Turbulent Londoners: Dorothy Thurtle, 1890-1973

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in 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. This post is about Dorothy Thurtle, a trade unionist and women’s reproductive rights campaigner.


Dorothy Thurtle and George Lansbury

Dorothy Thurtle with her father, George Lansbury in 1936. It was very difficult to find a photo of Dorothy, this one was published in a Canadian newspaper (Photo: Newspapers.com, with thanks to Jessamyn West for finding it for me!)

Dorothy Lansbury was born on the 15th of November 1890 in Bow, East London. She was the sixth of twelve children, although two of her siblings sadly died in infancy. Her mother was Elizabeth Brine, and her father was George Lansbury, the popular working class Labour politician. Dorothy went to an elementary school in East London, and grew up surrounded by radical politics. When she left school she worked as a clerk and accountant. She joined the Independent Labour Party when she was 16, and the National Union of Clerks (NUC) when she started work.

Like many female activists in the early 1900s, Dorothy got involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and the Women’s Labour League. The WFL split from the WSPU because of their autocratic structure, and Dorothy disapproved of the WSPU’s violent methods. This caused some tension in the Lansbury family; Dorothy’s brother William was imprisoned for breaking windows on behalf of the WSPU.

Dorothy met her husband Ernest through her union work; he was chairman of the London district of the NUC. They married on the 13th of August 1912, and had 2 children. Dorothy and Ernest collaborated on their political projects, in 1913 they co-authored Comradeship for Clerks. Ernest was elected Labour MP for Shoreditch in 1923, and Dorothy pursued a career in local politics. She was the General Secretary of the Shoreditch Trades Council and Labour Party, and in 1925 she was elected to Shoreditch Borough Council. In 1936 she was elected mayor of Shoreditch, becoming one of the first female mayors in London (others were Ada Salter, elected in 1922, and Daisy Parsons, also elected in 1936).

Perhaps inspired by her mother’s twelve pregnancies, Dorothy became interested in women’s reproductive rights 1920s. In 1924, she and Ernest were founding members of the Worker’s Birth Control Group (WBCG), which campaigned to get the Labour Party to commit to the extension of working class access to birth control information. Dorothy also promoted the cause amongst the Labour Party’s women’s sections. In 1926, Ernest put forward a parliamentary bill on this topic, but it failed. Dorothy was frustrated by the Labour Party’s lack of response to the campaign; she argued that it didn’t care about women’s rights, and was only paying lip service to gender equality.

In the 1930s, Dorothy took up the cause of legalising abortion alongside other veterans of the WBCG. She was an early member of  the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), serving as the group’s Vice President until her retirement in 1962. She was also involved in the National Birth Control Council, which still exists today as the Family Planning Association. Between 1937 and 1939 she sat on the interdepartmental committee on abortion, the only member who was in favour of radical reform to the abortion law. When the committee’s report recommended no change to the law, Dorothy published a minority report, arguing that abortion should be legal on social grounds in some circumstances, especially for women with high fertility rates. She was particularly sensitive to the conditions of working class women with lots of children. For Dorothy, it was as much about social justice as it was reproductive rights; it was much easier to access an abortion if you were upper class.

Dorothy remained a strong advocated for women’s rights; in 1945, she described women as an oppressed class, and compared their position to slavery. In 1967, after 3 decades of campaigning, the Abortion Act was passed, which legalised abortion in Britain under some circumstances. In around 1970, a memorial garden honouring Dorothy was laid out in Shoreditch Park. She died on the 28th of February 1973.

When I was writing this blog post, it was very difficult to find a picture of Dorothy. It is more difficult to research women’s history than men’s, for a number of reasons, not least because they just weren’t considered as important for much of history, and there tends to be fewer surviving records about women. If we are not careful, then the contributions of women like Dorothy might disappear from history entirely. I write these blog posts because their bravery and resilience deserves to be remembered.

Sources and Further Reading

Brooke, Stephen. “Thurtle [nee Lansbury], Dorothy.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69843 [subscription required to access].

London Parks and Garden Trust. “Shoreditch Park.” Last modified 2nd April 2018, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.php?ID=HAC052

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