Charlotte Despard

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Charlotte Despard
Mrs. Despard (suffragette) (cropped).jpg
Despard, c. 1910
Charlotte French

(1844-06-15)15 June 1844
Edinburgh, Scotland[1]
Died10 November 1939(1939-11-10) (aged 95)
Belfast, Northern Ireland[2]
Known forActivism in the suffragist, pacifist, Irish republican, and socialist movements; novels
Political partyCommunist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)
Maximilian Carden Despard
(m. 1870; died 1890)

Charlotte Despard (née French; 15 June 1844 – 10 November 1939) was an Anglo-Irish suffragist, socialist, pacifist, Sinn Féin activist, and novelist.[3] 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, Humanitarian League, Labour Party, Cumann na mBan, and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Despard was imprisoned four times for her suffragette activism,[4][5] and she continued actively campaigning for women's rights, poverty relief and world peace right into her 90s.[4]

Early life[edit]

Charlotte French was born on 15 June 1844 in Edinburgh[4] and lived as a child in Edinburgh and Campbeltown in Scotland[6] and from around 1850 in England at Ripple, Kent,[7] her father was Irish Captain John Tracy William French of the Royal Navy (who died in 1855) and her mother Margaret French, née Eccles (who died suffering from insanity in 1865).[8][9] She was educated by a series of governesses and intermittently at private school, but complained in later life that her schooling was 'slipshod' and 'inferior'. Despard was always dubious of authority and ran away from home at the age of 10 getting a train to London 'to become a servant.'[4] The family left Ripple after her father died settling in Edinburgh and later York. Despard's brother Sir 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 also had five sisters;[citation needed] one, Katherine Harley, also a suffragist, served in the Scottish Women's Hospital during the World War I in France.[10]

Despard regretted her lack of education, although she did attend a finishing school in London. With two of her sisters, she travelled in Germany and Paris (there at the start of the Franco-Prussian war).[4] The same year, 1870, she married businessman Maximilian Carden Despard, and travelled with him across his business interests in Asia, including India,[11] but he then died at sea in 1890;[12] and they had no children.[13][14] Despard wore black for most of the rest of her days.[15]


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.[16] 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, including a health clinic, soup kitchen for the unemployed, and youth and working men's clubs in this slum area.[15] Despard lived above one of her welfare shops in one of poorest areas of Nine Elms during the week and she also converted to Roman Catholicism.[13]: 12  She worked with women and girls clubs.[4] In 1894, she stood and was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for Lambeth poor law union, and remained until she retired from the board in 1903.[17]


Despard became good friends with Eleanor Marx and was a delegate to the Second International, including to the fourth congress in London in 1896.[18] She actively 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

Women's suffrage[edit]

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 later was imprisoned four times for activism on women's franchise,[4] twice in Holloway gaol. She had become frustrated with the lack of progress from NUWSS and she joined the more radical Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She became one of their recognised orators and described as a 'tireless and popular leader.. a striking figure with her thin sharp features and grimly tight lips'[4]

Charlotte Despard (2nd right) at the WFL offices with Edith How-Martyn, Mrs Sproson and Miss Tite

In 1907, Despard was one of the women who formed the Women's Freedom League (WFL) whose motto was 'Dare to be Free', after disagreements over the autocratic way in which the WSPU was run.[14]

She was an active Catholic and on Ash Wednesday in 1907, she went with others to the House of Commons and got arrested.[19] In establishing WFL, Despard was joined by Teresa Billington-Greig and Edith How-Martyn, Alice Abadam, Marion Coates-Hansen, Irene Miller[citation needed], Bessie Drysdale, Maude Fitzherbert as signatories to a letter to Emmeline Pankhurst explaining their disquiet on 14 September 1907.[20] In 1911, when first imprisoned with Nina Boyle, Despard was furious when someone paid the fines, allowing them to be released right away; Boyle remarked upon her 'complete and absolute fearlessness'.[5]

Tree planted by Charlotte Despard at Eagle House, Batheaston

Sylvia Pankhurst, imprisoned with Despard in 1907, also remarked at her death that 'She was one of our most courageous and devoted social workers. When I was in prison with her in 1907, I was impressed by her truly magnificent courage.'[5] She was one of the imprisoned women who had a tree planted in the 'suffragettes' rest' of the Blathwayts in Batheaston, Eagle House.

