National Life Story Collection: Fawcett Collection

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 8NLS
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      2 A boxes

Scope and Content

The archive consists of reading copies of tapes, summaries and transcriptions of fourteen individual interviews. The National Life Stories (formerly National Life Story Collection (NLSC)) was established at the British Library in 1987 to 'record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of present-day society as possible'. This small collection focuses on the lives of pioneering career women, each of whom made their mark in traditionally male-dominated areas such as politics, the law and medicine. The project was supported by the Women's Library and the Friends of The Women's Library (formerly known as the Fawcett Society Library).

Administrative / Biographical History

The National Life Story Collection (1987-) was established in 1987 to 'record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of present-day society as possible'. It operates as an independent charitable trust within the Oral History Section of the British Library Sound Archive and undertakes oral history fieldwork. It has initiated a series of interviewing programmes funded from sponsorship, charitable and individual donations and voluntary effort. In the early 1990s a project supported by The Fawcett Society was undertaken to interview 'pioneering career women, each of whom made their mark in traditionally male-dominated areas, such as politics, law and medicine.' Members of the Friends of the Fawcett Library, now The Women's Library, conducted the interviews.

The Fawcett Society (1953-fl.2008) was created in 1953, out of a series of predecessor bodies dating back to 1865 and the campaigns for women's suffrage. Best known as 'London National Society for Women's Suffrage' later the 'London Society for Women's Service' the organisation went through many name changes between 1865 and 1953 when it became known as The Fawcett Society. The name changed in 1953 from London & National Society for Women's Service (1926-1953) to The Fawcett Society in honour of Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the constitutional campaign for women's suffrage, and the president of several of the Fawcett Society's predecessor bodies. The Fawcett Society became the United Kingdom’s leading campaign for equality between women and men, at work, at home and in public life. They campaigned on on women’s representation in politics and public life; pay, pensions and poverty; valuing caring work; and the treatment of women in the justice system. They raised the profile of these issues by creating awareness, leading debate, lobbying politicians and policy makers, and driving change. They influenced developments such as: a change in the law to allow political parties to use all-women shortlists to increase the number of women MPs; the reform of the rape law; and a new duty on public bodies to promote equality between women and men. As at 2008 the Fawcett Society was still active.

Phyllis Deakin (1899-1997) was born in Sheffield in 1899. Her father, a cutler, worked in Uruguay, hence her education at the Instituto Crandon, Montevideo, as well as Surbiton High School, Surrey. One of six children, Phyllis was a gifted linguist in Spanish and French. After working for the Admiralty in World War I (carrying around a Votes for Women placard in her lunch hour) Phyllis moved (1919) to the Times as secretary to the editor of the Spanish section of the special supplements department, transferring to the typing bureau in 1921. From there she was sacked in 1922 on the pretext that Lord Northcliffe objected to having two members of staff by the name of Deakin; he disliked women employees. Phyllis then established her own typing agency but was invited back to the Times in 1924 and from 1930 ran the typing bureau until 1939. Phyllis was determined to be a journalist and got her chance in World War II, having brought off the coup of interviewing George VI at Buckingham Palace. On the day after Paris was liberated, Phyllis appeared as one of the first six accredited women war correspondents, getting into trouble with the Times for wearing trousers, acquired from an American serviceman. In 1943 women journalists (apart from a few women's magazine editors) were not given the chance to meet Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt. Phyllis called a meeting (1/4/43) which attracted over 60 participants and founded the Women's Press Club (1943-1972). Women were not then admitted to the (men only) Press Club until 1971. Phyllis was a Times reporter for 14 years, refusing to cover 'women's topics' like the January sales, though she tried to cover topics of interest to women and urged the editor (Sir William Haley) to address women's issues. She was told by him in 1953 (aged 54) that she would have to go back to being a secretary. She promptly resigned, becoming Assistant Secretary to the Press Council, continuing to work in support of women in her own and other professions. In 1939 Phyllis founded the Wandsworth Business & Professional Women's Club. From 1938-1948 she was the founding Honorary Secretary of the National Federation of Business & Professional Women's Clubs of Great Britain. She chaired the Society of Women Writers and Journalists 1955-1957 and 1959-1960. Her account of the Women's Press Club 'Press On' was reissued in 1984. She was also a member of the City Women's Club. Phyllis featured in a Times article by Libby Purves (20/04/95) in connection with the VE Day 50th anniversary celebrations. At that time Phyllis lived in Waterlooville, enjoying an independent old age. She died in 1997 aged 97.

Kathleen Mary Halpin (1903-1999) was born in Nov 1903, the eldest of four children in the family. She was educated at Sydenham High School but decided against attending university in order to not deprive her siblings of the same opportunity. In 1922 she lived in France for a year before returning to complete a secretarial course and working as an editorial assistant to various publications. One of these was the 'Architect's Journal' and it was during this period that she became concerned with the issue of social housing. She was rapidly involved in the creation of the Soroptimist Housing Trust in Wandsworth and her experiences there widened her interest in social questions more generally. More particularly, she became involved with the question of women's status, becoming the Honorary Secretary of the Junior Council of the London National Society for Women's Service in 1926. After it became the Fawcett Society, she became its chair from 1967-1971 and was both a Friend and a Trustee of the Fawcett Library. Halpin was instrumental in establishing the formal legal administrative history of the Fawcett Society, The Fawcett Library, the Women's Service Trust and the Fawcett Trust. In the early 1930s, she became the private secretary of Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary of the time, and subsequently was asked to be the Organising Secretary of the Women's Gas Council. At the same time, from 1935, she took responsibility for the care of her mother after the death of her brother, sister and father in quick succession. Despite this, she was able to take on the responsibility in helping to organise the new Women's Voluntary Service when it was created in 1938. She administered the evacuation of children from London at the beginning of the Second World War and was subsequently given responsibility as Chief Administrator to the regions for the organisation until 1973, work for which she was awarded the OBE. After the War, she was seconded to the Ministry of Health to assist with United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association for Refugees. She was later a member of the Women's Service Trust and as well as a governor of St Bartholomew's Hospital and president of Soroptimist International. At the end of her life she was a founding trustee of the charity Building Bridges which aimed to combat social exclusion amongst the young. She died in Jan 1999.

