• March of the Women

Margaret Chorley Crosfield (1859-1952)

Suffragist, Geologist and Quaker of Reigate

Family photograph of “Aunt Margaret” (Margaret Chorley Crosfield), from the Crosfield family history by John Crosfield, 1980 (ISBN 0 9507340 2 0). (Courtesy of Joyce Crosfield)

Family photograph of “Aunt Margaret” (Margaret Chorley Crosfield), from the Crosfield family history by John Crosfield, 1980 (ISBN 0 9507340 2 0). (Courtesy of Joyce Crosfield)

Margaret Chorley Crosfield was Honorary Secretary of the Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society. She was also a Fellow of the Geologists’ Association, Secretary of the Holmesdale Natural History Club and a Quaker.

Margaret Chorley Crosfield was born in 1859, the daughter of Joseph Crosfield and his second wife, Sarah (m.1854). Joseph and Sarah moved to Reigate from Liverpool in 1855, together with the children of his first marriage to Elizabeth Backhouse (d.1852, after childbirth). Joseph (b.1821) was a prosperous tea merchant and one of the founding partners in the company Harrisons and Crosfield.

Joseph was a prominent member of the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends, participating in establishing new Meetings overseas, advocacy for the Society, and in the administration of the Friends’ charitable projects. He had married Elizabeth Backhouse in 1847 and together they had four children, James Backhouse (b.1848 d.1928), George Theodore (b.1849), Albert Joseph (b.1852) and Josephine (b.1851, she became the wife of Joseph Gundry Alexander). Following Elizabeth’s death, Joseph married her cousin, Sarah Swartbridge Lowe (d.1861), and they had three children, Sarah Elizabeth (b.1855) Herbert (b.1856) and Margaret Chorley. In a memoir of Albert Joseph Crosfield, 1852-1931, written by his wife, Gulielma, she recorded that Sarah had been a dearly loved and excellent mother to the family until her death in 1861 (SHC library collection).

All four of Joseph’s sons were educated at Bootham School in York. Margaret was also educated in York, at the Mount School. Both these schools were founded on Quaker principles to provide a good education for the sons and daughters of members of the Society of Friends.

Joseph Crosfield and his young family moved to ‘The Dingle’, Reigate, a substantial property with extensive grounds, within easy walking distance of Reigate Station and the countryside at Wray Common. The 1850s had seen the arrival of wealthy and prominent Friends in the town, such as the Crosfields and the Mays, and as a result William Beck, a highly regarded Quaker architect, was engaged to draw up plans for a new Meeting House. Joseph commuted daily to his office in London but was usually home by 4.30pm to spend time with his children. They enjoyed walking and all developed a lifelong passion for natural history, ornithology, botany and geology as a result of the freedom they had to explore the local countryside.

Margaret and geology

After Margaret left the Mount School in York, she began her studies at Newnham College, Cambridge (1878/9). She had to take a period of leave due to illness possibly brought about by the death of her father in 1879 but returned to her studies in 1888/9. Joseph Crosfield was buried in the Society of Friends Burial Ground in Reigate. He left his family well provided for as shown in a will and codicil, together with a record of probate dated 26 April 1876, held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 2736/11/1). Each of the younger children, including Margaret were given £8200 in trust. This left her with sufficient financial resource to independently fund her research without the need to work for a living.

The delay proved to be advantageous to Margaret’s career as she met her lifelong friends and colleagues Ethel Woods (née Skeat), Ethel Shakespear (née Wood), Gertrude Elles and Mary Sophia Johnston, who were also studying in the Earth Science department. Margaret was granted a special dispensation to study only Earth Sciences rather than the full Natural Science Tripos. Professors Charles Lapworth, Thomas McKenny Hughes and John Edward Marr encouraged Margaret and Ethel Woods to undertake fieldwork and research with the aim of improving understanding of stratigraphy of the Lower Palaeozoic. This research required meticulous attention to detail, working to find and classify palaeontological specimens, and was an area of research deemed by the male geological establishment as being particularly suitable for women.

Margaret resumed her academic work in 1888/9 and continued to be actively engaged in research in the field, together with the friends she had made whilst at Newnham. She clearly wished to be taken seriously as a geologist and palaeontologist as her involvement in many learned societies indicates. It is also interesting to note that some of her meticulous field notes for the British Geological Survey were made on the back of suffragist notepaper.

After studying at Newnham Margaret returned to ‘The Dingle’ to live with her brothers, James and Herbert but she and James moved to ‘Undercroft’, Raglan Road, Reigate, sometime after Herbert’s marriage to Mabel Frith in 1904 (daughter of the photographer Francis Frith, also a member of the Reigate Meeting). Albert Joseph and his wife Gulielma were also living nearby at Carr End, Doods Road, Reigate.

