Turbulent Londoners: Emily Faithfull, 1835-1895

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. Next up is Emily Faithfull, a women’s rights activist and publisher


Emily Faithfull

A photo of Emily Faithfull taken in the mid-late 1860s (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Many discussions about women’s rights in the second half of the nineteenth century focus on the campaign for the right to vote. However, there were other parallel campaigns related to women’s legal and employment rights. Emily Faithfull was a publisher and activist who supported the suffrage campaign, but was more concerned with fighting for gender equality in the world of work.

Emily Faithfull was born on 27 May 1835 in Surrey. She was the youngest of 8 children, and her father was a reverend. Her family were clearly relatively high status, as she was presented at court in 1857, a ceremony associated with turning 18 that was reserved for elites and those with royal connections.

Emily joined the Langham Place Circle, a group of prominent women who advocated for legal, educational, and employment reform for women. Other members included Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Bessie Rayner Parks. The group founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (or SPEW, although not to be confused with Hermione Granger’s Society for the Protect of Elfish Welfare in the Harry Potter series); Emily Faithfull was Secretary.

In 1860, Emily founded an all-female publishers with the goal of expanding employment opportunities for women. The Victoria Press quickly gained a good reputation, and the following year was appointed printer and publisher in ordinary to Queen Victoria. Emily’s actions greatly upset the London Printer’s Union, who argued that women weren’t strong or intelligent enough for typesetting work. Between 1860 and 1866, the Press published the English Woman’s Journal, a feminist monthly periodical discussing women’s employment and other equality issues. From 1863 until 1881, the press published the monthly Victoria Magazine, which also advocated for women’s employment. Emily was a prolific journalist as well as a publisher; she wrote for the Victoria Magazine, the Lady’s Pictorial and the Pall Mall Gazette.

The Victoria Press

The Victoria Press in full swing (Source: Princeton)

In January 1864, Emily published the first annual report of the Ladies London Emancipation Society. The Victoria Press would go on to publish more material for this group. 1864 was a difficult year for Emily, however. She was implicated in the scandalous and very public divorce of Admiral Henry Codrington and Helen Jane Smith Codrington. The exact role Emily played was never revealed, but the gossip was damaging enough. Her reputation suffered, and she was shunned by the Langham Place Circle.

Emily’s social isolation didn’t stop her campaigning, however. In 1868, she published a novel, Change Upon Change, a tragic romance that emphasised the need for women’s education. She was also a successful lecturer, giving talks to further the interests of women. This included two tours of America, in 1872 and 1882. In 1875, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League.

Emily moved to Manchester in her later years, and died on 31st May 1895. Throughout her life, she used speech, print, and her own business to argue that women deserved, and were capable of, a much wider range of employment than was accessible to them at the time. She deserves to be remembered as one of the pioneers of British feminism.

Sources and Further Reading

Simkin, John. “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified January 2015, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wfaithfull.htm

Wikipedia, “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified 7th January 2019, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Faithfull

Turbulent Londoners: Peggy Duff, 1910-1981

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. Next up is Peggy Duff, who worked as a peace campaigner for three decades.


Peggy Duff

Peggy Duff was a prominent peace campaigner and the first General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) (Photo: Ken Garland).

Born to a stereotypical middle class family in suburban Middlesex on 8th April 1910  Margaret Doreen Eames (known as Peggy Duff after her marriage) probably didn’t anticipate that she would grow up to become one of the most prominent peace campaigners of the twentieth century and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is still going strong more than 60 years later.

Peggy attended Hastings Secondary School for Girls. The headmistress hinted at her future path by describing her as “very public spirited.” She read English at Bedford College, and worked as a journalist after her graduation in 1932. In 1933, she married Bill Duff, a fellow journalist. The couple had 2 daughters and a son. Peggy started to get involved in peace campaigns in the late 1930s.

Tragically, Bill was killed in November 1944 whilst covering a American air raid on the Burma Railway. In order to support her family, Peggy worked full-time during the Second World War for Common Wealth, a socialist party to the left of Labour. The party performed very poorly in the 1945 General Election, and Peggy went to work for Save Europe Now, an organisation which sent food and clothing to occupied Germany and Austria. They also campaigned for the repatriation of German and Italian prisoners of war. This must have been a very difficult job at a time when they would have been very little sympathy for the soldiers and civilians of countries that lost the war. Peggy worked for Save Europe Now until 1948.

Peggy Duff Plaque

The plaque on the house where Peggy Duff lived in Albert Street, north West London (Photo: London Remembers).

Between 1929 and 1955, Peggy was the business manager of Tribune, a socialist magazine that would later describe itself as the “official weekly” of the CND. Between 1955 and 1957, she was the Secretary of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (not the catchiest name ever). Capital punishment was not abolished for murder in the UK until 1965. In 1965, Peggy was elected as a Labour member of St. Pancras Borough Council. She fought hard for the rights of council tenants, who were being squeezed by the post-war housing shortage and rising rents (some things in London never change!). Her methods of achieving this were not always popular, however; she supported controversial redevelopments and slum clearances.

At the Labour Party Conference in 1957, Aneurin Bevan (the driving force behind the National Health Service, but at this point he was Shadow Foreign Secretary) shocked his supporters by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world was a controversial issue, but Bevan dismissed calls for Britain to disarm with the argument that it would weaken Britain’s negotiating position on the international stage. That November, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, with Peggy as General Secretary. One of the CND’s best-known tactics is the Aldermarston Marches, when activists marched between London and Aldermarston in Berkshire, where nuclear bombs were being produced. Peggy organised the second Aldermarston march in 1959, and all of the others that followed until 1963. She was known amongst fellow activists for her energy and resilience.

CND London-Aldermaston

A photo from one of the Aldermarston marches, most of which were organised by Peggy Duff (Photo: CND)

Peggy resigned from the Labour party in May 1963 over Harold Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War and his refusal to condemn the dictatorship in Greece. Peggy’s commitment to peace outweighed her political allegiances. In 1965, Peggy stepped down from her role in the CND and began working for the International Federation for Disarmament and Peace, an alliance of peace groups from around the world, including the CND, who refused to take sides in the emerging Cold War. She published her memoirs, called Left, Left, Left, in 1971.

Peggy died on the 16th April 1981, aged 71. She had dedicated most of her adult life to campaigning for the peace, as well as bringing up 3 children on her own. The CND, which she helped to found, is still going strong and arguably one of the best-known campaign groups in British history. That is a legacy to be proud of.

Sources and Further Reading

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “60 Faces: Peggy Duff.” No date, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://cnduk.org/60-faces-peggy-duff/

Mathieson, David. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.

Oldfield, Sybil. “Duff [née Eames], Margaret Doreen [Peggy].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 22 February 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70428 [requires a subscription to access]

Wikipedia. “Peggy Duff.” Last modified 3rd February 2019, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_Duff

Turbulent Londoners: Eliza Sharples, 1803-1852

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 first Turbulent Londoner of 2019 is Eliza Sharples, radical speaker and partner of Richard Carlile.


Eliza Sharples

Eliza Sharples (1803-1852). This image comes from a biography of Richard Carlile written by the couple’s daughter, Theophilia (Source: The Battle of the Press, 1899).

To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, all of the Turbulent Londoners I featured during 2018 were involved in some way in the campaign to increase the political rights and responsibilities of women (See the Vote100 page for the full list). Most of them were active in the mid-to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The history of female radicalism in London goes back much further than that however. One such radical was Eliza Sharples, who was one of the first women to speak publicly on the topics of politics and religion.

Eliza Sharples was one of 6 children, born into a middle class manufacturing family in Bolton in 1803. She was well educated, attending boarding school until she was about 20. As a young woman, Eliza was both politically and religiously conservative. When the radical Richard Carlile (a prominent atheist who campaigned for universal suffrage and freedom of the press) visited Bolton in 1827, Eliza was unimpressed. After she met him at a dinner party in 1829 however, she became curious about the man and his politics. She began to read The Republican, the paper Carlile edited. In 1830 she began writing to him. Despite Carlile being married, they fell in love, and Eliza determined to share his work.

