• March of the Women

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)

Image of Eleanor ('Nora') Mildred Sidgwick (née Balfour) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), 1900s (© National Portrait Gallery, London, under license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/)

Eleanor (‘Nora’) Mildred Sidgwick (née Balfour) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), 1900s (© National Portrait Gallery, London, under license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/)

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (nèe Balfour) was a remarkable woman. As well as Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, President of the Society for Psychical Research, and one of the first women to be appointed to a Royal Commission, she was also one of the early suffragists. Following her retirement as Principal of Newnham College, she moved to ‘Fisher’s Hill’, Woking, to live with her brother, Gerald Balfour, and his wife Betty, a fellow suffragist. She died at Fisher’s Hill on 10 February 1936.

Eleanor [Nora] was the eldest child of James Maitland Balfour MP and his wife Lady Blanche. Nora’s brothers were Arthur James and Gerald William Balfour, both politicians; the biologist Francis Maitland Balfour (died whilst climbing Mont Blanc in 1882) and the architect Eustace James Anthony Balfour (went into partnership with Hugh Thackeray Turner in 1885). Her sisters were Evelyn Georgina (became Lady Rayleigh after her marriage to John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh of Terling Place) and Alice Blanche (never married, was a pioneer in the study of genetics, an entomologist, naturalist and scientific illustrator). Lady Blanche had encouraged her children in their education, in particular her daughters. Following her husband’s death in 1856 she ensured that all her children received independent fortunes from his estate. Nora was educated at home to a very high standard and was given advanced teaching in mathematics and Euclidian geometry for which she showed a natural talent. Lady Blanche died in 1872 after a prolonged illness, during which time Nora, as the eldest daughter, had to ensure the smooth running of three large Balfour households.

At some point during the late 1860s or early 1870s Nora became aware of the suffrage cause and began to attend meetings. Years later she commented to a meeting of the Cambridge Branch of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (23 May 1913), about the challenges regarding the early days of the movement, particularly the ridicule and lack of interest in the issues raised by the suffragists of the 1860s and 1870s amongst the political establishment and the press of the day.

Image of Henry Sidgwick, 1876 (Courtesy of Dr Hortense Geninet)

Henry Sidgwick, 1876 (Courtesy of Dr Hortense Geninet)

In 1875 Nora moved to Cambridge with her brother Arthur, where she carried out research measuring electricity in collaboration with her brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, who was professor in experimental physics. The results of her research were later published by the Royal Society as three papers she co-authored with Lord Rayleigh. Nora also taught mathematics at the newly founded women’s college Newnham and was influential in promoting the higher education of women. At this time her brother Arthur was studying philosophy under Professor Henry Sidgwick, with whom they shared a mutual interest in the paranormal. Both Arthur and Nora attended séances in the company of Professor Sidgwick.

Henry Sidgwick was the first President of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and as an influential academic he gave the organisation credibility. His presidency saw the introduction of Nora Sidgwick, Arthur and Gerald Balfour, and Lord Rayleigh to the SPR. Nora and Henry spent considerable time during university vacations carrying out investigations into ghost sightings or attending international conferences on the paranormal on behalf of the SPR. They carried out a series of investigations on hallucinations and these were collated and written up, mainly by Nora, later being published in the Report on the Census of Hallucinations by H. Sidgwick, A. Johnson, F.W.H. Myers, F. Podmore and E.M. Sidgwick. The statistical analysis and methods applied during the research reflected Nora’s skill in handling the large quantities of data collected from 17,000 individuals.

A shared interest in the promotion of women’s education and in paranormal phenomena led to her marriage with Henry Sidgwick in 1876. Her family and friends were delighted, as the couple were well suited with shared interests, they both continued with their working lives. Although the marriage proved to be childless, it seemed to be a model partnership between two working people with compatible interests and social circles.