The stand against the inequality of women as professional members

In 1894 Margaret was elected into the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association). It is worth noting that Margaret opposed fellow member’s prejudice against female participation within this Society. On the 10 Feb 1914, following the organisation of the 1914 Annual Australian meeting, David Rivett asserted, that “ladies cannot go on geological excursions: these may be rough, wet and arduous” (David Rivett to O J R Howarth, 10 Feb; Bodleian Library Ref: Dep. BAAS 234, fol. 205). Margaret complained of discrimination and his response to was incomprehension with the observation that “we have no ill feeling towards ladies as such” (on the 28 May 1914; Adolph Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science, A C D Rivett papers Ref: MS 83/31, 3-5).

Margaret and her colleagues joined The Geological Society of London (founded 1825), an exclusive club open to members which after 1904, began to admit visitors, including women, if they had been introduced by a Fellow. From 1907, a decision was taken to admit women as Associates provided they had distinguished themselves as geological investigators, or had submitted original research to the Society. Women were allowed to use the facilities of the Society on the payment of a one guinea subscription. Membership gave their work academic recognition. It is telling, however, that female associates were able to attend meetings but did not have the right to vote. It was not until after the first women were able to vote in Parliamentary elections that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was passed which removed the legal barriers to admitting women as Fellows. The first cohort of eight female fellows were admitted on the 21 May 1919 with Margaret Chorley Crosfield and her colleagues Mary Sophia Johnston (of 90 Wimbledon Hill SW19), and Ethel Gertrude Woods (née Skeat), among them.

Margaret also joined the Geological Association (founded in 1857), in 1892. It was a more inclusive organisation than the Geological Society as it allowed both women and amateur geologists to join from the beginning. Margaret was elected a member of the Association’s council in 1899 and was librarian from 1919-1923. She published three papers of note under the auspices of the Geological Association collaborating with Ethel Skeat and Mary Sophia Johnston.

Possibly Margaret Crosfield in Godstone Hearthstone Quarry, taken by Mary S. Johnston, 16 June 1900, for Surrey Photographic Record (SHC ref 7828/2/71/1)

Possibly Margaret Crosfield in Godstone Hearthstone Quarry, taken by Mary S. Johnston, 16 June 1900, for Surrey Photographic Record
(SHC ref 7828/2/71/1)

Margaret was also interested in the geology of Surrey and in 1899 and 1911 she led field excursions for the Geologists’ Association to sites around Reigate. A photograph in the Surrey Photographic Record taken by her friend Mary Sophia Johnston in June 1900 may well be of a visit by both women to the Godstone Hearthstone Quarry (SHC ref 7828/2/71/1). The photograph is similar to others taken by Mary of Margaret during their research in Shropshire, published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association; Vol XXV. Margaret contributed the chapter on the geology of Surrey to Charles Edgar Salmon’s Flora of Surrey which was published in 1931.

Margaret and her brothers were members of the Holmesdale Natural History Club, which, founded in 1857, is one of the oldest natural history societies in the country. James, Albert and Margaret were all committee members; James served two terms as president of the society; Albert was secretary for a while and also served a term as president and Margaret was secretary from 1907 for many years. The Proceedings of the Holmesdale Natural History Club, 1902-1909, contain many references to the family’s involvement in the Club’s activities (SHC ref 4446/1-2). Margaret led excursions to study local geology and palaeontology. James gave talks on a total Solar Eclipse and led walks to study local flora and ornithology. Albert spoke on Californian flora and birds. In 1919 James also helped to secure the future of the club by presenting two adjacent cottages which now house the library and collections of the Club.

Margaret Crosfield and the campaign for women’s suffrage

Margaret was an active campaigner for women’s suffrage, both as Honorary Secretary of the Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society (a branch of the NUWSS), and as a member of the Friends’ League for Women’s Suffrage.

The Crosfield family were in favour of women’s suffrage and Gulielma’s mother, Hannah Wallis, had signed the 1866 petition. In November 1883, the family entertained the temperance and social reformer Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant and Miss Caroline Biggs in March 1867; Caroline had also signed the 1866 women’s suffrage petition, and in 1870, became editor of The Englishwoman’s Review. That same evening, the women spoke at a meeting in Reigate Public Hall hosted by Margaret’s father, Joseph Crosfield.

A branch of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in Reigate in 1906, it seems likely that Margaret became a member then. Ruth Pym was the first branch secretary. By 1909, this local Society had affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and became the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage (RRWSS).

