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

Reading the Riot Act 2: Luddites and Micks

Last year, I wrote a post about the protest-related origins of the phrase ‘reading the riot act,’ amongst others, and since then I have been on the lookout for other phrases which also have their origins in periods of strife. What I’ve found are two terms to describe people. If you have ever called someone, or been called by someone, a ‘Luddite’ or a ‘Mick’ (to describe an Irish person, not someone who’s name is Michael), then you have been referring to Britain’s long history of dissent.

An engraving of Luddites destroying a weaving machine (Source: Wikipedia).

An engraving of Luddites destroying a weaving machine (Source: Wikipedia).

A Luddite is a term frequently used to refer to someone who disapproves of new technologies. For most people, it is an insult, but others embrace the name with pride. If the origins of the term were more widely known, perhaps more people would be proud of the name. The Luddites was the collective name given to English textile workers who protested against the mechanization of their trade between 1811 and 1816. The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution meant that textiles could be mass-produced by unskilled, low-wage workers, forcing skilled artisans out of work.

The (probably) fictional leader of this movement was called General, or King, Ludd, and reportedly lived in Sherwood Forest, the home of another mythical champion of the people, Robin Hood. The name may come from Ned Ludd, who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779.  The Luddite protests began in Nottinghamshire and quickly spread through the midlands and North of England. The demonstrators sent threatening letters to employers and broke into factories to destroy new machines. In 1812, machine breaking became punishable by death, and 17 men were executed the following year. Obviously the Luddites were unsuccessful at halting the march of the Industrial Revolution, but they made such an impression that their name is still used, 200 years later.

A comic mocking modern-day Luddites (Source: htmlgiant).

A comic mocking modern-day Luddites (Source: htmlgiant).

‘Mick’ is a derogatory word to describe an Irish person. There are several explanations for the origin of the term, but my favourite comes from London’s contentious past. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last person to be publicly hanged in England. In May 1868 he was executed for his role in the Clerkenwell Outrage on the 13th of December 1867. 12 people were killed in a bombing outside the Middlesex House of Detention in Clerkenwell, shocking Londoners and turning them against the cause of Irish nationalism. Michael Barrett’s name became synonymous with all Irish people.

The bomb was a failed jailbreak that went disastrously wrong. Prominent Fenians Richard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey were being held in the Clerkenwell prison. A barrel of gunpowder was placed against the wall of the prison’s exercise yard and set off with a firework, with the aim of blowing a hole in the wall so Burke and Casey could escape. Far too much gunpowder was used and the blast damaged a row of tenement houses on the other side of the road. 12 people were killed and up to 120 were injured. The prison authorities knew something was being planned, so the prisoners were locked in their cells instead of exercising at the time of the bombing, and Burke and Casey failed to escape. Although Michael Barrett was charged along with several others, he was the only one who was actually convicted of the bombing.

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the 'Illustrated Police News'.

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the ‘Illustrated Police News’.

The English language has many phrases which, when you actually stop to think about them, appear to be absolute nonsense. But when you start to trace it back, you often find a great story that explains it, and offers a tiny window onto Britain’s chequered past.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Luddite.” Wikipedia. Last modified 7th June 2015, accessed 12th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

Anon. “Michael Barrett (Fenian).” Wikipedia. Last modified 17th December 2014, accessed 23rd June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Barrett_(Fenian)

Anon. “Mick.” No date, accessed 12th June 2015. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Mick

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

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.

Sources

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).

On this Day: Bloody Sunday, 13th November 1887

The protest is reported in 'The Cleveland Reader' (Source:http://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/585270)

The protest is reported in ‘The Cleveland Reader’ (Source: Rarenewspapers.com)

There are several events which are remembered with the name ‘Bloody Sunday,’ perhaps most famously Sunday the 30th of January 1972 when members of the British Army opened fire on protesters in Derry, Ireland, killing 13. London has its own Bloody Sunday however, which took place on Sunday the 13th of November 1887, in Trafalgar Square. It was the culmination of months of increasing tension between police and Londoners over the right to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square.

Demonstrations by the unemployed had been taking place in the square daily since the summer. Many unemployed men and women also slept in the square, washing in the fountains. Under pressure from the press to deal with a situation seen as embarrassing to the great metropolis, the police started to disperse meetings in the square from the 17th of October, often resorting to violence. The tension continued, now with frequent clashes between police and protesters, and Irish Home Rulers also began to use the square to protest.

Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of Police, banned all meetings in Trafalgar Square on the 8th of November. This challenge to the freedom of speech and the right to protest ouraged radicals across London, and a meeting scheduled for the following Sunday suddenly became much more significant. Called initially to demand the release of the Irish MP William O’Brien from prison, the demonstration was a clear and deliberate defiance of the ban, and the police could not allow it to go ahead without suffering severe humiliation.

A copy of the ban on all protests in Trafalgar Square (Source: The Museum of London).

A copy of the ban on all protests in Trafalgar Square (Source: The Museum of London).

On the day of the demonstration, London was turned into “an armed camp” (Bloom, 2010; 223).  1,500 police lined the square up to 4 deep, and there were also mounted police, Life Guards and Grenadier Guards. Hundreds of Special Constables, volunteers who wanted peace maintained in their city, were also present. Marchers approached Trafalgar Square from all directions, but were ambushed by police baton charges about half a mile before they reached their destination.

A dramatic depiction of evnts (Source: 'The Graphic,' November 19, 1887)

A dramatic depiction of events (Source: ‘The Graphic,’ November 19, 1887)

Some protesters did manage to reach the square, where vicious street fighting continued all day. The day was a resounding victory for the police. Using no weapons but their truncheons, they injured at least 200 demonstrators, and killed 2 or 3. The organisers of the march had called for the demonstrators not to use violence, and injuries on the police side were therefore minimal, although 2 police officers were reportedly stabbed.

The official inquest into the day suggested that the police should order stronger truncheons, because so many had broken; clearly the authorities felt no qualms about the level of force used. For activists, Bloody Sunday would be remembered as one of heavy-handed, violent repression, and those protesters who died became martyrs for the labour movement.

Sources and further reading

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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

Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. London: Penguin, 1984.

White, Jerry.  London in the 19th Century. London: Vintage, 2008.