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/

Turbulent Londoners: Jayaben Desai, 1933-2010

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 20th Turbulent Londoner is Jayaben Desai, the fierce and inspirational leader of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike.


jayaben-desai

Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike (Photo: Labournet).

Throughout it’s history, London has relied on immigration to function. Jayaben Desai was one such immigrant, who refused to accept the long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions that have also been a feature of London for most of it’s history. She was one of the most prominent leaders of the Grunwick Strike, which

Born on 2nd April 1933 in the north-western state of Gujarat in India, Jayaben was defiant and headstrong from an early age. At school, she rejected passive obedience in favour of supporting the Indian independence movement. In 1955 she married Suryakant Desai, a tyre-factory manager from Tanganyika. The couple settled there in 1965, by which point the country had united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. East African Asians were members of the mercantile and administrative classes, and Jayaben had a comfortable lifestyle. It did not last however, the Desais were expelled along with tens of thousands of others as part of “africanisation” policies. They fled to Britain and settled in the north London borough of Brent. The couples’ socio-economic status dropped considerably; Suryakant got a job as an unskilled labourer and Jayaben worked part time as a sewing machinist whilst bringing up their two children, Shivkumar and Rajiv. In 1974 Desai started work at the Grunwick factory which processed mail order photographic film.

Two years later, on 23rd August 1976, Jayaben walked out of the Grunwick factory. The final straw was being ordered to work overtime; she persuaded 100 of her colleagues to go with her. Jayaben was known for having a way with words; she apparently told her manager: “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Jayaben is known as being a trade unionist, but I don’t think that really does justice to what her and her colleagues achieved. They were not members of a union when they first walked out, the Trades Union Council advised them to join Apex, a white collar union that is now part of the GMB. The strikers were also mainly Asian and women, two groups who did not have a strong tradition of striking in the past.

jayaben-desai-and-police

Jayaben was only 4ft 10in,much shorter than most of the police officers she faced. This didn’t phase her though (Source: Facebook.com/Grunwick40).

Another factor which set the Grunwick strike apart was the solidarity that the strikers received from employees in other workplaces and industries. Newly arrived migrants accepted (and still do) long hours and low pay because they had no choice. This has frequently caused resentment amongst British workers. The Grunwick strikers, however, received significant moral and practical support from other workers. For example, postal workers in the local sorting office in Cricklewood refused to handle Grunwick’s post. As the factory processed mail-order photographs, this move almost won the strike for Jayaben and her colleagues. In November a High Court ruling forced the postmen to start handling Grunwick post again, a big blow to the strikers. The strike committee visited more than 1000 workplaces around the country garnering support- many workers came to join the picket lines outside the factory. On 11th July 1977 the TUC organised a 20000 strong march to the factory. The workers at Cricklewood again refused to handle Grunwick’s mail. They were suspended for 3 weeks for their defiant act of solidarity.

The Labour Prime Minister, James Callahan, persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. It was highly unusual for employers to defy the conclusions of inquiry, but Jayaben was convinced that Grunwick’s managing director, George Ward, would. She was right; Scarman recommended that the strikers be given their jobs back and that their union be recognised. Ward refused. With few options left and almost two years of hardship behind them, the strikers conceded defeat on 14th July 1978.

grunwick-banner

Jayaben was not the only person involved in the Grunwick strike, but she played a significant leadership role and she is definitely the best remembered participant (Source: Left Foot Forward).

After the strike, Jayaben’s health declined. She got another sewing job, which led to teaching for the Brent Indian Association, and she developed an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College. She passed her driving test aged 60, and when her husband retired the couple traveled extensively. She passed away on 23rd December 2010.

At just 4ft 10in, Jayaben Desai shocked many with her strength and resolve. She was inspirational, and known for her charm, tact, and diplomacy, even in the face of aggression and threatening behaviour from police and the Grunwick bosses. Although the Grunwick strike failed, it had a big impact on industrial relations for women and ethnic minorities, forcing the union establishment to taken them seriously for the first time. Whilst Jayaben did not do this alone, her bravery and determination should be remembered, celebrated, and learnt from.