Margaret’s interest in the role of women in society had led her to the women’s suffrage cause and she soon became active in the RRWSS. Helena Auerbach was the president and Margaret was honorary secretary from 1913. This involvement led to speaking engagements in support of the Conciliation Bill locally and further afield in Surrey. On 6 May 1909, Common Cause reported that Margaret spoke on behalf of the local society to welcome delegates from the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, at a meeting held at The Priory, Reigate, by the kind invitation of Lady Katherine Somerset. At the RRWSS AGM held on 24 May 1909, Margaret took the chair and in her opening speech spoke of the great loss sustained by suffragists as a result of the death of one of the movements’ famous advocates, the Surrey resident and novelist, George Meredith. Margaret also attended meetings elsewhere in the county, such as one reported in Common Cause on 11 January 1912, where Margaret presided over a meeting in support of the Conciliation Bill held in Horley, on 15 December 1911, at which an amendment regarding the economic position of women was also passed. During the Great Pilgrimage of July 1913, Margaret gave a speech in support of the cause at a meeting of the RRWSS at Roydene.

Margaret donated funds to the campaigning activities of the NUWSS, including to the Procession Fund in June 1911 (Common Cause, 20 July 1911), towards Special Campaigns (Common Cause, 12 December 1913), towards Election Fighting Fund (Common Cause, 27 June 1912), towards the Albert Hall Meeting (Common Cause, 5 November 1912), and towards the Women’s MP’s Fund (Common Cause, 3 Jan 1919), to name but a few.

Margaret continued her activism within the local society after the onset of the First World War. She is reported in Common Cause as the hostess of a public meeting for members and Friends of RRWSS at which Mrs Rackham spoke on the subject of “Women’s Work in Wartime” and Mrs Auerbach spoke on “The work of our society in Reigate and Redhill” (15 Jan 1915).

Margaret was supported in her pro-suffrage activities by her brothers, who all responded generously to appeals for donations by the NUWSS. On 29 June 1911 Common Cause reported that James Backhouse Crosfield contributed to the funding of special work in support of the Conciliation Bill. Margaret’s sister-in-law, Gulielma Crosfield, published a substantial tract Friends and the Women’s Movement (1911), in which she opposes the militancy which was emerging in the suffrage movement, saying that the aim of equal suffrage for men and women could be achieved through peaceful means.

Margaret and Gulielma were active in the Friends’ League for Women’s Suffrage, with Gulielma becoming president. The membership of the Quaker movement was not universally behind the fight for women’s suffrage despite the movement’s long history of acknowledging the equality of men and women.

The Quaker journal, British Friend, carried little mention of the issues surrounding women’s suffrage, however a debate around the issues did find its way into the pages of another journal, The Friend, following the publication of a contentious article by Harold Marsh in 1912 (no.179), in which he claimed that the unequal participation of women in the public life of the Society was brought about by the inherent nature of women because there were no inherent barriers to women’s equality. Some correspondence countering this view of the role of women was published including a response from Margaret Crosfield, who challenged the pervasive habit of treating the male as the norm and singling out women for their difference. She wrote “[Have] men Friends … in their dealings with and their attitude towards women, really ‘shaken off the effects of tradition, custom and training’ acquired in the wider world outside the church?” (The Friend; 52 (1912): 870). In May 1913, Margaret Crosfield gave the address at the first Annual General Meeting of the Friends’ League for Women’s Suffrage at Devonshire House, Bishopsgate (reported in Common Cause 23 May 1913). The same edition also gave notice that there would be a meeting with tea and speeches organised by the Friends’ League for Women’s Suffrage on the 27 May, at the Ideal Restaurant, to which all members of the Society of Friends were invited.

In 1915 Margaret along with other local activists probably agreed with the observation made by Gulielma in a letter to the editor of The Friend, that the campaigning by women’s suffrage organisations had to be postponed as women needed to focus on serving their nation “the country now makes new demands on every one of its citizens, demands which perhaps were never before so important and so urgent. If we do not respond, not only individually but collectively, we come short of a manifest duty.” (The Friend, 17 September 1915).

In June 1918 Margaret wrote to Lord Farrer of Abinger, a pro-suffrage Liberal MP concerning the ‘gross injustices between husband and wife’ regarding taxation and payments (which she describes as ‘incidental expenses incurred by the possession of an unpaid housekeeper – ‘a species of slave’; SHC ref 2572/1/75/100).

Letter from Margaret Crosfield to Lord Farrer, regarding taxation of women workers, written on Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society headed paper, June 1918 (SHC Ref: 2572/1/75/100)

Letter from Margaret Crosfield to Lord Farrer, regarding taxation of women workers, written on Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society headed paper, June 1918
(SHC Ref: 2572/1/75/100)

The Crosfields and local public life

Margaret and her brothers also participated in local public life. Herbert served as a Reigate councillor for 37 years, from 1901. He was an alderman and mayor of Reigate, from 1921, and he was also a Justice of the Peace. In 1937 he was made a Freeman of the Borough of Reigate. James, in addition to his business partnership in Harrisons and Crosfield, put considerable energy into his work in the Society of Friends, he was active in the Friends Temperance League and for fifty years he ran the Reigate Band of Hope. James served as chairman of the Reigate Elementary Education Committee and served on the committee of the Friends’ School at Saffron Walden. James also was a major local benefactor funding the establishing of a public swimming baths in Reigate. Albert was also a borough councillor. Margaret, who had a lifelong interest in education, served on the Reigate Borough Council Education Committee and was a governor of Reigate Girls County School.

