For a short time in the sixties and early seventies I had two great female friends. I was in my twenties, Frances Gordon in her fifties and Freda White in her late seventies. I had recently graduated from Glasgow University and was accumulating educational qualifications; Frances had a degree from the LSE gained in the 1930s and was a linchpin in the political and cultural life of Edinburgh; Freda was among the first graduates from Somerville College, Oxford, an author, journalist, campaigner and lecturer of international renown.
It was therefore obvious to the predominantly male St Andrews Ward, Edinburgh, Labour Party that we three, being women, should organise the jumble sales.
Freda White was born in number 3 Drummond Place, Edinburgh on 29th October 1894 to Ada Watson and Thomas White, Solicitor, Supreme Court. She was the sixth of seven children and, though her father died when she was seven years old, the family seems to have been happy and comfortable under the tutelage of her forceful and intelligent mother. Freda was educated at St Leonards School, the year between school and university in Geneva studying geology and perfecting her French. In 1913, she proceeded to Somerville College, Oxford and left in 1916 with a Class II degree in Modern History. She received her BA in 1921 when degrees for women were first awarded. By then everything had changed. On the 9th of September 1915 her beloved brother, Major Alexander White, died of wounds in the Dardanelles. She became a lifelong campaigner in the cause of peace.
Leaving Somerville she went to Corsica where the Serbian Relief Fund worked under very difficult conditions with refugees who had survived the journey through Montenegro and Albania. The majority of the women workers were nurses with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Freda, a born organiser, does not, thankfully, appear to have been nursing. She left Corsica in late 1918 and was very briefly an assistant mistress at Edinburgh Academy Preparatory School. Soon she became involved in the League of Nations Union and worked, until 1939, between Geneva and London. She published numerous League pamphlets on Mandates, the arms trade, Abyssinia and Palestine, and lectured widely.
The newspaper archives yield a picture of tireless endeavour in the cause of peace. In 1934 the Kent and Sussex Courier records that at a meeting of the Women’s International League the subterfuges of armament manufacturers were denounced by Miss Freda White. “War brings misery and ruin to everyone concerned but is pure gain for arms manufacturers. They must oppose every move towards peace.” She gave as example the case of her brother killed by Turkish shells made by a British firm.
In 1935 she is in Motherwell at the Wishaw branch of the League of Nations Union. The hall is packed to hear Miss Freda White BA, the author of the Abyssinian Dispute and other works. “Abyssinia being uppermost in everybody’s mind just now, an expression of opinion on the present critical situation coming from such an authoritative source is sure to make a profound impression” says the Motherwell Times. It is reported in Notes and Comments that “Miss Freda White has a poor opinion of the English. She says if you wish them to assimilate a fact you must first of all boil it.” The language and tone are to the life but she had not a low opinion of the English or any nation – rather, sharp and analytical above everything, she became exasperated by wilful blindness and obfuscation.
In 1936 “the famous writer” Freda White addresses a conference on World Cooperation. In 1937 recently returned from Spain, in an “admirable” talk she highlights the danger that sporadic fires sometimes spread until they devour our entire civilisation. Longman Green published her Short Account of War in Spain shortly after her return. In 1938 she is concerned with the problem of refugees and on 11th February 1939, Secretary of the Mandates and Minorities Committee she is opining that what has been wrong with British policy in the last seven years is a lack of settled principle. A characteristic phrase. She was concerned to put across British foreign policy through Italian eyes and commented on the difficulty of an attempt to dissociate legal from moral and ethical rights. With the outbreak of war the League’s purpose was lost. Freda felt it personally but believed that though the League failed and would continue to fail, it was the only hope humanity had.
In 1940 she became the assistant editor of the New Statesman under the editorship of Kingsley Martin. In her old age, she spoke little of her earlier life, preferring the future as a topic, but was particularly silent on her time with Martin. At the centre of wartime intellectual life with many friends about her, she should have felt at home. However in 1943 she left to become information officer of the left-leaning Daily Herald. Her international work continued. In 1944 she speaks at a conference on the Danubian Satellites and queries how far the Russian armies have gone with the industrial stripping of the territories.
In 1947 she returned to Scotland as Scottish Officer of the United Nations Association. Already in 1946 she had published an account of the first Assembly of the United Nations and a pamphlet, Conflict Over Palestine. In 1951 she stood unsuccessfully for Parliament and in 1954 she resigned to concentrate on travelling in and writing about France. In 1951 at fifty-seven she had published her first book – the extraordinary and still-in-print classic of travel writing, Three Rivers of France. West of the Rhone: Languedoc, Rouissillon, the Massif Central followed in 1964 and Ways of Aquitaine in 1968.
She researched in her Morris Minor, often with a white-knuckled Frances Gordon in the passenger seat.
When first I fknew her she was a small white-haired, determined figure in tweeds and lacy jumper, with an incisive diction counterbalanced by a keen intelligence and deep concern for family and friends
On occasion she would startle. She and her siblings, Alexander, Ada, Marion, Effie, John, and her little sister Nellie lived at 3 Drummond Place – a house of fifteen rooms the top floor of which housed the nursemaids and the children. From the highest landing they watched guests arriving on the drawing room floor, and later met chosen guests at Ada’s soirees, which amounted to Edinburgh salons. Her father’s death left Ada with seven children aged between eighteen and one. Freda remembered going to the High Street where luckenbooths still sold Georgian glass for pennies. There she would buy a piece of glass for her beloved mother. They all played in Drummond Place Garden and, when a decree went out that no girls were allowed to climb trees, Freda organised them into squads to climb the lot. Some years later Lord Rutherford walked with her in the Garden and explained the splitting of the atom and its potential power. When she asked if it could be used as a weapon, he replied that no-one could possibly be so stupid.
I asked her once if at Somerville she’d known Vera Brittain whose Testament of Youth had much impressed me. Freda thought for a minute and said. “That woman used her intellect as a stiletto for her passions,” And that was all.
She travelled light but her flat held many books and curious objects. She is remembered with affection by the friends I still have from that time. But her busy effective life – save for her travel writing – seems to have disappeared from the record. I think of her trying to study while mourning her brother, travelling in dangerous waters to Corsica, penning her winning essay on peace in lodgings at Great Ormond Street, biting her lip (mostly in vain) in what was very much a man’s world. She insisted on the importance of teaching people to think. “And then one must fight to control the urge to tell them what to think.” She knew her own mind and she had a tongue on her.
And on a personal note – I’d come to Edinburgh in 1966 knowing no-one. Freda White lived a life the like of which I hardly knew existed. She took me on and opened my mind to possibilities.
In early 1971 she moved into a little nursing home of a kind common at the time. En route to a party we called in. It was mid-May and a fine sunny evening. She was reading Walter Scott but had herself lifted, settled and propped up and turned to us, “Right my dears. About the Common Market….” As we left the sister said that she refused to eat and seemed calm and resolved.
She died of cancer of the stomach on 24th May.
Written for Sheroes of History by Leslie Hills
Find out more…
You can sometimes find a second hand copy of some of Freda’s books. Check her page on Amazon here.