Turbulent Londoners: Olive Morris, 1952-1979

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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 Olive Morris, radical, activist, and organiser.


Olive Morris in 1973 at the squat she helped established at 121 Railton Road in Brixton (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

There has been a conscious effort over the last few years to ensure that black activists throughout history receive the attention they deserve. Olive Morris is one of those who has been the subject of concerted efforts to research and publicise her life and legacy. She was even featured on a Google Doodle on the 26th of June 2020, which would have been her 68th birthday. Olive was an accomplished and dedicated activist, who made significant contributions to the developing Black Power movement in Britain in the 1970s.

The Google Doodle celebrating Olive Morris, from the 26th June 2020 (Source: Google).

Olive Morris was born on the 26th of June 1952 in Jamaica. Her parents moved to London when she was young and in 1961, aged 9, she joined them in Lavender Hill. She left school without any qualifications, although she would later go on to study at the London College of Printing and the University of Manchester. The London that Olive grew up in was not welcoming or supportive of people like her; black and Asian people faced a racist police force, attacks by racist groups such as the National Front, and discrimination in education, employment, and housing. In this context Olive became a fierce and determined activist, campaigning against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Her activism was intersectional; she believed that all forms of discrimination interact and overlap, and in order to fight one you must fight them all.

In 1969, at the age of just 17, Olive intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton. The police did not believe that a black man could own such a nice car, so accused him of stealing it. Olive was physically and verbally abused by the police for standing up to them. She was also arrested, charged with assault on an officer, and fined £10 and given a 3 month suspended sentence.

At this time, Brixton was a hub for black political organisations, so Olive found no shortage of allies. In the early 1970s, she joined the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement. In 1974 she was a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, which was formed to create a space for women who felt marginalised by the broader black freedom movement.

Olive began squatting in 1972, and quickly became very good at it. For her, squatting was a political act; she used it to draw attention to the fact that so many black people were homeless, despite good quality housing being available. In this way, she helped pioneer squatting as a form of activism. In 1973 Olive squatted 121 Railton Road in Brixton, which became an organising centre for community groups such as Black People against State Harassment. It was also home to Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first black community bookshops in Britain. Railton Road remained a squat and community centre.

Olive Morris scaling a building on the front cover of a handbook for squatters published in 1979 (Source: Lambeth Council).

Between 1975 and 1978, Olive studied economics and social studies at the University of Manchester. Whilst there, she was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students. Amongst other things, she helped campaign against raising tuition fees for overseas students. Olive saw this policy as a racist denial of British responsibilities to its former colonies. She was also a member of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative (later the Abasindi Co-operative) and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

During and after her studies, Olive traveled extensively, using what she learnt to inform her activism back home. She also wrote and published on her experiences and politics. In 1978, Olive co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), an umbrella movement which brought together other groups and activists. After graduating, Olive returned to Brixton and worked in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre. Here, she campaigned against the controversial ‘sus’ laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people based solely on suspicion.

Olive fell ill whilst on holiday in Spain in 1978. On her return she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment was unsuccessful, and she passed away on 12th July 1979, aged just 27. It was a tragic shock to her friends and family, and also a great loss to London’s activist communities. In 1986 a Lambeth Council building at 18 Brixton Hill was named after her; there is also a community garden and play are in Myatt’s Field dedicated to her. In 2008 the Remembering Olive Collective was set up to publicise and preserve her legacy; the materials they collected are now held at Lambeth Archives. In 2009, she was chosen by public vote to be one of the historical figures featured on the Brixton Pound, a local currency. In 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial Award was launched, which gives bursaries to young black women.

Olive Morris on the one Brixton Pound note. She was chosen by a popular vote to appear on the local currency (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Olive Morris was a dedicated, skilled, and strategic organiser and activist, who fought against discrimination in all its forms. During her short life she worked tirelessly to combat the disadvantages faced by black people in Britain and build networks of solidarity and mutual support. Some of these networks were specifically aimed at women, encouraging many women of colour to engage in politics for the first time. Olive is remembered as a local hero in Brixton, but her legacy goes much further than that. I somehow doubt she would be impressed by being featured in a Google doodle, but is a step towards the recognition she deserves.

