Charlotte Despard – Suffragist, Vegetarian, Radical
One of the suffrage movement’s most iconic campaigners was Surrey resident, Mrs Charlotte Despard (née French; (1844-1939) who lived at ‘Courtlands’, a large country house with fifteen acres of woods, lawns and formal gardens, in Esher, close to Claremont, from 1879 to 1892.
Charlotte had a conventional Victorian upbringing on her family’s estate at Ripple Vale in Kent. She was one of five sisters and one brother, children of Captain John Tracey William French and his wife Margaret. Her brother, John, became a field marshal and first Earl of Ypres. Her younger sister, Katherine (Harley) was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, and was one of the organisers of the Great Pilgrimage in 1913.
Charlotte often bemoaned her lack of education, stating “There were moments in my hot youth, when I would rail against Heaven for having made me a woman. What might I not have been; what might I not have done had I the freedom and intellectual advantages so largely accorded to men?”
Charlotte was married to Maximillian Despard (Max was from an Anglo-Irish family) in December 1870. They appear to have shared radical views, views on the education and employment of women, and both favoured home rule for Ireland. Charlotte and Max had no children. Max was one of the founders of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and had made his fortune in the Far East. With his encouragement Charlotte occupied herself by writing romantic novels, such as Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow (1874). Due to concern over Max’s poor health the couple spent every winter abroad, cruising in the Mediterranean or visiting India and North America.
After Max’s death in 1890, and many months of seclusion, Charlotte was introduced to the work of the Nine Elms Flower Mission by her neighbour Helen, Duchess of Albany (Queen Victoria’s widowed daughter in law). She became heavily involved with charitable work in the Nine Elms area of Battersea, funding and staffing a health clinic, organising youth and working men’s clubs, as well as running a soup kitchen for the unemployed.
Charlotte became a vegetarian and also converted to Catholicism during this time. In her own words “Vegetarianism is pre-eminently a woman’s question. It is horrible to think that women should have to handle and cook deadflesh.”
By 1892 Charlotte was living in Nine Elms, Batteresea, which enabled her greater involvement in improving the lives of residents in the local community. In this year she was elected to Kingston Board of Guardians for one year, and in 1894 she was elected to the Vauxhall Board of the Lambeth Poor-Law Union. Her engagement with charitable causes lead to increasing political awareness and she became involved in ‘left wing’ causes. She was an active as well as vocal supporter of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party.
Charlotte became a campaigner for adult suffrage for all, not just women property owners, and became an activist in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). When the WSPU moved from Manchester to London in 1906, Charlotte became a familiar figure on the platform. She had the bearing of a Victorian grande dame and a distinctive style of dress, she did not wear corsets, she took to wearing a simple black chiffon mantilla rather than the fashionable large hat, and she wore sandals rather than tight boots. Charlotte became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and together with Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst she was widely recognised as one of the leaders of the suffrage movement.
In February 1907, Charlotte was arrested during a march on the Houses of Parliament which followed the “Women’s Parliament” at Caxton Hall. Together with Emmeline Pankhurst she was sentenced to three weeks in Holloway Prison. However, a rift between the Pankhursts and Charlotte began to develop and by the spring it became clear that the WSPU’s election policy meant that the group was supporting Conservative candidates as a means of opposing the Liberals. Charlotte Despard, together with Edith How Martyn and Anne Cobden Sanderson, sent a message to the Independent Labour Party saying that they would not oppose any Labour candidates. Mrs Pankhurst repudiated this position and the stage was set for the formation of the Women’s Freedom League. The dispute came to a head in October 1907 when Mrs Pankhurst cancelled the annual conference and set up a central committee appointed by her.
Charlotte Despard, Edith How Martyn, Teresa Billington Greig, Octavia Lewin, Anna Munro and Alice Schofield decided to hold a conference regardless – they set up a new constitution and by the end of November the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) came into being. The WFL’s first campaigning tactic was the deployment of “Sandwich-Ladies” on the streets of London, wearing cardboard placards declaring “Votes for Women”. The members of this new group set out to be “constitutional militants” concentrating on “moral” tactics such tax resistance and chaining themselves to objects such as the metal grille that separated the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons. Charlotte was one of the first women to refuse to pay taxes (1908), as a protest about the status of women as citizens, an action which lead to the founding of the Women’s Tax Resistance League.