2016 was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike. The Grunwick40 group was set up to commemorate this event. They organised events, a museum exhibition, and a mural. More information can be found about their work here.

Sources and Further Reading

Dromey, Jack. “Jayaben Desai Obituary.” The Guardian. Last updated 23 February 2012, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/dec/28/jayaben-desai-obituary

Pattinson, Terry.”Jayaben Desai: Trade Unionist Who Shot to National Prominence during the Bitter Grunwick Dispute of 1976-77.” The Independent. Last updated 21 February, 2011, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jayaben-desai-trade-unionist-who-shot-to-national-prominence-during-the-bitter-grunwick-dispute-of-2220589.html

Wikipedia, “Jayaben Desai.” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaben_Desai

 

Turbulent Londoners: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891

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. Today I’m looking at Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a feminist and campaigner for women’s rights.


barbara-bodichon-photo

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodicon (Source: University of North Carolina).

Barbara Leigh Smith was born on the 8th of April 1827, the oldest of 5 children. Her mother was Anne Longden, a milliner, and her father was Ben Leigh Smith, a radical Whig politician. Barbara’s parents never married, but lived openly together, so she must have been used to controversy from a young age. Ben Leigh Smith held radical political views, despite being a member of the landed gentry. He treated all five of his children the same; he gave each of them £300 a year when they turned 21. It was highly unusual to for women to be treated this way. Like Elisabeth Jesser Reid, Barbara’s wealth gave her independence, a rare condition for single women at the time.

Barbara used her wealth to start a progressive school in London, researching other schools in London when deciding how to set it up. Later in life she co-founded Girton College in Cambridge, the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level. She gave generously to the college, in terms of both time and money. Her primary concern, however, was women’s rights. She was a member of one of the first organised women’s movements, known as The Ladies of Langham Place. They were a group of women who met regularly during the 1850s at no. 19 Langham Place to discuss women’s rights. They campaigned on many issues, including the property rights of married women. Langham Place served as sort of gentlemen’s club for women; it had a reading room, coffee shop, and meeting room. In 1858 it also became the base of the English Women’s Journal. Barbara set up the monthly periodical  for the discussion of women’s employment and equality, such as expanding employment opportunities and legal rights.

Laurence, Samuel, 1812-1884; Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

A portrait of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Samuel Laurence (Source: ArtUK).

As well as a campaigner and publisher, Barbara was also an author. In 1854 she published Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women, and in 1858 she wrote Women and Work, in which she argued that women’s dependence on their husbands was degrading. She practiced what she preached too; as a young woman she fell in love with John Chapman, the editor of the Westminster Review. She refused to marry Chapman because of her views on the legal position of married women. Barbara did marry eventually however, to French physician Dr. Eugene Bodichon in 1857. This is also the year that the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. The Act protected the property rights of divorced women, and allowed divorce through the courts rather than by an act of Parliament, which was a slow and expensive process. Barbara had testified to a House of Commons committee looking into the legal position of married women, which led to the Act.

Married life did not mellow Barbara, however. Although she started spending the winter in Algiers, she continued to take an active role in women’s rights campaigns. In 1866 she founded the first ever group asking for women’s suffrage. The Women’s Suffrage Committee organised a petition, which was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a strong character, sympathetic to many causes. Her primary cause, however, was women’s rights, and she used the full range of skills and opportunities available to her to advance this cause. Her efforts had very real effects, particularly in relation to married women.

Sources and Further Reading

Girton College. “Girton’s Past.”No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at  https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/girtons-past

Simkin, John. “Barbara Bodichon.” Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbodichon.htm

Wikipedia, “Barbara Bodichon.” Last modified 1 December 2016, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Bodichon

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.

jane-cobden-ripper-street

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

Turbulent Londoners: Minnie Baldock, c.1864-1954

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 on 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 Minnie Baldock, an early member of the WSPU who helped establish the organisation in East London


minnie-baldock-1909

A postcard of Minnie Baldock, in about 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Minnie Baldock was an early member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who helped the organisation establish a presence in London, particularly amongst the working class women of the East End. Born in the East End in about 1864, she worked in a shirt factory as a young woman, and had two sons after her marriage to Harry Baldock.

