Turbulent Londoners: Dora Montefiore, 1851-1933

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. Next up is Dora Montefiore, a journalist, pamphleteer and socialist.


Dora Montefiore

Dora Montefiore, 1851-1933 (Source: Working Class Movement Library.)

The women who campaigned for the right to vote are usually divided into two camps: suffragettes and suffragists. Some women, however, blurred the lines. Dora Montefiore was one such woman, who was a member of a dizzying number of groups, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the Women’s Tax Resistance League, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Adult Suffrage Society, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain. She held prominent positions in some of these groups, and also contributed her skills as a writer to the women’s movement and socialism.

Born Dora Fuller in Surrey on the 20th December 1851 into a wealthy family, Dora had a privileged childhood, with a good education from governesses and a private school in Brighton. In 1874, she moved to Sydney to help her brother’s wife. She met wealthy merchant George Barrow Montefiore, and they were married in February 1881. They had two children in 1883 and 1887. George died in 1889, and Dora discovered that she didn’t have the automatic right to become guardian of her own children, it had to be specified in her husband’s will. It was this stark inequality that converted Dora into a women’s rights campaigner. In March 1891, she held the first meeting of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales at her house.

In 1892 Dora left Australia, spending a few years in Paris before settling in England. She threw herself into the women’s movement here, serving on the executive of the NUWSS under Millicent Garrett Fawcett and founding the Women’s Tax Resistance League in 1897. She refused to pay taxes during the Boer War (1899-1902) on the grounds that the money would be used to fund a war that she had no say in. Bailiffs seized and auctioned her goods to cover the tax bill.

When the WSPU was formed Dora also became an enthusiastic member. She was good friends with Minnie Baldock, and was a regular speaker at the Canning Town branch of the WSPU, which was the first branch in East London, founded by Minnie. In 1906, Dora refused to pay her taxes again, this time until women were given the right to vote. In May and June, she barricaded herself into her house in Hammersmith for 6 weeks to prevent bailiffs seizing her goods. She hung a banner on the wall that read: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.” In October, she was arrested and imprisoned, along with several others, for demanding the right to vote in the lobby of the House of Commons.

suffragette-fort-hammersmith

Dora Montefiore’s barricaded house in Hammersmith in the summer of 1906 (Source: LBHF Libraries)

Dora was nothing if not principled, however, and by the end of 1906 she had left the WSPU because she disagreed with it’s autocratic structure that gave significant power to a small group of wealthy women. The following year, she joined the Adult Suffrage Society, and was elected honorary secretary in 1909. The Adult Suffrage Society believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working classes and might delay universal adult suffrage, rejecting the idea that is was an important stepping stone.

After leaving the WSPU, Dora remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, who shared her belief in socialism. Dora was a longstanding member of the Social Democratic Federation, later the British Socialist Party. She advocated a socialism that was also concerned with women’s issues and in 1904, she helped establish the party’s women’s organisation. She left the group in 1912 because of her opposition to militarism. When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1920, Dora, aged 69, was elected to the provisional council.

Dora was a journalist, writer, and pamphleteer. In 1898, she published a book of poetry called Singings through the Dark. From 1902 to 1906 she wrote a women’s column in The New Age, and she contributed to the Social Democratic Foundation’s journal, Justice. She would later write for the Daily Herald and New York Call. In 1911, whilst in Australia visiting her son, she edited the International Socialist Review of Australasia when its owner fell ill. Most of the pamphlets she wrote were about women and socialism. For example, in 1907 she wrote Some Words to Socialist Women.

In 1921, Dora’s son died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning he had received fighting on the Western Front during the war. She had to promise not to engage in Communist campaigning in order to be allowed to visit her daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Australia. Despite this promise, Dora used the time to make connections with the Australian communist movement; in 1924, she represented the Communist Party of Australia in Moscow at the fifth World Congress of the Communist International. She had long taken an international approach to her campaigning, attending conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

Dora Montefiore died at her home in Hastings, Sussex, on the 21st of December 1933. She is commemorated on the plinth of Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square. She was a committed socialist and suffrage campaigner, and did what she thought was right, even when that meant leaving groups that she had previously devoted herself to. She also pioneered one of the lesser-known tactics of the women’s suffrage movement, tax resistance. It was a strategy that combined civil disobedience with non-violence, and became an important tool in the suffrage arsenal. She is not well-known today, that does not make her contribution any less significant.

Sources and Further Reading

Matgamna, Sean. “Dora Montefiore: A Half-forgotten Socialist Feminist.” Marxists.org. No date, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at  https://www.marxists.org/archive/montefiore/biography.htm

Simkin, John. “Adult Suffrage Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wadult.htm

Simkin, Jon. “Dora Montefiore.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wmontefefiore.htm

Wikipedia. “Dora Montefiore. Last modified April 26, 2018, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Montefiore

Working Class Movement Library. “Dora Montefiore.” No date, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/activists/dora-montefiore/

 

Turbulent Londoners: Lady Constance Lytton, 1869-1923

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 Lady Constance Lytton, an aristocrat who was imprisoned four times for the suffrage movement.


Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton, 1869-1923 (Photo: Museum of London).

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton was a woman of privilege, although she was never really comfortable with the aristocratic life. Suffering from poor health for most of her life, she struggled to find a purpose to life until she decided to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1910. Her dedication to the suffrage movement dovetailed with her interest in prison reform, and she relished being imprisoned four times for the cause. On the third occasion she was force fed.

Constance Lytton was born on the 12th of January 1869 in Vienna. The third of seven children of Edith Villiers and Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the first Earl of Lytton, to say that Constance was privileged is a bit of an understatement. Her father was the Viceroy of India, and she lived there until she was 11. She was private and shy, and never really took to the aristocratic way of life. When her father died in 1891 she retired from public life to look after her mother. The following year, her mother refused to allow her to marry someone from a ‘lower social order.’ Constance spent several years hoping her mother would change her mind, but it was not to be, and Constance never married.

In 1905, Constance was left £1000 by her great-aunt. She wanted to donate the money to the revival of morris dancing, and her brother suggested she give it to the Esperance Club, founded by Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Mary Neal. Both suffrage campaigners themselves, Emmeline and Mary established the Esperance Club, a dance and drama club for working class girls. Over the next few years, Constance met other suffragettes, including Annie Kenney. Constance had an interest in prison reform and was initially sympathetic to suffragette prisoners, although she disapproved of their militant methods. Her objections were eventually overcome, however, and she joined the WSPU in January 1909.

