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MONTHLY BLOG 97, WHY IS THE REMARKABLE CHARLOTTE DESPARD NOT BETTER KNOWN?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Charlotte Despard speaking at an anti-fascist rally, Trafalgar Square, 12 June 1933:
photograph by James Jarché, Daily Herald Archive.

Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) was a remarkable – even amazing – woman. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Visiting London in 1909, he met all the leading suffragettes. The one who impressed him most was Charlotte Despard. She is ‘a wonderful person’, he recorded. ‘I had long talks with her and admire her greatly’.1 They both affirmed their faith in the non-violent strategy of political protest by civil disobedience. Despard called it ‘spiritual resistance’.

What’s more, non-violent protest has become one of the twentieth-century’s greatest contributions to potent mass campaigning – without resorting to counter-productive violence. Associated with this strategy, the names of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, all controversial in their day, have become canonised.2 Yet Charlotte Despard, who was also controversial in her day, has been substantially dropped from the historical record.

Not entirely so. On 14 December 2018 Battersea Labour unveiled a blue plaque in her honour, exactly one hundred years after the date when she stood as the Labour Party candidate in North Battersea in the 1918 general election. She was one of the feminist pioneers, when no more than sixteen women stood. But Despard lost heavily to the Liberal candidate, even though industrial North Battersea was then emerging as a Labour stronghold.3

And one major reason for her loss helps to explain her disappearance from mainstream historical memory. Despard was a pacifist, who opposed the First World War and campaigned against conscription. Many patriotic voters in Battersea disagreed with this stance. In the immediate aftermath of war, emotions of relief and pride triumphed. Some months later, Labour swept the board in the 1919 Battersea municipal elections; but without Charlotte Despard on the slate.

Leading pacifists are not necessarily all neglected by history.4 But the really key point was that Charlotte Despard campaigned for many varied causes during her long life and, at every stage, weakened her links with previous supporters. Her radical trajectory made complete sense to her. She sought to befriend lame dogs and to champion outsiders. Yet as an independent spirit – and seemingly a psychological loner – she walked her own pathway.

Despard was by birth an upper crust lady of impeccable Anglo-Irish ancestry, with high-ranking military connections. For 40 years, she lived quietly, achieving a happy marriage and a career as a minor novelist. Yet, after being widowed at the age of 40, she had an extraordinary mid- and late-life flowering. She moved to Battersea’s Nine Elms, living among the poorest of the poor. And she then became a life-long radical campaigner. By the end of her career, she was penniless, having given all her funds to her chosen causes.

A convinced suffragette, Despard joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and was twice imprisoned for her public protests. In 1907, however, she was one of the leading figures to challenge the authoritarian leadership style of Christabel Pankhurst. Despard resigned and founded the rival Women’s Freedom League. This smaller group opposed the use of violence. Instead, its members took symbolic action, like unfurling banners in parliament. They also advocated passive resistance, like non-payment of taxation and non-cooperation with the census. (I recently discovered, thanks to the research of a family member, that my great-grandmother was a would-be WFL supporter. So the 1911 census enumerator duly noted that Mrs Matilda Corfield, living in Sheffield, had given information only ‘under Protest (she wants the vote)’.5 This particular example of resistance was very muffled and inconsequential. Nevertheless, it indicated how unknown women across the country tried to respond to WFL advice. It was one way of slowly changing the climate of public opinion.)

However, the energetic Charlotte Despard did not confine her efforts solely to the cause of the female suffrage. Her life in Battersea radicalised her politically and she became a socialist. She was not good at detailed committee work. Her forte was activism. Indefatigably, she organised a local welfare system. She funded health centres for mothers and babies, exchange points for cots and equipment, youth clubs, and halls for local meetings. And the front room of her small premises in Nine Elms was made available to the public as a free reading room, stocked with books and newspapers. It was a one-woman exercise in practical philanthropy. What’s more, her 1918 election manifesto called for a minimum wage – something not achieved until 1998.