Sources and Further Reading

Allotey, Emma. “Morris, Olive Elaine (1952-1979).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/100963

Barr, Sabrina. “Olive Morris: Google Doodle Honours Activist who Campaigned to Improve the Lives of the Black Community.” Independent. Last modified 26th June 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/olive-morris-google-doodle-who-activist-black-police-london-a9586836.html

Osborne, Angelina. “Black History Month: The Power of Olive Morris.” Fawcett Society. Last modified 2nd October 2018, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/black-history-month-power-olive-morris

Reilly, Felix. “‘Black women who have struggled to make our efforts possible’: Olive Morris and the Legacy of Black Power in Manchester.” History@Manchester. Last modified 13th October 2019, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://uomhistory.com/2019/10/13/black-women-who-have-struggled-to-make-our-efforts-possible-olive-morris-and-the-legacy-of-black-power-in-manchester/

Remember Olive Collective blog. Various dates, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/news-and-events/

Tsang, Amie. “Overlooked No More: How Olive Morris Fought for Black Women’s Rights in Britain.” The New York Times. Last modified 26th June, 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/obituaries/olive-morris-overlooked.html

Book Review: Bad Girls- The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison

Bad Girls Book Cover

Bad Girls by Caitlin Davies.

Caitlin Davies. Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison. London: John Murray, 2018. RRP £10.99 paperback. 

For 9 years, I studied at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London in Egham, Surrey. For 9 years, when I told people I went to Royal Holloway, I had to put up with jokes about Holloway Prison, the infamous women’s penitentiary in London. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about Holloway apart from the fact that a lot of suffragettes were imprisoned there. So when I heard about Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison, it seemed like a good opportunity to find out more about why Holloway is so well known.

First opened in 1852, HMP Holloway was made female-only in 1902, rebuilt in 1971-85, and closed for good in 2016. In that time, it has witnessed dramatic changes in society, including seismic shifts in the treatment of both women and prisoners. In Bad Girls, Caitlin Davies recounts how life in the prison changed over more than 150 years, telling the stories of governors and staff as well as the women incarcerated there. Some of the women described in Bad Girls are well known, either for the severity of their crimes, such as Myra Hindley, or because they took a stand for what they believed in, like the suffragettes and the women of Greenham Common. The vast majority of the women who spent time in Holloway, however, are unlikely to remembered by anyone but their families. That does not, however, make their stories any less fascinating.

the history of women in Holloway is a bleak one and stories of triumph are few and far between. It’s impossible not to feel depressed at a century and a half of women betrayed and coerced, condemned and mistreated, wrongly imprisoned, punished and executed. But this is why its story has to be told, because women have for too long been kept out of sight and out of mind behind the walls of Holloway.

Davies, 2018; p.316.

The women imprisoned in Holloway did not just break the law, they also undermined society’s perceptions of gender; crime is simply not feminine. Caitlin Davies doesn’t just tell a good story, she also explores how dominant narratives around gender and femininity are tied up with understandings of criminality and punishment. She questions what prisons are for and highlights how their dual purposes of punishment and rehabilitation rarely complement each other. This book has as much to say to the present as it does to the past.

Although many of Caitlin Davies’ books are clearly based on extensive historical research, she describes herself as a writer rather than a historian, and this is reflected in Bad Girls. Unlike most history books, Davies herself is very much a part of the narrative; she details her visits to prisons and cemeteries, and describes the London cafes in which she interviews former inmates of Holloway and their descendants. I enjoyed this approach; it felt as though Davies is taking the reader with her on her journey to uncover the stories of women who’s lives have often been swept under the carpet.

Bad Girls is an excellent book. Not only is it a great read, it is also an ideal example of how an understanding of the past can illuminate significant issues in the present-day. In the acknowledgements, Davies mentions that she had to cut out a lot of material, and that a lot of stories have been left untold. My response to that is: when can we expect the sequel?

Turbulent Londoners: Margaret Harkness, 1854-1923

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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 Margaret Harkness, a radical journalist and author.


Margaret Harkness

Margaret Elise Harkness was a second cousin of Beatrice Webb (nee Potter), one of the founders of sociology as an academic discipline. Margaret trained as a nurse before deciding to make her living as a writer, publishing under the name John Law.

