Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading

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The Marchioness of Reading

Housewives! Wvs Needs Your Help! Art.IWMPST19869.jpg
Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading in a WVS wartime poster
Chair of the Women's Voluntary Service
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
22 September 1958 – 22 May 1971
Life Peerage
Personal details
Grace Stella Charnaud

6 January 1894
Died22 May 1971 (aged 77)

Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading, Baroness Swanborough, GBE (6 January 1894 - 22 May 1971), née Stella Charnaud, was an English philanthropist who is best remembered as the founder and chairman of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS), now known as Royal Voluntary Service.

As Lady Reading, she was highly active in promoting Anglo-American relations, not only as the wife of a former British Ambassador to the US, but also in her peacetime role helping to rebuild the British economy and find stimulating employment for women – both voluntary and paid. In addition to the WVS, she also established Women's Home Industries, a highly successful exponenent of British craft and cultural traditions in clothing and textiles, and also a prolific exporter to the United States and Canada.

She served on boards of various cultural bodies, including the BBC Advisory Board and Glyndebourne, and was a keen early supporter of University of Sussex. In 1958, she became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Lords in her own right. A 1963 profile in The Observer said: "the W.V.S. has brought out in her the latent political talent and the strength of character that once induced someone to say of her that had she been a man she would have become Prime Minister".[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Stella Charnaud was born on 6 January 1894 in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Her father Charles Charnaud was a director of the tobacco monopoly of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother Milbah Johnson was from Lincolnshire and was Charnaud's second wife. The family lived on the Asian side of the Bosphorus at Moda.[2]

Due to poor health, much of Stella Charnaud's education was via private tutors.[3] A 1963 profile provided more background on her childhood. She was the fifth of nine Charnaud children – with four brothers and four sisters – and was exactly in the middle. Spinal troubles confined her to bed for "months and years", but she would later speak of its advantages – not least that she became a listening post for her siblings and half siblings. She said: "it was like being the spider in the middle of a large web". The Observer suggested it had taught her the art of diplomacy.[1] While she would later describe herself as "brung up", because of her lack of formal education, she combined learning from the local Church of England chaplain with the tutelage of a governess at home. She spoke fluent French and German and some Italian and Greek.[1]

Her Times obituary said that during World War I, she worked for the British Red Cross Society, gaining experience that would inform her future work.[3] The Observer profile told her First War history somewhat differently, saying that she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment – then a volunteer nursing group directed by the Red Cross – but was demoted to pantry maid because of her tendency to faint at the sight of blood.[1]

Charles Charnaud had lost his money during the war and this meant Stella Charnaud looked for employment, initially working in a solicitor's office.[1] Her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry says she began her training as a secretary in London in 1914, the year that war broke out.[2]

In 1925, she was asked to join the Viceroy's staff in Delhi, India.[1][3] Initially, she served as secretary to Lady Reading, the wife of the Viceroy, Rufus Isaacs, 1st Earl of Reading, but soon rose to become chief of staff to the Viceroy. Later, she worked as his private secretary at Imperial Chemical Industries, of which he was president and at his London home in Curzon Street, Mayfair.[2]

Lord and Lady Reading, c. 1935

After Isaacs' wife died in 1930, Charnaud became his political hostess. The couple married on 6 August 1931 – he was 71 and she was 37 and The Observer profile noted that this alliance was greeted with "universal applause".[1][2][3] From this point on she became Marchioness of Reading – usually addressed as Lady Reading. A biography notes that while the transition from secretary to marchioness and wife of a man twice her age who was also foreign secretary (Rufus Isaacs held this role briefly between August–October 1931) might have been a formidable challenge for many women, she adapted easily to the role and gained widespread acceptance.[2] In 1932 she became chir of the Personal Service League, a voluntary organization concerned with helping ameliorate poverty during the Great Depression.

Anglo-American 'mission'[edit]

Although Lady Reading's marriage was a brief one – Lord Reading died in 1935 – it became a driving force in her life and, she said, influenced much of her later work. Her Observer profile described how he told her that after his death she would want to "serve the country", describing in detail how this could be effected. He also impressed upon her the value of the relationship between the United States and the UK – Lord Reading was a former Ambassador to the US – suggesting that the future of democracy might depend upon a better understanding of the Americans by the British.[1]

After the Marquess' death in 1935, she experienced a period of "shock and disorientation".[2] This was described in far more detail in the 1963 Observer profile. She immediately travelled to the United States. There she travelled by car across the country, staying in dollar-a-night lodgings and working as a dish-washer in order to understand "ordinary" Americans. This fact-finding mission was put to an end in somewhat unusual circumstances: "Her mission evidently caused some concern about her own well-being. In the end she was stopped on the road by a bewildered State Trooper who said: 'The President wants you to call him'."[1] She returned to Washington D.C. and would remain a close friend thereafter of Eleanor Roosevelt – the two shared an interest in alleviating poverty and wrote to each other fortnightly for years after her trip.[1][4]

Early voluntary and social work[edit]

Even before her husband's death Lady Reading had become active in voluntary social work, chairing the Personal Service League, created to serve the needy and unemployed.[3] She served on the Ullswater Commission on Broadcasting in 1935 as the only female member of the committee (later she would become a member of the BBC Advisory Council).[3]

A WVS mobile 'Blitz Canteen' in 1941 – the canteens operated across London to provide refreshments to troops and civilians

Women's Voluntary Service[edit]

In 1938, a year before the start of World War II, Home Secretary Samuel Hoare sent for Lady Reading and requested that she establish an organisation of women that would assist the government and local authorities if war were declared.[2] Lady Reading founded the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions Services, later referred to simply as the Women's Voluntary Service or by the acronym WVS.[3] The structure was created by her.[2]

