Charlotte Despard was a woman of many passions, she fought for the vote, for Irish freedom, for peace & for animal welfare. She formed, or was part of, many political groups & movements paving the way for others committed to these freedoms.
Born in 1844 Charlotte’s upbringing wasn’t easy. Her father died when she was young and her mother was mentally ill and hospitalised. Charlotte was sent to London to live with relatives.
In 1870 Charlotte married. She started a career as a romantic novellist, publishing titles including the very Victorian sounding Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow. Sadly her husband died just a few years later. His death seems to have been the event which set Charlotte on a different course as she threw herself into supporting local charities. She entered some of the poorest communities in London and what she saw broke her heart. She set her mind to assisting those in greatest need, leaving the comfort of her well-to-do background to live in Wandsworth amongst the people she wanted to help. She was soon made the Poor Law Guardian for Lambeth.
She first acted on her pacifist beliefs when she spoke out against the Boer War, calling it a “wicked war of this capitalist government”. By the time the First World War had begun she was even more outspoken and helped found the Women’s Peace Crusade. This further distanced her from the mainstream suffragette movement with whom she had previously been involved.
In 1906 she had joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, but left when she began to feel that they weren’t radical enough. She then moved to the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) – led by the Pankhursts who were decidedly more radical. However she soon became disillusioned with them too. She felt that the group was too hierarchical and not democratic enough. She also believed that they should be campaigning for equal voting rights for everyone – which would extend the franchise to all men & women (not just those over 30 who owned property, which excluded many working class people.)
Ever the self-starter Charlotte left the WSPU and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) with Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn and others who felt the same way. One way in which the WFL differed to many of the more ‘main-stream’ suffragettes was in their adherence to total non-violent action. Instead they championed passive resistance, chaining themselves to railings and refusing to pay tax as acts of civil disobedience.
Charlotte realised the close link between economical & polictical freedoms saying “Fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages, the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job… A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband. It is indeed deplorable that the work of the wife and mother is not rewarded. I hope that the time will come when it is illegal for this strenuous form of industry to be unremunerated.”
When the war started and the WSPU agreed to stop their protesting and support the recruitment drive Charlotte fiercely opposed it. Throught the First World War she used the Women’s Peace Crusade to campaign for peace while establishing aid for the families of wounded soldiers. In one instance she used her own finances to order 200 pairs of children’s boots and milk for those affected. She also arranged for food for these families who were strugging to make ends meet (all vegetarian in accordance with her own beliefs.)
Charlotte’s various political activities overlapped. As well as being involved in the struggle for the vote and the anti-war movement she had become involved in the Labour Party, even running (unsuccessfully) for a seat in 1918.
Another core part of her political activism during this time was in her father’s homeland of Ireland. She had helped form the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 and later became involved with the fight for an independant Ireland. In 1909 she met Mahatma Gandhi who greatly inspired her and cemented her belief in a non-violent approach to political activism. It was this approach that she brought to her involvement in Ireland. She helped formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support those who were imprisoned during the Irish War of Independence and supported the workers during the Dublin ‘Lock-out‘.
Ireland was very close to her heart and when the First World War ended she permanently relocated there. She formed a close friendship with fellow freedom-fighter Maude Gonne and they became house-mates.
Although she was growing older in years, Charlottes passions didn’t wane. Later in her life (well into her 90s) she became involved with the Communist Party, which led to her home in Dublin being set on fire by an anti-communist mob. She also continued to espouse her vegetarianism & love for animals, becoming the vice president of the London Vegetarian Society and supporting the National Canine Defence League.
Find out more…
The National Portrait Gallery have paintings & photos of Charlotte in their collection, which you can see online here.
Find out more about the details of Charlotte’s life in this biography.
You can actually download and read Charlotte’s novel Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow to read here!