Papers of Charlotte Despard

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive consists of letters from Charlotte Despard to Charles Wilson (1920-1932) ; photograph of Mrs Wilson (c. 1920); and a diary of a trip to the USSR (1930).

The letters cover the periods 1920-1922 and 1930-1932, and were written to Mr Charles Wilson of Willington, County Durham, Mr Wilson was a political activist who worked with the Durham miners, and Mrs Despard lectured to his students in 1921 and 1930. In the letters Mrs Despard refers to Mr Wilson's poetry; she also sent him a poem that she had written. She refers to her own political activities, in Ireland, lecturing for the Labour Party against British Policy in India. She also mentions several of the illnesses that were beginning to restrict severely such activities.

Administrative / Biographical History

See the biography for Despard; Charlotte (1844-1939); President of the Women's Freedom League

Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) was born in 1844, the daughter of Captain William French and Margaret Eccles. In the 1850s her father died and her mother became mentally ill, resulting in the child being sent to London to live with relatives. Her early experiences in London led her to become politically radical at a young age but she was not active until after her marriage in 1870 to Maximilian Despard a wealthy Anglo-Irish businessman (one of the founders of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank), who was, like her, a rich radical Liberal. Charlotte supported Home Rule for Ireland from 1880. In 1874 Despard published her first novel, 'Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow' which would be followed by several more in rapid succession. Her husband died in 1890, and she emerged from the resultant depression through involvement in social work at the Nine Elms Mission in Battersea where she would eventually move the following year. From 1894-1903 she acted as a poor law guardian in Vauxhall, taking on more responsibility as a school manager in 1899. In this period her political views became more marked, supporting the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and eventually being nominated as one of their representatives at the second International in 1896. This association continued until 1906 when she became a member of the Independent Labour Party. For a short time she was involved in the Union of Practical Suffragists and then the Adult Suffrage Society that called for votes for women of all levels of society. However, these affiliations were later to go into abeyance when she became a leader of the militant suffragette movement alongside the Pankhursts. Her initial reaction to the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) was hostile due to their willingness to accept a socially limited franchise and in 1906 she spoke out against them at the first meeting of the Women's Labour League. It was the former Labour Party organiser Teresa Billington-Greig who finally convinced her to become a member and in the summer of 1906. After the resignation of Sylvia Pankhurst and the arrival of Emmeline and Christabel in London, Despard became the Joint Secretary of the WSPU with Edith How-Martyn, while also becoming active on a practical level. In Feb 1907 she was arrested during the demonstration from the 'Women's Parliament' held in Caxton Hall to the Houses of Parliament and was sentenced to three weeks in prison. However, in the Spring of 1907, rifts began to grow between Despard and the Pankhursts when it became clear that WSPU election policy meant that the group were effectively supporting Conservative candidates as a means of opposing Liberal candidates. Despard, How-Martyn, and Anne Cobden Sanderson jointly sent a message to the Independent Labour Party conference to state that they would not take part in any by-election where a Labour Party candidate was standing. This was immediately publicly repudiated by Emmeline Pankhurst.

In Sep 1907, the WSPU's annual meeting was cancelled by the Pankhursts and the group's constitution changed without consultation of members. However, Despard and Billington-Greig together organised another conference for the intended day and effectively began the Women's Freedom Party that still took a militant approach but concentrated on non-violent illegal methods. The following year, she spent five months touring the country in a caravan. 1909 began with her being arrested for leading a delegation to speak to the Prime Minister, but was discharged after five days for ill health. The following month she was officially elected president of the Women's Freedom League. In 1911 she was one of those who organised resistance to the census which took place that year as well as becoming the editor of 'the Vote'. The sheer range of her activities caused some colleagues to question her focus as leader of the WFL and dissent began to grow, resulting in the resignation of Billington-Greig and attempts to oust her from the leadership of the organisation after the failure of the Conciliation Bill in 1912. In the event, it was the majority of the executive board that resigned and Despard remained in place and attended the Budapest Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance the following year in this capacity. When war was declared in 1914 the Women's Freedom League rejected the pro-war stance of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and the WSPU which both suspended their suffrage campaigns.

Instead, in 1915, Despard joined the Women's International League, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Women's Peace Crusade and the No Conscription Fellowship and in 1917 she resigned as President of WFL to concentrate on working for the Women's Peace Crusade. Also in 1917 she attended the convention of the British Socialists in Leeds in 1917 at which the Revolution in Russia was welcomed and where she was elected to the provisional committee of the Workers' Socialist Federation. After the Qualification of Women Act was introduced in 1918, Despard stood as the ultimately unsuccessful Labour candidate in Battersea in the post-war election, having resigned as the leader of the WFL.

Despard had been interested in Irish politics from a campaigning visit to Dublin in 1909. She was strongly in favour of Home Rule, but after the death of the hunger-striker Terence Macswiney she committed most of her time and money to the cause of communism in Ireland. She moved to Ireland in 1920 and thereafter only visited London briefly each summer. She lived and worked with Maude Gonne in Dublin to create a reception centre for displaced people as well as campaigning against the British policy of internment. Despard formed the Women Prisoners' Defence League, which was later banned. Despard also paid for the establishment of a factory intended to give employment to Republicans who were economically discriminated against. In 1921 she moved to Roebuck House a mansion outside Dublin that would frequently be raided by the police looking for IRA members who found a safe house there. However, she later resigned from Sinn Fein as a response to the factionalism of its members. She visited the Soviet Union in 1930, and took the decision to move from Dublin to Northern Ireland in the wake of an attack on the Irish Workers' College, which she had financed for some time. In moving to Belfast she handed Roebuck House to Maude Gonne. In the mid-thirties, her finances were becoming strained and she was declared bankrupt in 1937. Nonetheless, she continued to fight Fascism until her death as a result of a fall at her home in Nov 1939.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

Acquisition Information

The letters were donated to the library in Jul 1985 by Joan and Eric Stevens, booksellers, of London as Acc 1985/07. The diary was a separate donation in 1988 from Ireland Acc 1988/01

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue

Related Material

Further letters, diaries and papers of Despard (1913-1935) are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Ref. D2479). The Records of the Women's Freedom League are also held by The Women's Library (Ref. 2WFL) and unused notes for a biography of Charlotte Despard can be found in the papers of Teresa Billington-Greig (7TBG/69-86).

Geographical Names