Female suffrage was not the cause which brought out Minnie’s radicalism; she was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and in 1903 held a public meeting to complain about women’s low wages with her MP, Keir Hardie. As a member of the WSPU, however, Minnie flourished as an activist.

Minnie joined the WSPU early on, before it moved to London, and was soon involved in many of its activities in the capital. In December 1905 she was ejected from not one but two public meetings for heckling Herbert Asquith and Henry Campbell Bannerman, leader of the Liberal Party. In January 1906, Minnie established the first London branch of the WSPU in Canning Town, in an attempt to recruit working class women. Several other branches soon followed in the East End. Minnie was at the heart of networks of radical women in London; she helped Annie Kenney make connections when she first moved to London, she knew Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, and was a mentor to Daisy Parsons.

Also in 1906, Minnie became a full-time organiser for the WSPU. For the next few years she toured the country, promoting the cause of female suffrage. In October that year she was arrested at the opening of Parliament. She was arrested again outside Parliament in February 1908, and this time spent a month in Holloway Prison. She was worried about leaving her two sons alone with her husband, which illustrates the tension many female activists feel between their activism and their caring responsibilities.

minnie-baldock-christabel-pankhurst-and-edith-new

Minnie Baldock with Christabel Pankhurst and Edith New in December 1906 (Source: Museum of London).

Minnie worked for the WSPU until 1911, when she became seriously ill with cancer. She did not return to the WSPU after she recovered, although she remained a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, which united all kinds of suffragists who were also religious. This suggests that she had become disillusioned by the WSPU’s methods rather than their main objective; they became increasingly violent, authoritarian, and dismissive of the concerns of working class women in the years before the First World War. Minnie moved to Southampton with her family in 1913, and was living in Poole when she died in 1954.

The WSPU was much more than the Pankhurst family; women like Minnie Baldock were essential to the successful running of the organisation. Minnie helped the WSPU establish a presence in London, and went on to campaign tirelessly for them around the country. Her name may not have survived the lottery of history, but the impact of her actions still resonates.

Sources and Further Reading

Brooker, Janice. “Suffragette.” Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 11th October 2016. Available at http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/suffragette.htm

Simkin, John. “Minnie Baldock.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 12th October 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WbaldockM.htm

Walker, John. “Forest Gate’s Proud Suffragette Legacy.”E7 Now and Then. Last modified 6th March 2015, accessed 14th October 2016. Available at http://www.e7-nowandthen.org/2015/03/forest-gates-proud-suffragette-legacy.html

Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Elstob, 1683-1756

Elizabeth Elstob

An engraving from self portrait of Elizabeth Elstob (Source: History Today).

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 Elizabeth Elstob, known as one of Britain’s first feminists.


Elizabeth Elstob was a renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar at a time when the medieval period was not considered worth studying, and when women were not considered worthy of education. Like fellow Geordie Mary Astell, she has since become known as one of England’s first feminists.

Born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to a merchant family on the 29th of September 1683, Elizabeth was orphaned young, and raised by her uncle, Charles Elstob, in Canterbury. Depite disaproving of women’s education, he allowed the young girl to learn Latin and French. 10 years her senior, Elizabeth’s brother, William, was sent to Eton and Cambridge before joining the church, becoming a scholar as she was also destined to. He introduced the teenaged Elizabeth to a small group of Anglo-Saxon scholars.

