Turbulent Londoners: Jane Cobden, 1851-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Jane Cobden, one of the first women to be elected to the London County Council.


jane-cobden

A portrait of Jane Cobden by the artist Sidney Starr.

Fans of Victorian crime drama Ripper Street might recognise Jane Cobden from series 2 and 3. Played by Leanne Best, Cobden was a strong, opinionated London County Councillor, more than a match for love interest Detective Inspector Edmund Reid. But how does the character match up to the real Jane Cobden?

Born Emma Jane Catherine Cobden on the 28th of April 1851 in Westbourne Terrace, London, Jane was the fourth of sixth children of the well-known reformer and politician Richard Cobden. She devoted her life to campaigning for women’s rights and protecting and developing her father’s legacy- she was committed to the’Cobdenite’ issues of land reform, peace and social justice.

In 1869 Jane moved to South Kensington with her sisters Ellen, Anne and Kate, also dedicated activists. Jane was active on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, and became increasingly committed to the cause of women’s suffrage over the 1870s. In 1871, she attended the Women’s Suffrage Conference in London with her sister Anne. In about 1879 she joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and by the following year she was the organisation’s Treasurer.

The National Society was cautious, avoiding close association with political parties and excluding married women from their demand for the vote. This was too conservative for some, and the Central National Society broke away in 1888. In 1889 this group split again, and the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) was formed, including Cobden and Emmeline Pankhurst. The WFL’s aims were more radical- they wanted votes for women on the same basis as men, and women to be eligible for all political offices. Jane was politically pragmatic as well as ambitious, however. She disagreed with the mainstream Liberal Party’s stance on many issues, but remained a member because she believed it was the best way to advance her causes.

NPG x131220; (Emma) Jane Catherine Cobden Unwin by Fradelle & Young

A photo of Jane Cobden taken in the 1890s, by Fradelle and Young (Photo: National Portrait Gallery).

In the late 1880s, no one was sure whether women could serve as councillors or not; the law was unclear. In November 1888, the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors (SPRWCC) was set up to test the law. This catchily-named organisation set up a £400 election fund and choose two women to stand as Liberal candidates for the newly established London County Council. Jane stood in Bromley and Bow, and Margaret Sandhurst stood in Brixton. Jane campaigned on a variety of issues, including opposition the tax on coal, better housing for the poor, “fair” wages, and opposition to sweat shops. Both women won, but their positions were not secure; there were many who opposed their election and tried to overturn the results. Sandhurst’s election was challenged by the man she defeated, and her election was declared invalid. Jane was supported by her runner-up, who was also a member of the Liberal Party. However, a judge eventually ruled that Jane’s election was unlawful, and therefore so were her votes in the council. She quietly served the rest of her term, and did not stand for reelection. It wasn’t until the Qualification of Women Act in 1907 that women legally gained the right to sit on county councils; Cobden was truly a woman before her time.

In 1892, aged 41, Jane married Thomas Fisher Unwin, a publisher. Encouraged by him, Jane expanded her interests to include international peace and justice, and rights of aboriginal people around the world. The couple strongly opposed the Boer War. In 1893, Jane represented the WFL at the World Congress of Representative Women in Chicago.

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Jane Cobden as portrayed by Leanne Best in BBC/Amazon drama Ripper Street (Photo: BBC).

As the campaign for women’s suffrage gained pace after 1900, Jane chose not to participate in the illegal activities of the WSPU, but she fiercely defended her sister, Anne, when she was imprisoned for a month in October 1906. She organised the Indian women’s delegation in the Women’s Coronation Procession on the 17th of June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V. Cobden never gave up on a political solution to women’s suffrage. The Conciliation Bills of 1910-12 would have given a small number of propertied women the vote. Cobden asked the Irish Parliamentary Party to support the doomed bills, because of the support that women had given to the Land League campaign in England. She also continued to campaign for other causes she cared about during this time, publishing two books on the subject of land reform: The Hungry Forties: Life Under the Bread Tax (1904) and The Land Hunger: Life Under Monopoly (1913).

Jane Cobden died on the 7th of July 1974, aged 96. The BBC’s synopsis of her character in Ripper Street describes her as “one of the giants on whose shoulders the Suffragette Movement was to stand,” and it doesn’t exaggerate. Cobden may be more well-known than other women’s rights pioneers because of her portrayal in Ripper Street, but I think her achievements still deserve more recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Baldwin, Anne. “Women’s History Month: Persistence Pays Off, as Women are Finally Elected to the London County Council.” Women’s History Network. Last updated 5 March 2010, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://womenshistorynetwork.org/blog/?tag=jane-cobden

Hurley, Ann. “Emma Jane Catherine Cobden-Unwin 1851-1947.” Hurley and Skidmore Family History. No date, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://www.hurleyskidmorehistory.com.au/emma-jane-catherine-cobden-.html

Richardson, Sarah. “What Next, and Next? The Cobden Movement: Fleeting or Fundamental?” Liberty Fund. Last updated 8 January 2015, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/lm-cobden

Wikipedia. “Jane Cobden.” Last updated 4 September 2016, Accessed 31 October 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Cobden

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