Theodora Mary Wilson (1865 – 1947) written by Roslyn Cook
In May 1919, Theodora Mary Wilson was a member of the British delegation to the second congress of the Women’s International League in Zurich.
She was born Theodora Mary Harris in 1865 on 4th March in Leighton Buzzard, the only girl of five children. The death of her mother when she was only three was said to have deeply impressed her with a sense of personal responsibility.
Though born into a Quaker family she joined the Church of England when young and only became fully active with the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) after she married Henry Lloyd Wilson from Birmingham in October 1890.
They lived initially in Edgbaston and then in Selly Oak, Birmingham, where they had six children; four daughters and two sons. Her husband was deeply committed to his work for the Society of Friends, presiding at many committees, meetings and at the Magistrate’s court.
He worked to support the Conscientious Objectors (COs) who refused to fight in the First World War, visiting them in military guard rooms and civil prisons as a Quaker chaplain. Theodora was also actively involved and a member together with Henry of the Quaker Committee set up to support COs. They were both much involved in supporting the local Quaker settlement (later college) at Woodbrooke, “described at a local tribunal as ‘dangerous’ because of the help it gave to COs.”
In January 1919 it was reported that COs who had already been given long and repeated sentences of imprisonment and hard labour were being given further extreme sentences rather than being released. During the elections of 1918 the opinion that Germany as well as COs must be punished and the ‘alien enemy’ should be excluded after the war appeared popular with the public, and many politicians also.
Less usual were those such as Theodora who loved Germany. She visited there soon after the end of the 1914-1918 war, so she would have seen the famine and misery caused by the blockades at first hand. A minute from the Peace Committee in January 1919 reported on the scarcity of food in Germany asking Friends for a statement to express sympathy and hope that supplies could be sent from unofficial sources. It was noted that when Germany had signed the armistice it was agreed the German people should be fed, but in the two months elapsed so far nothing had been done.
A report of the Friend’s War Victims’ Relief Committee in May 1919 called for urgent action to be taken in Poland against the invasion of typhus, cholera, dysentery and pneumonic plague, noting a shortage of trained personnel and an absence of supplies.
Theodora was part of this network of Quakers taking action locally and internationally in response to the deteriorating conditions and extreme suffering caused by the war.
The Quakers had been focused since the start of the war on the need for a peace to be negotiated that would not lead to further war, discussions Theodora would have been involved in. Already in 1917 they felt that “only by universal disarmament can the peace of the world be assured.”
In December 1918 it was noted with concern that the change in tone in the French and the British press suggested that the armistice terms the Germans had accepted might well be abandoned and made more punitive. A letter had been sent to President Wilson urging that the “League of Nations, which is recognised as indispensable to future peace, can only be founded on an international settlement inspired by justice and good faith. If it be sought to build a League on conditions of a punitive character dictated to embittered peoples, it will become an instrument of oppression, not of reconciliation.”
Among the 20 women attending the congress in Zurich there were three other Quakers Ada Slater, Isabella Ford and Dr Ethel Williams. They like Theodora would also have drawn on ‘a proud sense of a female humanitarian legacy’, shared through family stories and the local Women’s Monthly Meeting.
Historian Sian Roberts concludes that for Theodora and her peers “this sense of affiliation with an interventionist feminine identity and heritage was a source of strength” supporting and legitimising “both their activism and their “assumption of authority and leadership.“ p121 Roberts
Theodora attended the Warwickshire North Monthly Meetings of Women Friends and in June 1917 she shared her thoughts on a recent lecture speaking of its ‘wonderfully prophetic power’ predicting ‘that this day of trouble was also the day when God’s help is at hand, the day when all may be made one. This sense of unity …. prompted a conviction that the time had come for an appeal for the co-operation of all Christians and it was felt that perhaps Friends were especially called to give a lead. The hope was expressed that we should seek to unite Christians in all nations’.
In 1916 the topic for the Women’s Meeting had been “Individual Responsibility for the Social Conditions of the Future”, and the talk was given by Miss Janet Kelman of Woodbrooke . Theodora wrote in the minutes:
‘The early age at which children leave school and the chilling influence of the mechanical work in factories which most often takes the greater part of their time in the years that follow, the employment of children of school age as wage-earners …the production of sweated goods (for which all who desire to buy at less than a fair price are responsible.) the purchase of useless articles – these and other things are familiar we do not always recognise them as evil and set our minds to find a remedy as we should…We cannot leave responsibility with the rich: the problem is so large it will take every one of us to solve it, only by each taking a right part can we hope to bring ..the time when we shall live together in the harmony of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
Her spiritual beliefs combined with a sense of personal responsibility reflected an optimism that as a politically active woman she could make a difference on issues of social injustice and the consequences of war.
The Birmingham branch of the Women’s International League had been established in early 1915 and by October 1916 it had 117 members. After the Congress in 1919 it became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, or the WILPF, and Theodora became chair of the local branch. She was also chair of the local Women’s Peace Crusade.
Theodora and her husband had joined the Independent Labour Party before the war and for over 25 years their home was ‘a centre of help and inspiration for the local Labour Movement’.
At a meeting of the local Executive Committee in June 1923 Theodora presented herself as a candidate to become a Labour councillor where she ‘definitely stated she stood wholeheartedly for the Labour constitution and program and would at all times loyally support it.’
After the war Theodora combined her activism on behalf of WILPF with her work as a Labour Councillor supporting working-class mothers. In her opinion “at least one out of the three councillors in every ward should be a woman” stating ‘as I have lived in close touch with my fellow women citizens in this Ward, and know the appalling conditions under which many of them live, I feel that I could represent them on the Council’.“
She went on to become chair of Birmingham City Council’s Maternity and Child Welfare Committee.
Theodora and her husband were Elders at their local Stirchley Quaker meeting in Birmingham until they left for Stourbridge in 1932, though they continued to participate as representatives in meetings across the region. Two of the many committees she served on were the Boys and Girls Committee 1905 – 1919, caring for children who had just left school, and the Housing Committee 1925 – 1939, set up due to problems of overcrowding and slum conditions widespread in Birmingham.
In 1932 Theodora and Henry moved to Clent, Stourbridge to be near their son Michael Henry Wilson (born 1901) and support him with the school he had founded for children with special needs.
The inspiration had come from attending a lecture that his mother had organized, given by Fried Geuter, an advocate of the educational methods of Rudolf Steiner. Theodora had met Rudolf Steiner and visited the first Goetheanum in Switzerland. She was much taken with Steiner’s theories known as anthroposophy. Her son Michael, a very successful musician was so inspired by Geuter he decided to join him and set up the special needs school Clent Grove that is now known as Sunfield.
Initially it was based in Selly Oak near the Steiner school set up at Elmfield, but it moved in 1932 to a property in Stourbridge. Michael’s father and Theodora became very involved with it.
Both parents died at Clent, Henry in 1941 and Theodora in 1947. Michael went on to develop music and colour therapies and was director of the school for 40 years.