Turbulent Londoners: Clementina Black, 1854-1922

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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 Clementina Black, a writer, feminist and trade unionist.

Clementina Black (Source: Women of Brighton).

Clementina Black (Source: Women of Brighton).

Clementina Black was a writer, feminist and early trade unionist, and another inspiring radical who has slipped through the cracks of history. She was an adopted Londoner, like many millions before and since, who was born in Brighton (my home town, so I felt an immediate affinity!) in 1854. She helped to found and run numerous campaign organisations, with a focus on trying to improve the lives of working women. Her writing included multiple reports on the social conditions of the poor and 7 novels, including The Agitator, which was based on her experience in the trade union movement. She died in December 1922, when she was 68 years old.

Clementina’s mother died when she was 21, leaving her to look after her invalid father and 7 younger siblings. During this time she wrote her first novel, A Sussex Idyll. When Clementina’s father died she moved on London to continue her writing career, and this is also where her radical career really began. In 1886 she became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, a role in which she thrived, travelling the country attempting to persuade women to join Unions. In 1888 she proposed an equal pay motion at the Trades Union Congress, fighting an injustice which has still not been resolved to this day.

In 1889 Clementina helped form the Women’s Trade Union Association, later the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC), which she would eventually become president of. In 1895 she became the Editor of WIC’s journal, Women’s Industrial News. The middle class women of the WIC went to see the working conditions of working class women, and wrote reports on them in an attempt to raise awareness. By 1914 they had investigated 117 different trades.

Clementina was also involved in the Consumers League, which put pressure on employers who paid their female workers low wages through their customers- they were involved in the boycott of the Bryant and May matchmakers, who would go on to be defeated in the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888. In 1896 Clementina began to campaign for a legal minimum wage, viewing low wages as the root of the problem for female workers. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Anti-Sweating League, and helped organise several conferences on the topic in the years before the First World War.

As the campaign for women’s suffrage took off after 1900, Clementina also threw herself into that, believing that women lacked real power to affect change as long as they lacked the ability to vote. In 1906 she was made Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Franchise Declaration Committee, where she organised a petition in favour of female suffrage with 257,000 signatures. She was an active member of both the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The NUWSS was the non-violent equivalent of the WSPU and the suffragettes, and were arguably just as important in winning the vote for women. In 1912-3, Clementina was the acting editor of The Common Cause, the NUWSS’s paper which called itself ‘the organ of the women’s movement for reform.’

Like many female activists of her era, Clementina was a tireless force in the campaign to improve the lives of women. Unlike other prominent campaigners for women’s rights such as Emmeline Pankhurst, she focussed on working women, those who needed the most help. She was not only a member, but in several cases a key leader, of multiple campaign groups. She didn’t really participate in direct action, instead using her skills as a writer to persuade others. She is not a woman who deserves to be forgotten.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 19 January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clementina_Black

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Women of Brighton. No date, accessed 20 March 2015. http://www.womenofbrighton.co.uk/clementina-black.html

Simkin, John. ‘Clementina Black,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wblack.htm

Simkin, John. ‘The Common Cause,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wcommoncause.htm

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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 second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.

 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.


History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).