Charlotte Despard

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Charlotte Despard
Mrs. Despard (suffragette).jpg
Charlotte French

(1844-06-15)15 June 1844
Ripple, Kent, England
Died10 November 1939(1939-11-10) (aged 95)
Belfast, Northern Ireland[1]
Known forActivism in the Suffragist, pacifist, Irish Republican, and socialist movements; novels
Spouse(s)Maximilian Carden Despard

Charlotte Despard (née French) (15 June 1844 – 10 November 1939) was an Anglo-Irish suffragist, socialist, pacifist, Sinn Féin activist, and novelist.[2] She was a founding member of the Women's Freedom League, Women's Peace Crusade, and the Irish Women's Franchise League, and an activist in a wide range of political organizations over the course of her life, including among others the Women's Social and Political Union, Labour Party, Cumann na mBan, and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Early life[edit]

Charlotte French was born in Ripple, Kent, the daughter of Irish Captain John Tracy William French of the Royal Navy (who died in 1855) and Margaret French, née Eccles (who died suffering from insanity in 1867).[3] Her brother John French became 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;[4] they had no children.[5]:11


Despard's first novel, Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow was published in 1874. Over the next sixteen years, she wrote ten novels, three of which were never published.[6] Outlawed: a Novel on the Women's Suffrage Question was written jointly with her friend, Mabel Collins and published in 1908.


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 poor people 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.[5]:12 In 1894 she stood and was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for Lambeth poor law union. She retired from the board in 1903.[7]


She became good friends with Eleanor Marx and was a delegate to the Second International, including to the fourth congress in London in 1896.[8] She campaigned against the Boer War as a "wicked war of this Capitalistic government" and she toured the United Kingdom speaking against the use of conscription in the First World War, forming a pacifist organisation called the Women's Peace Crusade to oppose all war.

Despard and Anne Cobden-Sanderson outside No. 10 Downing St prior to being arrested on 19 August 1909

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 (WSPU).

In 1907, 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.[9] 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, during which her household furniture was repeatedly seized in lieu of fines.[10]

From 1912 to 1921, she worked with Kate Harvey, another pacifist feminist and tax resister. Despard wrote in her diary that "the anniversary of our love" began on 12 January 1912, though it remains unclear the extent of what she meant by the words.[11] Kate Harvey converted her house, Brackenhill, in Highland Road, Bromley, to a thirty-one-bed hospital, initially intended for wounded soldiers. However, refugee women and children were sent there instead. Despard and Harvey bought a 12-acre tract in Upper Hartfield, which they also called 'Brackenhill'. Previously, Harvey had become involved in Theosophy and the children from Bromley were transferred to Letchworth. (Details of that have been researched by David Cursons of St Christopher's, Letchworth) The School in Hartfield became an Open Air School, which closed in 1939) This latest, 31/10/2018 information is from Family members and Family Archives.[12][11]

Unlike other suffragists, Despard refused as a pacifist to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign during World War I, a stance different from that of her family: her brother, Field Marshal John French, was Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the British Army and commander of the British Expeditionary Force sent to Europe in August 1914, and their sister Catherine Harley served in the Scottish Women's Hospital in France.[10]

Despard was an 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; however, her anti-war views were unpopular with the public and she was defeated.[6]

She remained actively political well into her 90s, touring the Soviet Union and later joining the Communist Party of Great Britain.[6]


In 1908 Despard joined Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Margaret Cousins and other feminists 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.[6] In 1909 Despard met Mahatma Gandhi and was influenced by his theory of passive resistance.

Despard settled in Dublin after World War I and was bitterly critical of her brother, now Field Marshal the Earl of Ypres.[13]

During the Irish War of Independence, together with Maud Gonne and others, she formed the Women's Prisoners' Defence League to support republican prisoners.[14] She was classed as a dangerous subversive under the 1927 Public Safety Act by the Irish Free State government for her opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

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 organisation. In 1933 her house in Dublin was burned down by an anti-communist mob.[15]

She died, aged 95, after a fall at her new house, Nead-na-Gaoithe, Whitehead, County Antrim, near Belfast in November 1939. She was buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.[1]


In London, two streets are named after her, one in Battersea SW11, and another in Archway, Islington. At the end of the latter is the Charlotte Despard pub, named in her honour.

Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.[16][17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 15. p. 906.
  2. ^ Leneman, Leah (1997). "The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women's suffrage movement in Britain", Women's History Review, Volume 6, Issue 2.
  3. ^ Margaret., Mulvihill (1989). Charlotte Despard : a biography. London: Pandora. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0863582134. OCLC 26098404.
  4. ^ 'Obituary: Mrs. Despard', The Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1939
  5. ^ a b Adam, Hochschild (2011). To end all wars : a story of loyalty and rebellion, 1914-1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780618758289. OCLC 646308293.
  6. ^ a b c d "Charlotte Despard". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  7. ^ Mulvihill, Margaret (1994). Charlotte Despard : biography (New ed.). London: Pandora. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-86358-213-4.
  8. ^ "Proceedings of the International Worker's Congress, London, July-August, 1896". The Labour Leader: 60. 1896.
  9. ^ Norris, Jill Liddington, Jill (1985). One hand tied behind us : the rise of the women's suffrage movement. London: Virago. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-86068-007-9.
  10. ^ a b Pedersen, Sarah (2017). The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press. Aberdeen: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 114. ISBN 9781137538338.
  11. ^ a b Vallely, Paul (23 November 2005). "Women's suffrage movement: The story of Kate Harvey". The Independent. London, England. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  12. ^ Wojtczak, Helena (2008). Notable Sussex Women: 580 Biographical Sketches. Hastings, East Sussex, England: Hastings Press. pp. 257–258. ISBN 978-1-904109-15-0.
  13. ^ The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women
  14. ^ Spartacus Educational Archived 18 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 15. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 905. ISBN 978-0-19-861365-7.Article by Margaret Mulvihill.
  16. ^ "Historic statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett unveiled in Parliament Square". 24 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  17. ^ Topping, Alexandra (24 April 2018). "First statue of a woman in Parliament Square unveiled". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  18. ^ "Millicent Fawcett statue unveiling: the women and men whose names will be on the plinth". iNews. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2018.

Further reading[edit]