Meetings were organised across the country where Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington Greig and Victor Duval were the main speakers. In Croydon, Marion Holmes persuaded the entire local branch of the WSPU to leave and reform as a branch of the WFL. Inspired by the campaigning of Charlotte Despard, Muriel Matters joined the WFL’s campaign and their mobile educational caravan set off to bring the suffrage message to Surrey, Sussex and Kent.
The Surrey Advertiser reported on 23 May 1908 that a group of enthusiastic supporters of women’s suffrage met the previous Saturday at ‘Earnshaw Cottage’, the Esher home of Mrs Charlotte Despard. The aim of the meeting was to launch a new education campaign for the suffrage movement. Charlotte had provided the WFL with a caravan which she had purchased in Oxshott, she gave it a smart makeover, providing furnishings. Other members of the WFL donated camp-beds, lunch baskets, a kettle and maps. A number of prominent supporters of the suffrage cause had accepted Charlotte’s invitation to give the van, the first to be used in such work, a hearty send off on the 16 May 1908. This method of campaigning was particularly daring for the women taking part, showing that women could take their freedom and their message to the countryside, however they were also vulnerable but showed great strength in that they were determined to bring the campaign to the towns and villages of the county despite many a rowdy reception from the crowds they came across.
Charlotte was one of the main speakers at the first caravan stop outside the Bull Inn, Leatherhead. Following a hostile reception the WFL caravan moved on to Guildford, then Godalming and Haslemere, where crowds gathered to heckle. The Surrey Advertiser described the events surrounding their progress in full, with sympathy for the justice of women’s cause (Surrey Advertiser, 23 May and 30 May 1908).
In 1908 Charlotte together with her friend Mabel Collins wrote and published Outlawed: a novel on the Women’s Suffrage Question, based on her experiences campaigning and on her imprisonment in Holloway Gaol.
Following her arrest for leading a delegation to the Prime Minister, and subsequent release from prison, early in 1909, Charlotte continued to take to platforms across Surrey. As the elected president of the WFL she spoke in favour of Women’s Suffrage. She proved to be quite a draw for local audiences in Epsom and Woking. A local branch of the WFL was set up in Woking and Mrs Despard gave the main speech at a public meeting reported in the Surrey Advertiser on 13 February 1909. She was back in Woking in June attending a WFL garden party and fete, where she again gave a speech sharing the platform with Countess Russell and Mrs Arncliffe Sennett. During the same month she was invited to speak at a garden meeting held at ‘Stonifers’, on Reigate Hill.
Charlotte, in addition to her political campaigning and social work, gave speeches in favour of universal and women’s suffrage throughout London and the country at large. In 1910, during the run up to the census in 1911, she promoted the census boycott as a weapon to pressure the Government into passing the Conciliation Bill. She also promoted the tactic of tax resistance as another method to put pressure on the legislators. On her census form the enumerator listed Mrs Despard as resident at 2 Currie Street, Battersea, writing that she was about 70 years of age and a widow. It was noted that Mrs Despard “Refused further information – a suffragette”.
On the 18 June 1911 Charlotte took part in the Suffrage Procession at the head of the WFL’s section. In a collection of newspaper cuttings compiled by Helena Auerbach, of the Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society there are accounts of the events of this day, which also included other Surrey suffragists and suffragettes Ethel Smyth, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Helena Auerbach herself (SHC ref 3266/1). Charlotte was received with a cheer from the assembled crowds as she headed the WFL delegation bareheaded and carring a sheaf of yellow lilies. Also in that year, she became editor of The Vote, the WFL’s magazine, however, there were some moves to oust her from the leadership as some felt that she lacked focus. The majority of the executive board resigned and Charlotte retained her position as ‘de facto’ leader. Click on the images below to see larger copies.
