Ursula Mellor Bright

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Ursula Mellor Bright (5 July 1835 – 12 March 1915) was an English political activist in the women's suffrage campaign.

Her father was Liverpool merchant Joseph Mellor; he died when Ursula was very young. Her mother married Thomas Blackburn, a Liverpool surgeon. She was a daughter of John Pennington of Hindley, Lancashire. John Pennington had two other children, Frederick Pennington, the Liberal MP and supporter of many women's causes, and Maria, wife of Thomas Thomasson, the philanthropist.

Her father and her brother, J. P. Mellor, were generous supporters of women's rights causes and societies. Not much is known of her education, but she was brought up in a milieu that gave importance to educating daughters. Her daughter recorded that she was ‘a strong generous soul, very direct, simple as a child in some ways, yet with a keen brain and fine judgment’ and that she was an excellent chess player.

The Mellors were connected to many like-minded families. In the 1840s Ursula's cousins, Martha and Alice Mellor, are recorded as having discussed suffrage issues with Priscilla Bright (later McLaren) in Rochdale, and on 13 September 1855, in Acomb parish church, Ursula married Jacob Bright (1821–1899). He and Priscilla Bright were younger siblings of politician John Bright. Jacob was at this time working with the family firm, John Bright & Brothers. The Brights lived at Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, which they left in 1867, after Jacob's election as Liberal MP for Manchester, to live at 31 St James's Place, London, during the parliamentary session. They had two sons who died of diphtheria in early childhood, within a fortnight of each other. Latterly, two more sons were born and, in 1868 they had a daughter, Esther.

The Brights possessed what were known as ‘radical Liberal’ views, and were particularly concerned with advancing women's causes. Esther recorded in her memoirs that they were a family of reformers. In 1870 they became founder members of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Ursula was a member of the executive committee of the Married Women's Property Committee for the duration of its existence (1868–82) and later became treasurer (1874–82). Her efforts in lobbying for the 1882 Married Women's Property Act were widely acknowledged when this Act was passed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton recorded that ‘for ten consecutive years she gave her special attention to this bill … was unwearied in her efforts, in rolling up petitions, scattering tracts, holding meetings’ . As a point of interest, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who had worked jointly with her on that campaign, wrote disparagingly in 1889 of Mrs Bright's lack of business sense and her inability to ‘take suggestions from those who know’. Wolstenholme Elmy was by then, however, no friend.

In 1866 Ursula Bright signed the petition in favour of women's suffrage presented to parliament by John Stuart Mill; she was a member of the Manchester Women's Suffrage Society, formed in 1867. She worked continuously for the society and its London-based sister until 1890 at the insistence of the Pankhursts., To the disgust of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who thought she gave undue support to Gladstone, she was later made honorary secretary of the Women's Franchise League. Unlike the main National Society for Women's Suffrage, the league was concerned with supporting the enfranchisement of married women as well as of widows and spinsters. Her work with the league resulted in the successful inclusion in the Local Government Act of 1894 of the right of married women to all local franchises. The Brights were certainly keen supporters of home-rule, but Ursula's lifelong commitment to the Liberals may not have been as great as Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy suggested. Mrs Pankhurst recorded that when, in 1894, she joined the Independent Labour Party, Ursula Bright expressed interest in doing so herself. She was ultimately dissuaded; it would have meant a break with so many old friends.

Ursula Bright was also interested in the abolition of the House of Lords, she was opposed to compulsory vaccination, and had a wide circle of artistic and political friends on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1890s she was a member of the revising committee for Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible; she started to become interested in theosophy, already being a vegetarian. After Jacob Bright's death in 1899, Annie Besant, on her visits to England, lived with Ursula and Esther. The latter recorded that her mother did not always agree with Annie Besant, but in 1898 gave £3000 to the Theosophical headquarters in northern India. Ursula Bright died at her home at 82 Drayton Gardens, Kensington, London. She took no part in the more colourful twentieth-century agitation for the vote, being severely incapacitated by osteoarthritis. Her earlier strenuous political efforts received scarcely a mention from obituarists.

References[edit]

  • ‘Bright, Ursula Mellor (1835–1915)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography