Turbulent Scots: Flora Stevenson, 1839-1905

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Flora Stevenson, a philanthropist and education campaigner who has recently been announced as the next face on Scotland’s £50 notes.


A portrait of Flora Roche from around 1904 by Alexander Roche (Source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery).

It was recently announced that philanthropist, educational campaigner and suffragist Flora Stevenson is going to be the first woman featured on the Scottish £50 note. It is very unusual for a woman to be chosen to feature on British currency (apart from the Queen), so I wanted to find out more about the woman who has been deemed worthy of such an honour.

Flora Stevenson was born on 30th October 1839, the youngest of 11 children. Her father was a wealthy Glasgow industrialist; when he retired the family moved to Edinburgh, and Flora spent most of her adult life living at 13 Randolph Crescent in the West End with her 3 sisters. The Stevenson sisters were all active in the mid-nineteenth century Scottish women’s movement. They all supported women’s suffrage, and were founding members of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association which was founded in 1868 to campaign for higher education for women. Flora was also committed to improving education for society’s poorest children; as a child she started a class in her home to teach messenger girls basic reading, writing, and maths skills.

In 1863 Flora joined the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor as a district visitor, investigating the circumstances of charity claimants and assessing whether or not they were ‘deserving’ of support. She also joined the committee of the United Industrial Schools of Edinburgh, a voluntary body that organised schools for poor children. Flora believed that compulsory school attendance was central to improving the lives of poor children in big cities, but she was opposed to the state providing welfare support, as she believed it undermined the responsibility of parents to provide for their children. She argued that charities coordinating with school authorities was sufficient support.

A pupil from Flora Stevenson Primary School with the new £50 note (Source: Royal Bank Scotland/PA Wire).

In 1873 Flora was elected to the newly formed school board for Edinburgh. School boards were the first public bodies in Scotland which were open to women. As a result of her experience she was placed on the destitute children’s committee, where she was responsible for a scheme that gave food and clothes to poor children on the condition that they attended school. She also persuaded the school board to set up a day school for truants and juvenile delinquents, which was the first of its kind under the control of a school board. Flora’s expertise in this area was well respected; she served on several committees advising the government.

Flora’s belief in women’s rights carried over into her educational philosophy. She believed that girls and boys should be treated the same in education, and argued against the school board’s policy of giving girls 5 hours less teaching than boys every week so they could practice needlework. She believed that boys should be taught household management as well as girls, and that unmarried female teachers should receive equal pay.

Flora’s dedication to Edinburgh’s education system was respected and acknowledged. In 1899 a new primary school in Craigleith was named after her, and in 1900 she was unanimously elected to the Chair of the Edinburgh school board. In 1903 she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh, and two years later she was given the Freedom of the City in recognition of her service to Edinburgh’s philanthropic institutions and the school board. When she died in September 1905, thousands of schoolchildren lined the route of her funeral. She is buried with her family in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.

I may not agree with all of Flora’s politics – she was opposed to Irish Home Rule, and I find her perspectives on state welfare questionable – but there is no doubt that she was a formidable woman, who dedicated her life to public service at a time when women weren’t really supposed to do that. Hopefully her inclusion on the £50 is just the latest step in a long journey to properly acknowledge the contributions that women have made to society throughout history.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Stevenson, Flora Clift.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46826 [Subscription required to access].

National Records of Scotland. “Flora Clift Stevenson (1839-1905).” No date, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-a-z/stevenson-flora-clift

Wikipedia. “Flora Stevenson.” Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Stevenson

Young, Gregor. “First Woman to be Face of New Scottish £50 Note.” The National. Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at https://www.thenational.scot/news/19400827.flora-stevenson-first-woman-face-new-scottish-50-note/

Book Review: Sylvia Pankhurst-Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire by Katherine Connelly.

Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.

Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.

Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.

Connelly, 2013; p.3.

Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.

Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.

Turbulent Scots: Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.


Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954 (Source: Women’s History Scotland).

Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.

Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.

Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.

1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.

By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

Helen with Methil Women’s Communist Party in 1925. (Source: Glasgow Caledonian University Special Collections and Archives, Gallacher Memorial Library).

In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.

During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.

During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.

The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].

