In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a statue of the Suffragist leader, Dame Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Sculpted by Gillian Wearing, it honours the centenary of (some) women winning the right to vote. It is the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square and honours not just Fawcett but 63 other people who supported women’s suffrage, too. The names are inscribed on the plinth next to a small engraving of each person, including four men. One of the men is Laurence Housman, an English playwright, writer, illustrator, and founding member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Suffrage Atelier.
Laurence Housman was born on 18th July 1865 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Edward and Sarah Jane Housman. He was one of seven children, including Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), who became a classical scholar and poet, and Clemence Housman (1861-1955), an author and illustrator. Housman’s father worked as a solicitor and tax accountant, but his mother passed away in 1871. Edward Housman remarried a cousin, Lucy.
Housman had a close relationship with his siblings, particularly Alfred and Clemence, with whom he enjoyed creative pastimes, such as putting on theatrical performances and creating a family magazine. Meanwhile, Housman’s father turned to drink as his business floundered, leaving the family in financial distress. Fortunately, the Housman brothers received scholarships to study at Bromsgrove School, a local boarding school that allowed day students.
In 1882, Housman attended an art class with his sister, Clemence. The following year, they each inherited £200 from a relative, which they spent on art courses at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. Housman’s interest in illustration led to positions at London publishing houses, where he produced the artwork for several books, including Christina Rossetti‘s Goblin Market (1893) and his sister’s novella, The Were-Wolf (1896). The latter was an erotic fantasy featuring a female werewolf.
Housman also dabbled in writing and published several poems, hymns and carols during the 1890s. By the turn of the century, Housman’s eyesight began to fail, so he concentrated entirely on writing. He had already published several fairytales, such as A Farm in Fairyland (1894), but his first major literary success was the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-letters (1900), which he published anonymously. The book initially caused a scandal until the public discovered it was written by a man rather than an Englishwoman.
Many of Housman’s works contained Christian undertones. Aside from novels, Housman penned plays such as Bethlehem (1902), Angels and Ministers (1921), and Little Plays of St. Francis (1922). Once again, Housman caused a scandal for depicting biblical characters on stage, and many plays were only performed privately. Another play, Victoria Regina (1934), caused problems because the Lord Chamberlain, Rowland Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer (1877-1953), ruled that “no British sovereign may be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after his or her accession.” As a result, Victoria Regina could not be performed until the centenary of Queen Victoria’s accession on 20th June 1937, when it opened at the Lyric Theatre, London.
During his career, Housman published around 100 pieces of work, including an autobiography, The Unexpected Years (1937), in which he discussed his controversial writing. He did not mention much of his personal life in the book due to his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. Despite this, Housman was quite vocal about his sexuality and invested time in helping homosexuals who were stigmatized by society. Housman joined the Order of Chaeronea, an underground organisation for homosexuals. Housman also founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, which later became the British Sexological Society.
Housman identified as a feminist and devoted himself to the women’s suffrage movement, for which he is remembered on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue. In 1909, Housman and his sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier with the artist and author Alfred Pearse (1855-1933), known under the pseudonym “A Patriot”. The Atelier accepted artists and illustrators, primarily women, who wished to use their skills to assist the campaign for women’s suffrage.
The Suffrage Atelier was not the only group producing artwork for the suffrage movement, yet it was the only one to pay its workers. Working as a studio rather than a party or union, the Atelier produced illustrations and designs, which they sold to groups of suffragists or suffragettes. The Suffrage Atelier primarily worked with the Women’s Freedom League, an offshoot of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
One of the posters designed by the Suffrage Atelier emphasised how unfair it was to deny women the right to vote. At the time, women could run for mayor, work as nurses, doctors, teachers and factory hands, or be stay-at-home mothers, yet not vote in parliamentary elections. Conversely, men who had been convicts, “lunatics”, proprietors of white slaves, unfit for military service, or drunkards still retained their voting rights. This poster and many of the Atelier’s publications could be quickly reproduced and circulated using block printing, such as woodcuts and linocuts. Despite limited colours, the pamphlets, posters and banners helped spread the women’s cause across the country.
Housman allowed the Suffrage Atelier to use his house at No. 1 Pembroke Cottage Kensington in London as their base. The building also became a central hub for the suffrage movement, offering women writing lessons and hosting talks by motivational speakers. In 1911, Housman opened his doors as a safe house for women participating in the Census Boycott. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), women declined to partake in the census by either refusing to fill in the census forms or staying out of the house on the designated night. Participants of the boycott used the slogan, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted,” to put pressure on the anti-suffrage Liberal Government.
In 1911, Housman compiled a book called An Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, using illustrations by several members of the Suffrage Atelier. Housman aimed to raise money for the suffrage movement through sales of the book, which mocked negative views of women with a short rhyme for each letter of the alphabet.
“R are the reasons why women can’t vote – Lord Carzon has plenty from which you can quote. “Irrefutable reasons,” but while you are quoting don’t mention the countries where women are voting.”
“W’s the washing which woman must do day in and day out, on polling day too. If she wants a day off you had better say “Bosh” and tell her such fanciful notions won’t wash.”