Margaret Chorley Crosfield never married and died in 19532, aged 93. Mary Sophia Johnston was an executrix of Margaret’s will.

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

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


Surrey History Centre Library Collection

Ordnance Survey 25” to the mile XXIV:15 1871, 1896, 1914 and 1933
David Butler, Quaker Meeting Houses of Britain, Vol 2, 1999
Beryl Williams, Quakers in Reigate, 1655-1955
Charles Edgar Salmon, Flora of Surrey, 1931
Elizabeth Crawford, The women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey, 2006

Archive Sources

Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society branch scrapbook, c.1908-c.1913 (SHC ref 3266/1)
Reigate and Redhill Borough Jubilee photograph album, 1911, Albert Crosfield (SHC ref 6529/22)
Reigate and Redhill Borough Jubilee photograph album, 1913, Herbert Crosfield (SHC ref 6918/1/4/4)
Will and probate for Joseph Crosfield (SHC ref 2736/11/1)
Letter from Margaret Crosfield to Lord Farrer, regarding taxation of women workers, written on Reigate and Redhill Women’s Suffrage Society headed paper, June 1918 (SHC Ref: 2572/1/75/100)
Letter from Herbert Crosfield to Lord Farrer, re Reigate Liberal Association, 3 Apr 1930 (SHC ref 2572/1/90)
Proceedings of the Holmesdale Natural History Club, 1902-1909 (SHC ref 4446/1-2)
Surrey Photographic Record, view of Godstone Hearthstone Quarry taken by Mary S. Johnston, 16 June 1900 (SHC ref 7828/2/71/1)

Online Sources

UK Census Records 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1900 and 1911, on Ancestry accessed at Surrey History Centre, via Surrey Libraries
Common Cause and Surrey Mirror, on British Newspaper Archive online via Surrey Libraries
Cynthia V Burek, ‘The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London’, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317, 373-407, 21 August 2009
Obituary for Joseph Backhouse Crosfield, The Times, 12 May 1928 , via GaleVault
Geological Society Blog https://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/2019/06/18/100-years-of-female-fellows-margaret-crosfield/
Letters from Gondwana, Forgotton Women of Paleontology: the Newnham Quartet https://paleonerdish.wordpress.com/tag/margaret-crosfield/
Pam Lunn ‘You Have Lost Your Opportunity’, British Quakers and the Militant Phase of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign: 1906-1914, Quaker Studies: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 2. (1997)
Anita McConnell, ‘Crosfield, Margaret Chorley (1859-1952), geologist’, September 23, 2004. Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Date of access 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-58473

Sources held elsewhere

Letters to Margaret Chorley Crosfield relating to women attending Ordinary Meetings, granting her use of the library and her election as Fellow 1895-1919, Geological Society Archive, Deposited Papers Ref: LDGSL/337

Papers of Joseph Crosfield regarding his work in the service of Friends and his daughter Margaret Crosfield, mainly relating to her father, Society of Friends Archive http://quaker.adlibhosting.com/Details/archive/110013711

Papers relating to Margaret’s brother Joseph, Society of Friends Archive http://quaker.adlibhosting.com/Details/archive/110001839

Paper relating to Margaret’s father Joseph, Society of Friends Archive http://quaker.adlibhosting.com/Details/archive/110001840

For the Holmesdale Natural History Club and Museum website see http://www.hnhc.co.uk/.

For the Geologists’ Association website, see https://geologistsassociation.org.uk/.

For The Geological Society of London website, see https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/.

2 thoughts on “Margaret Chorley Crosfield (1859-1952)”

  1. Professor Cynthia Burek says:

    An excellent article filling in a couple of gaps for me. Thank you

  2. I am researching into a Mrs. Crosfield who attended the presentation dinner for Lady Rhondda in 1933 see http://www.thedinnerpuzzle.com , who I think could have been Mrs Gulielma Crosfield (though there are two other possibilities). Do you know of any photographs of Gulielma? And any suggestions you might have re my “Mrs. Crosfield” would be gratefully received. She is on a table with Mrs. George Watts and Mrs. E,G. Evans, both who are slightly mystery people. Her page is at https://thedinnerpuzzle.com/portfolio/mrs-crosfield-and-guest/ and I think Mrs. Crosfiled had put the party togther fro this table. I hope thedinnerpuzzle intrigues you in any case but all ideas very welcome. .

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