From 1696, Elizabeth lived with William in Oxford, and moved to London with him as his housekeeper in 1702. William Elstob did not share the same reservations as his uncle, and in London Elizabeth had the freedom to learn Old English. The siblings encouraged and supported each other in their academic endeavours. Elizabeth used her brother’s scholarly connections and her own force of will to gain access to intellectual circles and resources that she would have otherwise been denied. Being in London also allowed Elizabeth to join Mary Astell’s circle of female intellectuals, who helped her find subscribers for her publications.

Elizabeth’s first major work was published in 1709, a beautiful edition of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s tenth-century An English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory. In the preface, she argued for the importance of women’s education, using religious reasoning to support her arguments. He second major publication came out in 1715, and was entitled Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue. It was the first such work to be written in English rather than Latin. This was a deliberate decision on Elstob’s part- she wrote in English so that her work would be more accessible to other women. It was not only women who appreciated her work, however; Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Rudiments which he used to understand terms he came across during his legal studies.

English-Saxon Homily

The title page of An English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory (Source: University of Glasgow Library Special Collections).

Unfortunately, William Elstob died in 1715, leaving Elizabeth homeless and with large debts from financing their expensive scholarly publications. She started a girl’s school in Chelsea, which proved very popular but did not make a profit- it closed after just six months. In 1718 Elizabeth fled London, abandoning her books and an unfinished manuscript of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, a project she had worked hard to finance. She moved to rural Worcestershire where she ran a small school under the assumed name of Frances Smith. It seems that no one in the scholarly community knew where she was for almost 20 years, until 1735. In 1738 she was given the comfortable position of governess to the children of the Duke and Duchess of Portland, and she remained in their service at Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, until her death on the 3rd of June 1756.

Elizabeth Elstob must have possessed incredible determination and resolve to become such a well respected scholar, despite her unpopular subject area and particularly her gender. Sadly, without the support of her brother she was not able to overcome the odds that were so heavily stacked against her as a woman. Nevertheless, her brief scholarly career demonstrated what women were capable of given half the chance, and she used her influence to support the education of other women, a revolutionary prospect at the time.

Sources and Further Reading

Seale, Yvonne. “The First Female Anglo-Saxonist.” History Today. Last modified February 4th, 2016, accessed August 3rd 2016. Available at http://www.historytoday.com/yvonne-seale/first-female-anglo-saxonist

Wikipedia. “Elizabeth Elstob.” Last modified May 10th 2016, accessed August 3rd 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Elstob

Turbulent Londoners: Ada Salter, 1866-1942

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 Ada Salter, a social reformer, environmentalist, and pacifist, who became the first female mayor in London.


Ada Salter

Ada Salter, 1866-1942 (Photo: Wikipedia).

Ada Salter was a strong-willed and radical woman, who dedicated her life to the people of Bermondsey. Originally moving there as a charity worker, she became a local councillor and eventually mayor, the first in London (Daisy Parsons became Mayor of West Ham in 1936, 14 years after Ada). Born Ada Brown on the 20th of July 1866 in Raunds, Northamptonshire, Ada was an active Methodist and member of the radical wing of the Liberal Party from an early age. In 1896, aged 30, she moved to London to work as a ‘Sister of the People’ in the St. Pancras slums. The following year she moved to the Bermondsey Settlement, and joined the community which she would spend the rest of her life fighting for.

The Settlement movement started in the 1880s, and encouraged the rich and poor to live closely together in interdependent communities. Volunteers lived in the Settlements and shared knowledge and culture with their low income neighbours, as well as alleviating poverty. The Bermondsey Settlement was founded in 1892, and stayed open until 1967. Ada worked with young women, and was admired for her ability to get through to them. Whilst at the Settlement Ada met Dr. Alfred Salter, whom she persuaded to convert to Christianity and join the Liberal Party (he was previously a socialist). They were married on the 22nd of August 1900.

