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Isabella Tod: Ulster’s Forgotten Radical on BBC Two NI

Date Posted: October 21, 2013

She is regarded as the UK’s most prominent feminist of the nineteenth century. A woman who not only persuaded Queen’s University, Belfast, to allow girls to sit exams for the first time but the only woman called to Parliament to give evidence and enable married women to own property. A woman, whose lasting impact is seen, heard and felt across Northern Ireland every day but with little recognition. Her name is Isabella Tod. Isabella Tod: Ulster’s Forgotten Radical airs this Sunday, 27th of October, at 9pm on BBC Two Northern Ireland.

In this documentary, former Apprentice star and Northern Ireland native Margaret Mountford takes a step into the past to discover more about Tod’s remarkable life and the Victorian times in which she lived.

Isabella Maria Susan Tod was born in Edinburgh in 1836 but she came to live in Belfast in the 1860s. As the sleepy town transformed into an industrial city, Margaret discovers how Isabella was intent on transforming the role of women in society.

Margaret’s first stop is Elmwood Hall, owned by Queen’s University. Previously this was Elmwood Presbyterian Church and one of the most influential Presbyterian congregations when it was founded in 1862. Tod joined this Church when she arrived and Margaret learns how the people and the teachings were so influential in shaping Isabella Tod’s political activism.

From here Margaret learns how Tod spent most of her adult life campaigning for the rights of the less well off in society and in particular the rights of women.

In London, Margaret visits Parliament, where Isabella was invited to give evidence on a groundbreaking piece of legislation – The Married Women’s Property Bill. As changes to the law were being considered, Isabella Tod was the only woman called to provide evidence to the committee of MPs.

In Belfast, Margaret discovers how Isabella Tod fought and won for the right of women in Belfast to vote in municipal matters.

Margaret also discovers how Tod persuaded Queen’s University to allow women to attend the University, for the first time.

When Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill in 1886, Isabella Tod, a staunch Ulster Presbyterian, objected on all counts. Margaret discovers how Tod’s campaigning against Home Rule took its toll and she suffered from ill-health for the last ten years of her life.

Tod died in Belfast on December 8th 1896. The final scene of the programmer sees Margaret visit her grave in Balmoral cemetery in south Belfast.

The presenter Margaret Mountford said: “This project was fascinating. At the beginning I had never even heard of Isabella Tod yet by the end I was amazed by her huge range of achievements. She was active in campaigning in what were the major issues of the day. These were burning news topics but today hardly anyone even knows her name. I hope she gets the recognition she truly deserves.”

The programme was directed by Michael Fanning. He said: “Isabella Tod was one of the most successful activists in her time yet today, no statue exists to mark her achievements. This is genuinely revealing documentary that brings to life one of the most radical thinkers of Victorian times.”

The programme was produced by Mary Curry and edited by Michael Pailsey. Trevor Birney was Executive Producer for Below The Radar and Deirdre Devlin was Executive Producer for BBC NI.

The programme received funding from Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster Scots Broadcast Fund.

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