Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvia Pankhurst


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Unfinished Business: Mary Macarthur

The British Library briefly mentioned Mary Reid Anderson (née Macarthur) in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, which celebrated the milestones overcome by women in their fight for equality. Early trade unions excluded women workers from their members. Unhappy about this, Mary Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers, which improved the working lives of many women. She also founded the union’s newspaper The Woman Worker, which gained 20,000 subscribers.

Mary Macarthur

Mary Macarthur, born on 13th August 1880, grew up in Glasgow as the eldest of six children to John Duncan Macarthur and Anne Elizabeth Martin. Her father owned a drapery business and afforded to send his daughter to Glasgow Girls’ High School. During her school years, Macarthur developed a passion for journalism while working as an editor on the school magazine. She decided then that she wanted to become a full-time writer and, after finishing at the high school, continued her studies abroad in Germany. On her return home, Macarthur briefly worked for her father as a bookkeeper, but this was not the position she desired in life.

In 1903, Macarthur moved to London to take up the position of secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League. Established by Emma Paterson (1848-86) in 1874, the league initially aimed to protect wages and conditions of workers, provide benefits for sick and unemployed workers and help settle disputes between workers and employers. When Macarthur became secretary, the league’s new aims included improving the rights of female workers and persuading all-male trade unions to admit women. Whilst the Women’s Trade Union League united women from different trades, their affiliations with activists with different aims hindered their goals.

The badge of the NFWW.

Some activists focused on particular classes rather than women as a whole. Macarthur worried the upper classes would receive preferential treatment, causing the working classes to suffer. In 1906, Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) as a trade union for all women. Whereas the Women’s Trade Union League campaigned to allow women into mixed-gender trade unions, the NFWW was a women-only trade union. By the end of the year, 2,000 women signed up to the NFWW across seventeen branches.

As the founder of the NFWW and as a suffragette, Macarthur helped oversee the founding of the National Anti-Sweating League. This league, run by British politician George Shann (1876-1919), aimed to end the suffering workers faced in “sweatshops” and demanded a minimum wage.

An issue of The Women Worker from 1907

In 1907, fuelled by her passion for writing, Macarthur founded The Woman Worker, a monthly newspaper for the NFWW. In the first issue, Macarthur stated the paper’s aim “To teach the need for unity, to help improve working conditions, to present a monthly picture of the many activities of women Trade Unionists, to discuss all questions affecting the interests and welfare of women. Such, in brief, is our aim and purpose.” Due to popular demand, The Woman Worker developed into a weekly paper for over 20,000 readers.

Although The Woman Worker primarily focused on women’s needs, Macarthur also tackled much broader topics, including the conditions of sweatshops, which affected both men and women. As a journalist, Macarthur visited the poverty-stricken areas of London, speaking to the people who worked for long hours in inadequate settings for minimal money. In 1908, Macarthur presented her findings to the House of Commons. 

Macarthur’s findings alone were insufficient in her strive to end the harsh working conditions but combined with other people’s research, the reports began to make a difference. Encouraged by the National Anti-Sweating League, sweatshop workers went on strike, demanding fairer pay. A photograph taken in 1908 shows Macarthur addressing a crowd of striking men and women in Trafalgar Square. Forty-four women from Corruganza Box Making Works initiated the strike in protest of unfair pay-cuts. Many of the male workers joined their cause, and others donated money to the company to pay their employees an appropriate salary.

In 1909, the British government passed the Trade Boards Act, which allowed boards to establish a minimum wage for particular trades, most notably chain-making, ready-made tailoring, paper-box making, and the machine-made lace trade. Unfortunately, not all companies willingly agreed to the new wages, for instance, a chain-making enterprise in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.

Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chain-makers’ strike, Cradley Heath 1910

With the help of the NFWW, 800 female chain-makers organised a ten-week strike in retaliation to their employer’s refusal to increase their wages. The Trade Boards Act stipulated the women should receive a minimum of 11s (55p) per week, but they continued to receive far less. From mid-August until 22nd October 1910, the strikers protested on the streets where they gained many supporters. In cinemas across the country, people watched newsreels about the progress of the strike, and the NFWW collected £4,000 (approximately £450,000 today) in donations from several local communities. Eventually, their employer agreed to increase their wages, and the donations collected during the strike helped to fund the Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute.

With two successful strikes under her belt, Macarthur’s fame spread across the country. When troubles occurred in food and drink factories in Bermondsey, Macarthur received a request for assistance. The summer of August 1911 was one of the hottest summers on record, which made working long hours in poor conditions almost impossible. Whilst the Trade Boards Act improved wages for some women, this did not include women in food factories who continued to receive as little as 3 shillings a week. A total of 14,000 women went on strike from 22 factories and marched on London in protest. Macarthur addressed the crowds in Southwark Park, supported by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) amongst others. After weeks of determination, the factory women received a significant pay rise.