Charlotte Despard with WFL banner at Women's Coronation Procession 17 June 1911

Despard was also closely identified with new passive resistance strategies including women chaining themselves to the gate of the Ladies' Gallery in the Palace of Westminster; and was one of those leading a "No taxation without representation" campaign, during which her household furniture was repeatedly seized in lieu of fines,[10] along with Virginia Crawford, as she realised that the women's movement groups had to work together at times as well. She led the delegation at the Women's Coronation Procession (1911).

In 1909, she met Mohandas Gandhi in London, in her role in the Women's Freedom League.[11] In 1912, at the seventh annual conference of WFL, she was pictured being greeted by Agnes Husband.[21] The following September, she was with Agnes Husband again on the platform at Regent's Park.[22]

In 1914, she spoke along with Anna Munro and Georgiana Solomon at the WFL Hampstead branch 'at home', hosted by Myra Sadd Brown, raising funds for the Women's Suffrage National Aid Corps. which Despard had founded.[23]

From 1915 onwards, she worked with Agnes Harben and others to maintain international women's movements representation in Britain.[24] In 1919, she was one of twenty British delegates to the Women's International League Congress in Zurich (12–17 May). She is pictured next to Helen Crawfurd from Glasgow.[25] She kept in communication with other suffragists, such as Daisy Solomon.[26]

In 1928, Despard was one of the suffrage movement leaders at the celebratory breakfast for the passing of the Equal Franchise Bill.[5]

Founding refugee hospital and school[edit]

From 1912 to 1921, she worked with Kate Harvey, another pacifist feminist and tax resister, along with other prominent members like Sophia Duleep Singh. She wrote in her diary re Kate Harvey that "the anniversary of our love" began on 12 January 1912, though it remains unclear the extent of what she meant by the words.[27] Kate Harvey converted her house, Brackenhill, in Highland Road, Bromley, to a thirty-one-bed hospital, initially intended for wounded soldiers in World War I. 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, as did Despard and the children from Bromley were transferred to The Cloisters, an open-air school dedicated to that cause in Letchworth. The School in Hartfield became an Open Air School, which closed in 1939.[27][28]

Later life[edit]

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 Katherine Harley served in the Scottish Women's Hospital in France.[10]

She 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 when then aged 74; however, her anti-war views were unpopular with the public and she was defeated.[16]

She was a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist.[29] She was associated with London Vegetarian Society, becoming president in 1918[30] and vice-president in 1931,[11] She supported the Save the Children charity and Indian independence movement. Despard was a board member of the World Congress of Faiths in the 1930s.[11]

Activism in Ireland, and communism[edit]

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 1913 Dublin lock-out.[16]

She settled in Dublin after World War I and was a supporter of de Valera,[4] remaining bitterly critical of her brother, now Field Marshal the Earl of Ypres,[31] but they were later reconciled.[4]

During the Irish War of Independence, together with Maud Gonne and others, she formed the Women's Prisoners' Defence League to support republican prisoners.[32] 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 and her house was occasionally raided by the authorities.[4]

In 1930, Despard toured the Soviet Union to look at workers' conditions there.[4] Impressed with what she saw, she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.[16] and became secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia organisation. In 1933 her house in Dublin was burned down by an anti-communist mob.[33]

She remained actively political well into her 80s and 90s, giving anti-fascist speeches in the likes of Trafalgar Square[34] in the 1930s.[15] She was also guest of honour at the Reading branch of the Women's Freedom League, of which she had been the first president, celebrating her 89th birthday, held in Anna Munro's garden at Venturefair, Aldermaston It was reported that 'Mrs. Despard had lost but little of her youthful vigour, clarity of speech and clearness of vision'. In her speech, she said that much had been achieved and quoted a Catholic priest who called women 'the basic force of the world' but noted that women 'still did not have the equality with men that there should be as regards the right to work', and went on to condemn slums and poverty (quoting Lenin) and condemned fascism and hatred. She also urged women to act to help 'realise the worth of the human being, take life out of bondage all over the world."[35]

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.[2]