Constance Lytton group shot

Constance (left) with several other prominent suffragettes (Photo: Her Blueprint).

Constance became a paid WSPU organiser in June 1910; she travelled the country making pro-Suffrage speeches and used her family connections to lobby Parliament. She wasted no time getting involved in the direct action side of the suffrage campaign though, on the 24th of February 1909 she took part in a demonstration at the House of Commons which earnt her her first prison sentence. Constance had a weak heart, and spent most of her sentence in the infirmary, being treated well. Whilst in prison, she attempted to carve ‘Votes for Women’ into her own skin, from her chest to her cheek, so her allegiance would always be visible. She carved the V above her heart, but was prevented from completing this unorthodox protest when she asked for a sterile dressing.

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Constance Lytton in disguise as Jane Warton (Photo: Museum of London).

The second time Constance was imprisoned, she was released as soon as she began a hunger strike and a doctor discovered her weak heart. The government were reluctant to make a martyr of such a prominent, well-connected suffragette. Convinced that her social status was earning her special treatment, Constance adopted the persona of Jane Warton, a working-class London seamstress. Jane Warton travelled to Liverpool in October 1909 and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour after throwing rocks at an MP’s car. She went on hunger strike, and was force fed eight times before her true identity was discovered and she was released.

Severely weakened by her ordeal, Constance wrote accounts of her experiences for The Times and Votes for Women, the WSPU’s newspaper. She also gave lectures about Jane Warton’s time in prison, and her accounts are credited with helping to end the practice of force feeding suffragettes. It came at a high price; Constance had a heart attack in August 1910, followed by several strokes that left her right side paralysed. In November 1911, Constance was imprisoned again, and found conditions for suffragettes much improved. Her health forced her to step back from direct action campaigning, but she continued to write pamphlets and other materials in support of women’s suffrage. In 1914 Prisons and Prisoners, her account of her experiences in prison, was published.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the WSPU suspended their pro-suffrage campaigning. Constance turned her attention to Marie Stopes’ campaign to establish birth control clinics. Her health never recovered, and she was looked after by her mother for the rest of her life. She died on the 2nd May 1923.

Constance Lytton was never comfortable with her privilege, but she used it to campaign for women’s right to vote, and to expose the cruelty of the treatment of suffrage campaigners in prison. She sacrificed her already poor health to draw attention to the disparity between the treatment of working- and upper-class prisoners, and I admire her determination.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Birkby, Michelle. “Lady Constance Lytton: The Suffering Suffragette.” Historia. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://www.historiamag.com/lady-constance-lytton-suffragette/

Jenkins, Lyndsey. Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr. London: Biteback, 2015.

Simkin, John. “Constance Lytton.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wlytton.htm 

Wikipedia, “Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton.” Last modified 1st January 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Constance_Bulwer-Lytton

Turbulent Londoners: Rosa May Billinghurst, 1875-1953

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. Next up is Rosa May Billinghurst, known at the time as ‘the cripple suffragette.’


Rosa May Billinghurst Close up

Rosa May Billinghurst (Source: Sheilahanlon.com)

Rosa May Billinghurst was born on the 31st May 1875 to a well-off middle class family in Lewisham, south east London. She suffered with polio as a young child which left her unable to walk; she wore leg irons and used crutches or a modified tricycle for the rest of her life. This would not prevent her from throwing herself headlong into the campaign for women’s suffrage however. In fact, she often used her disability to the advantage of the cause.

As a young women Rosa volunteered with the poor in Greenwich, taught Sunday School, and was a member of the Band of Hope, a charity which taught children about the benefits of sobriety and teetotalism. She was also a member of the Women’s Liberal Association, although she later rejected the Liberal Party because of its approach to women’s suffrage. Rosa came to believe that women’s inferior position in society held back society as a whole.

Rosa joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907 and took an active part in marches and demonstrations despite her limited mobility. In 1910, she founded a Greenwich branch of the WSPU and served as its Secretary. On the 18th of November, she took part in the demonstration that would become known as Black Friday. The demonstration was organised to protest the government’s abandonment of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given about one million of the wealthiest women the right to vote. The police used excessive force in quelling the demonstration, arresting 119 people, and assaulting many more. In a pattern that would become familiar to Rosa, police officers threw her out of her tricycle and sabotaged it, leaving her unable to move. Unfortunately, this behaviour was echoed by police officers almost a century later, when Jody McIntyre was pulled from his wheelchair twice during the Student Tuition Fee Demonstrations in 2010.

Rosa May Billinghurst tricycle

Rosa and her adapted tricycle at a Votes for Women demonstration (Source: LSE Library).

Rosa used her tricycle to its full advantage however. During demonstrations, she would decorate her tricycle with coloured ribbons and WSPU banners. During confrontations with the police, she would place her crutches on either side of the tricycle and repeatedly charge at police lines, happy to use herself as a battering ram. She was also known to hide the tools of the suffragette’s trade–stones for smashing windows and packages of thick brown liquid for pouring into post boxes and destroying letters–under the blanket that covered her knees. In addition, Rosa was fully aware of the publicity she could attract as a disabled suffragette; it was very difficult to portray her in a negative light without seeming particularly callous.

In March 1912 Rosa took part the WSPU’s campaign of mass window smashing. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labour for smashing a window on Henrietta Street. The sentence caused confusion amongst prison authorities, who did not know what kind of labour she could be put to. In December, she was caught sabotaging post boxes in Deptford, also part of a wider WSPU campaign. She was apparently glad to be arrested, believing that it would finally get the media attention the campaign had been trying to achieve. Rosa was sentenced to 8 months in prison. She went on hunger strike, and the subsequent force-feeding had such an effect on her health that she was released after two weeks.

Despite this traumatic ordeal, Rosa continued to participate in direct action. On the 24th of May 1913, she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace. The following month, on the 14th of June, she took part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession. Emily had died after attempting to attach a Votes for Women sash to the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby, and she was celebrated as a martyr for the cause.

rosa May Billinghurst and police.PNG

Rosa grappling with police (Source: LSE Library).