Carlile was imprisoned multiple times for publishing radical material. In 1831 he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for seditious libel. The following January, Eliza moved to London and began visiting Carlile in prison. Carlile invited her to speak at the Blackfriars Rotunda, a venue he took over in 1831 and used for radical lectures and meetings. Other speakers included William Cobbett, Henry Hunt, and Robert Owen. Eliza gave her first lecture on 29th of January 1832; she was advertised as the first woman to speak publicly on politics and religion. She gave two lectures on Sundays, as well as Monday and Friday evenings. The Friday evening lectures were free, ensuring the venue remained accessible to the poorest Londoners. In her lectures, Eliza argued that Christianity was the main barrier to the dissemination of knowledge, and by restricting education, religion also limited freedom.

As well as lecturing, Eliza also ran the Blackfriars Rotunda, and edited a new weekly radical journal called Isis. She was also Carlile’s biggest supporter whilst he was in prison, visiting him regularly. In 1832 Carlile’s wife, Jane, moved out of the family home. The following April, Eliza gave birth to a son, named Richard Sharples. Carlile finally acknowledged his relationship with Eliza, announcing that they were in a ‘moral marriage.’ Throughout 1832 the audiences and income from the Rotunda fell, and Carlile had to close it in 1833.

Richard Carlile was released from prison in August 1833. The couple lived near Fleet Street. Their first son died of smallpox that October, but Eliza went on to have three more children: Julian Hibbert, Hypatia, and Theophila. Eliza accompanied Carlile on his lecture tours, although he became increasingly religious as time passed, which alienated him from other radicals.

Richard Carlile died on the 10th of February 1843. Eliza now had to provide for her family alone. For a while she took charge of the sewing room at Alcott House, a small utopian spiritual community in south-west London. She inherited some money from an aunt which allowed to set up on her own, renting apartments and doing needlework. In 1849 a public subscription helped her to establish a coffee house which doubled as a discussion room at 1 Warner Place on Hackney Road. She used this venue to advocate for radical thought and women’s rights. The business wasn’t profitable however and eventually shut down, just as the Blackfriars Rotunda had. Eliza died at her home at 12 George Street in Hackney on the 11th of January 1852.

Eliza Sharples may have dedicated herself to radical ideas because she fell in love, or she may have come to her radical beliefs regardless. Whatever her reasons, she was a dedicated and enthusiastic public speaker, at a time when it was very unusual for women to speak in public on any topic, let alone politics.

Sources and further reading

Parolin, Christina. Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c.1845. Canberra: Australia National University E Press, 2010.

Royle, Edward. “Carlile, Elizabeth Sharples,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 6th November 2018. Available  https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38370 [requires subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Sharples,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 5th November 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Elizabeth_Sharples.htm

Simkin, John. “Richard Carlile,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 17th December 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcarlile.htm

 

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920

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. 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. For the last Turbulent Londoner in this Vote100 series, I am looking at one of the most prominent anti-suffrage campaigners, Mary Augusta Ward.


Mary Augusta Ward.PNG

Mary Augusta Ward in 1901. Photo by Crowdy and Loud (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Not every woman in the early twentieth century wanted the right to vote. Some, including some very well-respected, intelligent, talented women, actively campaigned against giving women the right to vote. The most prominent of these women, now lost in obscurity because of her unpopular views, was Mary Augusta Ward, campaigner, novelist, and president of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.

Born on the the 11th of June in Hobart, Tasmania, Mary Arnold was part of a family that was highly influential on British intellectual life. Her family left Australia when she was 5, and Mary spent much of her childhood in boarding schools. She moved back in with her family in Oxford in 1867; her father was a lecturer there. During this period she starting conducting research and writing stories and novels. In July 1871 Mary met Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose College. They were married on the 6th April 1872. The couple had three children: Dorothy in 1874, Arnold in 1876, and Janet in 1879. Female education was a cause close to Mary’s heart. She helped establish the Lectures for Women Committee, which then led to the foundation of Somerville College in 1879, one of the first colleges for women at Oxford University.