Housman also designed the “From Prison to Citizenship” banner, which the WSPU carried during a procession on 17th June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V (1865-1936). Known as the Women’s Coronation Procession, the WSPU demanded women’s suffrage in the coronation year. The procession was “the largest women’s suffrage march ever held in Britain and one of the few to draw together the full range of suffrage organisations”. Around 40,000 people joined the march from Westminster to South Kensington, with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) and Flora Drummond (1878-1949) leading on horseback. Housman’s banner was carried by the suffragettes who had spent time in prison for their militant actions.
Aside from the artwork Housman created, he began dedicating his writing to the suffrage movement. He also edited other people’s work to give it a feminist twist. Housman wrote several newspaper articles that urged women to join the campaigns and penned a series of poems for Votes for Women, the official newspaper of the WSPU. Housman set several of his fictional works in a future where the women’s campaigns, particularly the Census Boycott, were successful.
To persuade other men to support women’s suffrage, Housman formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage with several other writers and journalists, including Gerald Gould (1885-1935), H. N. Brailsford (1873-1958) and Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). The league produced a monthly paper through which they persuaded a handful of men to write “Votes for Women” on their ballot papers at the 1910 general election.
Housman frequently spoke at rallies and participated in protests, which resulted in his arrest on more than one occasion. At one rally, Housman read Rudyard Kipling’s (1965-1936) poem Tommy (1890), replacing every instance of “Tommy” with “Women”. ‘O it’s Women this, an’ Women that, an’ “Women, go away.”‘
Following the First World War, after women over 30 gained the right to vote, Housman and his sister left the capital and settled in Ashley, Hampshire. With less focus on women’s suffrage, Housman concentrated on writing novels, short stories and plays, as well as overseeing the recently established British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In 1921, Housman became the Vice-President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), of which many members had belonged to women’s suffrage groups, including the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The organisation aims to represent “people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs”. Housman, who had previously written about Biblical characters and hid Christian themes in his novels, may have seemed like a peculiar candidate for the Vice-President, yet his main focus was improving schools and education, which in some instances had been restricted by the Church.
In 1924, Housman and Clemence moved to Street, Somerset, which remained Housman’s home for the rest of his life. He continued to support the Ethical Union, remaining Vice-President until 1957. On 25th September 1929, Housman delivered a lecture at Conway Hall on The Religious Advance Towards Rationalism. He explained, “while society advances toward rationalism, it should also advance toward religion, but to a religion different from past forms. This religion will derive from human experience … Experience has actually led us, along the path of science, to perceive the limits of scientific understanding: to see that science cannot explain the origin of existence. Science leads, then, to a primordial sense of mystery, which can be called a religious sense. Also, the gospel story, whether historically true or not, advocates love, and love is permanently relevant to mankind.”
In 1945, Housman opened a bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Although the shop shares his name, it was founded by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in his honour. The PPU promoted pacifism and was closely connected with the Ethical Union. Housman desired the shop to promote “ideas of peace, … human rights and a more equitable economy by which future wars, and all their inherent suffering, might be avoided.” The shop moved to Kings Cross, London, in 1959, where it remains one of the longest-running radical bookshops in the country. Over time, it has started stocking new and used books on feminism, anarchism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, LGBTQIA+ politics, socialism, and nonviolence. It remains a non-profit bookshop and is managed by a trust.
Housman and his sister continued living with each other in Somerset until Clemence’s health began to fail. Housman and his neighbours initially cared for Clemence at home until they had no choice but to send her to a nursing home in Glastonbury. Clemence passed away on 6th December 1955, aged 94. Housman continued to live in their house in Street without his lifetime companion, eventually passing away at age 93 on 20th February 1959.
Following Housman’s death, The Times posted an obituary describing him as an “idealist and iconoclast… a figure of versatile and idiosyncratic distinction.” Whilst Housman did not entirely reject Christianity, the newspaper portrayed him as agnostic. In Housman’s autobiography, he wrote, “One hears a good deal of talk nowadays about the decay of religion; and the Victorian age is spoken of as though it had been an age of faith. My own impression of it is that it combined much foolish superstition with a smug adaptation of Christianity to social convention and worldly ends.” Housman still believed in something, but not the form of Christianity imposed during the Victorian era and used against women’s suffrage campaigners and homosexuals.
Despite Housman’s decades-long campaign for reform, his fame diminished over time, although he has remained an inspiration for humanist organisations. The Millicent Fawcett statue has unearthed Housman’s name, but it is unlikely he will ever receive the same recognition as the suffragists, suffragettes and other campaigners.
Housman wrote at least ten novels, 25 short stories, 55 plays, and several poems and works of non-fiction, the majority of which are now out of print. Housman’s play, Victoria Regina, was adapted for American television in 1961, starring Julie Harris (1925-2013) as Queen Victoria and James Donald (1917-93) as Prince Albert. Unfortunately, there have been no revivals and adaptations of his works since.
“I have had pleasures and disappointments; but though the disappointments are perhaps more numerous and present to my recollection than the pleasures, I continue to find life worth having.“
– Laurence Housman, The Unexpected Years (1937)