Among the Battersea workers, the tall, wiry, and invariably dignified Charlotte Despard cut an impressive figure. A lifelong vegetarian, she was always active and energetic. And she believed in the symbolic importance of dress. Thus she habitually wore sandals (or boots in winter) under long, flowing robes, a lace shawl, and a mantilla-like head-dress. The result was a timeless style, unconcerned with passing fashions. She looked like a secular sister of mercy.
2019-01-No2-Charlotte-Despard-in-slumland

Fig.2 Charlotte Despard in the poor tenements of Battersea’s Nine Elms, where she lived from 1890 to the early 1920s, instituting and funding local welfare services. Her visitors commented adversely on the notorious ‘Battersea smell’ of combined industrial effluent and smoke from innumerable coalfires; but Despard reportedly took no notice.

For a number of years, Despard worked closely with the newly founded Battersea Labour Party (1908- ), strengthening its global connections. She attended various international congresses; and she backed the Indian communist Shapurji Saklatvala as the Labour-endorsed candidate in Battersea North at the general election in 1922. (He won, receiving over 11,000 votes). Yet, as already noted, the Battersea electorate in 1918 had rebuffed her own campaign.

Then at a relatively loose end, Despard moved to Dublin in the early 1920s. She had already rejected her Irish Ascendancy background by converting to Catholicism. There she actively embraced the cause of Irish nationalism and republicanism. She became a close supporter of Maud Gonne, the charismatic exponent of Irish cultural and political independence. By the later 1920s, however, Despard was unhappy with the conservatism of Irish politics. In 1927 she was classed as a dangerous subversive by the Free State, for opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement. She eventually moved to Belfast and changed tack politically to endorse Soviet communism. She toured Russia and became secretary of the British Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU), which was affiliated to the International Organisation of the same name.

During this variegated trajectory, Despard in turn shocked middle-class suffragettes who disliked her socialism. She then offended Battersea workers who rejected her pacifism. She next infuriated English Protestants who hated her Irish nationalism. And she finally outraged Irish Catholics (and many Protestants as well) who opposed her support for Russian communism. In 1933, indeed, her Dublin house was torched and looted by an angry crowd of Irish anti-communists.6

In fact, Despard always had her personal supporters, as well as plentiful opponents. But she did not have one consistent following. She wrote no autobiography; no memorable tract of political theory. And she had no close family supporters to tend her memory. She remained on good terms with her younger brother throughout her life. But he was Sir John French, a leading military commander in the British Army and from 1918 onwards Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The siblings disagreed politically on everything – although both shared the capacity to communicate on easy terms with people from many different backgrounds. To the Despards, ‘Aunt Lottie’ was thus an eccentric oddity. To other respectable family friends, she was ‘a witch’, and a dangerous one at that.7

These factors combined together to isolate Despard and to push her, after her death, into historical limbo. There are very few public monuments or memorials to her indomitable career. In north London, a pleasant pub on the Archway Road is named after her, on land which was owned by her husband Colonel Despard. On Battersea’s Doddington Estate, there is an avenue named after her, commemorating her welfare work in the area. And now there is the blue plaque outside the headquarters of Battersea Labour at 177 Lavender Hill, SW11. These memorials are fine but hardly enough.

Fig.3 Blue plaque to Charlotte Despard, outside 177 Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TE: installed 14 December 2018, on the precise centenary of her standing for parliament in 1918, as one of only 16 women pioneers to do so.

Why should she be remembered? The answer is not that everyone would have agreed (then or later) with all of Charlotte Despard’s political calls. As this account has shown, she was always controversial and, on Russia, self-deceived into thinking it much more of a workers’ paradise than it was (as were many though not all left-leaning intellectuals in the West). Nonetheless, she is a remarkable figure in the history of public feminism. She not only had views but she campaigned for them, using her combination of practical on-the-ground organisation, her call for symbolic non-violent protest and ‘spiritual resistance’, and her public oratory. And she did so for nigh on 50 years into her very advanced years.

