established her own corset-making business in her home. She saw it thrive for 50 years despite the difficulties of two world wars, the deaths of both of her husbands, as well as the deaths of her only daughter and grandson. Emily’s business also survived through post-war cotton rationing, and through the great economic depression and many other challenges. All due to that one woman’s resilience and determination. If Emily could survive all that, then we can survive this. She’s in Volume One if you want to read more, she’s a fascinating woman.

As a writer, I expect you’re more experienced than most when it comes to home working. Do you have any tips for those who may be struggling with working from home?
Have a routine. Get up by a certain time and get dressed, so you are making the difference between work time and leisure time. Never sit in bed with your laptop to work – your bed is not the place for work! I learned that lesson really early on, when my mum used to tell me off for doing school homework in bed. Stop work at a set time every day, so that you have clear boundaries between your work time and your time off. Oh, and try not to eat all the biscuits!

Which modern day feminists or female leaders do you most admire?
Jacinda Ardern (the Prime Minister of New Zealand) seems to have her head screwed on pretty straight and I really wish the UK had a leader like her. It’s been interesting to read about how the countries that are best handling the Covid-19 crisis are those that are led by women. Deduce from that what you will…

If you’d like to buy The Women Who Built Bristol books, please buy direct from Jane here. You can find out more about Jane’s work on her website:

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