Turbulent Londoners: Helen Taylor, 1831-1907

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. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Helen Taylor, a feminist and campaigner.


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Helen Taylor with her stepfather, John Stuart Mill (Source: Wikipedia).

Much of the attention during this centenary year of women’s suffrage has been on the groups who were active immediately before some women won the right to vote in 1918. Whilst groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Freedom League were very important in the struggle for the right to vote, the campaign actually went back much further than that, to the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first prominent campaigners for women’s rights was Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill.

Helen Taylor was born in London on the 27th of July 1831, the only daughter and youngest child of John and Harriet Taylor. Helen had little formal education as a child, but travelled widely in Europe with her mother. Her father died when she was a teenager in 1849, and her mother remarried the philosopher and politician, John Stuart Mill, two years later. Helen wanted to be an actress, and in 1856 went to work for a provincial theatre company in the north-east of England. She left when her mother died in 1858, however, and never returned to the stage.

After her mother’s death, Helen moved in with her stepfather and became his assistant. John valued the intelligence and input of his stepdaughter, as he had with his wife; he claimed that his later work was the result of three minds, not one. The two of them split their time between Blackheath in London, and Avignon, where John had bought a house so he could be close to his wife’s grave.

Helen shared a deep passion for the cause of women’s suffrage with John. They both believed that a woman’s right to vote should not be determined by her marital status. This was an issue that divided suffrage campaigners in the 1860s. Helen played a key role in the 1866 petition calling for right to vote to be extended to all householders, not only men. Helen helped to draft the petition, and was the link between the women who organised it and her stepfather, who presented the petition to parliament on the 7th of June. 1,499 women signed the petition, and although it was dismissed by the parliament, it is often viewed as the start of the organised campaign for the vote.

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The first page of a pamphlet version of the 1866 petition presented to parliament asking that some women be given the right to vote (Source: LSE)

Despite her firm and often loudly voiced opinions, Helen was popular amongst feminists in London. She was a member of the Kensington Group, a female discussion group formed in 1865. After the 1866 petition was rejected, this group formed the basis of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. After John Stuart Mill’s death in 1873, Helen spent time editing and publishing his work.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were a series of controversial laws that regulated prostitution in military areas. They placed most of the responsibility, and punishment, on the women rather than their customers. During the 1870s there was a strong campaign to repeal the Acts. Helen supported this campaign, and saw it as evidence that women needed to be represented in parliament. She worried that the suffrage cause would be damaged by an association with prostitution, however, and tried to keep the two causes separate.

When John Stuart Mill died, Helen was left financially independent and able to devote herself entirely to her own projects. In 1876, she stood for election to the Southwark school board. She won, and was re-elected twice more before she retired in 1884. She was very popular in this role, campaigning for free and universal education, the abolition of corporal punishment, and for free meals and clothing for the poorest children. Helen was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule, particularly land reform. She was the only woman to serve on the executive of the Land Nationalisation League.

Helen had strong views on morality; she was a member of the Moral Reform Union and the National Vigilance Association. In 1885, secretary of the Vigilance Association William Alexander Coote failed to secure the Liberal nomination for the constituency of Camberwell North. Enraged by this, Helen decided to stand for election herself, 34 years before women were actually allowed to stand for election as MPs. The returning officer refused to accept her nomination or election deposit, but her radical campaign platform gained a lot of attention–she advocated universal suffrage, home rule for Ireland, free universal education, graduated direct income tax, and the banning of war unless the people consented to it.

In the late 1880s Helen retired from public life, and spent most of her time in Avignon, where her mother was buried. She returned in England in late 1904 due to poor health, and was cared for by her niece in Torquay. She died on the 29th of January 1907. Helen Taylor was a woman of strong opinions, which she was not afraid to express. This led to strained relationships with other feminist activists, but she was well respected for her intelligence and determination. She helped pave the way for the women whose campaigning in the early 1900s would eventually win women the right to vote.

Sources and Further Reading

Levine, Philippa. “Taylor, Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36431?rskey=nioAzW&result=1 [requires subscription to access].

LSE. “The 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition.” Last modified 7th June 2106, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2016/06/07/the-1866-womens-suffrage-petition/

Simkin, John. “Kensington Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 1997, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wkensington.htm

Wikipedia. “Helen Taylor (feminist).” Last modified 13th March 2018, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Taylor_(feminist)

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