 

Emmeline and Christabel’s decision to suspend WSPU campaigning at the outbreak of the First World War in order to concentrate on the war effort was a controversial one. Rosa joined the Women’s Freedom League, who continued to campaign, suggesting that she didn’t personally agree with the Pankhurst’s decision. However, she remained loyal to the Pankhursts and the WSPU, helping in Christabel’s 1918 election campaign in Smethwick as the candidate for the Women’s Party. Emmeline and Christabel had founded the Women’s Party when the dissolved the WSPU in November 1917. Christabel lost, but only by 800 votes.

Rosa withdrew from activism after the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. During her time in the WSPU, however, she was a fierce campaigner who used her disability to the best possible advantage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fox, Kathryn. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Disabled Suffragette Campaigner.” Huffpost UK. Last modified 23rd December 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at  https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-campaigner_uk_5a37f1dde4b02bd1c8c608c8

Fox, Katie. “Rosa May Billinghurst: The Disabled Suffragette Abused by Police and Force-fed in Prison.” i. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-abused-police-force-fed-prison/

Hanlon, Sheila. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Suffragette on Three Wheels.” SheilaHanlon.com. No date, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://www.sheilahanlon.com/?page_id=1314 

John Simkin. “May Billinghurst.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified March 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbillinghurst.htm 

Wikipedia. “Rosa May Billinghurst.” Last modified 4th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_May_Billinghurst

Wikipedia. “Women’s Party (UK).” Last modified 29th January 2018, accessed 23rd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Party_(UK)

Turbulent Prestonians: Edith Rigby, 1872-1948

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Preston in Lancashire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. As I was learning about Preston I came across Edith Rigby, a social reformer and suffragette, whose activism rivalled any of the London suffrage campaigners.


Edith_Rigby_(1872–1948)

Edith Rigby, 1872-1948 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Edith Rayner was born on the 18th of October 1872, one of seven children of a doctor. Although her family was quite well off, they lived in a working-class area, and Edith came to sympathise strongly with the poor and disadvantaged. She questioned the sharp divisions between Preston’s social classes, and devoted much of her life to improving the lives of working-class women, as well as fighting for women’s rights more generally.

It is though that Edith was the first woman to ride a bike in Preston, in the late 1880s. She was pelted with vegetables and eggs as she cycled around the town, but that did not put her off. In September 1893, at the age of 21, Edith married Dr. Charles Rigby. The couple moved into the elegant Winckley Square, which contained the kind of large, expensive homes that had led Edith to question the inequality between rich and poor in her early life. It seems likely that Charles was supportive of Edith and her beliefs–throughout her married life she was known as Mrs. Edith Rigby, rather than the customary Mrs. Charles Rigby. The couple adopted a two-year-old boy named Arthur in 1905, and by all accounts had a happy marriage.

In 1899, Edith founded St Peter’s School, which allowed working class women to continue their education after the age of 11. She was also critical of how Preston’s wealthy treated their servants. The Rigbys did employ servants, but they treated them well; for example, they were allowed to eat in the dining room and they did not have to wear uniforms. As the bicycle story might suggest, Edith was not afraid of causing a little scandal; she wore unconventional, practical clothing, and caused a stir by washing the front step of her house herself.

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The plaque on number 28 Winckley Square, where Edith Rigby lived with her husband (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time, children started work in the local factories and mills at the age of 11 as ‘half-timers.’ Edith founded an ‘after-mill club’ for half-timer girls in Preston on Brook Street. The club was both educational and recreational , and activities included cricket, music, and trips to the swimming baths and theatre, as well as more traditional lessons such as debating. The trip to the theatre gave rise to the Brook Street Drama Society which performed An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, a play about corrupt local officials and the morality of whistle blowing.

Edith was also involved in a series of campaigns to help specific groups of female workers. For example, the women of the Woods Tobacco Factory suffered from illnesses caused by nicotine poisoning and poor ventilation in the factory. When they were forced to work an extra hour per day for the same wages, Edith stepped in. She persuaded Woods’ best customer, the Co-Operative Wholesale Company, to boycott Woods until working conditions improved. In 1906, she formed a Preston branch of the Women’s Labour League, a union for female workers.

Woods Tobacco Factory 2014.jpg

The Woods Tobacco Factory in Preston in 2014 (Photo: Hilary Machell)

In 1907, Edith founded a Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for women’s suffrage in 1903. Edith was an active recruiter, encouraging members of the local Labour party to join the WSPU. Although soft-spoken, she was known for being incredibly persuasive. In 1908, Edith travelled to London to participate in a march on the Houses of Parliament. Along with 56 other women, Edith was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison. This was the first of seven prison sentences Edith would endure for the cause of women’s suffrage. She embarked on a hunger strike, and was subjected to force-feeding.

The following year, Winston Churchill, at this point President of the Board of Trade, visited Preston. Edith was arrested at a meeting at which Churchill spoke. After her release, she followed Churchill to Liverpool, where she smashed a window at a police station. For this, she was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment. In 1913, she threw black pudding at the local MP at a meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. She chose black pudding because it was more demeaning than other foodstuffs usually used in such a protest, like milk or eggs.

Edith employed militant tactics to get her point across, even by the standards of the WSPU. On the 5th of July 1913, she planted a bomb in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. No one was hurt, and the damage was minimal. Edith had planned it this way, because she wanted people to understand how angry the suffragettes were, and how much harm they could do if they wanted to. Edith turned herself in, and was sentenced to 9 months in prison. She also claimed responsibility for setting fire to Lord Levelhulme’s bungalow on the West Pennine moors just two days later, on the 7th July 1913. The fire destroyed valuable paintings and caused around £20000 worth of damage.

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The Liverpool Cotton Exchange in about 1963 (Photo: Liverpool1207)

With the outbreak of World War One, the WSPU ceased campaigning and threw themselves behind the war effort. Edith disagreed with this decision, and joined the breakaway group the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU), setting up a branch in Preston. Although not opposed to the war like some groups such as the Women’s Freedom League and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the IWSPU continued to campaign for the vote until it dissolved in 1918.