Despite a busy schedule, Charlotte found time for her other political interests. In October 1911 she was the guest of Guildford Independent Labour Party and gave a speech outlining her views on socialism and pacifism (reported in Surrey Advertiser, 9 and 11 October). At the end of January 1912 she was the invited speaker at a public meeting on women’s suffrage organised at the Borough Hall, Godalming, attended by many local supporters of the NUWSS (Surrey Advertiser, 31 January 1912), including Lady Julia Chance, Theodora Powell, Sophia Pilcher and chaired by Councillor Munro. Later that year Charlotte headed the ‘Women’s March’, from when it left Edinburgh, to London (12 October).
When war was declared in 1914 the WFL rejected the pro-war position of their fellow suffragists in the WSPU and the NUWSS and promoted a pacifist stance. They continued with their campaigning for the vote. By 1915 Charlotte had joined the Women’s International Council, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Women’s Peace Crusade and the No-Conscription Fellowship. In April 1915 the Surrey Comet reported on a pacifistic address entitled “The War and After” that Mrs Despard gave at the Kingston Humanitarian Society (Surrey Comet, 21 April 1915). In 1917 she resigned as president of the WFL to concentrate on her work in the Women’s Peace Crusade.
In the post-war election in 1918, Charlotte stood as a Labour candidate for Battersea North but was unsuccessful, polling only 33% of the vote. She was however delighted by the victory of Constance Markievicz, the Sinn Fein candidate, a fellow suffragist campaigner.
The Parliamentary franchise was granted to all adults on equal terms, regardless of gender or wealth in July 1928 and the WFL held a victory breakfast at Hotel Cecil in London. Among the suffragists present, on her 84th Birthday, was Charlotte Despard, feted as an honoured veteran of the struggle for women’s suffrage.
Charlotte Despard died in November 1939, aged 95, after a fall at her new house, Nead-na-Gaoithe, Whitehead, near Belfast. She was buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
Contributed by Miriam Farr, volunteer for The March of the Women project.
Postcard showing ‘Mrs Despard, President, The Women’s Freedom League, 1 Robert Street, Adelphi, London, W.C.’ by M.P.C (Merchant’s Portrait Company). From an album compiled by Women’s Freedom League members Edith, Florence and Grace Hodgson (SHC ref 10065/1)
Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society scrapbook compiled by Helena Auerbach (SHC ref 3266/1)
Sales particulars for part of ‘Courtlands’, in 1877 (SHC ref SP/21/1)
Ordnance Survey map sheet XII.14: 1896, 25 inch to the mile
Surrey Advertiser newspaper, 1908-1918, on microfilm at Surrey History Centre
1911 census returns, Ancestry accessed online via Surrey Libraries at Surrey History Centre
Kathy Atherton Suffragettes, suffragists and Antis: the fight for the vote in the Surrey Hills (2017)
Diane Atkinson Rise up, Women! (2018)
Krista Cowman Women of the right spirit; paid organisers of the WSPU, 1904-1918 (2011)
Elizabeth Crawford The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (2000)
Elizabeth Crawford The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey (2006)
Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote (2014)
Jane Robinson Hearts and Minds: the untold story of the Great Pilgrimage and how the women won the vote (2018)
Leah Leneman: The Awakened Instinct: vegetarianism and the women’s suffrage movement in Britain Women’s History Review, Volume 6, Number 2, 1997
Read ‘The March of the Women’ project page about the Women’s Freedom League
Read ‘The March of the Women’ project page about women in Surrey’s Local Government, including Charlotte Despard
Margaret Mulvihill, Despard [née French], Charlotte entry in http://www.oxforddnb.com/ accessed via Surrey Libraries at https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/libraries/learning-and-research/adult-online-reference-shelf#people
Vote 100 blog about the Women’s Freedom League https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/womens-freedom-league/
For papers of Charlotte Despard held at The Women’s Library, see https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/687b92b6-978c-3580-a440-bea4001b4c32
For an online article researching the links between Suffrage and vegetarianism see https://www.vegsoc.org/comment-opinion/the-reform-diet-suffrage-and-vegetarianism/