In 1881 Humphry became a writer for The Times and the family moved to London. Mary started to get her writing published. In 1888 she achieved widespread critical and commercial success with Robert Elsmere; she became the highest earning novelist in England. Mary was also very active with charitable works during this period; in 1897 she founded the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Square near Euston Station. Settlement Houses were established all over London in the Victorian period to offer social services to the poor and campaign for social justice and equality. Mary wanted equal access to education, irrespective of background. For a small annual fee, members of the Passmore Edwards Settlement could take intellectual and practical classes, participate in social activities and participate in self-help groups.

At the Passmore Edwards Settlement, Mary pioneered the Play Centre movement in England, providing care for children after school and during the school holidays. This enabled working class mothers to work full time. The Settlement was also the location of the first school in England for disabled children, opening in 1899. After her death, the Settlement was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement, and it still exists. The Mary Ward Centre is an adult education college, whilst the Mary Ward Legal Centre offers free legal advice to Londoners. Mary wanted the Settlement to be “A place for ideals, a place for enthusiasm,” and that legacy continues today.

mw175144

Mary Augusta Ward poses for a photograph by Henry Walter Barnet (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

In 1908, Mary agreed to become President of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. She threw herself into the campaign with her usual dedication, writing articles, giving speeches, and founding and editing the Anti-Suffrage Review. By June 1910, 320,000 people had signed an anti-suffrage petition. The group has 15,000 members, and 110 branches. Having women like Mary in the anti-suffrage movement allowed the argument to be made that respectable, intelligent women did not want the vote.

There has been much speculation about why Mary agreed to take such a prominent position in the anti-suffrage campaign. It cost her dearly; she alienated friends, family, and colleagues at the Settlement. The popularity of her writing was also affected. It did earn her political capital for the causes she was passionate about; the education of children and the working classes. Her anti-suffrage stance was also motivated by fear. Mary saw suffragettes as terrorists, and was also wary of the influence of lesbians in the pro-suffrage movement. Finally, Mary’s reasons for opposing women’s suffrage also related to the British Empire. Mary believed that only the special knowledge of men could solve the problems facing the empire. She also argued that the vote was a reward that men deserved because they risked their lives to protect the empire. Women did not take such risks, and therefore did not deserve the right to vote. This argument is flawed, as many of the working-class men who served in the British military did not have the right to vote until the 1918 Representation of the People Act, but it was Mary’s argument nonetheless.

During the First World War, Mary was the first female journalist to visit the Western Front. She wrote propaganda for American audiences, and is credited with helping persuade the USA to join the war. She was made a CBE in March 1919, and was invited to become Britain’s first female magistrate in February 1920. Her health was very poor by this point, however, and she died on the 24th of March.

Mary Augusta Ward fought hard for a position that we now find difficult to comprehend. If she hadn’t fought so hard for the anti-suffrage cause, she would probably be remembered as a talented novelist and dedicated philanthropist and campaigner. As it is, she is barely remembered at all.

Sources and Further Reading

Griffiths, Jack. “Anti-Suffrage: The British Women Who Didn’t Want the Vote.” History Answers. Last modified 22 October 2015, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at  https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/the-gruesome-origin-of-sweet-fanny-adams/

Mary Ward Centre. “Settlement History.” No date, accessed 3 October 2018. Available at  http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk/history/

Simkin, John. “Mary Humphry Ward.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wward.htm

Sutherland, John. “The Suffragettes’ Unlikeliest Enemy.” The Guardian. Last modified 4 June 2013, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/suffragettes-mary-ward

Sutherland, John. “Ward [nee Arnold], Mary Augusta [known as Mrs Humphry Ward].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 10 January 2013, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36736 [this link requires a subscription to access].

Wikipedia. “Mary Augusta Ward.” Last modified 19 Septmber 2018, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Augusta_Ward

Turbulent Londoners: Jessie Kenney, 1887-1985

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Jessie Kenney, younger sister of Annie Kenney, the best-known working class member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.


Jessie Kenney

Jessie Kenney (Source: Unbound).