During the war, Edith bought a cottage outside Preston called Marigold Cottage, which she used to produce food for the war effort. Charles retired and lived with Edith at the cottage. Charles died in 1925, and Edith moved to North Wales the following year. During her later life, Edith became interested in the work of Rudolf Steiner, eventually forming her own Anthroposophical Circle. She died in 1950 near Llandudno, Wales.

Edith Rigby was a formidable woman, fiercely committed to her principles. She dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights, particularly those of working class women, who were so frequently exploited in the factories of Lancashire. She was willing to take drastic action, and whilst I do not necessarily agree with her methods, I certainly admire her courage.

Sources and Further Reading

Caslin, Sam. “Why did Suffragette Edith Rigby Plant a Bomb at the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool?” University of Liverpool. Last modified 6th February 2018, accessed 20th March 2018. Available at  https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/history/blog/2018/suffragette-edith-rigby/

Machel, Hilary. “‘Of Course, she was Years Ahead of her Time’: Preston Suffragette Edith Rigby.” Friends of the Harris. Last modified 25th June 2014, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at http://friendsoftheharris.tumblr.com/post/89842164634/of-course-she-was-years-ahead-of-her-time 

Wikipedia. “Edith Rigby.” Last modified 18th February 2018, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Rigby

Wikipedia. “Independent Women’s Social and Political Union.” Last modified 3rd December 2017, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Women%27s_Social_and_Political_Union

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Matters, 1877-1969

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. The third of my suffrage activists is Muriel Matters, an Australian actress, lecturer, and journalist with a flair for dramatic stunts.


Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, 1877-1969 (Photo: Frosty Ramblings).

All of the suffrage campaigners I have featured so far as Turbulent Londoners have been British. London has always been a city of migrants, however, and many of the activists involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage were born elsewhere. Muriel Matters was an Australian lecturer, journalist, actress, and elocutionist who put her flair for the dramatic to good use fighting for a right that South Australian women had had since 1894.

Muriel Matters was born on the 12th of November 1877 to a large Methodist family in Adelaide, South Australia. As a child she was introduced to the writing of Walt Whitman and Henrik Ibsen, who strongly influenced her political consciousness. In 1894, when Muriel was still a teenager, South Australia became the first self-governing territory to give women the vote on the same standing as men.

Muriel studied music at the University of Adelaide, and by the late 1890s she was acting and conducting recitals in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. In 1905, at the age of 28, Muriel moved to London to try and further her acting career. Leaving a country where women had the right to vote in all federal elections, Muriel arrived in a country where women could not vote at all. Facing stiff competition for acting work, Muriel also had to take on work as a journalist. She interviewed the exiled anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, and later performed at his home. Kropotkin challenged Muriel to do something more useful with her talents than acting–she later identified this as a defining moment in her life. She joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a group which had broken away from the WSPU in 1907 because of the lack of democracy in the organisation. The President of the WFL was Charlotte Despard, a formidable woman who is one of my favourite Turbulent Londoners.

CARAVAN TOUR/WFL 20C

The first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour in 1908 (Source: The Women’s Library/Mary Evans Picture Library).

Between early May and Mid-October 1908, Muriel was the ‘Organiser in Charge’ of the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour around the South of England. WFL activists visited towns in Surrey, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent, with the aim of talking about women’s suffrage and forming new branches. Despite problems with hecklers, the tour was very successful, and many of the other suffrage societies would later run caravan tours of their own.

Not one to rest on her laurels, on the 28th of October 1908 Muriel took part in a dramatic protest at the House of Parliament organised by the WFL. They were protesting against an iron grille in the Ladie’s Gallery that obscured the view of the House of Commons and was seen as a symbol of women’s oppression. Muriel and another activist called Helen Fox chained themselves to the offending grille, and loudly lectured the MPs below on the benefits of women’s enfranchisement. The grille had to be removed so that a blacksmith could remove the two women. Released without charge, Muriel rejoined the protest outside the House of Commons, and was eventually arrested for trying to rush the lobby. The next day she was sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison.

A few months later, the state opening of Parliament on the 16th of February 1909 was marked by a procession led by King Edward. In order to gain attention and promote the suffrage cause, Muriel hired a dirigible air balloon. With ‘Votes for Women’ on one side, and ‘WFL’ on the other, she planned to fly over central London, showering the King and Parliament with pro-suffrage leaflets. The weather conditions and a poor motor meant that Muriel didn’t make it to Westminster, but she did fly over London for one and a half hours, dropping 56lbs of leaflets. The stunt made headlines all over the world.

Muriel Matters dirigible

Muriel Matters on her balloon flight over London (Source: Balloonteam.net).

From May to July 1910, Muriel embarked on a lecture tour of Australia. She was an engaging speaker, making use of illustrations and even changing into a replica of the dress she wore whilst in prison. She advocated prison reform, equal pay, and the vote. At the end of the tour, she helped persuade the Australian senate to pass a resolution informing the British Prime Minister Asquith of the positive experiences of women’s suffrage. In October 1913, Muriel helped persuade the National Federation of Mineworker’s to support women’s suffrage.

On the 15th October 1914, Muriel married William Arnold Porter, a divorced dentist from Boston. She decided to double-barrel her surname. In June 1915, she laid out her opposition to war in an address called ‘The False Mysticism of War.’ She argued that it was not an effective method of solving problems, and justifications for it were based on false pretences. She particularly objected to Christianity as a justification for war, and questioned the significance of nationality. Views such as these were extremely unpopular at the time, and it took great bravery to voice them.

In 1916 Muriel went to Barcelona for a year to learn about the Montesorri method of teaching, a child-centred approach which promotes the development of the whole child, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Muriel believed that access to education should be universal, and she took what she learnt in Barcelona back to charity work she was doing in East London. In 1922, she toured Australia again, this time advocating the Montesorri method.

Miss-Muriel-Matters-addressing-crowd-407x457

Muriel Matters addressing a crowd in Caernarfon, Wales, in 1909 (Source: Harper Collins Australia).

In the 1924 General Election, Muriel ran as the Labour candidate for Hastings. She ran on a socialist platform, advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed, and gender equality. She didn’t win- Hastings was a safe Conservative seat, and wasn’t won by Labour until 1997. The ability to stand in itself was victory enough for Muriel. After the election, Muriel and her husband settled in Hastings. William died in 1949, and Muriel died 20 years later, on the 17th of November 1969, at the age of 92. Provocative until the end, she was remembered locally as being partial to a spot of skinny dipping at the nearby Pelham Beach.

