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/

 

On This Day: Occupation of the Savoy, 14th September 1940

When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.

E and C during air raid

Londoners sheltering in Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid. At first, the government were reluctant to let people shelter in the underground (Source: IWM)

In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.

The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.

The Savoy

The entrance to the world famous Savoy hotel on the Strand (Source: The Daily Mail)

With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.

The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.

Sweet, Matthew. “When Max Levitas Stormed the Savoy.” Spitalfields Life. Last modified 3 November, 2011. Accessed 23 August, 2017. Available at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/11/03/when-max-levitas-stormed-the-savoy/