Born on 28th February 1854 in Great Malvern Worcestshire, Margaret was the daughter of a clergyman, the second of five children. She was educated at home, before going to a finishing school in Bournemouth at the age of 21. In 1877 she moved to London to train as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital. After she qualified she worked at Guys Hospital in London Bridge, but she didn’t enjoy the work much.

In the early 1880s, perhaps inspired by Beatrice, Margaret decided to try and make her living writing. Beatrice and her sister Katie supported Margaret financially, and introduced her to a circle of intellectuals who met at the reading room of the British Museum. She began to publish both fiction and non-fiction, most of it under the pen name John Law.

Margaret became friends with a wide range of the radicals in London at the time, including Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. She began to take an interest in radical politics herself. Margaret must have seen the impacts of poverty first hand during her time as a nurse, and she came to believe that socialism was the solution to. inequality and poverty. Her beliefs influenced her writing, and she published five novels about the lives of London’s poor. The most famous is In Darkest London, first published in 1888. Another of her novels featured the famous Bloody Sunday in  November 1887, when radicals clashed with police in Trafalgar Square over the right to protest there.

Margaret joined the Social Democratic Federation, and was an active campaigner during the 1889 Dock Strike. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, was instrumental in resolving the strike. Margaret went to see him in September 1889, and its thought she persuaded him to intervene in the dispute.

Margaret’s work enabled her to travel, she spent time in Manchester, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. It becomes quite difficult to trace her movements, but between 1906 and the start of the First World War she was in India. It seems likely that Annie Besant introduced Margaret to the religion of Theosophy, but she also became interested in Indian nationalism, and published a book about her experiences in the country. By this stage, Margaret had rejected socialism and now advocated the ideals and work of the Salvation Army, which inspired her last know novel, published in 1921.

Margaret continued to travel, living in France and Italy before her death, in Florence, on 10th December 1923. Margaret may not have been the best known radical female author in late-Victorian London, and she might not have achieved the most either. But her achievements were still remarkable, and I think it is important not to focus too much attention on a few prominent individuals. There was a vibrant radical community in London in the late nineteenth century, all of whom played a part in the successes and failures of that period.

Sources and Further Reading

London Fictions. “Margaret Harkness: ‘In Darkest London’-1889.” No date, accessed 5th May 2020. Available at https://www.londonfictions.com/margaret-harkness-in-darkest-london.html#

Lucas, John. “Harkness, Margaret Elise.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 5th May 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/56894 [Subscription required to access].

Turbulent Londoners: Susan Lawrence, 1871-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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 Susan Lawrence, an upper class politician who started her career as a Conservative Councillor, but converted to socialism.


Susan Lawrence 1930

Susan Lawrence in 1930 (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Susan Lawrence was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Well educated, she embarked upon a career as a Conservative politician. It didn’t take her long before the realities of life in London helped in her conversion to non-revolutionary socialism. She became a devoted member of the Labour Party, and went on to be an effective politician.

Arabella Susan Lawrence was born in London to a prosperous family on 12th of August 1871. She was well education, studying at University College London and Newnham College, Cambridge. In her early life, Susan was politically and socially conservative, strongly believing in the British Empire, the Church of England, and charity. In March 1910 she was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as a Conservative. As she immersed herself in London politics however, her beliefs began to diverge from the policies of the Conservative Party.

Over the next two years, Susan underwent a political and personal transformation. Previously a devout member of the Church of England, she became much more secular in her beliefs. She also realised that social change could not be brought about by voluntary work alone, it required action by the state. Susan joined the Fabian Society, a group of non-revolutionary socialists (they wanted to bring about a socialist society by gradual means), and became good friends with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a power couple of British socialism. Susan served  on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1913 until 1945. As a member of the LCC, Susan became aware of how little the women who cleaned London’s schools were paid. As a result, she became involved in women’s trade unionism. She met and befriended Mary Macarthur, the secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). For the next decade, Susan worked to organise working class women, earning the nickname ‘Our Susan’. In 1912, she resigned from the LCC because of this dramatic change in her beliefs.