Couzin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Saltaire Society Scotland. No date, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/awards/outstanding-women/2015-nominees/helen-crawfurd/

Simkin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/CRIcrawfordH.htm

Todd, Amy. “Women and Peace: Helen Crawfurd.” On History. Last modified 6th May 2019, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://blog.history.ac.uk/2019/05/women-and-peace-helen-crawfurd/

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: 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 Hullensians: Dr. Mary Murdoch, 1864-1916

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Hull in East Yorkshire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. I recently reviewed a book about the city’s Headscarf Revolutionaries, but they are not the only women that have caused a stir in Hull. Dr. Mary Murdoch was a prominent suffragist, as well as being the city’s first female doctor.


mary murdoch

Dr Mary Murdoch (Source: Hull History Centre).

Most of the names associated with the histories of British towns and cities are men. Look a bit harder, however, and it is almost guaranteed that you will find women who also helped to shape that local history. In Hull, Dr. Mary Murdoch is one such woman. She was the city’s first female doctor, as well as being a suffragist and dedicated social campaigner.

Mary Murdoch was born on the 26th of September 1864 in Elgin, Scotland. She was the youngest of 7 children, and her father was a solicitor. She received a good education at home from governesses, and at schools in Elgin, London, and Switzerland. She returned to Elgin in 1883, and from 1885 looked after her mother until her death in 1887. During this time, Mary discovered her love of medicine, and used the inheritance from her mother to fund her studies at the London School of Medicine for Women.

It was still unusual for women to train as doctors at this time. The London School of Medicine for Women was co-founded in 1874 by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of Britain’s first female doctors and sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Mary finished off her studies in Scotland and qualified as a Doctor in 1892. The following year she moved to Hull and became the house surgeon at the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Park Street. In 1895 she moved back to London to work at the Tottenham Fever Hospital, where she gained experience in the diagnosis of infectious diseases. In 1896, she returned to Hull and worked there as a GP until her death in 1916.

In 1900, Mary employed the recently qualified Louisa Martindale as an assistant. They worked together until 1906. Mary listened to her poorer patients and developed a good understanding of the difficulties they faced, caused by a range of interconnected problems such as poor nutrition, hygiene, and housing, precarious employment, and childcare. She supported social reform and and public education, and helped to improve the services available to women and children in Hull; she founded the first creche in the city, and a school for mothers. Mary encouraged male dock workers to take a more active role in child rearing. She was a vocal critic of poor quality housing in Hull, which got her in trouble with prominent Conservatives in the city for portraying Hull in a bad light.

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The plaque commemorating Mary Murdoch on the house where she used to live, 100-102 Beverley Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As well as working to improve the social issues faced in Hull, Mary was also politically active. In 1904, she founded the Hull Women’s Suffrage Society, which was part of the NUWSS. Mary disagreed with their policy of  not supporting militancy by any suffrage campaigner however, and eventually joined the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She gave talks at the International Council of Women in Toronto (1909), Stockholm (1911), and Rome (1914). Mary was also a leader in the National Union of Women Workers, founding a local branch in 1905. She was also active in the Association of Registered Medical Women, which represented the interests of medical women and female patients (the organisation is still active as the Medical Women’s Federation).

Dr Mary Murdoch died on the 20th of March 1916; she became ill after going out in bad weather to see an emergency patient. Mary had been the first woman in Hull to own a car, and she earnt herself a reputation for driving around the city at speed. Her funeral procession was led by her car, and thousands of the city’s residents turned out to show their gratitude for everything she had done for Hull.

Dr. Mary Murdoch was a brave and energetic woman who dedicated herself to her adopted city of Hull. She worked hard to improve the lives of the city’s residents, on a social and a political level, and she helped to shape Hull as it is today.

Sources and Further Reading

Carnegie Hull. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Hull Firsts Trail. No date, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://www.carnegiehull.co.uk/hull-firsts/dr-mary-murdoch.php

Cockin, Katharine. “Murdoch, Mary Charlotte.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26 January 2005, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69838 [Requires a subscription to access].

