Charlotte Despard (1844 – 1939) written by Jenny Engledow

Charlotte Despard was born in 1844 to Naval Officer Captain William French from Ireland who died when she was a child, and Margaret Eccles her mother who was in a mental asylum, so Charlotte was sent to live with relatives in London. She was an inquisitive child asking questions of  her governess that showed a developing sense of injustice, such as why God had made slaves, to be told that it wasn’t for girls to ask questions. She tried unsuccessfully to run away and consequently was kept in solitary confinement for a few days before being sent away to school to stop her influencing her sisters.

As an adult she travelled with her sisters on the continent, meeting and marrying Maximilian Carden Despard an Anglo-Irish businessman who made a great deal of money in the Far East. He encouraged her ambition to write books which she did, writing 10 romantic novels, including one about a poor factory worker living in poverty. On her husband’s death in 1890 she decided to serve the disadvantaged, moving to Wandsworth to be amongst those she wished to help. Margaret Mulvihill her biographer writes “There she funded and staffed a health clinic, as well as organising youth and working men’s clubs, and a soup kitchen for the local unemployed. During the week she lived above one of her welfare shops and her identification with the local community was sealed by her conversion to Catholicism. At the end of 1894 she was elected as a guardian for the Vauxhall board of the Lambeth poor-law union. She proved herself a brilliant committee woman, bringing a rare combination of informed compassion, practical experience, and military efficiency to the board’s deliberations.”

She befriended fellow guardian George Lansbury, working with him at reforming the Poor Law. They were opposed to the workhouse system, recognising it caused greater suffering for women and so advocated outdoor relief for the poor. Charlotte joined the Independent Labour Party, becoming friends with leader Keir Hardie and trade union leader Margaret Bondfield, working on women’s suffrage. In 1918 Charlotte stood for election as a Labour candidate in North Battersea, where she had been living and working for many years. The first woman to put herself forward for parliament after the franchise, she received 33% of the vote, her position as a pacifist affecting the outcome considerably.

As a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies [NUWSS] in 1906 she felt it wasn’t achieving its aims, so joined the Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU], organised by the famous Pankhurst family of Emmeline and her three daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. Charlotte went with other WSPU members to the House of Commons on the 23rd October 1906, to ask if the Prime Minister intended to enfranchise women during the session, but the Government allowed only 20 women in the Lobby at a time and the working class women were vigorously ejected. This enraged the remaining women who immediately took it in turns to stand on a settee in the Lobby to address all those present. Each of them in turn was roughly removed, for which Charlotte spent time in Holloway prison, one of several occasions.

At a WSPU meeting in 1907 it became apparent that Mrs Pankhurst was vigorously and autocratically claiming leadership, proposing only property-owning women should obtain the vote. Charlotte spoke in favour of democratic equality and with Teresa Billington-Greig and Edith How-Martyn left the meeting, and with 70 other women formed the Women’s Freedom League [WFL] to work in a democratic non-violent way.

The WFL activities included members chaining themselves to gate railings of the Ladies Gallery in the Palace of Westminster, and refusing to pay taxes, leading to Charlotte and 100 members to receiving jail sentences. She toured the country with others in a caravan promoting equality and non-violent methods to obtain the vote for all adults gaining some 4,000 members in 60 branches. Charlotte edited the weekly newspaper ‘The Vote’, to keep information flowing and at one stage she was so busy with her various activities that some members wondered if she was sufficiently focused on the WFL, leading to many of the executive resigning.

In 1908 Charlotte spent a lot of time in Ireland and together with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins formed the Irish Women’s Franchise League. They supported striking labourers in Dublin, withheld their taxes and refused to complete the Census. During the Irish war of Independence Charlotte and Maud Gonne formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League – later banned – which supported republican prisoners and called for Home Rule. This led to her imprisonment during the Irish Civil War and put her in conflict with her brother, now Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Undaunted, she joined Sinn Fein and Cumann Na mBan [the Irishwoman’s Council], opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

In 1914 the NUWSS and the WSPU supported the war but Charlotte retaining her pacifist values  joined the Women’s International League, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Women’s Peace Crusade and the No-Conscription Fellowship. Meanwhile in contrast her brother General John French was Chief of Staff of the British Army and Commander of the British Expeditionary Force and her sister Catherine Hayley worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital in France. In 1917 Charlotte resigned the presidency of the WFL to work with the Women’s Peace Crusade pursuing peace by putting pressure on the British Government even though this group was often the target of violent patriotic mobs.

Charlotte attended the WIL Congress in Zurich in 1919 which addressed the issues that passionately motivated her, passing resolutions on ending the shameful blockades of food causing hunger, sickness and death, and of raw materials causing unemployment. Resolutions included education for peace, and women’s rights to be equal to men’s in marriage, the work-place, job training, and in political spheres. Also total and universal disarmament, opposition to private arms manufacturing; the ending of slavery and the sex trade. The Congress said the League should be open to all nations who wished to join, with no secret treaties. They called for racial equality, revolution without bloodshed and sharing of wealth; for women to lead on health for all, and to refuse to support war work. Some 30,000 women refused military service during WW1 and 6,000 were imprisoned for this so-called crime. Congress called for a complete amnesty and the right of asylum be re-instated internationally.

 Charlotte spoke at the Congress about her pleasure to be with women of many nations and how they must never let barriers come between them again. She said men had made a mess of foreign affairs, quoting Lloyd George who had worked for women’s suffrage and had said he was certain that if women had the vote then the war would not have happened. She noted women needed to learn about politics so they vote strong internationalists into parliament. They should raise their sons to have peaceful ways, as a militarist approach would lead to further wars, with schools sharing that responsibility. She said children should be well fed to sustain their bodies and minds, learn science and peace, and that women hold the future to make a bright and beautiful world when raising their children.

 Wonderful letters of support came from women around the world unable to attend the Congress presenting resolutions that matched those being discussed. Frequent contact between US president Mr Wilson and Congress regarding the 14 point plan, highlighted the belief that they would have made a far better basis for the League of Nations, and probably achieved lasting peace which they feared was now unlikely. A delegation including Charlotte was elected to go to Versailles to try to engage with the Peace Treaty talks and present their resolutions but shamefully they were not allowed into the debates. It was agreed the resolutions should go to all peace, socialist and religious organisations world-wide and that henceforth women would seek positions of responsibility in the League of Nations. Congress changed the name to reflect the mood of the day to Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

 In Ireland Charlotte created a reception centre for displaced people and campaigned against British internment. She established a factory to employ Republicans who suffered discrimination and opened her home, Roebuck House which she shared with Maud Gonne, to IRA members hiding from the authorities, provoking frequent police raids. She later resigned from Sinn Fein when it broke into factions.

 During 1930 Charlotte visited the Soviet Union and joined the Revolutionary Workers Group, forerunner to the Communist Party of Ireland. She gave Roebuck house to Maud, moved to Belfast and was declared bankrupt in 1937, but continued to work against Fascism for the remainder of her days. Charlotte died in November 1939 after a fall at the age of 95.


 Open University

Public record Office of Northern Ireland and Belfast

Minutes of Lambeth Board of Guardians, London Metropolitan Archives Broderick, Marian

Linklater, Andro

Mulvihill, Margaret

LES Digital Library

‘The Vote’ 1919

Simkin, John

Working Class Museum Library