After the Salters’ marriage Ada wanted to stay in Bermondsey, so Alfred set up a GP practice in Jamaica Road, whilst Ada continued to work at the Settlement. In 1902 the couples’ only child, Ada Joyce, was born. Four years later Ada left the Liberal Party because they reneged on their promise to grant women the vote. She joined the International Labour Party (ILP) and co-founded the Women’s Labour League (WLL). The ILP was the best party in regards to womens’ rights, and they wanted to stand female candidates at the next local council elections, including Ada. As a Liberal Councillor for the London County Council, Ada’s move must have put her husband in an awkward position. He supported her, however, and eventually joined her, founding a Bermonsdey branch of the ILP in 1908.

Alfred and Joyce Salter

Alfred Salter, Ada’s husband, and their daughter, Ada Joyce (Photo: Spartacus Educational).

In November 1909, Ada was elected the first female and first Labour councillor in Bermondsey. Tragedy struck the following year when Ada Joyce was killed by scarlet fever in one the periodic epidemics that swept through the overcrowded community. The Salters’ had made the conscious decision not to send their daughter away from Bermondsey to protect her health. Joyce attended the local Keeton’s Road School, and caught scarlet fever 3 times in her 8-year life. It was an admirable decision to keep their entire family within Bermondsey, but the guilt after Joyce’s death must have been overwhelming.

Devastated, Ada threw herself into her political and charity work. She started to recruit local female factory workers into the National Federation of Women Workers. At first there was little response, but in August 1911, 14000 women struck for, and won, better working conditions. Ada was hailed as the inspiration of the ‘Bermondsey Uprising,’ although in fact she was only one contributing factor. She continued to support worker’s disputes, setting up food relief points during strikes. Ada became National Treasurer of the WLL, and President in 1914. The WLL wasn’t affiliated to any specific suffrage movement, but Ada supported the non-violent Women’s Freedom League (she was friends with the President, Charlotte Despard). The Salters had become Quakers in the early 1900s, which had solidified Ada’s commitment to non-violence.

After the start of the First World War the Salters’ dedicated themselves to campaigning against it. Ada was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and they both worked for the Non-Conscription League from 1916. They used their house in Kent to help conscientious objectors recover from harsh treatment in prison. In 1915 the government prevented Ada from attending the Hague Peace Conference, but she did make it to Bern, Switzerland to represent the ILP at a conference of socialist women opposed to the war. Vocally opposing the war was an incredibly brave stance to take, and the Salters were threatened and abused for their views.

Whilst in the WLL Ada conducted research into social housing; she advocated replacing slums with council houses designed to suit the needs of working class women. She also believed that fresh air and nature helped physically, mentally, and morally, so advocated urban gardening and pioneered organised campaigning against air pollution in London. In 1919 Ada was re-elected to Bermondsey Council, and in 1920 she launched the Beautification Committee, which went on to plant 9000 trees and 60000 plants.

In 1922 Ada was made Mayor, which gave her the power to launch a housing campaign. She demolished slums, and beautified those that couldn’t be knocked down with window boxes, trees and flowers. Also believing in the ‘beautification’ of the individual, Ada organised cultural and sporting events across the borough. She finally managed to get her perfect council housing built in Wilson Grove, small cottages inspired by the Garden City movement. They were too low density to really be a solution to housing problems in London, but the small estate was successful, and still stands today.

Ada Salter stature

A statue of Ada Salter has stood next to the Thames in Bermondsey since 2014 (Photo: SE16.com)

Despite the risks, the Salters’ refused to leave Bermondsey at the outbreak of  the Second World War. Their house was bombed in 1942, and Ada died on the 4th of December 1942. Ada Salter was a brave and determined woman who dedicated most of her life to the community of Bermondsey. She didn’t compromise, even refusing to wear the mayoral chain because it contradicted her Quaker beliefs. She is an important figure in local London history, and her perspectives on social housing are still relevant today, as the fight for affordable housing in the capital increases in intensity.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Brown, Matthew: “ILP@120: Ada Salter- Sister of the People,” Independent Labour Publications. Last modified 11th November 2013, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at  http://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/2013/11/11/ilp120-ada-salter-%E2%80%93-sister-of-the-people/

Oldfield, Sybil. “Salter, Ada (1866-1942),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 2004, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/38531 (subscription required for access)

Quakers in the World. “Quakers in Action: Ada Salter.” No date, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/297

Simkin, John. “Ada Salter,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/PRsalterAD.htm

Wikipedia. “Ada Salter.” Last modified 2nd March, 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Salter

Wikipedia. “Bermondsey Settlement.” Last modified 24th April 2015, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Settlement

Wikipedia. “Settlement Movement.” Last modified 27th April 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Settlement_movement

 

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Prince, 1788-?