The WVS recruited women across the country – one million by 1942. The approach was to recruit women from all walks of life and avoid excessive bureaucracy or committees. Women wore uniforms, but there was a focus on individual initiative.[2] Duties were wide-ranging, ranging from provision of support to the armed services and to refugees to the evacuation of children from London and other cities. Initially, it organised a vast amount of training courses – from driving in the blackout to childcare and train the trainers sessions. In London, courses were taught in multiple languages, including Italian, Dutch and Yiddish, for foreign nationals in the WVS.[4] As the war progressed, the WVS, funded by the government and local authorities, fed, clothed and re-housed civilians affected by air raids.[2]

The WVS continued in peacetime; in the immediate post-war period it assisted with the problems caused by shortages of food, fuel and housing.[2] Its transition continued in the years afterwards; in 1963 it still had some 1,200 depots around the country. It remained voluntary and became not just an arm of civil defence but of the welfare state.[1]

Women's Home Industries[edit]

After the war had ended, Lady Reading became involved in another venture designed to assist the nation and engage women's efforts. Women's Home Industries was originally established in 1947 to stimulate women's craftsmanship and earn dollars for Britain.[3][5] Initially, the WVS collected samples from its membership – including tapestry, embroidery, quilting and hand knitting – and the response inspired a start-up business supported by the Board of Trade.

The company remained under the auspices of the WVS and operated initially from its HQ at 41 Tothill Street, London SW1, but was a limited company.[5] Lady Reading served as chair of the company, as well as the WVS, and it split from the WVS in the 1950s.[6] It remained a highly successful exporter of professionally finished clothing and crafts – notably to the United States – as well as supplying couture houses, with most suppliers being home-based women.[7][8]

House of Lords[edit]

The Marchioness was created a life baroness by letters patent on 22 September 1958, one of only four women in the first cohort of fourteen creations.[9] She took the title Baroness Swanborough, of Swanborough in the County of Sussex to sit on the Crossbenches. Her husband was a Liberal cabinet minister and imperial diplomat, widely-regarded and highly respected, but as now she could pursue her own duties. On introduction she was the first female life peer to sit in the Lords.[10] Her maiden speech questioned the government's policy on refugees and displaced persons of whom she had some war experience. She praised the work of the voluntary services, of which she had been a valid member. She urged the Macmillan government to support the work of the UNHCR worldwide. In her speeches she paid particular attention to the plight of stateless children, who for legal reasons were incapable of achieving citizenship.[11]

She chaired the Home Office's Advisory Council (1962-5) that played a leading role in facilitating the "Wundrush" migration to Britain from the Commonwealth. In 1965 she was appointed the working party on the place of the Voluntary Service in After Care. She referred to the prison system and rights of prisoners on release, how they might be cared for, and what rights and obligations they might have.[12]

Other roles[edit]

From 1936-1968, Lady Reading was vice-chair of the Imperial Relations Trust.[2] She was a member of the BBC Advisory Board and vice-chair of its Board of Governors from 1947-51.[2][3] She chaired the Home Office Advisory Council on Commonwealth Immigration and led a working party on the after-care of prisoners released from jail.[2]

She was also an early supporter of the University of Sussex (founded 1961) and bequeathed her private residence, Swanborough Manor, to be used as the residence of the university's vice chancellor for 50 years after her death. The university sold the manor in 2003[13] She was also a trustee of Glyndebourne.[1]

Public Recognition[edit]

She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941,[14] and promoted to Dame Grand Cross (GBE) in 1944.[15] On 22 September 1958, she was created a Life Peer in her own right, becoming Baroness Swanborough.[16][17] She was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Lords.[13][18]

She was recipient of honorary doctorates from the universities of Reading (1947), Yale (1958), Manitoba (1960) and Leeds (1969). She also received an honorary doctorate from Smith College (1956).[2]

Coat of arms[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Profile: Volunteer Extraordinary". The Observer. 26 May 1963.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Isaacs [nee Charnaud] Stella". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Stella, Dowager Marchioness of Reading" (58180). The Times. 24 May 1971.
  4. ^ a b Harris, Carol (1 June 2013). Women at War 1939-45: The Home Front. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN 9780750952811. Retrieved 10 July 2015.
  5. ^ a b "Working at home for export: W.V.S. Scheme launched" (50882). The Times. 3 October 1947.
  6. ^ Settle, Alison (2 November 1958). "Fashion Viewpoint: The Squat Look Gives Way to Shapeliness". The Observer. pg.17.
  7. ^ Adburgham, Alison (2 October 1964). "Hand Knitted Couture". The Guardian.
  8. ^ Keenan, Moira (29 April 1970). "Jobs for mothers" (57856). The Times.
  9. ^ London Gazette, 23 September 1958, p.5835.
  10. ^ 21 October 1958, HL Hansard, cols 661-2.
  11. ^ HL Hansard, 20 October 1966, cols 170-2.
  12. ^ Who's Who and Who Was Who 2018, 'Reading'; Home Office Report, Report on the Work of the Probation and text
  13. ^ a b James Trollope, The manor of its going, The Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2003
  14. ^ "No. 35029". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1941. p. 12.
  15. ^ "No. 36544". The London Gazette (Supplement). 8 June 1944. p. 2586.
  16. ^ "Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading and Baroness Swanborough (1894-1971)". UK Parliament. Retrieved 10 July 2015.
  17. ^ "No. 41505". The London Gazette. 23 September 1958. p. 5835.
  18. ^ "Women's History Timeline: Lady Stella Reading". BBC Radio 4, Woman's Hour. Retrieved 7 July 2015.

Further reading[edit]

"Lady Reading, the First Woman In House of Lords, Is Dead at 77". The New York Times. 23 May 1971. Retrieved 22 March 2019.

External sources[edit]