Papers of Elizabeth Thomson, 1847-1918, teacher, missionary, traveller and suffragette

Scope and Content

  • Typed copy of The Life Story of Elizabeth Thomson, 1847-1914 by Elizabeth Thomson (this copy dates from around the 1960s).

Administrative / Biographical History

Elizabeth Thomson was born on the 14th September 1847 in Glasgow. Her father, Robert Dundas Thomson, graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1831 with a degree in medicine, and her maternal grandfather, Thomas Thomson, was Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University from 1818 to 1852. Following her grandfather's death in 1852, Elizabeth Thomson and her family moved to London and began living in St John's Wood, Marlborough. In 1858, aged eleven, Thomson began attending school at Queen's College in Harley Street, London.

In 1866 Thomson briefly lived in Geneva, returning to the UK in 1868 to live on Mount Ararat Road, in Richmond. In 1979 Thomson was treated by Sophia Jex-Blake, the first practising female doctor in Scotland and a feminist campaigner. Speaking of this encounter in her autobiography, Thomson states: "On my return to Edinburgh I saw Dr. Jex Blake who had just completed her study at Zurich and settled in Manor Place. She kept me lying down all winter, and in the next summer... I was better". In 1880, recovered from the illness that Jex-Blake treated and living in Edinburgh, Thomson began to attend lectures on Literature, Logic and Moral Philosophy, receiving certificates in those subjects in 1882. In the same year Thomson took the Temperance Movement pledge to abstain from alcohol.

Throughout the 1890s and 1900s Thomson travelled the world with her sister, Agnes, working as teachers and missionaries. The countries they visited include India, Japan, the USA, Germany and Italy. In the summer of 1899 Thomson reports that she visited Faizabad in India to learn Urdu but could not stand the heat and left for Almora in 1902. In 1907 she sailed to Bombay to complete missionary work, before teaching English in Sangor for the winter. In 1909 she travelled back to the UK, via Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Berlin, to settle in Edinburgh.

In June 1909, aged 61, Thomson saw women's suffrage campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women's Social and Political Union, speak at Synod Hall in Edinburgh. This led to Thomson and her sister joining the WSPU, attending a meeting at their Edinburgh base in Melville Place where Adela Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, gave a speech. In October 1909 a large protest for women's suffrage took place in Edinburgh, marching along Princes Street, which Thomson describes in her memoir as "well arranged" but "rowdy". The following autumn, 1910, Thomson travelled to London to join the Pankhursts in their increasingly physical fight for women's right to vote. On 18th November 1910 the infamous clash between suffrage campaigners and police officers, known as Black Friday, took place on the streets of London. Thomson describes this day in her autobiography, noting that she was hurt by a man hitting her back but that the other women involved were "so careful not to hurt each other" in the crush of bodies. Thomson continued to campaign for the WSPU in London despite her increasing age and the violence involved. In 1911 she was held at Cannon Row Police Station for throwing stones at government buildings in Gt Smith Street. In 1912 she was imprisoned in Holloway Gaol for one month for her part in a suffrage protest.

In 1912 and 1913 Thomson travelled throughout Scandinavia, returning to live in Edinburgh in 1913. Her WSPU efforts continued and on 19th May 1913, aged 65, she went on trial at Jedburgh, Edinburgh, for her part in the attempted arson at Kelso racecourse on 5th April of the same year, alongside her sister Agnes, as well as Arabella Scott and Edith Hudson, well-known Scottish suffrage campaigners. Thomson was sentenced to three months in Calton Prison but took part in a hunger strike which led to her early release under the Cat and Mouse Act. On 31st May, against court orders, Thomson fled Edinburgh for Germany. Edinburgh court records from 1913, held in the National Records of Scotland, show that on 27th May the police claimed to "of course know where they [Thomson and Arabella Scott] are living" but admitted on 13th June 1913 that "the police have no information to the present whereabouts of Elizabeth Thomson and Edith Hudson and are continuing their search for them." The police did not find Thomson and she spent the winter of 1913 in San Sebastian, Spain, before travelling to London in May 1914. Thomson died in 1918.

This biography was compiled from Elizabeth Thomson's autobiography The Life Story of Miss Elizabeth Thomson, 1847-1918, and from documents held in the National Records of Scotland, reference HH 16/44.


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