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: 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

Book Review: Attack on London- Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War

attack-on-london-disaster-riot-war-jonathan-oates-hardcover-cover-art

Attack on London by Jonathan Oates

Jonathan Oates. Attack on London: Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War. Barnsley: Wharncliffe Local History, 2009. £19.99.

Out of all the high street chains of bookstores, I have a particular fondness for The Works. If you’ve never come across one before, it’s a sort of outlet store for books and stationary, and I can rarely resist having a browse when I walk past one. I have found numerous bargains in there over the years, including Attack on London by Jonathan Oates.

Dr. Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, but he has also published numerous books on London’s history, particularly its more criminal elements. In Attack on London Oates, inspired by the 7/7 bombings, traces how Londoners have reacted to tragedy, shock, and trauma. Starting with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, Oates documents some of the most severe hardships faced by London, including the Great Plague (1665-1666), the Gordon Riots (1780), the Clerkenwell Outrage (1867), Bloody Sunday (1887), aerial bombing during both World Wars, IRA bombings during the 1970s, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Oates concludes by arguing that such dramatic events bring out both the best and the worst of Londoners; there has been resilience, bravery, and unity, but also looting and xenophobia.

If you are familiar with London’s history, then there probably isn’t much in Attack on London that will be new to you, although I was surprised to learn about the extent of aerial bombing on the capital during the First World War. However, the way the which Londoners reacted to these well-known events is a new angle, which brings together disparate events such as riot, war, disease, and fire in an interesting way. Oates’ referencing style is not very detailed, so it is difficult to identify the exact sources of his work, but it seems to be a well-researched book.

There are some elements of Attack on London that feel a little ‘amateur’. For example, each chapter ends with a conclusion identified as such with a subheading. This feels a little out of place in a history book aimed at a popular audience. Also, one of the photos reproduced in the book, of a plaque commemorating the deaths of 77 people in an air raid bombing in Southwark in October 1940, is blurry. I know I’m being picky, but little things like these combine to give a general impression of not-quite-finishedness that could have been so easily avoided. In addition, the book commits one of my biggest personal faux pas; putting all of the images on a few glossy pages in the middle of the book, and not referring to them in the main text. I know that lots of books have their images arranged in such a way, I guess it is an effective or cost-efficient way of illustrating books. I can understand that, although I would prefer to have the images close to the relevant text. However, when the author does not refer to the images in the text, then they become almost pointless, as they do not serve to back up or illustrate a particular point. Attack on London is by no means the only book that does this, but it winds me up nonetheless.

Because I found Attack on London in a bargain bookshop, it cost me quite a bit less than the £19.99 recommended retail price, which is a bit steep, in my opinion, for what you get. Nevertheless, it is an easy-to-read, engaging reflection on the best and the worst facets of Londoners.

 

Book Review: ‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

'To End All Wars' by Adam Hochschild

‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars. London: Pan Books, 2011.

By the time we reach the centenary of Armistice Day in 2018, I get the feeling that we might be suffering from a certain degree of World War 1 fatigue. The sheer number of  documentaries, dramatisations, books, ceremonies and art installations will likely make it difficult for any one thing to stand out. I think that To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild has a good chance of leaving a lasting impression.

The story of the first world war is familiar to most of us, but To End All Wars tells the narrative from an unfamiliar perspective; it is about those people who spoke out against the war. Opposition is not discussed in the traditional narratives of the war, the general perception appears to be that it wasn’t criticised until years afterwards. Admittedly critics of the war were few, tested as they were by the “mass patriotic hysteria” (Hochschild, 2011) but they most certainly did exist. On the 2nd of August 1914, there was a huge anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, with calls for a general strike if war was declared. Prominent campaigners like Keir Hardie, Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst continued to oppose the war, with Pankhurst proposing a Women’s Peace Expeditionary Force, where 1000 women would march into no-man’s land between the two armies.

Publicly criticising the war required a great deal of bravery. Those that did were almost instantly ostracised, derided or accused of treachery, labeled as German spies trying to undermine the war effort. Many paid a heavy price for their defiance. For example, the Wheeldon family, socialists who hid soldiers escaping conscription, were convicted in 1917 of the completely false charge of attempting to murder Lloyd George and another member of the war cabinet, victims of a government attempt to disgrace the anti-war movement. 3 family members were sentenced to 5-10 years hard labour after a sham trial that didn’t even last a week.

To End All Wars is arranged chronologically, making the tragic progress of the war appear even more inevitable as the reader can do absolutely nothing to prevent the horrors that we know full well are coming. The style of writing is dramatic, and the book often reads more like a novel than non-fiction. Charlotte Despard, the famous suffragette and anti-war campaigner, was actually the sister of John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until 1915. Hochschild hides this connection though, revealing it like a plot twist at the end of a chapter. The first chapter is spent introducing the key players in the book, developing them like characters. Whilst the approach felt a bit unusual at first, it makes for an engaging and accessible read.

Admittedly, Hochschild does spend a lot of time describing the events of the war, and whilst this is generally useful context, it does sometimes feel like filler, padding out the relatively rare examples of opposition to the war. However on balance this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, that provokes thought about the nature of war and opposition to it, as well as providing a rare new insight into the First World War.