Susan still believed in making a difference, and the following year she was re-elected to the LCC as a Labour Councillor for Poplar in East London. After her mother’s death, Susan moved to the East End, living just off the East India Dock Road. It was not unusual at this time for middle- and upper-class women to try to help East London’s poor, but Susan displayed an uncommon level of dedication by actually moving there.

During the First World War, Susan was a Fabian representative on the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee, a coalition of Labour and socialist groups who worked to improve conditions for the working classes. She also served on government committees, trying to ensure the interests of workers,  and particularly female workers, were taken into account. Like many other Labour politicians, Susan was optimistic that post-war reconstruction could be used to benefit the working classes. In 1918, she was elected to the new women’s section of the Labour Party’s National Executive. In just 6 years, Susan had become one of  Labour’s most important women.

In 1919, Susan was elected to Poplar borough council. Two years later, she was one of 30 Poplar Councillors imprisoned because of the Poplar Rates Strike. The Councillors took a stand over the unfair way in which unemployment benefits were paid for in London, which meant that the poorest boroughs had the highest burdens. The government sentenced them to prison indefinitely, but the government backed down and Susan and the other Councillors were released after 6 weeks. Despite their success, the Poplar Councillor’s illegal strategy was unpopular with the rest of the Labour Party.

1924 Women MPs

Women were allowed to stand as MPs for the first time in 1918. By 1924, there were 8 female MPs in Parliament. Susan Lawrence is the second from the left (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Susan was loyal to the Labour Party however, and in the 1920s she turned her attention to Parliamentary politics. After failing to win seats in the 1920 and 1922 elections, Susan was elected as the MP for East Ham North in 1924, becoming one of Labour’s first 3 female MPs. Although she was never a Minister, Susan held several positions in Labour governments became quite successful. She was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in October 1930. Despite being a trailblazer for women in politics, women’s rights was never a priority for Susan. She had been indifferent at best to women’s suffrage, and she didn’t want women’s issues to divide the Labour Party; for Susan, no other identity was more important than class. Unlike other female politicians at the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson, she seemed impervious to the pressure to appear ‘feminine’; she never took much interest in her clothes or appearance.

In the 1931 general election Susan lost her seat, and this marked the end of her Parliamentary career. She tried to get re-elected in 1935, but was unsuccessful. A new and younger group was increasingly leading the Labour Party, and Susan was increasingly alienated. She remained on the Party’s executive until 1941, however. Susan dedicated her retirement to translating books into braille. She moved to Berkshire after her house was bombed during the Blitz, but returned to London after the war, moving to South Kensington. She died at home on 24th of October 1947.

Susan Lawrence was a dedicated and effective politician. She was not a suffragette, but she shared with them a willingness to go to prison for what she believed in. I think it must have taken a huge amount of bravery and resolve to shift her political allegiance as she did, and I admire her for that. Contemporary politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and I think they could learn something from Susan.

Sources and Further Reading

English Heritage. “Lawrence, Susan (1871-1947).” No date, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/susan-lawrence/

Howell. David. “Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 28th May 2015, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34434 [Subscription required to access].

Perera, Kathryn. “Susan Lawrence: The Monocled Maverick.” Labour List. Last modified 20th December 2010, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://labourlist.org/2010/12/susan-lawrence-the-monocled-maverick/

Simkin, John. “Susan Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUlawrence.htm

 

 

Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Fry, 1780-1845

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m focusing on Elizabeth Fry, who you may recognise as the face of the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, but how much do you actually know about what she achieved?


Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry in 1843. Portrait by George Richmond (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Elizabeth Fry was a penal reformer and philanthropist whose portrait graced the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, only the second woman to appear on English currency (the first was Florence Nightingale). She was a strict Quaker, and her religious beliefs drove her philanthropy and campaigning. Elizabeth Gurney was born on the 21st of May 1780 in Norwich, the 4th of 12 children. The 7 girls in the family received a thorough education, but Elizabeth missed a lot, and didn’t learn to spell until much later. Both her parents came from respectable Quaker families, but after her mother died in 1792 the rest of her family didn’t take religion too seriously. Elizabeth did, however, and in 1799 she adopted the dress and speech of a strict Quaker.