During 1911, Macarthur married British socialist politician William Anderson (1877-1919), with whom she later had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Nancy”. During the First World War, Anderson sat as the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour party. He fully supported his wife’s determination to improve working conditions for women. When war broke out in 1914, many men left their day jobs to enlist as soldiers. The government encouraged women to fill the men’s positions or work in munitions factories. Over a million women enrolled in these positions, but many found the working conditions inadequate, the hours long and the pay unsatisfactory.

Once again, the NFWW campaigned to improve the working conditions for women. One of the first establishments they targeted was the Ainsworth Mill in Cleator Moor, Cumbria where women produced khaki thread for soldier’s uniforms. For 60 hours of work, the women received a pitiable seven to nine shillings. Supported by the NFWW, 250 women organised a strike, and Macarthur’s husband implored the House of Commons to investigate the low payment rates. After six weeks of campaigning, the women received a 10% War Bonus.

When investigating the munitions factories, the NFWW found men received seven pence an hour, whereas women only earned three and a half. The organisation successfully campaigned for an end to the unequal payment, but one Newcastle factory refused to comply. During 1916, the NFWW encouraged the underpaid women to stage a sit-in, where they knitted socks for the soldiers rather than operating the machinery in the factory. This action angered parliament, and Macarthur received a phone call directly from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) asking her to explain her actions. Twenty-four hours later, the women returned to work and received a back payment of their missing wages. 

As the war continued, many more women went on strike across the country, demanding equal pay or improved working conditions. Each time, they received the support of the NFWW and became a talking point in parliament. With recent Suffragette militancy fresh in their minds, politicians discussed the rights of women in general, which likely contributed towards the decision to grant women over 30 the right to vote in 1918.

After the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women were allowed to stand for parliament. Macarthur decided to stand as the Labour Party candidate for the Stourbridge constituency in Worcestershire. She worked closely with John Davison (1870-1927), the Labour candidate in Smethwick, who defeated his only opponent, Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958). Unfortunately, Macarthur did not win due to her opposition to the war. Her husband, who held similar sentiments, also lost his seat.

1st International Congress of Working Women

In 1919, Macarthur’s husband passed away after suffering a short bout of influenza. Despite this sad loss, Macarthur represented the NFWW at The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) later that year. Women from Great Britain, the USA, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland attended the international women’s congress to discuss working conditions for women. Topics included an 8-hour day, equal pay and maternity leave. By the end of the conference, they had established the Maternity Protection Convention, which adopted proposals concerning “women’s employment, before and after childbirth, including the question of maternity benefit”.

After many successful years of representing women, the NFWW merged with the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in 1920 to form a union for both male and female workers. Under the motto “You Cannot Afford To Stand Alone”, the NUGW continued to support workers in low paid jobs and ensured they received pay increases to match the rate of inflation. In 1924, the NUGW merged with the National Amalgamated Union of Labour and the Municipal Employees Association to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now known as GMB.

Statue of Mary Macarthur, Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath

Macarthur continued to support women through the NUGW, making significant changes in many places of employment. She worked right up until her death from cancer on 1st January 1921, age 40. Although many people in the 21st century are unfamiliar with her name and work, the areas where she made the most impact continue to remember Mary Macarthur. In Cradley Heath, for instance, a statue of Macarthur stands in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, and a nearby road is named Mary Macarthur Drive in her honour.

In memory of her work, the Mary Macarthur Scholarship Fund (1922-2011) and Mary Macarthur Educational Trust (1968-2011) aimed “to advance the educational opportunities of working women”. In Cardiff, the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust continues to provide “help for women who need a break”. The trust assists women who due to age, poverty, infirmity, disablement or social or economic circumstances require a break from everyday life. There are also three blocks of social houses/flats named after Mary Macarthur in London at Hammersmith, Bethnal Green and Dagenham.

In 2017, English Heritage unveiled a blue plaque at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where Macarthur once lived and died. Since 2018, Mary Macarthur’s name and portrait have, along with 54 other women and four men, decorated the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.

Lack of general knowledge about Mary Macarthur highlights how little the country knows about the women that made a difference in society. Without pioneering women such as Macarthur, life would be very different today. Thanks to Macarthur, women receive (almost) equal treatment to men at work and have the right to be represented by trade unions. If Macarthur could witness the life of a British woman today, almost a century after her death, she would no doubt be proud of her achievements.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: The Edinburgh Seven

At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate. 

Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”. 

Jex-Blake’s application for matriculation

Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.

The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.

“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”

Sophia Jex-Blake

Who were the Edinburgh Seven?

Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuel Laurence, 1865

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.

In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.

Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.

Isabel Jane Thorne (Mrs Thorne)

Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.

Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.

Edith Pechey

(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.

Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Matriculation Record

Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Signature of Emily Bovell

Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.

Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.

Thomas Charles Hope

In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.

Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”

The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.

Surgeons’ Hall

Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.

After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.

Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.

School of Medicine for Women

Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.

Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.

Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.

On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.

In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.

Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

What happened to the other six women?

When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.

Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.

Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.

For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).

While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.

H. M. Phipson

Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.

Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.

William Edward Ayrton

When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.

While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.

Child Life in Japan

Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.

Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.

Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.

Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.

Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.

Edinburgh Seven Plaque

Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).

Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention. 

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau

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Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.