Rosa Matheson is the historian and author behind the 100 Women Book Project, which helps women facing hardship in developing countries to help themselves. She lives in Highworth and is married to retired GP Ian. The couple have four grown-up children
ROSA Matheson became perhaps the best-known chronicler of the Great Western Railway thanks to a gap in history.
“I was teaching a course to help women get into management. It was part of a roadshow in the late 80s and early 90s,” she said.
“I was also doing a lot of work for Swindon Borough Council regarding women in business and skills training.
“I kept getting asked my opinion on women’s initiatives and educational issues, and, to be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud because I was no more knowledgeable than other women on these courses.
“So I decided to find out more and go back to university. I went to Oxford Brookes University and did a Masters in women’s history and women in literature.
“One of the projects in that was a research project – you had to do a local studies project, and I thought I’d find out more about women in the Great Western Railway.
“I was at the museum and I kept saying ‘Where are the women?’ I spent a week there and I got very cross because there was very little about the women who worked there, but I was also fascinated by railway history.”
A PhD thesis on the subject followed, and formed the basis of a book, Women And The Great Western Railway, which appeared in 2007.
Other volumes followed that, including Doing Time Inside: Apprenticeship and Training in GWR’s Swindon Works, The GWR Story and Railway Voices: Inside Swindon Works.
If her railway books have a central theme, it’s the celebration of ordinary people and their remarkable role in history. Rosa’s history is also remarkable. The daughter of a plumber and a Romany mother Rosa spent the first few years of her life in Hendon, living in what Romanies refer to as a wagon rather than a caravan.
“There were a lot of circus folk,” she recalled. “My grandmother was one of them – she rode horses and performed on the trapeze.”
The young Rosa suffered anti-Romany prejudice and bigotry she prefers not to talk about.
At 19, health problems meant she had to go into hospital for surgery, and this led to a chance meeting.
“I met a wonderful physio. She said I had the guts and grit to do anything. I wanted to be a teacher. I’d thought that, as a Romany, I’d never be able to do these things,” Rosa said.
Rosa studied at what is now West Herts College. Her early career included running a school in the United Arab Emirates.
Her connection with Swindon began when her husband’s job brought the couple to the area at the turn of the 1980s.
A lifelong commitment to helping others reach their full potential found another outlet toward the end of the last decade, when she heard from her son about the plight of orphans in Nepal, many of whom aren’t orphans at all but have been left in orphanages by desperate widowed mothers.
Some Nepali men believe marrying a widow brings bad luck, which means women are left destitute by the death of a husband.
The 100 Women Book Project, for which funds are generated by sales of her book, A Day In The Life Of 100 Women In Britain, is the an attempt to help women in need, initially in Nepal and eventually in other countries.
Funds are distributed by a Rotary branch in Kathmandu.
“It’s a micro-finance project,” said Rosa. “They go to the villages, choose the most needy women and give them a loan for something that will provide an income, such as a loom, a mushroom farm or some pigs and goats.”
The project’s website is www.the100womenbookproject.com, and the book is available from Waterstones in the Brunel Centre and Pen And Paper in Old Town.