Mrs Dott has been interested in building since her girlhood, and, if difficulties had not barred the way, there is no doubt she would have developed into a woman architect. This avenue having been closed to her, she became a master builder instead, and, practically single-handed, has seized some unusual opportunities
Patrick's new parish of Woodstock, Cape Town was in flux. In the 1890s it had been a peaceful country village in open farmland, but immigration was rapidly changing its character and in 1904 a quarter of its population was British-born. It was not an affluent community – some years later, when Patrick was inducted into a Croydon parish, the Rural Dean described Woodstock as "the workmen's suburb of Capetown" – and the population of about 16,000 was constantly changing. In the Woodstock Parish Magazine of April 1907 Mr Dott commented on the
perpetual going and coming of the people ... The net of the Church must ever be cast wide; and, with our large population, it is especially true of Woodstock.[from Rediscovering Woodstock by Andrea Badham]
Patrick's background in mission work must have made him a natural choice for the parish, where he would find plenty of work and challenges to deal with. He and Annabel set themselves to the task.
Annabel turned her attention to the rectory. It had gone, she said, "literally to pieces" during the time of the previous vicar, who was "a scholarly recluse".
On the first 15 years of Annabel's building projects, we have two valuable sources – interviews given by her in 1920 and 1921. The first appeared on 16 July 1920 in The Woman's Leader & Common Cause (the aim of which was "to advocate a real equality of liberties, status and opportunities between men and women") under the headline "The Work of a Woman Builder: Mrs Dott, who is an Expert in the Erection of Cottages, Interviewed by Agnes M Miall".
Agnes Mackenzie Miall (1892-1977) was a writer and broadcaster who began her career in 1916 with The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything (1916), a practical, clearly-written handbook for young single women leaving home to work – it was reissued in facsimile in 2007.
A few months after the interview was printed, Women's Pioneer Housing Ltd was set up by a group of suffrage campaigners. Its founding members included Agnes and Annabel. It was a housing association established to supply an urgent need. After the War, many women stayed in the workforce. So many men had died – there was the "problem" of the so-called surplus women – and women were entering the professions in Britain at last. Unfortunately, finding accommodation was difficult because landlords were reluctant to rent to women – couples or men paid more. But a working woman of course needed a safe, private place to call home, and at an affordable rent.
An Irish suffragist Etheldred Browning, who ran the women's section of the Garden Cities & Town Planning Association, saw that a housing association specifically for women was the answer. She and her colleagues – the group included suffragettes (who believed in breaking the law to get the vote) and suffragists (who did not) – had to form a limited company, because women on their own could not get mortgages. The founding members – including Annabel Dott – bought shares in the company and the scheme was underway. For more on the founding of the Company and its early tenants (many were nurses, continuing their profession after the War) see this page on the blog of Jess McCabe. Annabel resigned her membership after four months, presumably because she was so busy with her other projects and with parish work.
The interview with Agnes M Miall took place a few months before the first meeting of Women's Pioneer Housing Ltd, but given the amount of time it takes for such an enterprise to get under way, I think Agnes will have become acquainted with Annabel before the interview. So I think we can assume that Annabel is fairly accurately reported, by a writer who is sympathetic to her viewpoint and shares her political and social attitudes.
The second article appeared under the headline "A Master Woman Builder: Interview with Mrs Annabel Dott" on 22 April 1921 in The Vote : The Organ of the Women's Freedom League, a periodical which was actually concerned more with social than political feminist issues, such as sexual oppression and restrictions on employment. We can see from the natures of both the journals where Annabel's sympathies lay.
(See the website Women's Print Media in Interwar Britain for more details on these feminist periodicals)
This is Annabel's vivid account of refurbishing the Rectory, from The Vote:
A big rather dark room was made into a study. A long window cut close under the ceiling, almost in the form of a frieze, added some very necessary light, and also gave a view of Table Mountain in the distance. The existing fireplace was scrapped, and a roomy hearth built in its place, faced with deep blue tiles obtained specially from Holland. The plain white plastered walls, the glimpse of the cloud-capped mountain, the dull blue of tiles, and hangings, made a beautiful room. It was furnished with a few really good pieces of old Dutch furniture picked up in odd places, plenty of easy chairs, and a huge divan converted out of packing-cases, which a coloured woman upholstered quite skilfully. Glass doors led out on to a wide stoep or verandah with the garden beyond. A big bedroom and a bathroom were built on, and two rooms added to the servants' compound.After the Rectory, another opportunity arose. One of Patrick's duties was
to be responsible for certain Church property out there. Among these was one of South Africa's very few historical buildings, the house where the treaty by which the Dutch ceded Cape Colony to England was signed. It had fallen into considerable disrepair. There were difficulties in the way of getting it put in order, and I had the inspiration of undertaking the job myself. I knew nothing of building; the native men whom I hired almost as little. We had to learn by doing things wrong and then doing them over again. But in the end we saved the house. [The Woman's Leader]
[The Treaty House] is a low thatched building close to the sea, and under the shadow of Table Mountain. It had been so neglected that it was in parlous state. But a Battle of Flowers was organised, and the funds thus provided enabled it to be properly restored, and now it is saved, we hope, for many years. [The Vote]
A little later there was a question of the schools attached to the Church being condemned by the Government inspectors. Emboldened by my previous success I undertook to put them right, and did so, with such success that the Government not only leased the school from us at a rental above the average, because the fabric was in such good condition, but allowed my husband special concessions in the way of visiting the classes. [The Woman's Leader]
In 1908 the Dotts left Woodstock for Patrick to become Acting Warden of St Paul's Hostel, the recently-established theological college in Grahamstown, more than 500 miles away.
In the early summer of 1909, Patrick and Annabel sailed for England.