Charlotte French was born in 1844 and suffered early tragedy with her father dying young and her mother being committed to a mental asylum. She went to live with relatives in London and after spending many years travelling abroad she married Maximilian Despard, an Anglo-Irish businessman who had become rich by being one of the founders of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (later HSBC).
Credit: Independent Labour Party Publications
Charlotte became a prolific though largely unsuccessful romantic novelist and it was only after the death of Maximilian in 1890 that she became an activist. Her next door neighbour, the Duchess of Albany, suggested that in order to cope with bereavement she should undertake some ‘good works’. As she already had links with the Nine Elms Flower Mission in Battersea she started there and worked at giving flowers to poor families. However, the experience radicalised her and within two years she had decided to live in Battersea. Later she moved to Wandsworth and set up a health clinic, youth clubs and a soup kitchen. She spent nine years as a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth and worked closely with George Lansbury.
She joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and was a delegate to the Second International Congress in London in 1896. In 1901 she joined the Adult Suffrage Society and worked alongside Margaret Bondfield. She became a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and was committed to the ILP-established Women’s Labour League but later joined the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU).
In 1906 she was arrested after trying to address visitors in the lobby of the House of Commons. The following year she was in Holloway Prison after taking part in a demonstration at the House of Commons organised by the Women’s Parliament. As a result of the lack of democracy in the WSPU, Charlotte and many other women formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL was prepared to break the law, and did so with increasing frequency, but was opposed to the violence of the WSPU. Under the influence of Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte, the organisation developed an approach based on civil disobedience and the use of moral force. The WFL became Charlotte’s main occupation and she toured extensively around Britain. She was imprisoned again in 1909 but was discharged on the grounds of ill health. Charlotte became the main contributor, and later editor, of the WFL paper The Vote.
Although Charlotte and the WFL were committed to an anti-war stance, Charlotte’s position was difficult as her brother John was in command of the forces on the Western Front. After John French was replaced by Field Marshal Haig, Charlotte became a more public supporter of the No Conscription Fellowship and the Women’s Peace Crusade, a grass roots organisation which was frequently attacked by patriotic mobs.
After the Russian Revolution she attended the ‘Conference of Labour, Socialist & Democratic Organisation of Britain which welcomes the Russian Revolution’ (otherwise known as the ‘Leeds Convention’). Charlotte seconded the third resolution on civil liberties and in her speech said ‘Let us…do something, arrange something whereby in combination we shall be able to show our power and make the power of the people tell.’
In 1918, after a very limited change in the franchise, she became one of the first women to stand as a parliamentary candidate when she represented the Labour Party in the constituency of Battersea North. In common with most of the anti-war candidates she lost, but she still polled 33%of the vote. In that year she addressed a meeting in Finsbury Park held to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Karl Marx, but the event was broken up by large numbers of police.
In parallel with her work in England, she helped to establish groups to press for votes for women in Ireland, having first been invited by James Connolly.
At one stage she was so much in demand as a speaker that the Irish Citizen set up a fund to pay her expenses. After the end of the First World War she became a supporter of Sinn Fein and participated in the Labour Party Commission of Inquiry into the atrocities committed by the police and army. She was once again placed in opposition to her brother as John French became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1918. She moved permanently to Ireland in recognition of her Anglo-Irish connections and continued her campaigning work.
She worked closely with Maud Gonne and formed the Women’s Prison Defence League to bring help to Republican prisoners. She was treated by the Government as a subversive and became a member of Cumann Na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council) and opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
In 1926 she left Sinn Fein and joined the Connolly Club, which later became the Connolly Association and which worked for the freedom of the Irish people. By 1931 her house had been raided a dozen times with papers being taken and the house constantly damaged. In 1931 she visited the Soviet Union with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in order to study Soviet educational and penal systems. She was a member of the Friends of Soviet Russia and joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, which in 1933 established the Communist Party of Ireland.
Despite her being nearly 90 she and her supporters in Dublin were constantly attacked, and the building which housed the Friends of Soviet Russia was burned down and her own house attacked.
Having spent all her money on political and charitable causes she was made bankrupt in 1937. She died in Belfast in 1939 following a fall at her home.
In her Manchester Evening News obituary [10 November 1939] Charlotte was described as ‘a pioneer of women’s suffrage and sister of the late Lord Ypres’ but the breadth of her activism needs to be acknowledged. Charlotte worked tirelessly for both the socialist movement in England and her later work in support of communism in Ireland.
As an activist and a politician she was highly regarded and Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain) said of her that ‘she has done more for communism than any of us’.
The Working Class Movement Library has a wealth of material for people to come in and read on the long and varied life of Charlotte Despard. There are two biographies: An unhusbanded life – suffragette, socialist & Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater [G24] and Charlotte Despard – a biography by Margaret Mulvihill [H20] and a studio portrait. [Z23 – ILP Photographs]. There is material on the Women’s Freedom League, for example Women’s Freedom League 1907-1957 by Stella Newsome [Suffragette Movement – Box 1] and a WFL pamphlet – What we are working for [Women – Box 8].
Given that she was involved in the SDF, the ILP, the WSPU, the Women’s Peace Crusade, Sinn Fein and the Communist Party of Ireland it is not possible to list all the available material. There are around 2000 items in the Library catalogue on the ILP alone. There is some Friends of Soviet Russia material such as USSR through Irish eyes [Ireland – Box 13], Friends of Soviet Russia [E66] and Hands off Soviet Russia [USSR – Box 4]. The Library has a comprehensive archive of No Conscription Fellowship material as well as works such as The hound of conscience: a history of the No Conscription Fellowship by Thomas Kennedy [X27]. There is extensive material on the Connolly Association as part of the comprehensive coverage of Irish history in the Library.