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. This post is about Mary Prince, a woman who escaped slavery to become a key figure in the campaign to abolish slavery.


Mary Prince Plaque

There are no surviving images of Mary Prince, but this plaque, on Senate House in Bloomsbury, commemorates her (Source: sgwarnog2010).

In 1807, the Abolition Act abolished the slave trade, marking a great victory for abolitionists. They had won a significant battle, but had not yet won the war; the slave trade was gone, but slavery itself was not. Slaves, and any children they had, remained indentured. Women were over a century away from winning the vote in Britain, but they found other ways to influence politics and were key to the success of the abolition movement. As the main food purchasers, they were ideally placed to organise boycotts of slave-grown sugar in the 1790s, 1820s, and 1830s. Mary Prince was both a slave and a woman, significant disadvantages in the early nineteenth century. However it was these characteristics that made her such a powerful tool for the abolition movement.

Prince was born to an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. She was passed between owners and suffered from awful treatment. In 1815 she was bought by the Wood family, her last owners, for $300. In December 1826, Prince was in Antigua when she married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom. She did not seek permission from the Wood family, and they badly beat her as punishment.

Despite a deteriorating relationship with the Woods, they took Prince with them when they travelled to England in 1828. She ran away, but was legally only free in England. The Woods refused to emancipate or sell her, so if she returned to her husband in Antigua the Woods would have been able to claim her as their property once again. She petitioned Parliament to grant her freedom, but this too failed.

History of Mary Prince Title Page

The title page of Mary’s biography (Source: Yale Center for British Art).

Prince got a job with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary of the Anti-slavery Society. With the help of the Society, she published an autobiography entitled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831). It was the first account of a black woman’s life published in Great Britain. The book went through three printings in its first year; Mary’s personal story helped to raise awareness of how bad conditions still were for those in slavery.

Nobody knows what happened to Prince after her book was published. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which banned slavery in the British Empire. Colonies were given time to allow their economies to adapt, so slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834 and the West Indies in 1838. If she was still alive, Prince could have gone back to her place of birth or to her husband.

Mary Prince was not seen as a campaigner in her own right, not even by her supporters; as a black, working class woman her social status was about as low as it could get. Nevertheless, her powerful and shocking narrative played an important role in maintaining the momentum of the abolition movement. Sarah Salih, who edited a recent edition of Prince’s book, argues that Mary was a defiant woman; her illicit marriage, and her tendency to defend herself and others both verbally and physically, hinted at a rebellious streak that culminated with the publication of her History. Mary may not have been respected in her lifetime, but she certainly deserves our respect now.

Sources and Further Reading

100 Great Black Britons. “Mary Prince.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/mary_prince.html

Abolition Project, The. “Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): The First Woman to Present a Petition to Parliament.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Hochschild, Adam. “The Unsung Heroes of Abolition: Mary Prince.” BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/abolitionists_gallery_04.shtml

Simkin, John. “Mary Prince.” Sparacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/SprinceM.htm

Wajid, Sara. “‘They Bought Me as a Butcher Would a Calf or Lamb.'” The Guardian. Last modified 19th October 2007, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at   http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Wikipedia. “Mary Prince.” Last modified 11th May 2016, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Prince

 

Turbulent Londoners: Daisy Parsons, 1890-1957

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 Daisy Parsons, a Suffragette and the first female Mayor of West Ham.


 

Daisy Parsons

Daisy Parsons, MBE (Source: Newham Story).

