Lady Henry Somerset
Lady Isabella Caroline Somers-Cocks was born in London as the first of three daughters of Charles Somers-Cocks, 3rd Earl Somers, and his wife Virginia (née Pattle). She was maternally a niece of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and first cousin of the writer Virginia Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen. Lady Isabella was given a private education. As she had no brothers, she and her sister Adeline were co-heiresses to their father, the third sister, Virginia, having died of diphtheria as a child. Deeply religious, she contemplated becoming a nun in her youth.
Lady Isabella married Lord Henry Somerset on 6 February 1872, and became known as Lady Henry Somerset. The match appeared to be perfect. Her husband was the second son of Henry Somerset, 8th Duke of Beaufort, and as such stood to inherit almost nothing, unlike her. On 18 May 1874, a son was born to the couple and named Henry Charles Somers Augustus. However, Lord Henry was homosexual, and the marriage was doomed to fail. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence in the United Kingdom at the time, but women were expected to turn a blind eye to every kind of their husband's infidelity. Lady Henry defied the social conventions by separating from her husband and suing him for custody over their son, thereby making his sexual orientation public. She won the court case in 1878 and resumed the style of Lady Isabella Somerset, but was ostracised from society. Lord Henry departed for Italy, but the couple never divorced due to her strong religious inclinations. Lady Henry retreated to Ledbury, near her family home, where she occupied herself with charity work. Her father died in 1883, leaving her Eastnor Castle, estates in Gloucestershire and Surrey, properties in London and slums in the East End. Baptised and raised as Anglican, she became a Methodist in the 1880s.
Lady Henry became interested in the temperance movement after her close friend committed suicide while intoxicated. Eloquent and compelling, she was elected president of the British Women's Temperance Association in 1890. The next year, she travelled to the United States, where she met Frances Willard, president of the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Association, and spoke at the first World's WCTA convention in Boston. Willard soon had her elected vice-president of the organisation and paid her extended visits in Britain several times. During Lady Henry's term as president of the BWTA, the organisation grew rapidly and attained great political and social influence. She allied herself with the Liberal Party, Earl Roberts and William Booth. Lady Henry promoted birth control; in 1895, she claimed that sin begins with an unwelcome child. By 1897, her friendship with Basil Wilberforce helped her reconcile with the Church of England.
Her critics claimed that Willard had too much influence on the BWTA. Though Lady Henry denied that she intended to turn the BWTA into a women's suffrage movement, she and Willard did openly advocate "emancipation" of women. From 1894 until 1899, she edited the weekly British feminist magazine The Woman's Signal. As the organisation gained more members, its president grew more ambitious. She supported licensing prostitution in parts of India as a means of dealing with the spread of sexually transmitted disease among British soldiers. The view was widespread among aristocracy, but alienated her from the rest of the BWTA. After arguments with Josephine Butler, Lady Henry was compelled to recant her views in 1898, to prevent the organisation from falling apart. Upon Willard's death the same year, Lady Henry assumed the office of president of the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Association and held it until 1906, visiting the USA for the last time in 1903. She gave up the leadership of the BWTA when her support for the Scandinavian system of public management of hotels attracted criticism. Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle, succeeded her.
Later life and death
Lady Henry devoted the rest of her life to the Colony for Women Inebriates, Duxhurst, in Reigate, which she had opened in 1895. It was a facility intended to rehabilitate alcoholics, which she saw as her most important task. The murderer Kitty Byron lived in this home after her release from prison in 1908.
In 1913, the readers of London Evening News voted Lady Henry as the woman they would most like as the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom. Her London flat was damaged during a Zeppelin raid in the First World War. She continued to work hard for the benefit of the poor, particularly women, using her wealth and prestige. She died in London on 12 March 1921 following a short illness. She was survived by her estranged husband and by their only child, who married Lady Katherine, a daughter of William Beauclerk, 10th Duke of St Albans. When her husband's elder brother's male line died out in 1984, Lady Henry's great-grandson David became the 11th Duke of Beaufort.
She is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
- Tyrrell, Ian, "Somerset, Lady Isabella Caroline", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, retrieved 15 December 2012
- Aslet, Clive (2010). Villages of Britain: The Five Hundred Villages that Made the Countryside. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 0747588724.
- Bolt, Rodney (2012). As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson. Atlantic Books. ISBN 1843548623.
- Gordon, Linda (2002). The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252027647.
- Black, Ros (2004). A talent for humanity: the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset. Antony Rowe. ISBN 1905200935.
- Works by or about Lady Henry Somerset at Internet Archive
- Lady Henry Somerset, Frances Willard and Duxhurst
- Lady Henry Somerset
- Lady Henry Somerset of Eastnot Castle
- Figure on a Drinking Fountain, by George Edward Wade
|Non-profit organization positions|
|President of the
British Women's Temperance Association
The Countess of Carlisle
|President of the
World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union