The Newnham College Company was founded in 1875 by Henry Sidgwick and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Nora became a member of the council and treasurer to the college (a role she held until her death), having been approached by Professor Henry Sidgwick to help. During her lifetime she contributed around £30,000 of her own money towards the project. She is credited with having established the strong financial basis on which the future development and expansion of Newnham College depends. She was also mindful of the fact that not all women could afford to avail themselves of educational opportunities and established scholarships for poorer students. Her enlightened views and financial acumen helped Newnham College establish research scholarships and to set up a staff pension scheme.

In 1880 Nora was appointed as vice-principal of Newnham College. Anne Jemima Clough was the first principal of the college and Nora followed her in this role in 1891 and continued in this capacity until 1910 when she retired.

Initially Nora and Henry lived in rooms at the college (Sidgwick Hall) during term time, enabling them to become involved in the life of the college and in maintaining links with like-minded friends. Later, when Nora became principal, they lived in what is now the Pfeiffer building.

Nora was a campaigner for the right of women to access further education as well for women having a right to a career outside the home. She presided over a meeting of the Women’s Institute council at 15 Grosvenor Crescent reported in The Times on 7 November 1899. This organisation was founded by Mrs Leonora Philipps in 1897, being the academic and professional branch of the Grosvenor Crescent Club and should not be confused with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. Other council members present included Mrs Wynford Philipps (Leonora Philipps was married to a Liberal politician John Wynford Philipps MP), Viscountess Harberton, Dowager Lady Westbury, Hon Mrs Arthur Lyttelton, Hon Mrs Bertrand Russell, Lady Montagu and Mary Kingsley, to name a few.

Nora, together with Lucy Caroline Cavendish [Lady Frederick Cavendish] and Sophie Bryant, were the first three women to be appointed to a Royal Commission in England. The Royal Commission on Secondary Education, under the chairmanship of James Bryce, was set up in the 1860s and became known as the Bryce Report when its findings were published in 1895. This report formed the basis for the administration and education of both boys and girls in the country.

The Pall Mall Gazette of the 27 April 1892 lists Mrs Henry Sidgwick together with Lady Frances Balfour, Lady Matheson, Lady Rayleigh, Lady Maude Wolmer, Mrs Leonard Courtney, Miss Courtney, Mrs Culme Seymour, Miss Davenport Hill, Mrs Fawcett, Mrs Penrose, Mrs Temple and Mrs Westlake, as the committee arranging a “Conversazione” for those interested in the Women’s Suffrage Bill, at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in Piccadilly. On 3 February 1897, The Dundee Advertiser reported that Mrs Henry Sidgwick was a signatory to a letter sent to all Members of Parliament requesting that they support the ‘Parliamentary Franchise Extension to Women’ Bill which was to come before the House of Commons that day.

Henry died of cancer in August 1900 at the home of his brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, at Terling Place, near Witham in Essex. He is buried in the Strutt family plot in the churchyard there. Even after his death, Nora continued to spend much of her spare time with her work for the Society for Psychical Research and investigating the paranormal. She became a member of their council and later honorary secretary; she also became president in 1908-9 and 1932-3.

Photograph of Lady Betty Balfour, Nelly (Eleanor) Balfour and Mrs Sedgwick [Nora Sidgwick] at ‘Fisher’s Hill’, 1903, from Susan Lushington’s photograph album (SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/10 p.21)

Photograph of Lady Betty Balfour, Nelly (Eleanor) Balfour and Mrs Sedgwick [Nora Sidgwick] at ‘Fisher’s Hill’, 1903, from Susan Lushington’s photograph album (SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/10 p.21)

Nora was not a militant suffragist, she believed that the campaign for the vote would be successful if the campaigners used more subtle methods. Like her sisters-in-law, Lady Betty and Lady Frances Balfour, she used her family and social connections to lobby constantly for the extension of the parliamentary franchise to women on the same basis as for men. The Times carried a number of reports of Nora’s involvement in this lobbying work, including a report on the 22 June 1910 ‘The Government and Women’s Suffrage’, in which she was named as one of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) representatives in a joint deputation consisting of the NUWSS, Women’s Liberal Federation and the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation, to put the case for extension of the parliamentary franchise to women to the Prime Minister:

“It is heartbreaking that such things should be done in a good cause – and it is especially hard for women to bear because it hurts their pride in their own sex. They have to see not only their country injured, and the cause of women’s suffrage, in whose name these things are done, retarded, but they have to see the reputation of their sex for good sense and sober judgment dragged in the mud. This is most serious – indeed, I think the only serious set-back our movement has had.”

Commenting on the increasing number of educated women finding roles in the community and outside in the workplace she observed that this had a profound influence on the views of both men and women regarding the female franchise.

She welcomed the merging of pioneer women’s suffrage societies with the NUWSS allowing the movement to grow, believing that the potential setbacks brought about by militant action were a rallying call to the non-militants to redouble the effort to effect change through non-militant means.

Nora did not participate in the boycott of the 1911 census and is recorded with members of her household at 1 Grange Terrace, Cambridge. She is the head of household and it is noted that she was the retired Principal of Newnham College (actually the Treasurer of Newnham College).

Following her retirement as principal of Newnham College, Nora continued to take role in the administration and life of the college. She remained as treasurer to the college and as a member of the college council. Common Cause reported the retirement on 23 June 1910.
Nora advocated that women should have the parliamentary franchise in the interest of fairness but also because it would help improve conditions for women in the workplace. Her opinions were published in Common Cause on 24 January 1913, “An important reason why women should have the parliamentary franchise is the large number earning their own living and the growing tendency of parliament to interfere directly and indirectly with conditions of employment. Women’s interests may often be different from those of men and should be represented.”

During 1915-1916 she moved to Fisher’s Hill, Woking, to live with her brother Gerald Balfour and his wife, Betty. Nora continued to be actively involved with the affairs of Newnham Collage and remained in touch with her many friends and former students in Cambridge.

The publication of an anti-suffrage manifesto during the second half of 1916 attracted a strongly worded response from one group of suffrage supporters, including Nora. The reply published in Common Cause on 24 November 1916 was signed by many of Surrey’s suffrage campaigners, including Lady Julia Chance, Beatrice Webb and Lady Betty Balfour.

In 1921, a celebration was held in Cambridge to mark fifty years since the founding of Newnham College. The Vote (publication of the Women’s Freedom League, edited by Surrey resident, Charlotte Despard), reported on 5 August 1921 that following the loyal toast to the King, a toast to the health of Mrs Henry Sidgwick, Principal from 1892 to 1911, was given in tribute to her long career promoting women’s education and her commitment to Newnham College.

During the 1930s Nora’s health was deteriorating, although in a letter dated 13 March 1935, Gerald Balfour wrote of Nora to a family friend, Susan Lushington: “Aunt Nora was 90 last Monday. Wonderful woman! So far as mere health goes she still flourishes like a green bay tree. Her feebleness increases but she might live a long time yet” (SHC ref 7854/4/17/4/7).

Nora died at Fisher’s Hill on the 10 February 1936 at the age of 91 and The Times published a notice regarding arrangements for the funeral and memorial services on the 13 February: “Mrs Henry Sidgwick’s funeral will take place privately at Lord Rayleigh’s home, Terling, tomorrow. There will be a memorial service the same day in London at St Colomba’s, Pont St at 3pm. A memorial service will be held, by permission of the Master and Fellows, in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on Saturday February 15 at 2.30pm.”

The Surrey Advertiser published an obituary on the 15 February 1936, headlined ‘Pioneer of Higher Education; Death of Mrs Henry Sidgwick’. The Woking News and Mail carried an obituary on the 14 February 1936.

