Lady Elizabeth Edith ‘Betty’ Balfour [née Lytton] (1867 -1942)Lady Betty Balfour was a stalwart member of the women’s suffragist campaign and her family, political and social connections made her perfectly placed to assist the movement in many ways. She lived at ‘Fisher’s Hill’, Woking, and was Woking’s first female elected councillor in 1919.
Lady Betty Balfour was born at Hyde Park Gate on 12 June 1867, one of three daughters and of the Hon. Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton and his wife Edith (née Villiers). Her father was the first Earl of Lytton, a diplomat and poet (aka Owen Meredith). Betty, together with her sisters Lady Constance (b. 1869) and Lady Emily (b. 1874) were educated by governesses who travelled with the family to their father’s overseas postings, including Lisbon, Madrid and Vienna, before his posting to India in 1876 when he became Viceroy.
As a cultivated woman with family and social connections Lady Betty held strong opinions. In 1887 she married Gerald Balfour MP, the younger brother of Arthur Balfour. She was the perfect choice for an ambitious politician.
Through Gerald’s social and family contacts Lady Betty met and was influenced by the Souls. They were a group of influential members of society from aristocratic families, such as the Balfours, Lyttletons, Tennents, Wyndhams, Charteris and Manners families, who were connected by friendships, marriages, affairs and politics. Gerald’s brother, Arthur Balfour, was also a leading member of the set.
The Balfour’s daughters Lady Ruth (b.1890), Lady Eleanor (b.1891), Lady Mary Edith (b.1894) and Lady Evelyn Barbara (b.1898), were little girls at the time of the move to Woking. Lady Betty had advanced views on women’s education, as was exemplified by her encouraging all her daughters into higher education. Gerald and Betty’s son Robert Arthur Lytton Balfour, (later third earl of Balfour) (b.1902) and their youngest daughter, Lady Kathleen Constance Blanche (b.1912), were born after the move to Woking.
In 1900 Gerald and Lady Betty commissioned Edwin Lutyens (husband of Lady Betty’s sister, Emily) to design a house to be built in Hook Heath, Woking. Gertrude Jekyll designed the gardens (see ‘Fisher’s Hill’ garden plans, SHC ref. 4113/7/3-4). The light airy house suited the Balfours well and they soon moved into ‘Fisher’s Hill’ where they hosted social and musical gatherings attended by politicians of all parties and friends, such as their neighbour Dr Ethel Smyth (who lived at Brettanby Cottage, Hook Heath Road), Susan Lushington (who stayed with the Balfours in July 1905, see SHC ref 7854/4/2/315 a-b), and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
Lady Betty’s aunt Marie Teresa [Mrs C W] Earle, author of Pot-pourri from a Surrey Garden (1897) did not live far away, at ‘Woodlands’ in Cobham, and Lady Betty’s sister, the suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton, was to stay there recuperating after forcible feeding whilst on hunger-strike in prison. It is possible that Gertrude Jekyll, before taking on the design of the ‘Fisher’s Hill’ garden, was known to Lady Betty through this connection (she was also a fellow patron of The College for Lady Gardeners at Glynde).
Lady Betty and Lady Constance shared strong views in favour of women’s suffrage: Lady Betty preferring the Constitutional methods of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and Lady Constance those of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Lady Betty’s sister-in-law, Lady Frances Balfour, served on the Executive Committee of the NUWSS. Lady Frances described her sister-in-law’s action in the suffrage campaign as one of the most difficult of all tasks – that of challenging the Conservative leaders and convincing them to support the cause.
Both Lady Betty and her sister Emily Lutyens were extremely worried by their sister’s militant activities. A letter dated 24 January 1910, from Emily to Betty, described their sister’s condition and her state of health (following forcible feeding): “She is terribly thin, her face so pinched, but a good colour and I think very pretty with her short hair. Her body is like the pictures of famine people in India”. Constance (aka Jane Warton), was forcibly fed on eight occasions whilst in prison and was to spend the rest of her life suffering from prolonged ill heath as a result. In 1925 William Heineman published The Letters of Constance Lytton edited by Lady Betty Balfour. This book sheds light on Constance’s role in campaigning for women’s suffrage and her relationship with many of the leading figures of the movement such as Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, and Annie Kenney. It also reflects Lady Betty’s attitude to her sister’s treatment, when she was detained for suffragette activity.