Alice [née Weaver] Hemming (1907-1994) was born in London on 18 Sep 1907. The family moved to Canada where Alice received her education. She graduated from the University of British Columbia and began working as a journalist on the 'Vancouver Province' newspaper. Whilst working as a journalist, Alice interviewed Harold Hemming, a banker by profession who was leading a delegation of British headmasters visiting universities in Canada. Alice returned to London in order to work with Harold Hemming, translating books written by the French economist, André Siegfried. Alice and Harold Hemming were married in 1931. Following her involvement in war work in London, Alice returned to Vancouver in 1940 and began working as a journalist again. She was employed to write two regular newspaper columns and presenting a daily radio broadcast, all in support of the British war effort. Alice was also involved in giving lectures and created the information department of the Canadian National Film Board, based in Ottawa. In 1944, Alice returned to London with her two children and dedicated her time and energy to the women’s movement. Alice was vice-president of the International Alliance of Women and the Women’s Council for many years. She was president of the British Commonwealth League, renamed the Commonwealth Countries League in 1963, for forty years 1953-1972, and was also the Commonwealth Countries League’s representative to the Status of Women Committee. Furthermore, Alice was responsible for establishing the Commonwealth Countries League annual fair from her own home in Primrose Hill, which developed into a major international event working to raise funds to provide education for girls in Commonwealth countries. It was for this work that Alice received an OBE in 1975 as well as honours from Canadian universities. Alice Hemming died on the 28 Mar 1994.

Enid Kathleen Hutchinson (1909-1996) was born Enid Swire in Shawforth, Lancashire on 15 Jul 1909. She was educated at Manchester University in 1929. Before and during the Second World War, Enid worked as a Housing Manager, a local government officer, a civil servant specialising in housing, an employment and social services journalist and also a journalist for the Spanish press agency.

Enid married Edward Hutchinson on 25 Feb 1938, as a result of her marriage she refused to resign her position as a civil servant and was sacked. She had two sons. During the war Enid became an air-raid warden, worked with the Assistance Board and then as a Local Welfare Officer, Ministry for Labour.

Her career in adult education incorporated course development, teaching and seminars for the WEA, Townswomen's Guild, YWCA, Cripplegate Institute, the Fawcett Society, the City Lit (for which she developed Fresh Horizons), University of London and Richmond Adult and Community College. Articles by her were published in The Guardian, The New Statesman & Nation and others. One of the most well known being 'College on the Air' The Guardian, 8 Feb 1963. Enid also spent some time broadcasting and lecturing in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the USA and the Netherlands. Enid was also involved in various campaign issues such as university clearing houses, radio provision for pre-school children, provision of television courses for women (referred to as college on the air), learning opportunities in retirement, adult education in the arts, effective further education for young women, women's access to teacher training, adult curricula for adults and education guidance services for adults. With Edward Hutchinson she co-authored 'Learning later' in 1978 and 'Women Returning to Learning' in 1986. In 1994 Edward died. Enid died 1996.

Beatrice Nancy Seear (1913-1997) was born in 1913; the daughter of Herbert Charles Seear and Beatrice Maud Catchpole. Beatrice was educated at Croyden High School, Newnham College, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Beatrice worked as a Personnel Officer at C & J Clark Ltd, the Quaker shoe manufacturers, between 1936-1946. Beatrice was also seconded as a part-time member of staff to the Production Efficiency Board, Ministry of Aircraft Production, during 1943-1945. Between 1946-1978, Beatrice was a teacher of, and a Reader in, Personnel Management at LSE and was considered an authority on the subject of women's employment. Beatrice retired from LSE in 1978 and was created an Honorary Fellow in 1980. As a Liberal candidate, Beatrice unsuccessfully contested Hornchurch, 1950 and 1951, Truro, 1955 and 1959, Epping, 1964, Rochdale, 1966, and Wakefield, 1970. The positions she held included President of the Liberal Party, 1964-1965; President of the Fawcett Society, 1970-1985; Top Salaries Review Board, 1971-1984; created Life Peer, 1971; Member of Council, Industrial Society, 1972-1984; President of the British Standards Institute, 1974-1977; President of the Women's Liberal Federation, 1974; a member of the Hansard Social Commission on Electoral Reform, 1975-1976; President of the Institute of Personnel Management, 1977-1979; Visiting Professor of Personnel Management, City University, 1980-1987; Leader of the Liberal Party, House of Lords, 1984-1988; and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, House of Lords, 1988-1997. Beatrice Nancy Seear died in 1997.

Access Information

This collection is available for consultation, although readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. In most cases interviewees have signed a clearance note allowing the tapes to form 'a permanent public reference resource for use in research, publication, education, lectures and broadcasting'. However, there are restrictions on access to some individual interviews.

Acquisition Information

Transferred to The Women's Library by the National Sound Archive, 1999-2000.

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue. Summaries and catalogue details relating to the interviews are also available on the British Library Sound Archive catalogue at

Custodial History

A collection of recordings, funded by the Fawcett Society and the Friends of the Fawcett Library,

Related Material

The Women's Library holds additional oral history material, in Strand 8, most notably Oral Evidence on the Suffragette and Suffragist Movements (8SUF )

Location of Originals

Originals are held at the National Sound Archive.