She was born in Ripple, Kent, the daughter of Commander John Tracy William French RN (who died in 1854) and Margaret French, née Eccles (who died suffering from insanity in 1867). Her father was born at Frenchpark, a village in County Roscommon, Ireland, that is the ancestral home of the Barons de Freyne, and she spent some time there. Her brother, John French, become both a leading military commander during World War I and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, putting them on opposing political sides in later life.
She regretted her lack of education, although she did attend a finishing school in London. In 1870, she married businessman Maximilian Carden Despard, who died at sea in 1890; they had no children. Her romantic novels included Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow.
Following her husband's death, when she was 46, Despard was encouraged by friends to take up charitable work. She was shocked and radicalised by the levels of poverty in London and devoted her time and money to helping the poor in Battersea. She lived above one of her welfare shops in one of poorest areas of Nine Elms during the week and converted to Roman Catholicism. She was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for Lambeth poor-law union.
Despard was a very active member of the Battersea Labour Party during the early decades of the 20th century. She was selected as the Labour candidate for Battersea North in the 1918 General Election receiving 33% of the vote.
At the time Despard was a vocal supporter of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party. In 1906 she joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and was imprisoned twice in Holloway gaol. She became frustrated with the lack of progress the organisation was making she joined the more radical Women's Social and Political Union (WPSU).
Eventually, Despard was one of three women who formed the Women's Freedom League after disagreements over the autocratic way in which the WSPU was run. She was joined by Teresa Billington-Greig and Edith How-Martyn. She was closely identified with new passive resistance strategies including women chaining themselves to the gate of the Ladies' Gallery in the Palace of Westminster; and also a "No taxation without representation" campaign which saw her household furniture repeatedly seized in lieu.
She became good friends with Eleanor Marx and was a delegate to the Second International. She campaigned against the waging of the Boer War as a "wicked war of this Capitalistic government" and she toured the United Kingdom speaking against the usage of conscription in the First World War, forming a pacifist organisation called the Women's Peace Crusade to oppose all war. She remained actively political well into her 90s, addressing several anti-fascist rallies in the 1930s.
Despard spend a lot of time in Frenchpark, County Roscommon, where her father was born. In 1908 she joined with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins to form the Irish Women’s Franchise League. She urged members to boycott the 1911 Census and withhold taxes and provided financial support to workers during the Dublin labour disputes. In 1909 Despard met Mahatma Gandhi and was influenced by his theory of passive resistance.
During the Irish War of Independence, together with Maud Gonne, she formed the Women's Prisoners' Defence League to support republican prisoners. As a member of Cumann na mBan she opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and was imprisoned by the government during the Irish Civil War.
In 1930 Despard toured the Soviet Union. Impressed with what she saw she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and became secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia organization.
She was buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
In London, there are two streets named after her, one in Battersea SW11, and another in Archway, Islington. At the end of the latter is a pub recently renamed in her honour.
- Leneman, Leah (1997). "The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women's suffrage movement in Britain", Women's History Review, Volume 6, Issue 2.
- 'Obituary: Mrs. Despard', The Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1939
- The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women
- Spartacus Educational
- An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard: suffragette, socialist, and Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater, Hutchinson, London, 1980.
- Charlotte Despard: A Biography by Margaret Mulvihill, Pandora, London, 1989. ISBN 978-0-04-440446-0
- To End All Wars: a story of loyalty and rebellion 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston New York 2011. ISBN 978-0-547-75031-6
- The archives of Charlotte Despard are held at The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University, ref 7CFD
- The Charlotte Despard pub
- Her entry on the Orlando Project of Cambridge University Press