Lady Betty was very active politically, being a member of the Primrose League. Together with the Countess of Selbourne, Alice Balfour, Lady Rayleigh, Lady Robert Cecil, Lady Edward Spencer Churchill, Lady Lockyear, the Countess of Meath, Viscountess Midleton, Lady Strachey, Constance Jones, Margaret Tuke and Louisa Twining, she helped to establish the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (CUWFA), in 1908. She became Dame President of the Woking Habitation of the Primrose League but resigned in 1910 because of the position taken by her local Conservative MP, Donald Macmaster, on the 1910 Conciliation Bill. In 1909 Betty became president of the Edinburgh Branch of the NUWSS and was also vice-president of the International Women’s Franchise Club.
Lady Betty Balfour was an active local politician, she was Woking’s first female councillor, representing the St John’s ward, elected in April 1919 (Surrey Advertiser, 5 April 1919, p.4-5). Balfour Road in Westfield was named after her rather than her famous brother-in-law, former Conservative PM, Arthur James, or indeed Gerald, her MP husband.
In 1910 the CUWFA published An Analysis of the Debate in the House of Commons on the Women’s Franchise Bill, July 11th and 12th, 1910 by Lady Betty Balfour. The pamphlet expressed Lady Betty’s own views clearly and revealed why she was well regarded by suffragists. Lady Betty had privileged access to members of the Government and her views were regarded with respect by leading politicians. She acted as a conduit through which both strands of the suffrage campaign communicated with the Government. She commented that she and Lady Selbourne often had to patch things up after the militants aggravated the Government by their actions.
Lady Betty’s family connection to prominent politicians enabled her to put the case in favour of woman suffrage to leaders in power. For example, Lady Betty wrote to Bonar Law thanking him for his promise to speak and vote for the Conciliation Bill and she expressed her regret that there was a lack of enthusiasm for the bill amongst conservative supporters of women’s suffrage. (18 February 1912, Parliamentary Archives ref BL/25/2/31).
Lady Betty was a talented musician, neighbour and friend of the composer and fellow suffragist, Ethel Smyth (although differing as to the method of campaigning, Lady Betty being a member of the NUWSS and Ethel a member of the WSPU). In her autobiographical book As Time went on Ethel Smyth describes Lady Betty as ‘my neighbour and very great friend’. Ethel wrote to Lady Betty from Holloway Prison on 6 March 1912 asking her to keep a neighbourly eye on her house whilst she was away. Part of this letter is reproduced in The Letters of Constance Lytton and displays a close friendship with Lady Betty and Lady Constance. Ethel describes the scene at the Police Court and that Constance had attended as a member of the public: ” I am thankful that she [Constance] is not here this time. The adoration of the suffragettes for “Lady Conny” is a thing to see, not tho’ to wonder at”.
On 1922 Woking News and Mail p.6 reports the Woking Musical Society’s “Dame Ethel Smyth concert to open the Season”. The programme was to include pieces from “The Boatswain’s Mate” and “Fete Galante to be conducted by Dame Ethel Smyth. Lady Betty’s daughters also attended with their celebrated Jazz band.
An archive collection of letters and photographs held at Surrey History Centre, relating to the Lushington family, reveal a close friendship as well as a shared interest in music, particularly between Lady Betty and Susan Lushington. A letter sent in 1913 (SHC ref. 7854/3/8/100), from Margaret Lushington to her father Vernon, refers to attending a musical gathering at Betty’s where a performance of a Brahms Sonata was given, “The Parry trio went well but Sue’s Handel in A was really magnificent. Betty was very pleased, I think, and at once asked if there was any other day we could come”. Margaret also wrote that “I really loved Gerald Balfour he is so kind and courteous. Another document (7854/4/45/1/150-151), written on the reverse plain side of CUWFA Woking Branch headed note paper, gives the programme for a dance at ‘Fisher’s Hill’ in 1920. There are also letters from Betty Balfour to Susan including this dated 9 September 1929 (SHC ref 7854/4/17/5/1): ‘K and I loved our time at “Kingsley” – I always think it is an enchanted spot – I should like to bring Ethel Smyth there some day’.
Lady Betty died of a perforated duodenal ulcer at ‘Fisher’s Hill’ Cottage, Woking, on 28 March 1942. Susan Lushington received a number of letters of condolence from friends following Lady Betty’s death, including this dated 5 April 1942 (SHC ref 7854/4/43/3/16) from Sybil Campbell:
“Dearest Susan I know you must be feeling sad over dear Betty Balfour’s death. Such a loss to everyone who knew her! It does seem so hard she should be the one to go not poor Gerald but I have always felt she had too many old relations to look after and must have been so tired of it all, gallant soul that she was.”