Daisy Parsons was a formidable woman. Despite leaving school at the age of 12 to help support her family she became a force to be reckoned with in East End politics, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), then going on to become the first female Mayor of West Ham.

Born Marguerite Lena Millo on the 25th of May 1890, Daisy must have had a difficult childhood. She was born in Poplar in East London, her family moving to nearby Canning Town when Daisy was 8 months old. She had 5 younger brothers, and because her father was an invalid, her mother had to take on washing and charring work. Daisy was given a certificate of exemption in 1902 so that she could leave Beckton Road School early to look after her brothers, a necessity she always regretted. When she was 14 she left home to work as a maid, but later became a cigarette packer at the Carreras Tobacco Company in Aldgate, because the pay was better. Women and girls were paid 3d for every 1000 cigarettes they packed (most managed about 3000 a day).

It was whilst working at the tobacco company that Daisy had her first contact with the trade union movement; male employees at the factory had a fixed lunch hour and a space to eat because their union had fought for them. Female employees had to eat in the toilets! Daisy’s husband Tom was a driver for Stepney Borough Council and an active union member. They married in December 1908 when Daisy was 18.

Daisy obviously had a keen interest in politics in her own right- she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and the International Labour Party, and was one of the founding members and the secretary of the ELFS. She was remembered as being assertive and persuasive. She was clearly not one to shy away from action- at Suffragette demonstrations she carried a ‘Saturday Nights’ (a length of hemp rope tied at one end, a sort of improvised cosh) hidden up her sleeve in case she needed to defend herself.

Daisy Parsons- Suffragette Deputation

Daisy was part of a deputation to the Prime Minister from the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. She is on the far right of this image (Source: Janice Brooker).

Daisy took part in a deputation of working women to Prime Minister Asquith on the 12th of June 1914, trying to persuade him of the necessity of female suffrage. By this point she had 2 daughters, and was also looking after her niece. Daisy stuck with Sylvia Pankhurst after the split with her mother and sister, and ELFS worked tirelessly during the first world war, setting up a Mother and Child Welfare Centre in West Ham to help women who were struggling whilst their husbands were away, or had been killed.

When women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 Daisy still couldn’t vote because she was only 29! This did not deter her from moving into mainstream local politics however, and she was elected as a Labour Councillor for Beckton ward in 1922. She became deputy Mayor of West Ham in 1931, and Mayor in 1936. She also became a Justice of the Peace in 1933, and an Alderman of West Ham in 1935. During World War 2 Daisy organised the evacuation of local children and helped to organise the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her efforts did not spare her from tragedy however; her brother and niece were killed in the Blitz.

Daisy Parsons- Beckton Lido

Daisy Parsons at the opening of the Beckton Lido in August 1927 (Source: Newham Photos).

Daisy Parsons was obviously respected and admired. She was awarded the Freedom of West Ham in 1939, the highest honour which the borough can bestow, and was made an MBE in 1951 in recognition of her public service. She had gone from radical Suffragette to respected local official, but I get the impression she retained her determined and caring nature.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Daisy Parsons, MBE.’ The Newham Story. No date, accessed 21st March 2016.  http://newhamstory.com/node/991

Brooker, Janice. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 21st March 2016. http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/daisy_parsons.htm

McCarthy, Ka. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ The Great British Community. Last modified 8th March 2016, accessed 21st March 2016. http://greatbritishcommunity.org/daisy-parsons/

Turbulent Londoners: Elisabeth Jesser Reid, 1789-1866

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 twelth Turbulent Londoner is Elisabeth Jesser Reid. She was the founder of Bedford College, which is now part of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, my university.


ElisabethJesserReidCropped528x352

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a formidable woman (Source: Royal Holloway, University of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a social reformer, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s education. Known as single-minded and tactless, she used her relatively privileged status as an independent widow to further the causes she believed in. This included founding Bedford College, one of the first venues of higher education for women in Britain.