Australian-born Muriel Matters launched herself wholeheartedly into the the campaign for women’s suffrage in her adopted country. Her flair for dramatic acts of non-violent civil disobedience helped her attract valuable attention and publicity for the cause of women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fallon, Amy. “Muriel Matters: An Australian Suffragette’s Unsung Legacy.” Last modified 11 October 2013, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy

Friends of Hastings Cemetery. “Muriel Matters Porter.” No date, accessed 8 February. Available at http://friendsofhastingscemetery.org.uk/mattersm.html

The Muriel Matters Society Inc. “About Muriel.” No date, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/home-page/who-was-muriel-matters/

Wikipedia. “Muriel Matters.” Last modified 20 January 2018, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Matters

Turbulent Londoners: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 1847-1929

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. The second of my suffragists is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a pioneer of the campaign before the WSPU was even a twinkle in Emmeline Pankhurst’s eye.


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Millicent Garrett Fawcett as a young woman (Photo: Wikipedia).

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were having a conversation about Millicent Garrett Fawcett being the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square. When our Dad, a man with quite high levels of general knowledge, responded to the conversation by asking “who?”, I knew who my next Turbulent Londoner was going to be. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a writer and campaigner, and was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for more than two decades.

Millicent Garrett was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on the 11th of June 1847, the eighth of ten children. The family was close and prosperous, and Millicent’s childhood was happy. The children were encouraged to read, speak their minds, and take an interest in politics. At the age of 12, Millicent was sent to school in Blackheath with her sister Elizabeth. Her older sisters introduced her to radical ideas and thinkers. In 1866, Millicent went to hear a speech given by John Stuart Mill, an early supporter of women’s suffrage. His words helped her decide to take action. That same year, at the age of 19, she became the Secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Through her new political connections Millicent soon met Henry Fawcett, the radical Liberal MP for Brighton. Despite the 14-year age gap they were married in 1867, and had their first and only child, Philippa, in April 1868. The couple were politically well matched, and it seems that they had a happy and loving marriage.

Henry was blinded in a shooting accident in 1858, so Millicent acted as his Secretary, alongside her activism and a successful writing career. In 1868, she joined the London Suffrage Committee, and spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting. It was unusual for women to speak in the public at the time, and Millicent got very nervous before making a speech. Despite this, she was known for her clear speaking voice, and her ability to explain complex arguments simply. In 1870, Millicent published Political Economy for Beginners. It was very successful, going through 10 editions in 41 years. Along with her sister Agnes, Millicent also raised 4 of her cousins whose parents had died.

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Millicent with her husband Henry in around 1880 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a strong supporter of women’s education. In 1875, she co-founded Newnham College, one of the first Cambridge Colleges for women. She also supported a controversial campaign for women to actually receive degrees from the University of Cambridge, rather than just being able to study there. This wasn’t achieved until 1948.

Henry died unexpectedly in November 1884, leaving Millicent a widow at the age of 38. She sold the family homes in Cambridge and London, and took Philippa to live with Agnes. When she re-entered public life in 1885, Millicent began to concentrate on politics. She was a key member of what became the Women’s Local Government Society–a cross party group that campaigned for women to be allowed to stand as local councillors. This goal was achieved in 1907.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Millicent became the Chair of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed as an umbrella organisation for all the suffrage societies in the country. Millicent became President of this new group, a role she kept until 1919. Although the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) frequently commanded the headlines and publicity, the NUWSS consistently had the majority of the support of the women’s movement. By 1905, the NUWSS had 305 constituent societies and 50,000 members. Millicent disapproved of militant tactics, believing that they alienated politicians and the general public. Despite this, she admired the courage of militant activists.

In July 1901, Millicent was asked to lead a commission of women to South Africa to investigate allegations that the families of Boer soldiers were being held in awful conditions in concentrations camps during the Boer War. It was the first time British women were trusted with such a responsibility in war time.

The NUWSS lost patience with the Liberal Party in early 1912, giving up the long-held hope that they would eventually give women the vote. Instead, they formed an electoral alliance with the Labour Party, which was the only political party that supported women’s suffrage. By 1913, the NUWSS had 100000 members, and organised the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate how many women wanted the vote. On the 18th of June, NUWSS members from all over the country set off for London, meeting in Hyde Park six weeks later on the 29th of July. Now aged 66, Millicent took an active part in the pilgrimage, and was the headline speaker at the Hyde Park rally.

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Millicent Garrett Fawcett speaking at the rally in Hyde Park that finished the NUWSS’s Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a not a pacifist, but the NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the First World War, unlike the WSPU. It will never be possible to find out whether the NUWSS or the WSPU’s campaigning methods were more effective for winning women the right to vote. There is no doubt, however, that Millicent Garrett Fawcett played a huge role in winning that right. After the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, Millicent largely withdrew from the suffrage campaign. Throughout her long career, however, she had supported a large number of campaigns, not all of which were successful. These included: raising the age of sexual consent; criminalising incest; preventing child marriage; repealing the Contagious Diseases Act; and Clementina Black’s campaign to help protect low-paid female workers.

Her hard work and dedication were recognised in 1925, when she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. She passed away four years later on the 5th of August 1929. In 1953, the London’s Society for Women’s Suffrage was renamed the Fawcett Society in her honour. The Society continues to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. In 2017, it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, which is due to be unveiled in February 2018.

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The planned statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett with the artist who designed it, Gillian Wearing (Photo: Sky News)

After Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett is perhaps one of the best-known suffragists. But that doesn’t mean she is well-known. Despite having a charity named after and a statue in Parliament Square planned to honour her, most people don’t seem to recognise her name, let alone are aware of what she achieved. I think that’s a real shame.

Sources and Further Reading

Biography Online. “Millicent Fawcett.” No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/uk/millicent-fawcett.html

Fawcett Society. “About.” No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/about

Murray, Jenni. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2017.

