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Actresses, artists, and aristocrats…and Lutyens’ mistress 

Sarah Yates dives into the  Society’s archives to meet some of  the formidable early women members from a century ago. 

Article taken from the 2020 edition of the Journal of The London Society. Find out how to get a print copy of the Journal here - we are still mailing them out even during the lockdown.

The year 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which, despite its awkward title, was perhaps as important for women’s participation in civic life as the landmark achievement of the (limited) right to vote and to stand for Parliament in 1918. The 1919 Act enabled women to formally enter the professions, become members of professional societies, and to serve as magistrates or jurors.

It therefore seemed timely to explore women’s participation as members, speakers or contributors in the very first years of the London Society. It must be said that the Society admitted women as members even before the historic 1919 Act. The earliest available printed membership list, from April 1914 – two years after the Society was founded – gives the names and addresses of no fewer than 17 women. New names were added in later years and at the Annual Meeting on 12 March 1920, women were elected for the first time to sit on the Society’s Council. In the same year, the first women to address the Society were the art critic Amelia Defries, on ‘Art and the City’, and the actress and theatre manager Lena Ashwell.

Investigating these and other names – a married woman was invariably listed under her husband’s name – recorded in our journals up to 1920 reveals that while luminaries such as Aston Webb, Raymond Unwin and Sir Edwin Lutyens were undoubtedly the ‘founding fathers,’ some intriguing and influential female figures were involved in the Society’s first decade.

Like their male counterparts, these women were at the heart of London’s artistic and cultural circles, social and civic reform, campaigning and political activism. With the greater focus on uncovering women’s history, some of them are now relatively well known, but othersremain obscure – which presents an exciting opportunity for further research in our own archives and elsewhere.

Here is a snapshot of the stories behind some of these pioneering names:

Lena Ashwell (1872–1957), actress, theatre manager and campaigner

Lena Ashwell was the first woman to address the Society, at a dinner in May 1920 (alongside Lady Cooper, who was recorded as being late for the meeting). Brought up in Canada, she originally studied music but on the advice of Ellen Terry gave it up in favour of acting. She worked with many of the leading actor–managers of the time, including Henry Irving. She took over the management of the Savoy Theatre in 1906, was active in the suffrage movement, and organised troop entertainments in the First World War. Ashwell passionately believed that the arts should be open to all and (as noted by the Society) set up touring companies that performed in local venues all over London. Her thoughts given to the Society on ‘London as I should like to see it’ perhaps would not be out of place today in discussions of the role of culture in urban development:

‘… I should like to see in the centre of every great municipality a place of entertainment erected specially for that purpose and in the very best manner possible, where under glass roofs and behind glass windows people could sit and eat and drink … not hidden away as they are now in public-houses; and there should be good music … and the plays of all good living dramatists. …’

Rosamond Boultbee (1878–1957), journalist and traveller

Rosamond Boultbee’s address as a Society member from 1914 is intriguingly listed as ‘Ladies Army and Navy Club, Burlington Gardens,’ giving a hint of her peripatetic career. Born in Toronto, she spent her early adult life in London and Paris and in 1914 became a war correspondent writing for several newspapers. She reported throughout the war from Russia, Italy and Switzerland, and in 1919 from the Paris Peace Conference. Little is known about her later life but she published a book, Pilgrimages and Personalities, in 1924 about her early life and war years.

Charlotte Leonora Crampton, Lady Cooper

Lady Cooper was elected as one of the first two Society Council members when she was Lady Mayoress of London, from 1919 to 1920. Relatively little is published about her, but she is known to have been heavily involved in charity work throughout her life (being appointed CBE in 1930) and was Commandant of the City of London Voluntary Aid Detachment No. 10 during the First World War; the National Portrait Gallery collections include a fine photograph of her in nursing uniform. Born in Brentford, as a luminary with local connections, she opened Boston Manor Park to the public in 1924.

Mariana, Mrs Hylton Dale (c.1853–1933), writer and campaigner

Mrs Dale, also first listed as a member in April 1914, was active in the suffrage movement, hosting meetings at her home in Onslow Gardens. A University of London graduate, she was also a member of the Fabian Society, the author of Child Labour under Capitalism and a supporter of causes such as the National Association of Women’s Lodging Houses.

Ellen Epps (1850–1929), Mrs Edmund Gosse, artist

Ellen (‘Nellie’) Epps was at the heart of London’s progressive artistic circles. A painter, she had studied with the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Her work includes a portrait of her sister Laura, also a painter, who married Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Through these connections she met her husband, the author and critic Edmund Gosse, and they married in 1875. She continued to paint and wrote stories and reviews for a number of publications. She was a Society member in at least 1914 and 1915.

Lady Feodora Gleichen (1861–1922), sculptor

Countess Feodora Gleichen, as she was also known, is recorded as a new member to the Society in February 1917. Closely related to the British royal family – Queen Victoria’s half-sister was her grandmother – she was also a prominent sculptor, with major public works including statues of her great-aunt, the Queen, in Montreal and of Florence Nightingale. Posthumously, she was made the first woman member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.

Maud Jeffery, reformer and housing manager 

Maud Jeffery joined the London Society in 1917 and in March 1920 was elected (along with Lady Cooper) as one of the first two women on the Council. The Society’s report of the meeting recorded that her ‘activities in welfare work in Stepney are well-known;’ she had been secretary to the great social reformer Octavia Hill and was later appointed by the Crown Lands Commissioners to manage the Cumberland Market Estate built from the 1920s. Jeffery was also a mentor to Irene Barclay, the first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

Leonora Philipps (1862–1915), Lady St Davids, activist and campaigner 

Lady St Davids was another early supporter of the Society, but all too briefly as she died in 1915. She had been a renowned campaigner for women’s rights, a member of the executive committee of the Women’s Liberal Federation and a prominent platform speaker. She lectured widely on employment matters for women and girls and strongly advocated free education.

Juliet Reckitt, philanthropist

Juliet Reckitt was not only a member of the Society but also a contributor (to the sum of £5; equivalent to about £150 today) to funding its Development Plan of Greater London in 1919. Her grandfather had founded Reckitt & Sons, manufacturers of household products, based in Kingston upon Hull. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records (in the biography of her brother, Albert) that she was involved in women’s suffrage and social work. Almshouses in the workers’ housing built by her family in the early 1900s are named after her. 

Victoria, Lady Sackville (1862–1936), society figure and patron

Better known as the mother of the writer Vita Sackville-West, the colourful Lady Sackville was notorious for her fundraising schemes and involvement in celebrated court cases. She joined the London Society as a member in 1920, perhaps via her close friendship with Edwin Lutyens, from whom she also commissioned several house building and remodelling schemes. 

Emilie Wilson (1841–1933), Mrs Russell Barrington, writer

Another early member, she was a friend and biographer of leading artists such as G F Watts and Frederic, Lord Leighton. She played an important role in ensuring that Leighton House became a museum after the artist’s death in 1896, as well as buying and donating several of his works. She also later wrote two novels and was a contributor to the Fortnightly Review and The Spectator.

Sarah Yates is an editor and researcher, and a London Society trustee.

If you would like to use the London Society’s archive for research, or think you can help us make it more accessible to members and the wider public, get in touch at info@londonsociety.org.uk

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