A Force for Social Reform: Who Was Mrs Despard?

Lynne Graham-Matheson

Victorian
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In 1892 Charlotte Despard, née French, was one of the first women to be elected a Poor Law guardian, responsible for the poor in the workhouses.

A 48 year old widow, she was not afraid to stand up to the male establishment. Mrs Despard made herself unpopular by fighting corruption and misuse of funds, and rooting out those who did not care for the workhouse residents properly. A colleague remarked that she had:

The supreme face of courage – never to falter when faced with overwhelming opposition

A pioneer, she introduced school meals and medical checks for children in school, providing boots for children who had no shoes.

A vegetarian, she fought for poor children to be fed nutritious vegetable soup rather than bread and gruel.

Charlotte devoted her life to improving the lot of the poor, fighting for fairer working conditions and adult suffrage.

Introduction to public life

Always known as Mrs Despard, becoming a widow at the age of 44 precipitated Charlotte’s entry into public life.

Dressed in habitual black – including the black lace mantilla and leather sandals for which she became famous – Charlotte was recruited for charity work by her Surrey neighbour, the Duchess of Albany.

Charlotte was assigned to help arrange the deliveries of the carriage-loads of flowers sent to brighten the homes of the poor in Nine Elms, near Battersea, London, an area of extreme poverty.

Before her husband’s death, Charlotte had sent flowers from her garden.  Now, she wanted to do more.  She wanted to right society’s wrongs.

Wandsworth is in the centre and Nine Elms is in the top right corner of this South West district of London as shown by Charles Booth’s Map Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9. Using the key, the inhabitants of the area range from ‘Very poor, casual, chronic want’, through ‘poor. 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family’, to ‘mixed. some comfortable, others poor’ (Credit: Public Domain).

Charlotte’s wealth and status as a widow gave her surprising freedom for the time. She left her beautiful home to live in a tiny flat in Wandsworth, taking up the fight for better lives for the poor, particularly women and children, by providing medical care, play and a hot meal for poor children on the streets at her home.

Thus was born the first Despard Club, others followed.

In 1900 Charlotte was interviewed by an investigator for Charles Booth’s survey of conditions in London. Then living in Nine Elms, an area deemed so rough that investigators were accompanied by police, the investigator reported that:

Mrs Despard is one in ten thousand, and hardly anyone that I have seen in the whole course of the Inquiry has left so strong an impression of a strong and gracious life.

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Finding political allies

Charlotte referred to her work with the Poor Law as her apprenticeship. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform in society, Charlotte joined the Independent Labour Party but when little had changed by the 1895 general election she decided that ‘party politics held out no hope’.

Charlotte joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and adopted its Marxist teachings thinking that socialism was an ally of women. She soon realised that it was not. The SDF made clear its hostility to the enfranchisement of any women before every man had the vote.

Angry, Charlotte joined the Women’s Liberal Federation, forming a women’s suffrage group whose aim ‘was to make the vote the first plank in the women’s movement.’ She soon discovered they were ‘Liberals first and suffragists second’.

This, to her, was unsupportable because her opposition to the Boer War was far more extreme than the Liberal Party’s, and she had forsworn the politics of capitalism.

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When the group decided to affiliate to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, whose policy was to secure the vote on the same terms as men (they would have to be property owners), Charlotte resigned from the group. For her, the purpose of suffrage was to help the poor, women in the workhouses or receiving poor relief.

Seeing that women needed to fight against the patriarchal, capitalist system she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) set up by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Women’s suffrage

After the constitutional split in the WSPU (caused by differing attitudes regarding approaches to violent/non-violent protests and autocratic leadership) Charlotte was instrumental in the founding of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), becoming its first president and editor of The Vote.

She was firmly behind the non-violent militancy of the suffragists, leading the tax resistance policy and the boycott of the 1911 census. She went to prison for her cause, as did her close friends Kate Harvey and Maud Gonne.

charlotte despard
Charlotte Despard and Anne Cobden-Sanderson outside No. 10 Downing St prior to being arrested on 19 August 1909. Halftone postcard print (Credit: Public Domain)

Charlotte was a powerful speaker. On the eve of the general election in December 1910 she spoke to a full hall in Newtown, Wales while Lloyd George spoke across the street to a small half-empty hall.

As a ‘doer’, Charlotte never turned down an invitation to join a committee.

She was involved with many organisations including the Women’s International League, the No-Conscription Fellowship, the National Campaign for Civil Liberties, the Theosophical Society, the London Vegetarian Society, the Battersea Labour Party, the Women’s Labour League, the Home Rule for India Committee and the Women’s Peace Crusade.

She was a social reformer – she fought for votes for women but also for votes for all men, and better working conditions for all.

Although most suffrage activity was suspended during WW1, the WFL continued. It formed the National Aid Corps to help those in need and set up the Women Police Volunteers, who acted as special constables and made welfare visits to soldiers’ families.

Charlotte brought in large supplies of dried milk and distributed milk and milk puddings to stave off famine.

Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander in Chief, in France (Credit: Public Domain)

She also became a real embarrassment to her brother, Field-Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the British forces, directly in conflict with Charlotte’s pacifism.

After the war Charlotte went back to her Irish roots and moved to Ireland to fight for Sinn Féin and an independent Ireland, becoming president of the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League.

Her brother was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, opposing Irish home rule, and so the conflict between the siblings continued.

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Legacy?

Arguably if Charlotte had not stood against the British government over home rule for Ireland, she would have been honoured as suffragettes Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst have been.

Although not nearly as well-known, Charlotte has two roads and a public house in London named after her, and the suffrage organisation she co-founded – The Women’s Freedom League – existed until 1961, long after the other suffrage organisations had disappeared.

Even today some of her activities would be considered amazing – she travelled to Canada, Hungary, Russia and elsewhere. She stood for Parliament and was active up until just before she died, aged 95. She died in Ireland, lonely and poor, having used all her wealth to try and help others less fortunate.

Mrs Despard and the Suffrage Movement by Lynne Graham-Matheson and Helen Matheson-Pollock is published by Pen and Sword Books.

Lynne Graham-Matheson