Cockin, Katharine.  ‘Dr Mary Murdoch (1864-1916) and the ‘Heart of Hull’: Campaigning for women’s suffrage, education and health care’; audio recording of a lecture delivered by Professor Katharine Cockin of the University of Hull to the Hull Amnesty Group on 15th November 2016, 11am-12noon at Hull History Centre. Available at https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:14055

Cockin, Katherine. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Remember Me. Last modified 5 April, 2017, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://remembermeproject.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/dr-mary-murdoch-1864-1916-a-woman-doctor-of-hull/

Wikipedia. “Mary Murdoch (Hull).” Last modified 10 December 2018, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Murdoch_(Hull)

 

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.


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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.

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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

On This Day: Black Friday, 18th November 1910

Black Friday Museum of London

A suffragette struggling with a police officer during Black Friday. Photo by Rachel Barratt (Source: Museum of London).

By 1910, the women’s suffrage campaign had been gathering steam for several years. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were becoming increasingly militant, and their relationship with the government was deteriorating. Violence was escalating on both sides; the force-feeding of hunger strikers began in October 1909, for example. On the 18th of November 1910, around 300 members of the WSPU were treated so poorly by the police and bystanders outside Parliament in Westminster that the day became known as Black Friday.

During the 1910 general election campaign, Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, promised a Conciliation Bill to allow some women the right to vote in national elections. The Liberal Party won the election, and a committee of MPs proposed legislation that would have given 1 million women the right to vote. For many suffrage campaigners, the proposals didn’t go far enough, but it was still a massive step forward, and most campaigners supported the Conciliation Bill. Many MPs also supported the Bill, and it passed it’s first and second readings in Parliament. Asquith refused to give the Bill more parliamentary time, however, and called another general election before it could become law, killing it.

The WSPU saw Asquith’s actions as a gross betrayal; they had suspended militant action on the 13th of January 1910 because of the promise Asquith made to give some women the vote, and now their hopes had been dashed. They organised a rally at Caxton Hall in Westminster, followed by a protest march to Parliament. The rally started at 12pm, after which WSPU organiser Flora ‘the General’ Drummond organised the women into groups to march to parliament and petition Asquith directly. The first group was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and included several prominent suffragettes including Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dr. Louisa Anderson (sister and niece respectively of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Hertha Ayrton and Sophia Duleep-Singh. When this group arrived at parliament at about 1:20 pm, they were admitted, told that Asquith wouldn’t see them, and then shown out into Parliament Square where they were met with utter chaos.

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WSPU leaders at the meeting at Caxton Hall in Westminster on Black Friday (Source: Museum of London).

When the rest of the 300 marchers reached Parliament Square, they were met by aggressive police officers and male bystanders. The local A Division of the Metropolitan Police had plenty of experience policing suffragette protests, and knew how to handle them without resorting to excessive violence. Most of the policemen in Parliament Square on the 18th of November, however, were from Whitechapel and East London, and had less experience of policing WSPU protests. The women clashed with the police for 6 hours, during which time many of the women were sexually assaulted. Rosa May Billingshurst was a WSPU member who used a wheelchair. She was taken down a side street by policemen who stole the valves from her wheelchair so she couldn’t move, and abandoned her. Caxton Hall became a triage point, where injured protesters could retreat from the chaos. It appeared that the police deliberately tried to sexually humiliate the women to teach them a lesson rather than just arresting them. 4 men and 115 women were eventually arrested, although all of the charges were dropped by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, the following day.

The committee which had proposed the Conciliation Bill were appalled by the accounts of violence, and decided to investigate. They interviewed 135 protesters, 29 of whom described examples of sexual assault. Media sympathy was largely with the police, although plenty of people did speak out against the treatment of the protesters. There were calls for an inquiry, but Winston Churchill refused. The protest led to a change of tactics on both sides. The WSPU increasingly turned to covert protest tactics, such as window breaking and stone throwing, which gave them a chance to escape before the police arrived. The Metropolitan Police were also more careful about how they policed protests and when they made arrests.

The term Black Friday is now associated with over-the-top sales and rampant consumerism, but 100 years ago it had very different connotations. It was associated with the violent suppression of peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2015.

Raw, Louise. “The Sexual Assaults Faced by the Suffragettes.” Politics.co.uk. Last modified 8 February 2018, accessed 23 October 2018. Available at  http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/02/08/the-sexual-assault-faced-by-the-suffragettes

Wikipedia, “Black Friday (1910).” Last modified 21 July 2018, accessed 18 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Friday_(1910)