Indomitability, peaceful but forceful, was her signature style. She quoted Shelley on the need for Love, Hope, and Endurance. When she was in her mid-sixties, she addressed a mass rally in Trafalgar Square (of course, then without a microphone). Her speeches were reportedly allusive and wide-ranging, seeking to convey inspiration and urgency. One onlooker remembered that her ‘thin, fragile body seemed to vibrate with a prophecy’.8

Appropriately for a radical campaigner, Charlotte Despard’s last major public appearance was on 12 June 1933, when she spoke passionately at a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. At that time, she was aged 89. It was still unusual then for women to speak out boldly in public. They often faced jeers and taunts for doing so. But the photographs of her public appearances show her as unflinching, even when she was the only woman amidst crowds of men. Above all, for the feminist feat of speaking at the mass anti-fascist rally at the age of 89, there is a good case for placing a statue on Trafalgar Square’s vacant fourth plinth, showing Despard in full oratorical flow. After all, she really was there. And, if not on that particular spot, then somewhere relevant in Battersea. Charlotte Despard, born 175 years ago and campaigning up until the start of the Second World War, was a remarkable phenomenon. Her civic and feminist commitment deserves public commemoration – and in a symbolic style worthy of the woman.

Figs 4 + 5: Photos showing Despard, speaking in Trafalgar Square, without a microphone:
(L) dated 1910 when she was 66, and (R) dated 1933 when she was aged 89.
Her stance and demeanour are identically rapt, justifying one listener’s appreciative remark:
Mrs Despard – she always gets a crowd’.

1 Quoted in M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989), p. 86. See also A. Linklater, An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist and Sinn Feiner (1980); and, for Battersea context, P.J. Corfield in Battersea Matters (Autumn 2016), p. 11; and PJC with Mike Marchant, DVD: Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008).

2 A. Roberts and T. Garton Ash (eds), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford, 2009); R.L. Holmes and B.L. Gan (eds), Nonviolence in Theory and Practice (Long Grove, Illinois, 2012).

3 1918 general election result for North Battersea: Richard Morris, Liberal (11,231 = 66.6% of all voting); Charlotte Despard, Labour (5,634 = 33.4%). Turnout =  43.7%.

4 P. Brock and N. Young, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1999).

5 With thanks to research undertaken by Annette Aseriau.

6 Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, p. 180.

7 Ibid., pp. 46-7, 78-9.

8 Account by Christopher St John, in Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, p. 77.

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MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

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MONTHLY BLOG 47, WOMEN AND PUBLIC SPEAKING – AND WHY IT HAS TAKEN SO LONG TO GET THERE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

 It really wasn’t done – for centuries. Women, respectable women especially, did not speak in public from public platforms. They do sometimes, anachronistically, in period films. So the script-writer of The Duchess (dir: Sam Dibb, 2008) decided that the famous eighteenth-century Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley) should indicate her political commitment to the Whig reform cause by speaking at the public hustings for the 1784 Westminster election.

But the scene is a flat pancake. That’s no doubt partly because it never happened, giving the script-writer no historical documentation from which to work. The film is good at revealing the extent to which, as an aristocratic woman in the public eye, the Duchess is constrained by her social position. And then suddenly, she appears on a public balcony in her furs and feathers, delivering an impassioned election speech in favour of democracy to the London masses. There’s no sensation. No shock. There’s not even an angry husband, ordering her to desist. [See Fig.1a]

However, the script-writer knows, from evidence discussed in other scenes, that the Duchess was heavily satirised for her political affiliations. In 1784 she undertook the much milder action of canvassing in the Westminster constituency. She was young, charming, rich, high-ranking and a leader of fashion. Yet even she could not get away with it. She was socially pilloried in graphic prints which accused her of lewdly selling kisses to brutish plebeians for votes (see Fig.1b). Not only did the Duchess never venture publicly into politics again, but nor did other high-born ladies. They stuck to behind-the-scenes roles as political hostesses – not without influence, but not in the censorious public eye.

Fig.1a (L) The Duchess of Devonshire as imagined (2008) on the Westminster hustings Fig.1b (R) The Duchess as satirised in 1784 for canvassing the Westminster electors, in a print entitled ‘A New Way to Secure a Majority’

The reasons for this self-effacement were deeply rooted in Christian tradition. Women were seen as domestic helpmeets. They were expected to be modest, docile and, in public, silent. After all, St Paul enjoined that: ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak. But they are commanded to be under obedience … And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.’1 And he further explained: ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.’2 Christian feminist scholars today debate about St Paul’s own personal attitudes. But the point was not so much his original intention but the meanings internalised by his followers over time. Women, formed from ‘Adam’s rib’, were subordinate beings. Like children, they should be ‘seen but not heard’.