On the 19th of August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, who came from a wealthy orthodox Quaker family. Between 1801 and 1822 the couple had 11 children. At first the family lived in central London, but in 1809 the family moved to East Ham, which at this point was a small village outside London. Despite a busy family life, Elizabeth did a lot of work for the local community, distributing clothing, food, and medicine in what was known as the ‘Irish colony.’ Despite her own slow start, education was a high priority for Elizabeth; she started a Sunday school in Earlham, and co-founded a school for girls in East Ham. She was an advocate of vaccination, and helped almost completely eliminate smallpox from the villages around East Ham. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister, and began a long career of preaching and writing and distributing religious tracts. Despite her husband’s support, Elizabeth always felt a tension between her religious ambitions and her marital duties.

In 1813 Elizabeth first visited the women’s side of Newgate prison, notorious for it’s poor conditions. She was appalled by what she saw, as well as the severity of criminal law at the time. An interest in prisoners is part of Quaker tradition, and Elizabeth was not the only reformer who took an interest. She was unusual because of her gender however, and she was also the first to take a specific interest in female prisoners. Elizabeth believed that prisoners should be treated humanely, and that the primary purpose of prisons should be reform rather than punishment. She advocated for women-only prisons, with female staff. Elizabeth didn’t return to Newgate until December 1816, but when she did she met with the prison authorities and prisoners and instituted a series of reforms. These included religious and elementary education for the prisoners and their children (children were often imprisoned with their mother at the time); a classification system for prisons; prison dress; constant supervision by matrons and monitors; and paid employment. Fry or one of her supporters also visited daily to talk with the women or read to them.

The conduct of the female prisoners in Newgate improved dramatically as a result of Fry’s reforms, and her success in the infamous prison won her a lot of her supporters. In April 1817 the Ladies’ Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate was set up. In 1821, it was expanded to become the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reform of Female Prisons, the first nationwide women’s organisation in Britain. From 1818 onwards, Elizabeth toured the country, combining her responsibilities as a Quaker minister with her prison reform efforts. She would visit prisons and suggest improvements, as well as establish local ladies’ committees to visit prisoners. In 1827, she published a handbook detailing her reforms: Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners. Elizabeth also advocated reforms to capital punishment and the treatment of female prisoners on convict ships bound for Australia; she was responsible for considerable improvements in conditions on the ships.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s husband went bankrupt. This was a very humiliating time for the family, and must have been very difficult for Elizabeth as her husband was disowned by the Quakers. She was able to keep up her campaigning though, as she was supported financially by her brothers. During the 1830s, Elizabeth began to face serious opposition to her prison reform ideas; as a religiously motivated woman, her ideas were dismissed as old-fashioned and unprofessional. Her opposition to the increasingly popular system of solitary confinement meant that her ideas were increasingly accused of being out of date. Despite this, between 1838 and 1845 Elizabeth made 5 trips to Europe, where she lobbied for better treatment of prisoners and lunatics, the abolition of slavery, and religious toleration.

elizabeth-fry-on-the-bank-of-englands-5-pound-note_page_1.jpg

Elizabeth Fry was on the English £5 from 2002 until 2017. The image on the left of the note is an idealised depiction of Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate (Source: Open University).

Elizabeth’s health declined over several years, and she died of a stroke on the 13th of October 1845. Her legacy was significant; she had contributed to prison and legal reform around the world. Her example also helped to start the organised women’s movement; she strongly believed that women should become active on behalf of other women. Her achievements were acknowledged in 2002, when she became the second woman to appear on a Bank of England note. The recognition was well deserved.

Sources and Further Reading

Crone, Rosalind. “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry.” The Open University. Last modified 21st February 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry

de Haan, Francisca. “Fry [nee Gurney], Elizabeth.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 1st September 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10208 [Subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Fry.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/REfry.htm

Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in 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 Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

Beatrice and sidney Webb

Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

Beatrice and sidney Webb Russia

Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb

Turbulent Londoners: Anna Wheeler, ~1785-1848

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in 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 Anna Wheeler, a feminist philosopher and author. Her great grand daughter was Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923).


Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler in 1825 by Maxim Gauci, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, after J. Porter (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Anna Wheeler has been described as “the most advanced but neglected feminist and socialist activist and thinker of the period after Mary Wollstonecraft” (Hardy, 2009). Intelligent and persuasive, Anna was a significant figure in early British feminism. She was also an important node in the network of European radicalism in the early nineteenth century, bringing the ideas of French socialists and feminists to a British audience.

Anna Doyle was born in about 1785 in County Tipperary in Ireland. The daughter of a clergyman, she did not receive a formal education but learnt a lot from the people around her (e.g. family acquaintances and foreign dignitaries who visited her relatives). She was well known in the area for her intelligence, as well as her beauty. In 1800, when she was around 15, she married wealthy local landowner Francis Massy Wheeler. Francis himself was only 19 at the time, and Anna’s mother disapproved of the match. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one, and in 1812 Anna took her two daughters, Hanrietta and Rosina, to live with her uncle in Guernsey where he was governor. Anna travelled a lot during the rest of her life, living in London, Dublin, Caen and Paris.

Over the next few years, Anna gained a reputation in France for her intelligence and patronage of young intellectuals. In London, she became close friends with liberal philosophers such as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen, the Leader of the Co-operative movement. Her most significant friendship was with William Thompson, an Irish political economist, feminist and critic of capitalism. Francis died in 1820, leaving Anna without an income. She began translating the work of French Owenite philosophers into English.

Anna was living in Paris in 1823, whew she met French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, She decided that London Owenites could benefit from his ideas, so she translated his dense writing on human harmony into English, at the same time making it more accessible. In 1826 she returned to London after her daughter Henrietta died suddenly.

In 1825 Anna’s collaborative work with Thompson led to the publication of Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and Hence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery (succinct titles were not a priority in the nineteenth century!) The book combined elements of liberal and socialist feminism, and fiercely criticised marriage as a form of domestic slavery. It argued that women needed education, the right to vote (almost 100 years before it actually happened), and alternatives to domesticity. Thompson and Wheeler challenged utilitarians, who argued for human happiness but excluded women. They also criticised James Mill’s argument that women didn’t need the vote because their interests were shared with men. Both Wheeler and Thompson were also supportive of contraception, which was an incredibly controversial issue at the time.

Anna was a well known public speaker in her own right, giving talks and lectures on women’s rights. She also published essays in the radical press using the pseudonym Vlasta. In her writing she argued that both men and women had been subjected to social conditioning by corrupt institutions. She wanted harmony and cooperation between men and women, not conflict. Anna believed that women were under the power of a learned ideology of romantic love, which concentrated their thoughts on pleasing men (perhaps she would think that this hasn’t changed). She was suspicious of arguments which gave women an inherent capacity for nurture and affection. Anna argued that women needed to act on their principles and reason to liberate themselves from customs and social conditioning.

Anna’s French friends tried to get her to Paris in the run up to the 1848 revolution, but she was too ill. She died in Camden on the 7th of May. Throughout her life she had been an important conduit for ideas between British radicals and their counterparts on the continent, as well as an influential feminist philosopher in her own right. Perhaps spurred on by her own disastrous marriage, Anna focused her considerable intellect on improving the lot of future generations of women, and for that we owe her thanks.

Sources and Further Reading

Dooley, Dolores. “Wheeler [nee Doyle], Anna.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46577 [subscription required to access].

Hardy, Patsy. “Wheeler, Anna Doyle.” in Iain McCalman et. a (eds) An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

McFadden, Margaret. “Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848): Philosopher, Socialist, Feminist.” Hypatia 4, no. 1 (1989): 91-101.

Wikipedia. “Anna Wheeler (author).” Last modified 22nd May 2019, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Wheeler_(author).

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

Turbulent Londoners: Catharine Macaulay, 1731-1791

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This week it is the turn of Catharine Macaulay, who was a radical and a republican, as well as the first female English historian.


Catherine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay in around 1775, by Robert Edge Pine (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

A lot of the women I feature on Turbulent London probably wouldn’t describe themselves as activists or campaigners; many of them wouldn’t even describe themselves as feminists (the term didn’t exist before the late 1880s). These women advanced women’s rights by simply striving for, and achieving, the things they wanted, even if they were told they couldn’t because they were female. Catharine Macaulay, the first female English historian, falls into this category. Her determination to conduct and publish historical research in a time where there were no other female historians in the world made her remarkable. Her successful career as a historian was her primary goal, and the advancement of women’s rights was just a side effect.

