Autograph Letter Collection: Women's Institute [Club]

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains letters to the Women's Institute from its members including Miss Beale, Dr Mary Scharlieb, Emma Cons, Walter B McLaren, Florence Dixie, Henrietta Barnet, Margaret Bondfield, Helen Gladstone, Helen Blackburn, Elizabeth Haldane, Ethel Moberley Bell, Madge Kendal, Ethel Smythe, Lady Isabel Somerset, Lena Ashwell, Mrs Fawcett, Cicely Hamilton, Rosita Forbes, Miss P Strachey, Charlotte C Stopes, EM Sidgwick, Flora Anne Steel and Nina Boyle.

Administrative / Biographical History

The club named the Women's Institute (1897-1928) predated the more famous National Federation of Women's Institutes by almost two decades and was of a very different character. It was founded in 1897 at 15 Grosvenor Crescent by Mrs Nora Wynford Philipps and was intended to be a centre for women involved in the professions, education, social and philanthropic work. It was also intended to make other societies' work better known through its information bureau and co-operated with the Central Bureau for the Employment of Women regularly. It initially held weekly debates and 'at homes' run by the Executive Committee and organised a musical society, an art society, a recreational department, a circulating library, and a voluntary workers' society for philanthropic work. It also organised a secretarial department that undertook the training of typists and book keepers as well as an employment service for its members. At the same time it acted as a centre for the organisation of social and educational activities and a centre for research and dissemination of information on various subjects. It was responsible for the publication of several works such as Mrs Sidgwick's 'The Place of University Education in the Life of Women', pamphlet versions of lectures and the 'Dictionary of Employments Open to Women'. By the turn of the century it had over 800 members and maintained links with over 45 other groups, making it necessary to move to its second location at 92 Victoria Street from where a large range of other feminist organisations operated. In 1916 it was responsible for the opening of the Women's Club for the wives and mothers of servicemen and during the First World War gave rooms to the British Women's Patriotic League, the London School of Needlework, the Women's Local Government Society and the Head Mistresses Association amongst others. After the war, it was the location of meetings of the Dexter Club, the Censorship Club and the association for former members of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. While is appears to have still been active in 1925, activities ceased some time around 1928.

Margaret Grace Bondfield (1873-1953) was born to William Bondfield and Anne Taylor in 1873. Her education ended with elementary school and her first job was as a pupil teacher at Chard Elementary School in 1886. She subsequently became a shop assistant in Briton in 1887 where she became acquainted with Louisa Martindale who encouraged her to continue her education. In 1894 she moved to London to live with her brother Frank and there found similar employment and soon became active in the Shoe Assistants’ Union as well as the Fabian Society. There she also joined the Idealists’ Club and met prominent radicals such as George Bernard Shaw and began writing articles for the publication ‘The Shop Assistant’ under the name of Grace Dare. In 1896, she was asked by Clementina Black of the Women's Industrial Council to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers and the report was published two years later. After this work she became recognised as Britain's leading expert on shop workers, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Shops in 1902 and to the Select Committee on the Truck System in 1907. In 1908, Bondfield resigned from the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants and Warehousemen and Clerks where she had been assistant secretary since 1898, to become the secretary of the Women's Labour League. In 1910 she assisted the WIC’s inquiry into the pay of married women before being asked by the Liberal Government to serve on the Advisory Committee on the Health Insurance Bill. Her influence led to the inclusion of maternity benefits to be paid to the mother in the final bill of the WCG on creating legislation for a minimum wage. Between 1912 and 1915, she also worked for the Women’s Trades Union League and the National Federation of Women Workers as well as with Women's Co-operative Guild in its campaign for minimum wage legislation as well as improvement in child welfare. A member of the Independent Labour Party, she was also interested in the issue of women’s suffrage, but unlike many in the area refused to accept a franchise that was to be extended only to certain categories of women drawn from certain classes of society, excluding the working classes from the right to vote. Consequently, she became Chair of the Adult Suffrage Society. Due to her religious beliefs, when the First World War broke out, she was equally opposed to the pro-war stance taken by both the Women’s Social and Political Union and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Instead, she spoke at a pacifist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1914, then joined the UDC and the Women’s Peace Crusade. In 1916, she was one of the founders of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and was a delegate at the International Labour and Socialist Conference in Berne in 1918. After the war, her activities increased once more: she became the Chair of the Women’s International Council of Socialist and Labour Organisations as well as being the first female member of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee in 1918. Her involvement with the TUC was close, becoming a member of the General Council from 1918-1924 and then again from 1926 to 1929. In 1920 she was the joint representative of the Labour party and the TUC sent her to the USSR and there she met Lenin. She contested the seat of Northampton in 1920 and then again in 1922, finally being elected to the House of Commons in 1923 as Labour MP for the city. In her first year in the house, she was appointed to the Labour Government’s Emergency Committee on Unemployment and the following year was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. It was this seat in the cabinet that Bondfield herself took in 1929 as the MP for Wallsend, becoming the first female British minister. However, during the heart of the Depression in 1931, many in the feminist and labour movements attacked Bondfield when she supported a government policy that would deprive some married women of unemployment benefit. That same year, she lost her seat at the general election after losing support from her constituency for taking this step and though she contested it once more in 1935, she was never returned to parliament again. Her continued involvement in politics was done through work as an activist. In the late 1930’s she travelled to the United States of America and Mexico to study labour conditions before returning to become the Vice President of the National Council of Social Services. During the Second World War, she was chair of the Women's Group on Public Welfare as well as undertaking a lecture tour of Canada and the USA for the British Information Services between 1941 and 1943. She was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1948, before retiring to a nursing home in Surrey where she died in 1953.

