Lady Anne Clifford
The first woman recorded in British history to lead building projects was Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676). With incredible grit and tenacity, Clifford spent much of her life fighting a protracted legal battle to win back her sizeable family estates, left to her uncle by her father in 1605. After 44 years, she finally took possession of them and embarked on a significant programme of improvements and enlargements. This included churches and five castles in Yorkshire and Cumbria. When Clifford died, she was one of the wealthiest women in the country.
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham
The aristocrat Elizabeth, Lady Wilbraham (1632-1705) was the first woman architect who drew up her own designs. She designed grand houses for her family, such as Weston Park in Staffordshire. According to one theory, Wilbraham may have been involved in up to 400 other buildings, including 18 London churches which are officially attributed to Christopher Wren as at the time, women couldn’t hold professional roles. Elizabeth possibly resorted to using male architects to carry out her plans for her. Wren may have been one of these, and may even have developed many of his later ideas drawing on her influence.
It wasn’t until 1898 that the first woman architect gained full professional recognition, when Ethel Charles (1871–1962) was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). However, this didn’t mean that she was given any commissions for big projects, which were still controlled by men.
Instead, she worked on improving labourer’s cottages, usually with her sister Bessie, who was the second female member of RIBA. Ethel’s designs are now regarded as a significant development of the Old English style towards the garden city movement, a method of urban planning that surrounded communities with greenbelt land. Examples of this can be seen in Brentham Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City.
You can learn more about all of these ‘female firsts’ here.