Born Catharine Sawbridge on 23rd of March 1731 to parents who were wealthy landowners, Catharine had a comfortable childhood. She was educated at home by a governess in Kent. We don’t know much about the quality of her education, but by her twenties she was a voracious reader and had a deep love of history. On 20th June 1760, Catharine married a Scottish physician, Dr. George Macaulay. The couple moved to St. James’ place in London, where they had one daughter, Catharine Sophia.

It was during this first marriage that Catharine began to publish The History of England from James I to the Revolution. It was a sprawling, detailed historical account of the seventeenth-century that would eventually run to 8 volumes, the last of which was published in 1783. Not only was it remarkable for a woman to undertake such a task (it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to be a historian), it was very unusual for her husband to support her endeavours. But George did support Catharine, and after the publication of the first volume she became an overnight celebrity.

Catharine believed that English society during the Anglo-Saxon period was characterised by freedom and equality, but that this ideal society was lost after the Norman conquest. She argued that all of English history since 1066 had been about the attempt to win back the rights crushed by the “Norman yoke.” This stance was very popular with Whigs, who saw her work as an alternative to Hume’s ‘Tory’ History of England. However, when Volume 4 was published in 1768, Catharine alienated her Whig supporters by justifying the execution of Charles I. She was a republican, and believed that if Kings become tyrants, as Charles did, then they forfeit the right to rule. She was no fan of Oliver Cromwell’s either though; she blamed him for the downfall of the English republic.

Catharine was also critical of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. She acknowledged that it had limited the power of the monarchy, but argued that it was a missed opportunity to create a second English republic. She was also anti-Catholic, believing that Catholicism was incompatible with a “free constitution.” Catharine was very concerned with the morals of the historical figures she wrote about; she argued that self-interest was the worst fault that a King or politician could possess, and believed that only a virtuous people could create a successful republic.

Macaulay-History-title-page-vol-1-1769

The title page of a 1769 reprint of Volume 1 of History of England (Source: Journal of the American Revolution).

After George’s death in 1766, Catharine’s London home became a gathering place for reformers, American sympathisers and visiting Americans, an important node in a transatlantic network of campaigners, radicals, and republicans. In 1774, Catharine moved to Bath, where she was treated by a physician, Dr. James Graham. There were rumours of a relationship, but in November 1778 Catharine married Dr. Graham’s brother, William. The significant age gap (she was 47, he 21) was controversial, and many of Catherine’s friends and supporters abandoned her. However, it seems that her second marriage was as happy as her first.

In July 1784, Catharine became the first English radical to visit a newly independent United States. Her books had been influential on American radical thought, and she was much admired there. Catharine and William stayed with George Washington and his family, and he allowed her to see his personal papers with the goal of writing a history of the War of Independence, although it was eventually written by another of Catharine’s American supporters, Mercy Otis Warren.

After the last volume of History was published in 1783, Catharine continued to write and publish. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine believed that women’s ‘weakness’ was due to their lack of education, and if they had the same opportunities as men they would excel. She also called for the abolition of capital punishment, reform of the penal system, and the abolition of slavery.

Catharine Macaulay died on 22nd June 1791, after suffering from poor health for many years. She was not a campaigner for women’s rights, but she furthered this cause because of the way she lived her life. Catharine acted as if gender equality already existed: she refused to leave the room with other women after dinner, and she once said that “a historian is of no sex.” She was determined to achieve her goals, no matter whether or not society deemed them appropriate. By achieving those goals, she paved the way for other women to follow similar paths.

Sources and Further Reading

Donnelly, Lucy Martin. “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. VI (1949): pp. 173–205.

Gleason, Emily Gilbert. “Macaulay, Catharine (1731-1791).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Last modified 2002, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/macaulay-catharine-1731-1791

Hill, Bridget. The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hill, Bridget. “Macaulay [nee Strawbridge; other married name Graham], Catharine.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17344 (subscription required to access).

Wikipedia. “Catharine Macaulay.” Last modified 11th April 2019, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharine_Macaulay

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