This social convention began to dissipate only slowly in the later nineteenth century, with the campaign for the female franchise. As a result, it is hard to find any major speeches by a British woman on a public platform (especially an outdoor public platform), before the twentieth century. Queen Elizabeth’s speech to her troops at Tilbury docks (August 1588) is the one great exception; and that famous event was legitimated not just by her royal status but by fears of imminent invasion at the time of the Armada.

Of course, there were daring women who did sometimes break with convention. Particularly in times of social tension and political upheaval, there was greater scope for direct action. It was not uncommon for women preachers, often from lower-class backgrounds, to emerge in radical religious movements, such as in the 1640s. If the spirit moved someone to ‘bear witness’, a sincere belief in divine calling could override the Pauline proscription. So early Methodism, which stressed the teachings of the heart, saw many women lay preachers playing an independent role in the 1780s and 1790s.3 One of them was Elizabeth Tomlinson. She became aunt by marriage to the novelist George Eliot, who later drew a highly sympathetic pen-portrait of a Methodist female evangelist in the form of Dinah Morris in Adam Bede (1859). However, the novel ends with Dinah’s withdrawal from public preaching. And the same happened in many real-life cases as nineteenth-century Methodism became more institutionalised and conservative.4

Nonetheless, radical religion and politics remained possible outlets for women speakers. John Wesley himself had expressed the view that treating women only as ‘agreeable playthings’ constituted ‘the deepest unkindness … horrid cruelty … mere Turkish barbarity’.5 By the later nineteenth century, with the spread of literacy and further education, increasing numbers of women began to reject the subordinate role. It was still notable, however that a number of doughty feminists in the early days of the suffragette campaigns continued to express trepidation at speaking on public platforms. One who had no qualms was Charlotte Despard, shown in Fig.2 addressing a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square. She was, however, an exceptional person, emboldened not only by her Anglo-Irish upper-crust background but also, by the 1930s, by her venerable age, doughty personality and long political experience.6

Charlotte Despard at the age of 89, speaking at an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square, 12 June 1933. Photo: James Jarché. © Daily Herald Archive, 1983-5236/11073 One reason for the continuing trepidation was because the art of public speaking does not depend solely on the nerve of the speaker. Successful oratory depends upon an unstated but very real reciprocity. The audience has to be prepared to listen and to respond. If those present are unwilling, then the result can be anything from hostile shouting, jeers, catcalls, obscenities, the throwing of missiles – or simply turning away. Social conventions, in other words, are policed not so much by law (though it may contribute) but by widely-shared conventional beliefs.

Before the twentieth century, the only example known to me of a real-life young woman who spoke publicly at a political rally occurred at the Norwich Guildhall in 1794. The orator was Amelia Alderson (later Opie), the daughter of a respected local physician and a social star among the radical intelligentsia. Her speech was reported in a private letter by a disapproving (if reluctantly admiring) older female witness, Sarah Scott.7 She herself was the author of Millennium Hall (1762), which advocated an elegant female-only community as a means of helping women to escape from domestic subordination. But even a proto-feminist like Scott disapproved of Alderson’s actions. Hence getting both men and women to accept female public speaking remains essential to achieve equality on the soap-box – and (a long-running good cause still not fully resolved today) in the pulpit. Down with biblical literalism! Speak up, everyone, and listen too!

1 Holy Bible, St Paul 1 Corinthians, 14: 34-35.

2 Holy Bible, 1 Timothy, 2: 12-13.

3 See D. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England (Princeton, 1985).

4 P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995), pp. 105-8.

5 See John Wesley’s Sermon 98: On Visiting the Sick (1786), sect. III, 7: ‘There is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus’: in www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-98-On-Visiting-the-Sick

6 For Charlotte Despard, née French (1844-1939), see M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

7 J. Spencer, ‘Introduction’, in Sarah Scott, Millennium Hall (1762), ed. J. Spencer (1986), pp. ix-x, citing R. Blunt (ed.), Mrs Montagu, ‘Queen of the Blues’: Her Letters and Friendships from 1762 to 1800 (1923), Vol. 2, p. 304.

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