The second daughter of wealthy Unitarian ironmonger William Sturch and his wife Elisabeth, Elisabeth Jesser Sturch was born to a life of relative privilege on the 25th of December 1789. In 1821 she married John Reid, a physician. Dr. Reid owned land on the River Clyde in Glasgow, which became valuable as the port expanded. When John died only 13 months after their marriage, Elisabeth was left with a large, independent income. Historically, widows with an independent income have enjoyed more freedom than other women, being beyond the control of both father and husband. Elisabeth used her freedom to fight for the causes she supported.

Elisabeth was a social reformer. She used her money to support benevolent schemes set up by women, such as Harriet Martineau’s project to enable the poor in the Lake District to buy their own homes. She also sponsored the studies of pupils who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Another of Elisabeth’s passions was abolitionism. She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, where she met female American delegates who had not been permitted to speak, such as Lucretia Mott. She was a member of the Garrisonian London Emancipation Committee, the British branch of an anti-slavery group that held progressive views on gender and racial equality.

Bedford foundation plaqur

A plaque in Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, commemorating the foundation of Bedford College (Source: Plaques of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid is best known for her role in the development of female education. In 1849 she founded Bedford College, with a loan of £1500, which she converted to a gift in 1856 when the college was experiencing financial difficulties. The college was first located at 47 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, moving to Regent’s Park in 1874. Although not the first college for the higher education of women in Britain, it was the first that believed in education for purposes other than vocational training. Bedford College aimed to enable women to improve themselves as they wanted to, not just gain the skills to become a governess.

This philosophy was radical, and Elisabeth was frustrated by the lack of support she received, particularly from prominent men. She expected hundreds of applications when the college opened, and was bitterly disappointed to receive only around a dozen. Nevertheless, she persevered, insisting that 3 Lady Visitors were included in the governing body, which was the first  time women officially shared in controlling the direction of a British institution. She used her social connections to get respected scholars to teach at the college, and eventually the college became successful. Notable early students include  novelist George Eliot, feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, and Sarah Parker Redmond, the first black woman to do a lecture tour in the UK on the topic of slavery. Bedford College became part of the University of London in 1900, and merged with Royal Holloway in 1985, to become Royal Holloway and Bedford new College. In this form it is still going strong today, with over 8000 students (and a wonderful geography department!)

Graduation Photo of Marian Sherrett

The graduation photo of Marian Sherrett, who graduated from Bedford College with a first class German BA Honours degree in 1886. This photo is held by the archives at Royal Holloway, which holds archival sources about Elisabeth Jesser Reid and Bedford College (Source: Royal Holloway Archives).

I feel a personal connection to Elisabeth Jesser Reid because of the happy and fulfilling times I have spent at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, but even without that I would admire her as a headstrong and opinionated woman who did not let her relative freedom go to waste. She used her wealth and independence to make the world a better place, and she fought hard for what she believed in, significantly advancing women’s education.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Black History Month: Garrisonian Abolitionists.” Oxford University Press Blog. Last modified 27 February 2007, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://blog.oup.com/2007/02/black_history_m4/ 

Anon. “Elisabeth Jesser Reid: Pioneering Education for Women.” Royal Holloway, University of London. No date, accessed 27 February 2016. Available at  https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/aboutus/ourhistory/elisabethjesserreid.aspx

Anon. “Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13 January 2016, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jesser_Reid

Anon. “History of Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Reflex Managed Offices. Last modified 9 September 2015, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.reflex.london/history-of-elizabeth-jesser-reid/

Colville, Deborah. “Bloomsbury People.” UCL Bloomsbury Project. Last modified 7 April 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/individuals/reid_elisabeth_jesser.htm

Oldfield, Sybil. “Reid [nee Sturch], Elisabeth Jesser.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified May 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/37888 (This website is behind a paywall, I had to use my Royal Holloway login to access it).

Pakenham-Walsh, M. ‘Bedford College, 1849-1985’ in Crook J (ed.) Bedford College University of London- Memories of 150 Years. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College: Egham, Surrey (2001): 13-46