Plaque attack: Dalston gets a blue tribute to a Hackney woman that time forgot — until now

Levitt0617: badge for woman racing driver Blue Plaque Rebellion Dalston 210617 © David Altheer
Not forgotten: the unofficial tribute plaque in the heart of Dalston
© not available to Loving Dalston
Britain’s first female racing driver? And in her time not a seatbelt to be had
Levitt badge for woman racing driver Blue Plaque Rebellion Dalston 210617 © David Altheer
“Girl”, a tribute to a woman? That’s how women were invariably seen by men

YOU’ll BE seeing more of these cheeky plaques if sportswriter Anna Kessel has her way.

The Guardian journalist and a group called the Women’s Sport Trust started Blue Plaque Rebellion to overcome what they saw as the woeful stats on the lack of statues and blue plaques for sportswomen”.

Kessel told Loving Dalston: “This is our only plaque in Hackney, one of five in London. The idea is to persuade English Heritage to put up more plaques to women in sport.”

What is known of Dorothy Levitt? Rachel Harris-Gardiner, a researcher helping Kessel, has been busy, establishing for example that Levitt was living in the Hackney house pictured at top when she was nine.

Usually described as Britain’s first woman racing driver, she was born in 1882, possibly in that house.

Her affluent Jewish parents later changed their surname, Levi, and she became Dorothy Levitt.

© not avail to Loving Dalston
Fast on the water, too, racing to a terrifying 32kmh

In 1903 she averaged 32kmh (19.5mph) to set a water-speed world record. Two years later she went in for motor-car distance races, becoming hailed as the fastest “girl” for having taken two days — yes, 2 — to travel in a French-made four-wheeler to and from London and Liverpool.

In 1909 Levitt developed her newspaper columns as a book, in which she recommended keeping a mirror to hand while driving, anticipating the rearview mirror (you know, those funny reflective things inside and outside your car).

© not avail to Loving Dalston
Levitt in a 26hp Napier, at the Brooklands, Surrey racecourse in 1908

The book’s title, The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor, was so long it also anticipated the modern publisher obsession with long internet-friendly titles. It did not, however, feature a young woman in a wispy dress gazing winsomely into the distance.

Not satisfied with being a speed pioneer on land and water, Levitt took flying lessons in Paris, where she was living what used to be termed a racy life, and died at 40 in Marylebone, central London, in 1922, of morphine poisoning. One way or another, she lived life at the edge.

© Alastair Levy
Kessel at the River Lee/Lea Navigation channel, where she rows

David Altheer 280617

* Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives (Pan Macmillan), by Anna Kessel, £12.99; paperback £8.99, from Thurs 13 July 2017 

* Backstory: Row, row your Clapton boat

* Plaque pictures © DavidAltheer [at] gmail.com, and all for sale for reproduction. Kessel portrait  © Alastair Levy. Thanks to Wikimedia for others.

* Emboldened underscored words in most cases indicate a hyperlink, a reader service rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained.

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