Most people who are familiar with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) know about Annie Kenney, the charismatic working class organiser from Oldham in Greater Manchester. What fewer people know is that Annie’s sisters were also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Annie’s younger sister, Jessie, was also a full-time organiser for the WSPU, although she had a different skill set to Annie.

Jessie Kenney was born in Oldham in 1887, the ninth of 12 children. When she was 13, she left school to start working in a cotton mill, although she continued her education through evening classes. In 1905, she went with her sister Annie to the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club to listen to Teresa Billington-Grieg and Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. After that, both sisters joined the WSPU. Annie, eight years older than Jessie, was a charismatic and engaging speaker. Jessie’s skills were more organisational, and in 1906 she began working for the WSPU full time as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence‘s secretary.

Jessie used her organisational skills to great effect, arranging deputations to visit politicians and interrupt meetings. On the 23rd of February 1909 Jessie took advantage of a loophole that allowed ‘human letters’ to be sent through the Royal Mail to send Daisy Soloman and Elspeth McClellan to the Prime Minister from the Strand Post Office. In October 1910, she organised the WSPU’s campaign during the Walthamstow by-election. In 1912, she did the same in South Hackney.

Jessie did not just organise WSPU actions, she also took part in them. She was imprisoned for a month after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square on the 30th of June 1908. On the 10th of December 1909 she disguised herself as a telegraph boy in order to try and access the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester. On the 5th of September 1910, along with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth, she accosted Asquith and Herbert Gladstone whilst they were play golf.

Jessie Kenney's office

Jessie Kenney’s office in the WSPU headquarters in Clement’s Inn, London. The picture was taken by an H. Seargeant in July 1911 (Source: Museum of London).

In 1913 Jessie was taken ill and sent to Switzerland to recover. She didn’t destroy her papers before she left, and evidence that the authorities found in her flat was used to convict the WSPU’s chemist, Edwy Clayton, to 21 months in prison for his role in the group’s arson campaign. In 1914, Jessie went to stay with Christabel Pankhurst, who was living in hiding in Paris. Between July and August, she travelled to Glasgow once a week to make sure the WSPU’s newspaper, The Suffragette, was published successfully.

When Britain joined the First World War in August 1914, Jessie threw herself into the war effort with the rest of the WSPU. In 1915, she travelled to America to organise the early stages of the Pankhurst’s Serbian Mission. The following year, she helped to organise the WSPU’s War Work Procession in London, encouraging women to join the war effort. In 1917, Jessie travelled to Russia with Emmeline Pankhurst to meet with the Provisional Government and try and persuade them to keep Russia in the war.

After the war, Jessie worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She decided she wanted to be a Radio Officer on a ship, and trained at the North Wales Wireless College. She got a first class certificate in Radio Telegraphy, but was unable to get a job in such a male-dominated industry. Instead she worked as a steward on cruise liners before settling in Battersea and working as an administrative secretary in a school. She died 1985.

Jessie Kenney may not be as famous as her sister, but there is no doubt that she worked just as hard to win women the right to vote. Her skills kept her out of the spotlight, but she made an invaluable contribution to the WSPU and deserves just as much recognition as any other woman who campaigned for the right to vote.

References and Further Reading

ArchivesHub. “Papers of Jessie Kenney.” No date, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/046b1a57-c944-3de8-bc81-00176e398001

Simkin, John. “Jessie Kenney.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/WkenneyJ.htm

Wikipedia, “Jessie Kenney.” Last modified 15 August 2018, accessed 9 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Kenney

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Matters, 1877-1969

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The third of my suffrage activists is Muriel Matters, an Australian actress, lecturer, and journalist with a flair for dramatic stunts.


Muriel Matters

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

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

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

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

CARAVAN TOUR/WFL 20C

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

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

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

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

Muriel Matters dirigible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Turbulent Londoners: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 1847-1929

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The second of my suffragists is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a pioneer of the campaign before the WSPU was even a twinkle in Emmeline Pankhurst’s eye.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turbulent Londoners: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, 1867-1954

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. First up is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union until 1913.


Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

Votes for Women 1913

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading

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

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

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

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

 

Turbulent Londoners: 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.

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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.


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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.

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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