Rosita Forbes (1893-1967) was born in 1893 and later married a soldier with whom she travelled to India, China, Australia and South Africa. During WWI She worked as an ambulance driver and received two medals for her war services from the French government. After the war she toured America and China. She turned to journalism in order to fund her trips and was engaged to write some articles on French colonisation in northern Africa. Whilst there she travelled extensively, including entering the 'forbidden' city of Kufara in 1920, and learnt Arabic. After a visit to England, Rosita Forbes visited Morocco and then went to Abyssinia where she made a travel film entitled From Red Sea to Blue Nile. She married Arthur McGrath in 1921. Later she visited Persia and in 1930 travelled through Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Transjordania. Her other travels took her to South America, Russia and from Kenya to the Gold Coast. Rosita Forbes was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. She retired to the Caribbean where she died.

Philippa Strachey (1872-1968), known as Pippa, was born in 1872 to Lady Jane Maria Strachey and Major Richard Strachey. She was brought up first in India, where her father was a leading figure in the administration, and then in London, where the family moved in 1879. Her mother was active in the movement for women's suffrage and both Philippa and her siblings were encouraged to contribute to this work. In 1906 she became a member of the executive committee of the Central Society for Women's Suffrage and the following year she was elected the secretary of its successor the London Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1906 she joined the London Society for Women's Suffrage, succeeding Edith Palliser as secretary the following year. It was also in 1907 that she joined her mother Lady Jane Maria Strachey in organising what became known as the 'Mud March' at the instigation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and which went from Hyde Park to the Exeter Hall to demand the vote. During the First World War she was deeply involved in various war works, from being the secretary of the Women's Service Bureau for War Workers to participating as a member of the Committee for the London units of the Scottish Women's Hospital from 1914-1919. This war work began her lasting involvement with the issue of women's employment and she remained the secretary of the Women's Service Bureau after 1918 when it became concerned with helping women thrown out of jobs on the return of men from the Front. She remained there until its dissolution, which came in 1922, caused by a financial crisis in the parent organisation. However, subsequently Strachey helped to found a new group to fill the gap, becoming the secretary and then honorary secretary of the Women's Employment Federation. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, family problems took up much of her time as she nursed both her mother and her brother Lytton until their deaths. However, all through this time she remained active in the London Society for Women's Service and when it was renamed the Fawcett Society in 1951, she was asked to be its honorary secretary. It was that year that she was awarded the CBE for her work for women. She subsequently was made a governor of Bedford College. Increasing ill-health slowed the pace of her work and blindness finally forced her to enter a nursing home at the end of her life. She died in 1968.

Arrangement

Chronological

Conditions Governing Access

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

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Related Material

Also held at The Women's Library is a scrapbook relating to The Women's Institute (10/38).

Corporate Names