Whilst working on a previous post I visited the village of Marsden which lies just under the pennines about seven miles west of Huddersfield. Before visiting I did a small amount of basic research on the village and stumbled across a woman who was born and spent her early years in the village, but is now largely forgotten. Her name was Dora Marsden (aptly). My intention is to give a short history of Dora, using information from previous biographies, readily available photographs, and my own legwork. I have only found one full biography of Dora called “A Brave and Beautiful Spirit: Dora Marsden 1882-1960 .” written byLeslie Garner; I assume that a lot of the information available on line has been taken from this book – I have found two available in used condition priced at £100 and £235 – I decided not to purchase – I wouldn’t pay that for the Magna Carta ! ( we are known to be careful with our brass round these parts).
(click on pictures to enlarge)
Dora was born in Marsden, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1882, she was the fourth child of Fred and Hannah (sometimes written Anna or Annie) Marsden. She was born at ” Hey”, or “The Hey” which lies somewhere off a road currently called ” Waters Road”; looking at the 1881 census (Dora was born 1882) “The Hey” was likely to have been occupied by Fred’s widowed mother Sarah Marsden ; Going on Waters Road we see the end of a private drive that leads up to ” The Hey ” not too far along . I am assuming that ” The Hey” was a farmhouse and Fred and family lived in an adjoining property.
[click on images to enlarge]
Dora may not have been born at The Hey , but she was born somewhere very close.
Google Earth shot
Dora’s father Fred was a mungo – or waste wool dealer
Checking on an old map Carrs stood where these garages now stand, Just off Carrs Road /Street. Dora’s mother Hannah had to move with her five children in with her widowed Mother ( Elizabeth Gartside) at ” New Delight”. “New Delight ” stood near the railway station. “New Delight ” must have either fallen down or have been taken down when a relatively new road and houses were built. the road is called ” High Lea”
Hannah was a dressmaker, and the two oldest children John(15) and Marin (14) were working in the mill (textiles) so the seven of them living in a house with just three rooms , managed to scratch a living. Dora was of course at school – an act of parliament in 1880 made education compulsory between the ages of five and ten, then in 1891 when Dora was Nine the compulsory age was raised to eleven. Dora was obviously a very bright young girl and thrived in the school, which incidentally was not a church school, but a council school , and the school offered her a place teaching the lower grade classes when she was only thirteen. Dora of course took the opportunity straight away, knowing that the small income would help feed their hungry family. The school still stands on Brougham Road in the village centre.
After starting as a probationary teacher, and reaching a stage of qualifying to be a full time teacher, in 1900 Dora applied for (and got) a Queen’s Scholarship which paid her tuition fees, and a grant for living expenses, to attend Owens College in Manchester ( now Manchester University).
Dora would never make her home in Marsden again; we find her in 1901 lodging at 210 Greame Street, in Moss Side, Manchester with a fellow student Florence Hindshaw, and her mother, Elizabeth Hindshaw, who lived there. The current 210 Greame street , is a modern house built within the last thirty or forty years , which leads us to believe , that the old house no longer exists – here is a Google Earth shot below.
It was while attending Owens College , in Manchester that Dora first encountered Christabel Pankhurst, who studied law at the college: Christabel was the eldest daughter of Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst – Emmeline of course shortly to become infamous as a leading suffragette along with her daughters – incidentally Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Moss Side, Manchester – the same district where Dora was lodging.
It is said that Christabel, was very attractive , charismatic, and a good speaker, and we should wonder how many times Dora heard Christabel repeating her mother’s rhetoric. Dora completed her training, and as part of the Queens Scholarship arrangement, she had to complete five years of teaching – almost like a repayment for the scholarship. Dora did her teaching in Leeds and Colchester, and finally returning to Manchester to become the headmistress of “The Altrincham Pupil-Teacher Centre”. After returning to Manchester Dora was drawn to the ” Womens Social and Political Union ” (WSPU) , which was founded by the Pankhursts , because they felt that words alone were not going to get women the vote, and more radical action was needed. It would seem that Dora Marsden had found a cause. By the year 1908 Dora was a voluntary organizer of WSPU demonstrations around the Manchester area, sharing a platform with other WSPU leading members , including Christabel Pankhurst and Mary Gawthorpe, Dora also wrote pieces for the Suffragette publication ” Votes For Women” , including a piece about a demonstration in Huddersfield which attracted a crowd of approximately 30,000 people. Dora was only very small and slight in stature, reaching the adult height of 4ft 6ins (1m.37), but when she was campaigning for her cause she punched well above her weight, she was a feisty young woman, very quick thinking with her own opinion – which she wasn’t frightened of sharing. In the spring of 1909 Dora volunteered to join a deputation of WSPU women, mainly from the North West , to march to the house of commons, Dora had to resign her position as headmistress of the pupil teacher centre, in order to campaign for her cause . Carrying a banner for the WSPU , and being seen to be a more prominent member of the demonstration, Dora was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison – it only made her more determined.
After being released, Dora became a paid WSPU organizer of demonstrations, spending a short time in London organizing a march on Parliament, for the end of June, before returning to Manchester to become organizer of the WSPU North West Lancashire campaign. On the fourth of September 1909, Dora along with other members of the WSPU – one of them being Emily Davison ( famed for her later incident with the king’s horse), attacked a hall , at the White City, Old Trafford in Manchester where an anti suffragette politician called Augustine Birrell was holding a meeting. Attacking the building, with windows being broken led to Dora – and others being arrested again; this time being sentenced to two months in Strangeways prison. Dora strongly resisted the routine prison medical examination , and refusing to wear prison clothes would strip off naked, and at one point was put into a strait jacket, but, being such a small person she was able to wriggle out of it. Dora went on hunger strike and petitioned the home secretary to be given the status of a political prisoner. She certainly wasn’t going to go quietly and become a model prisoner!
