• March of the Women

Lady Henry Somerset (1851-1921)

Temperance Reformer and Suffragist

Lady Henry Somerset
(SHC ref PH122/1/159)

In 1913 Lady Henry Somerset topped a poll for the woman people would like to have as the first female prime minister. She was both feisty and compassionate, always giving of herself to better the lives of others.

Isabel Somers-Cocks was the eldest daughter of Charles, 3rd Earl Somers, whose estates centred on Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire, Somers Town, London, and Reigate, Surrey. Following an unhappy marriage to Lord Henry Somerset, Isabel found herself shunned by much of the high society into which she had been born. But this gave her a unique empathy with those whom society judged harshly. She developed a new role in life as a social reformer and temperance leader. She became a highly respected orator and campaigner and an expert in the field of care for inebriate women. She even set up her own ‘farm colony’ at Duxhurst, Surrey, to help such women back onto their feet and claimed a success rate of around 70 per cent.

As President of the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA), Lady Henry Somerset had a platform from which to promote her views. She visited the United States on many occasions, becoming friendly with Frances Willard, the American temperance leader. She enthusiastically embraced the attitude that temperance campaigning should include all issues which affected women, including drugs, prostitution, gambling and women’s suffrage.

Industrial Farm Village, Duxhurst. Lady Henry Somerset’s Cottage
(SHC ref 8511/77/14)

But this irritated some of the executive council of the BWTA and ultimately led to an acrimonious split in the Association’s ranks. It wasn’t that those within the Association who opposed her were necessarily against women having the vote, it was more that they felt that the suffrage issue should be separated from that of temperance.

Lady Henry’s views were passionately held and expressed but she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette. She dearly believed in the cause but not in violent and dramatic protests: “Women will not succeed [in obtaining the vote] until they combine, and if women who are interested in both parties united to work no more in political life until woman was legitimately recognised, one or other of the great political factions would give way. To my mind this is a more seemly method, and more efficacious, than any demonstrations that can be held.”  So argued Lady Henry Somerset in The London Daily News, 1906.

Industrial Farm Village, Duxhurst. The Embroidery Room (SHC ref 8511/77/16)

It is clear that many women found their voices through campaigning for temperance. Lady Henry organised training in public speaking, administrative skills and drafting that important ‘amendment to the amendment’. She encouraged the members of the BWTA to petition their MPs to promote women’s suffrage legislation and to make use of their vote in municipal elections.

Lady Henry Somerset used her high profile to promote many causes, but at the heart of all she did was the fundamental belief that women had such an important role in keeping house and home together that they deserved a political voice. She died in 1921 and at her funeral Mass wreaths were sent by Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra. By her dedication to the welfare of others, Lady Henry had not only captured the hearts of working class women but had also won back the esteem of high society.

Contributed by Ros Black, author, for The March of the Women project.

A Talent for Humanity by Ros Black

Sources

Copies of A Talent for Humanity – the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset can be purchased priced £9.99
Ros Black website
Lady Somerset Speaks Out
Surrey History Centre holds records relating to Lady Henry Somerset’s ownership of Reigate Priory (SHC ref CC978/-)
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Lady Henry Somerset (1923)
Lady Henry Somerset, Beauty for Ashes (1913)

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