On death, she was described as someone who 'brought home to English people an understanding of what womenhood could be capable of when inspired by fiery ardour for what it truly believed to be a great cause for humanity.'[4] Sylvia Pankhurst remembered her 'fine spirit' and said of Despard 'She was one of our most courageous and devoted social workers.'[5]

Pub named after Charlotte Despard, Archway, London N19

In London, two streets are named after her, one in Battersea London, 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.[36][37][38]

Millicent Fawcett statue, Parliament Square London, with plinth


  • Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1874)
  • Economic Aspects of Woman's Suffrage (London: King, 1908)
  • Jonas Sylvester (London: Sonnenschein and Co., 1886)
  • Collins, Mabel and Despard, Charlotte, Outlawed: A Novel on the Suffrage Question (London: Drame, 1908)
  • The Rajah's Heir. A Novel (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1890)
  • Theosophy and the Women's Movement (London: Theosophical Society, 1913)[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ONB
  2. ^ a b c Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 15. p. 906.
  3. ^ Leneman, Leah (1997). "The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women's suffrage movement in Britain", Women's History Review, Volume 6, Issue 2.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Women's Suffrage Pioneer dies aged 95. Mrs Despard's long fight for reforms". Evening Despatch. 10 November 1939. Archived from the original on 8 January 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Women's Suffrage Pioneer, Death of Mrs C. Despard". Gloucestershire Echo. 10 November 1939. Retrieved 4 July 2020.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. ^ ONB
  7. ^ ONB
  8. ^ ONB
  9. ^ Margaret., Mulvihill (1989). Charlotte Despard : a biography. London: Pandora. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0863582134. OCLC 26098404.
  10. ^ a b c Pedersen, Sarah (2017). The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press. Aberdeen: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 114. ISBN 9781137538338.
  11. ^ a b c d e "Charlotte Despard | Making Britain". Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  12. ^ 'Obituary: Mrs. Despard', The Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1939
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b 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.
  15. ^ a b c Awcock, Hannah (4 December 2014). "Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939". Turbulent London. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  16. ^ a b c d "Charlotte Despard". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  17. ^ Mulvihill, Margaret (1994). Charlotte Despard : biography (New ed.). London: Pandora. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-86358-213-4.
  18. ^ "Proceedings of the International Worker's Congress, London, July-August, 1896". The Labour Leader: 60. 1896.
  19. ^ "Catholics and the campaign for women's suffrage in England. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  20. ^ 17 October; Library, 2018|LSE; Comments, Suffrage 18|0 (17 October 2018). "Dare to be Free – the Women's Freedom League". LSE History. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  21. ^ "The Seventh Annual Conference of the WFL". The Vote. 3 February 1912.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  22. ^ "Forthcoming Events - W.F.L. London and Suburbs". The Vote. 1 August 1913. p. 234.
  23. ^ "Hampstead". The Vote. 18 December 1914. p. 436.
  24. ^ "Women's International League". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 21 January 2021.
  25. ^ "British delegates to the WIL Congress held at Zurich May 12-17, 1919". The Crusader. 6 June 1919. Retrieved 4 July 2020.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  26. ^ Mrs Despard to Miss Daisy Solomon. 11 June 1922.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Wojtczak, Helena (2008). Notable Sussex Women: 580 Biographical Sketches. Hastings, East Sussex, England: Hastings Press. pp. 257–258. ISBN 978-1-904109-15-0.
  29. ^ D'hoker, Elke; Ingelbien, Raphaël. (2010). Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives. Peter Lang. p. 143. ISBN 9783034302494
  30. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth. (2003). The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. Taylor & Francis. p. 168. ISBN 9781135434021
  31. ^ The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women
  32. ^ Spartacus Educational Archived 18 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 15. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 905. ISBN 978-0-19-861365-7.Article by Margaret Mulvihill.
  34. ^ "History Today - Despard". History Today. 2014. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  35. ^ "Nearly A Nonagenarian - Mrs. Despard's Vigorous Advocacy of Women's Rights - " The Basic Force of the World'". The Reading Standard. 14 July 1933. p. 18.
  36. ^ "Historic statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett unveiled in Parliament Square". 24 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  37. ^ Topping, Alexandra (24 April 2018). "First statue of a woman in Parliament Square unveiled". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  38. ^ "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]