Simkin, John. “Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WfawcettM.htm

Simkin, John. “Women’s Pilgrimage.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

Sutherland, Gillian. “History of Newnham.” Newnham College, University of Cambridge. No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

Wikipedia. “Millicent Fawcett.” Last modified 28 January 2018, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millicent_Fawcett

Women’s Local Government Society. “Women’s Local Government Society.” Suffrage Pioneers. No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at http://www.suffrage-pioneers.net/wlgs/

Turbulent Londoners: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, 1867-1954

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. First up is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union until 1913.


Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Emmeline Petick-Lawrence in about 1910 (Source: LSE Library).

Most of you probably know this already, but 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted some British women the right to vote. There are a huge number of events, exhibitions and book publications happening this year to commemorate the event, but I wanted to play my own small part in marking the event on Turbulent London. As such, all Turbulent Londoners featured this year will have played some role in the campaign for women’s suffrage. First up is Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) between 1906 and 1913.

Emmeline Peckith was born in Bristol on the 21st of October 1867 to a wealthy Methodist family. One of 13 children, Emmeline was sent to boarding school at the age of 8. Reluctant to conform from an early age, she was often in trouble at school, and the teachers thought she was a bad influence on other children. In 1891 Emmeline moved to London to work with some of the city’s poorest inhabitants as a voluntary social worker. She worked at the Sisterhood of the West London Mission, where she helped to run the girl’s club. It was here that Emmeline became a socialist.

Growing frustrated with the constraints of the Mission, in 1895 Emmeline left to co-found the Esperance Club, a girl’s club which experimented with dance and drama. She also started the Maison Esperance, a dress-making co-operative with a minimum wage, an 8 hour day and a holiday scheme. She wanted to give the young women she worked with a practical example of socialism. In 1899 Emmeline met, and fell for, the wealthy lawyer Frederick Lawrence, but she refused to marry him unless he shared her socialist ideals. By 1901, he had come around to her way of thinking. The equality of their marriage was unheard of in polite society–they chose to double-barrel their surnames and kept separate bank accounts to retain their independence.

In 1906, Emmeline joined the WSPU. She must have thrown herself into the movement wholeheartedly; in October of that year she was arrested and imprisoned with other prominent suffragists such as Annie Kenney, Dora Montefiore, and Adela and Sylvia Pankhurst after a ‘riot’ in the House of Commons lobby. Emmeline would go to prison six times for her political beliefs. Frederick publicly declared that he would donate £10 to the suffrage movement for each day that his wife remained in prison. It was the start of a close relationship between the Pethick-Lawrence’s and the WSPU’s finances–Emmeline became the group’s Treasurer, and raised £134000 over 6 years. The couple also donated large amounts of their own money. Also in 1906, the Pankhursts moved the headquarters of the WSPU from Manchester to London. The Peckith-Lawrences offered their own home as the location for the new offices. They also opened their home to activists recovering from prison sentences. The couple masterminded, edited, and funded the journal Votes for Women from 1907.

Votes for Women 1913

The front cover of an issue of Votes for Women from June 1913.

 

As the years passed the WSPU turned to increasingly violent tactics. In 1912, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst endorsed a campaign of window smashing. Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence did not support these violent methods, but remained loyal to the WSPU. In March, she was arrested along with her husband and imprisoned for conspiracy, despite not participating in the window smashing. Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, but the Peckith-Lawrences spent 9 months in prison, including being force-fed. They were also successfully sued for the costs of the window smashing campaign, which left them close to bankruptcy. After the Pethick-Lawrence’s release, the Pankhursts announced plans for the WSPU to begin a campaign of arson. For Emmeline and Frederick this was too far, and they spoke out against the increasingly violent actions and rhetoric of the WSPU. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst hated dissent within the WSPU, and despite all the Pethick-Lawrences had done for the group, they were expelled.

For Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the expulsion was a personal as well as a political betrayal. It did not halt or even slow her activism however. She joined the Women’s Freedom League, which had formed after another group of campaigners left the WSPU in 1907 (Charlotte Despard was the group’s first President). She also joined the United Suffragists, which was formed in 1914 by former WSPU members. Unlike the WSPU, they admitted men and non-violent suffragists, and continued to campaign throughout World War One. The United Suffragists adopted Votes for Women as their official paper.

During the war, Emmeline was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace. She saw the conflict as the ultimate demonstration of men’s unsuitability to being responsible for humanity. At the beginning of the war, Emmeline was invited to America to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. She went, hoping she could also persuade Americans to support peace negotiations. Because she was travelling from the US and not Britain, Emmeline was one of only 3 British women who were able to attend the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague in 1915. At the end of the war, she argued that  a fair peace settlement was the only way to prevent further conflict. She lived long enough to see herself proved right.

EPL at Women's Peace Congress

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence travelled to the 1915 Women’s Peace Congress with the American delegation–she is on the far left of this picture (Source: United States Library of Congress)

When women finally won the right to vote in 1918, Emmeline stood as the Labour candidate for Manchester-Rusholme, with policies such as nationalisation and equal pay. Pacifists were incredibly unpopular at the time however, and she came last, winning a sixth of the vote. During the 1920s and 30s she worked for the Women’s International League, which campaigned for World Peace. Between 1925 and 1935, she was President of the Women’s Freedom League. She was also involved in Marie Stopes’ campaign to provide information on birth control to working class women. Emmeline continued campaigning until she had a serious accident in 1950. Frederick looked after her until her death on the 11th of March 1954.

At the time, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was one of the most well-known campaigners for women’s suffrage. Nowadays, she is largely unknown, which I think is a real shame. Born into privilege, she used her advantages to help others, and to fight for what she believed in. Her political activism spanned six decades and huge social and political change. As I’m sure will become clear as 2018 progresses there were many brave and remarkable women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is just one of many who deserves our admiration and respect.

Sources and Further Reading

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices from the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2013.

Simkin, John. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 2015, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpethick.htm 

The Men Who Said No. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” No date, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  http://menwhosaidno.org/context/women/pethicklawrence_e.html

Wikipedia. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Baroness Pethick-Lawrence.” Last modified 28 December 2017, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pethick-Lawrence,_Baroness_Pethick-Lawrence

 

Turbulent Londoners: Harriet Taylor Mill, 1807-1858

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. The next Turbulent Londoner is Harriet Taylor Mill, a radical thinker who made a significant contribution to the work of John Stuart Mill.


Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill, around 1834 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

The well-known phrase ‘Behind every man is a great woman’ could have been invented for the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His wife Harriet Taylor Mill was hugely significant to his work, and, whilst we may never know the full extent of her contribution, she may well have co-authored substantial amounts of the writing attributed to him. She was also a radical thinker and writer in her own right.

Harriet Hardy was born in Walworth, south London on the 8th of October 1807. The daughter of a surgeon, she was educated at home. Her relationship with John Stuart  Mill was unconventional, even by modern standards. In 1826 Harriet married he first husband, the merchant John Taylor. They had three children. Four years into their marriage, Harriet became active in the Unitarian church community in London, and was introduced to John Stuart Mill. The two became close friends, exchanging essays on marriage and women’s rights. Mill was the first man to treat Harriet as an intellectual equal. Harriet was the more radical of the two, criticising the degrading effects of women’s economic dependence on men. She believed the situation could only be changed by the drastic reform of marriage laws.

By 1833, Harriet was living apart from John Taylor with her daughter, Helen. She spent six weeks in Paris with John Stuart Mill, and despite claiming they did not have a sexual relationship, they caused a scandal that left them both socially isolated. Harriet lived in a house in Walton-on-Thames, and Mill visited her at the weekends. John Taylor eventually accepted Harriet’s relationship with Mill, on the condition that she move back in with him.

John Taylor died in 1849, and Harriet married Mill two years later. The same year, 1851, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ was published by The Westminster Review. It is one of the few pieces of writing that can be solely attributed to Harriet, but at the time it was published in Mill’s name. Mill would build on Harriet’s arguments in The Subjection of Women (1869), although his arguments were less radical than Harriet’s.

Harriet published little of her own work, but contributed extensively to Mill’s. It is hard to know exactly the extent of this contribution though. At least, Harriet commented on all of Mill’s writing. In his autobiography, he claimed that she co-authored most of his work. In 1832, Early Essays on Marriage on divorce was published, co-authored by Harriet and Mill. It is unclear why Harriet might have been reluctant to take credit for her work– perhaps she was worried it would affect how the ideas were received. What was clear, however, was that Mill valued Harriet’s contribution; he dedicated On Liberty (1859) to her.

In her later years, Harriet traveled a lot due to ill health. She died in Avignon on the 3rd of November 1858. Mill bought a villa near Avignon, and spent most of the rest of the life there. Harriet’s daughter Helen helped Mill finish The Subjection of Women.

Even if Harriet Taylor Mill wasn’t a significant contributor to the work of John Stuart Mill, I think she would be worthy of admiration for to bravery she showed in pursuing happiness in her personal life in the face of social ostracism. Although the extent of her abilities will probably never be know for sure, she was also an accomplished thinker and writer. She deserves recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Anschutz, Richard Paul. “John Stuart Mill.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last modified June 15, 2017, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Stuart-Mill.

Miller, Dale E. “Harriet Taylor Mill.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified October 5, 2015, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/harriet-mill/#EnfWom

Simkin, John. “Harriet Mill.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wtaylor.htm

Wikipedia, “Harriet Taylor Mill.” Last modified August 22 2017, accessed September 28, 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Taylor_Mill

Turbulent Londoners: Katherine Chidley, 1590s-c.1653

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. The next Turbulent Londoner is Katherine Chidley, an activist for religious toleration and a leader of Leveller women.


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A drawing of a servant or housewife in 1640. Katherine Chidley might have dressed like this (Source: ECW Living History Resources).

The further back in time you go, the harder it is to find out about individuals who weren’t members of the aristocracy, especially if they were women. There are some women who managed to leave a trace in the archives, often thanks to their radicalism, such as Mary Astell (1666-1731) and Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756). Katherine Chidley lived even earlier, between the 1590s and about 1653. She was a religious dissenter and a key member of the radical networks that preceded the Levellers, as well as the Levellers themselves.

The first time Katherine Chidley appears in the historical record she is already married with seven children. Along with her husband Daniel, she set up an independent church in Shrewsbury  in the 1620s which clashed with the local established church. At this point everyone was required by law to be a member of the Church of England, and there was no toleration for anyone who wanted to worship differently. Radical religious sects had an emphasis on church democracy, which meant that women played more of a role than in other sectors of society, as preachers, prophetesses and petitioners. In 1626 Katherine was charged with refusing to attend church, along with 18 others. She also got in trouble for refusing to attend church for an obligatory cleansing after childbirth.

The Chidley family moved to London in 1629. Katherine’s husband became a member of Haberdashers Company, and their oldest son Samuel started an apprenticeship in 1634 . The family’s views became more radical and separatist after they moved to London. Daniel and Samuel helped to establish a dissenting congregation headed by John Duppa. The congregation claimed the right to choose their own pastor not paid for by Church funds. The congregation itself was illegal, and its members faced harassment, arrest, and imprisonment.

Katherine authored several pamphlets in defence of religious radicalism. Thomas Edwards was a popular puritan preacher at the time, who argued against religious Independents from a conservative Presbyterian perspective. In 1641 he published a pamphlet, addressed to Parliament, arguing against religious tolerance. Katherine was the first to attack Edwards’ arguments in print, in her first pamphlet. It was called The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ, and it was very unusual for a woman to take such a step. Edwards ignored her response, embarrassed to have been so publicly confronted by a woman.

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The front page of Katherine’s first pamphlet, from 1641 (Source: Online Library of Liberty).

Katherine’s concept of toleration was broad, even extending to Jews and Anabaptists, groups that faced extreme discrimination at the time. She believed that everyone should be able to organise their own churches if they so desired. Katherine did view women as weak and inferior to men, but she defended a wife’s right to make her own decisions about religion. She also frequently discussed examples of God using the weak or socially inferior to defeat the powerful and ungodly. Katherine may not have been a feminist by modern standards, but her views were radical for the time. She published 2 more pamphlets in 1645. The first was another attack on Thomas Edwards, called  A New-Yeares-Gift, or a Brief Exhortation to Mr. Thomas Edwards; that he may breake off his old sins, in the old yeare, and begin the New yeare, with new fruits of Love, first to God, and then to his Brethren. They didn’t really go for snappy titles in the seventeenth century.

When the Leveller network emerged, Katherine became a leader of Leveller women. The Levellers were a radical movement that argued for popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and religious toleration. They gained significant popular support between the First and Second English Civil Wars, but were considered too radical even for Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate. Daniel died in 1649, and it seems as though Katherine took over his business with the help of Samuel. As well as being a religious radical, she was also a successful businesswoman, handling government contracts worth significant amounts. In 1649 Katherine was one of the organisers, and probably the author, of a women’s petition to free four Leveller leaders from the Tower of London. In 1653, when Leveller leader John Lilburne was again imprisoned and charged with treason, Katherine led a group of 12 women to Parliament to present a petition demanding his release signed by 6000 women.

Leveller Women 1647

An image of a meeting of Leveller women in 1647, created by Red Saunders in 2014 as part of the Hidden Project (Source: Red Saunders).

Although much of her activism involved male family members, and she believed that women were inferior to men, Katherine Chidley was a fierce woman who fought for the right to make her own decisions about how she worshipped. There is no trace of her in the historical record after 1653, so the rest of her life is a mystery.

Sources and Further Reading

Rees, John. The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Katherine Chidley.” Last modified 28 May 2017, accessed 15 August 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Chidley

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Macarthur, 1880-1921

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. The next Turbulent Londoner is Mary MacArthur, a suffragist and trade unionist.


Mary Macarthur

Mary Reid Macarthur was a suffragist, trade unionist, and campaigner for the rights of working women (Photo: Working Class Movement Library)

Mary Reid Macarthur was a Scottish suffragist and trade unionist, who was instrumental in the expansion of female trade union membership in the early twentieth century. Born on 13th August 1880, Mary was the oldest of six children in a relatively well-off family. She attended Glasgow Girls High School, where she developed an interest in writing and journalism.

In 1901 Mary attended a meeting of the Shop Assistants Union, expecting to write a scathing report. She instead became a strong beleiever in trade unions, becoming secretary of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants Union. In  1902 she attended the Union’s national conference, where she became the first female to be elected to the national executive.

In 1903 Mary moved to London, where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a congress for women’s unions. The League brought together women-only unions from a variety of different trades, which meant it had a mixed-classed membership. Through her activism, Mary realised that small, scattered unions would always struggle because of their inability to raise enough money to provide strike pay. To counter this, Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906, a general labour union for women. It was open to all women who weren’t allowed to join the appropriate union, or who worked in trades that weren’t unionised. The NFWW became part of the National Union of General Workers in 1921, but in its 15 years it significantly advanced the cause of women in trade unions.

Mary Macarthur Speaking

Mary Macarthur speaking to a mostly male crowd in Trafalgar Square about a boxmakers strike in August 1908 (Photo: TUC Library Collections).

Mary also tried to help female workers in other ways, helping to organise the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and getting involved in the foundation of the Anti-Sweating League the following year. Sweated trades we’re characterised by long hours, low  wages, and unsafe and insanitary working conditions. In 1907 Mary founded The Woman Worker, a monthly magazine for female trade unionists. She was a brilliant editor, but gave it up to concentrate on her activism. Mary spent time in the poorer parts of London collecting evidence about what it was like to work in sweated industries. She caught diptheria and spent 6 weeks in hospital, but she was able to present her findings to the Select Committee on Home Working in 1908.

Mary was also active in the campaign for the vote, although she opposed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Social and Political Union, the two main campaign groups. This was because they were willing to accept only certain groups of women bring given the vote. Mary believed this would disadvantage the working classes, and possibly delay universal adulthood suffrage.

Mary Macarthur TUC 1908

Mary Macarthur at the Trade Union Congress in Nottingham in 1908 (Source: TUC Library Collections).

The Trades Board Act was passed in 1909, largely due to the efforts of Mary and the organisations she worked with. The Act regulated sweated industries and introduced a minimum wage. The female chainmakers at Chadley Heath in the West Midlands became the first test case of the new Act in 1910. Mary convinced the women to fight for the wage they were entitled to; they won the dispute after a 10 week strike. Mary used her skills as a journalist to publicise the women’s cause, giving interviews, writing copy and arranging photo opportunities of the striking women with chains around their necks. She also made use of the new technology of cinema; a Pathe newsreel film of the strikers was seen by an estimated 10 million people. The publicity campaign raised a lot for the strike fund, the leftovers were used to build the Bradley Heath Worker’s Institute, which is now part of the West Country Living Museum.

Mary opposed the first world war, but she worked throughout it to promote the rights of female workers, campaigning for equal pay for equal work. She was a member of the Reconstruction Committee from 1916, set up to give advice on the employment of women after the war. Female trade union membership tripled during the war. After the war, Mary stood in the 1919 general election as the Labour candidate for Stourbridge in Worcestershire but was defeated, along with most other anti-war candidates.

Mary married William Crawford Anderson, the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour Party, in 1911. Anderson had first proposed marriage almost 10 years earlier, but Mary had decided to concentrate on her activism. Sadly their first child died at birth in 1913, but Anne Elizabeth was born in 1915. William died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. Mary herself died of cancer 2 years later, at the age of just 40.

Mary Macarthur's blue plaque.PNG

A blue English heritage plaque commemorating Mary’s efforts on her house at 42 Woodstock Road in Golders Green (Photo: English Heritage).

Mary’s legacy lives on in the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust and the Mary Macarthur Educational Trust, which provide grants to working women. A blue plaque commemorating Mary’s campaigning efforts on behalf trade unions and working women was installed on her house in Golders Green in north London in March 2017. As such, it might be said that she is better remembered than some of the other Turbulent Londoners featured on this blog. She deserves this recognition however, because of her huge contribution to the cause of women’s working conditions.

Sources and Further Reading 

Black Country Living Museum. “Mary Reid Macarthur, 1880-1921.” No date, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at  https://www.bclm.co.uk/media/learning/library/witr_marymacarthur.pdf

Simkin, John. “Mary Macarthur.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUmacarthur.htm

Wikipedia, “Mary Macarthur.” Last modified 12 March 2017, accessed 13 March 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Macarthur

Working Class Movement Library. “Mary Macarthur.” No date, accessed 22 March 2017. Available at http://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/activists/mary-macarthur/