On 11 April 1942 Gerald Balfour wrote to Susan (SHC ref 7854/4/17/4/8 a-d):
“My dear Sue Thank you so much for your dear sympathy. Darling Betty was indeed a rare and radient being, and it is so hard to lose her. We were so happy together in our cottage life. Her dying before me was utterly unexpected by either of us, but I am consoled by the thought that in all probability it will shorten the interval of separation. I am leaving Fisher’s Hill early next month for Whithingham, where I hope to end my days. Dear Nellie is to be there with me”.
Contributed by Miriam Far, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer.
Books held at Surrey History Centre:
Kathy Atherton: Suffragettes, Suffragists and Antis: the fight for the vote in the Surrey hills; Cockerel Press, 2017
Diane Atkinson: Rise Up Women: the remarkable lives of the suffragettes; Bloomsbury, 2018
Betty Balfour: Letters of Constance Lytton; CUP, 2014 [originally published by Heineman as The life and letters of Lady Constance Lytton, 1925]
Elizabeth Crawford: Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide 1860-1928; Routledge, 2001
Constance Lytton & Jane Wharton, Spinster: Prisons and Prisoners: some personal experiences; Heineman, 1914
June Purvis: Christabel Pankhurst: a Biography; Routledge, 2018
Jane Ridley: The Architect and his wife: a life of Edwin Lutyens; Chatto and Windus, 2001
Ethel Smyth: As time went on: Longmans, 1936
Newspapers (accessed at Surrey History Centre):
Woking News and Mail
Archives held at Surrey History Centre:
Farrer correspondence (SHC ref 2572/-)
‘Fisher’s Hill’ garden plans by Gertrude Jekyll (SHC ref 4113/7/3-4)
Lushington Papers and correspondence: SHC refs: 7854/3/8/59, 7854/3/8/62, 7854/3/8/100, 7854/4/2/315, 7854/4/11/3/36, 7854/4/3/37, 7854/4/17/4/8, 7854/4/17/5/1, 7854/4/17/5/2, 7854/4/17/5/3, 7854/4/17/5/4, 7854/4/17/5/5, 7854/4/17/5/7, 7854/4/40/1/5, 7854/4/43/3/16, 7854/4/45/1/150-151, 7854/4/43/16/38
Photograph album compiled by Susan Lushington (SHC ref 7854/4/4/47/3/10)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for: Balfour [nee Lytton], Elizabeth Edith [Betty], Countess of Balfour by Claire Percy; Balfour, Arthur James, first earl of Balfour by Ruddock Mackay and H C G Matthew; Balfour [nee Campbell], Lady Frances, suffragist, leader and churchwoman by Joan B Huffman; Balfour, Gerald William, second earl of Balfour by Janet Oppenheim; Lytton, Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer; Lytton, Robert Edward Bulwer, first earl of Lytton [pseud. Owen Meredith] by David Washbrook.
Letters from Betty Balfour in the Bonor Law papers held in the Parliamentary Archives:
Lady Betty corresponded with Bonar Law about the Guildford ‘memorial’ (i.e. testimonial), to accompany the Electoral Reform Bill, June 1917, which was to be presented to the House of Lords (according to Parliamentary Archives catalogue). The memorial is referred to in a letter to Countess Onslow from Mrs Mary Stocks, NUWSS, (see SHC ref G173/149/1-4), asking her to sign it as one of 500 prominent working women. Countess Onslow, however, was apparently disinterested in politics and is not known to have had an opinion on women’s suffrage.
Who was Who volumes
Hook Heath Residents’ Association page on historic residents
Suffragette Stories, Betty Balfour
Iain Wakeford articles on Woking history
Global university library catalogues online
British Census records
Other publications not held at SHC:
Mitzi Auchterlonie: Conservative Suffragists: the women’s vote and the Tory Party; Taurus, 2007
Mitzi Auchterlonie: “To work for Women’s Enfranchisement by educative and constitutional methods consistent with Unionist principles” The quiet campaign of the Conservative & Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, 1908-1914; Conservative History Journal, Issue 7, Winter 2008
Lady Betty Balfour: An analysis of the debate in the House of Commons on the Women’s Franchise Bill, July 11th and 12th 1910; Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, 1910
Lady Betty Balfour: The Two Ideals; Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, 1912
Beatrix Campbell: Iron Ladies: why do women vote Tory? Hachette, 1987
Sydney and Beatrice Webb: The Letters of Sydney and Beatrice Webb; Volume 2, Partnership; edited by Norman Mackenzie; CUP, 2008