Image of letter from Lady Betty Balfour to Susan Lushington re death of Nora Sidgwick, with the Order of Service, Feb 1936 (SHC ref 7854/4/17/5/8 a-c)

Letter from Lady Betty Balfour to Susan Lushington re death of Nora Sidgwick, with the Order of Service, Feb 1936 (SHC ref 7854/4/17/5/8)

Nora’s sister-in-law, Lady Betty Balfour, wrote of Nora’s death to her friend Susan Lushington: “The end came so quietly and so gradually with no pain or distress…It was more of a shock to G [Gerald] than I expected and has shaken him a good deal”. A copy of the Order of Service was enclosed (SHC ref 7854/4/17/5/8).

Nora was buried near Henry in the Strutt family plot in the churchyard of All Saints, Terling, Essex.

An extended version of the research can be read here (pdf ( PDF )).

Contributed by Miriam Farr, volunteer for The March of the Women project.


Items relating to Eleanor Sidgwick in the Susan Lushington correspondence at Surrey History Centre, including:

Letter from Gerald Balfour to Susan Lushington re 90th birthday of his sister, Eleanor Sidgwick (SHC ref 7854/4/17/4/7)
Lady Betty Balfour, Nelly (Eleanor) Balfour and Mrs Sedgwick [Sidgwick] at “Fisher’s Hill” 1903, from Susan Lushington’s photograph album (SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/10 page 21)
Letter from Betty Balfour to Susan Lushington re death of her sister in law, Eleanor, and Order of Service for her funeral (SHC ref 7854/4/17/5/8 a-c)
Formal Letter from Eleanor to Susan Lushington with her signature, 21 Apr 1934 (SHC ref 7854/4/17/1/1 a-b)

Published sources
Rodney Bolt. As Good as God as clever as the Devil; the impossible life of Mary Benson, Atlantic, 2011
Ros Black. A Talent for Humanity; the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset, Anthony Rowe Publications, 2010
‘The Progress of the Women’s Suffrage Movement: An address to the Cambridge branch of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association at their annual meeting on May 23 1913’; Mrs Henry Sidgwick, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, 1913
Woking News and Mail on microfilm
Surrey Advertiser on microfilm

Online sources
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed online via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf at Surrey History Centre
British Newspaper Archive accessed online via Surrey Libraries at Surrey History Centre
Times Digital Archive accessed online via Surrey Libraries at Surrey History Centre
Gale Vault, accessed online via Surrey Libraries at Surrey History Centre
Ancestry, accessed via Surrey Libraries at Surrey History Centre
Newnham College https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/biographies/; portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889, Newnham College, University of Cambridge
Mother’s Role, a Daughter’s Duty: Lady Blanche Balfour, Eleanor Sidgwick, and Feminist Perspectives; Janet Oppenheim; Journal of British Studies, Volume 34 no 2; April 1995, pp. 196-232 https://www.jstor.org/stable/175929?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Taisha Abraham. Women’s writings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: short stories. 2013
University of Edinburgh, blog ‘From Séance to Science: Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick’, 2017, https://koestlerunit.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/from-seance-to-science-eleanor-mildred-sidgwick/
Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, entry for Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sidgwick-eleanor-mildred-balfour1845-1936
A guide to the whereabouts of papers relating to Eleanor Sidgwick can be found online at The National Archives https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/c/F42080
Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019, Blog: The Ladies Dining Society https://akennedysmith.com/2019/05/12/eleanor-sidgwicks-hidden-figures/
‘Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage at the Corn Exchange,1909’, on Lost Cambridge website https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/cambridge-association-for-womens-suffrage-at-the-corn-exchange-1909/
Women’s Suffrage Collection at Manchester Central Library Digital Collections (Ref. M50/3/3/1-13 – Printed Papers Relating to Degrees for Women, c.1880-1896) http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/womens_suffrage_mcl_parts_1_and_2/Detailed-Listing-Part-2.aspx
References to Eleanor Sidgwick in the LSE Library Archive https://archives.lse.ac.uk/Overview.aspx and Women’s Library Digital Library collection https://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/search?q=Sidgwick
Dr Hortense Geninet, http://www.henrysidgwick.com/index.html

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