Following her release from prison, Dora and Mary Gawthorpe, who was a fellow WSPU member, decided to protest about the force feeding of suffragettes in Winsome Green prison , in the midlands by disrupting a meeting by the chancellor of Manchester University . Dora, though not actually prosecuted for this, got a lot of publicity in the press , with a photograph on the front page of a national newspaper , showing Dora as a waif like figure being led away by police officers at either side, the publicity gaining praise from the WSPU leadership.
In January 1910 Dora was given the position of WSPU organizer in Southport, so she, and Grace Jardine , who had become friends with Dora after meeting her at a WSPU meeting in Burnley the previous year, moved to Southport. It must be said at this point that we will never know in what direction Dora’s sexual preferences lay, but it appears that she preferred the company of women to men, but there is no suggestion or evidence at all that she had any kind of intimate relationship with anyone, male or female- though her associates at the time often wondered, and whispered to each other about it.
The house that Dora lived in, with Grace, still stands in Southport, we also know that Dora’s mother Hannah, then in her sixties, also moved in a some point. Dora was obviously still close to her mother, and I imagine that Hannah took care of the house while Dora went about her WSPU business. Dora’s former house in southport is pictured below.
Whilst organizing for the WSPU in Southport Dora was advised not to get herself arrested , and imprisoned because the WSPU wanted their organizers actively working for them, and not incarcerated, and they did not want Dora’s health endangered.The reality is that they had realised that Dora was actually a bit of a loose cannon , and was costing more in legal fees than any other member. So despite the recommendation from her superiors in the WSPU , in December 1910 a certain politician by the name of Winston Churchill , was to speak in the Empire Theatre in Southport, Churchill was already a target of the suffragettes, and Dora would not miss her chance. In reality Churchill was not against women receiving the vote, and his wife, Clementine was all for it, but he was strongly against the suffragette actions of damaging property, and often spoke out against it. Winston Churchill, had just been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and had been assured by the stewards that ” The audience in Southport is all handpicked Mr Churchill, you will get no trouble there. ” what they didn’t know was that Dora Marsden, and two companions had hidden in the theatre the day before, and used ropes to climb up onto the roof. They then waited for fifteen hours in the wind and rain for Mr Churchill to start addressing his hand picked audience inside the theatre .
Winston Churchill began to make his speech to the audience without interruption – but then – I will copy a report from a newspaper. – “ Mr Churchill alone looked ill at ease, Once he turned his head sharply round ,and several times his gaze nervously sought the wings. He had been speaking for ten minutes or so, and was just getting into his stride, when in a most dramatic manor the complacency of the stewards was turned to dismay and the confidence of the audience shattered. Floating down the hall, in a slight pause in the speech came a faint feminine voice. The words were but partially distinguished but the effect was electrical. Like one man the audience rose to its feet. For a few seconds the position of the intruder could not be determined. There was a momentary stillness, and then a roar proclaimed that the quarry had been sighted. Round the hall close to the ceiling are a number of ventilators. In one of these apertures, as in a frame, a slight girlish figure could be seen leaning into the hall and evidently addressing some remarks to the platform. At the platform stood Mr Churchill with his hand raised, vainly endeavouring to make himself heard.”
Dora was going to have her say on the matter – and I will copy her report on the proceedings.
“ It was quite evident that they did not know how to reach us, and pandemonium reigned. Mr Churchill sat down, frowned, looked up, smiled , got up again, then sat down and folded his arms. Mrs Churchill looked delighted and waved her hand. When this had been going on about ten minutes, during which I had been trying to make my voice heard, Mr Churchill got up again, and by means of gesticulations got some appearance of calm. We looked down and nodded our thanks to him, and began again. When we stretched further through the window so the audience could see us, they broke into applause with clapping and cheering. It was fully fifteen minutes , one of the reporters told me, before anyone reached us. They evidently did not know the way by which we had arrived the night before, and they had climbed onto the roof , broken a window, and clambered in. A dirty hand was thrust over my mouth, and a struggle began. Finally I was dropped over a ledge, pushed through a broken window, and we began to roll down the steep-sloping roof -side. Two stewards, crawling up from the other side, shouted out at the two men who had hold of me, ” Stop that you fools; you will fall over the edge.” The man who was pulling my right arm screamed hysterically, ” I don’t care what happens; we’ll manage them.” They managed so well that we managed to balance ourselves skillfully on the watertrough [gutter] At the police station an inspector said to me, ” You ought to be grateful to me. If I hadn’t caught your foot you would have gone to glory”.
The WSPU seemed quite happy to accept the publicity from the press that Dora’s actions brought, but, behind closed doors they were not happy with Dora; they had already asked her not to risk being arrested and imprisoned , but she ignored the request and carried on regardless. The WSPU management wrote a letter to Dora admonishing her actions, and rebuking her for acting without their permission ; this did not sit well with Dora, she already thought the WSPU were very middle class,and overbearing, and that her aims, were far greater than the WSPU aims – Christabel Pankhurst had already stated that ” Suffrage was a cause that should not be tied to any other causes trying to help working- class women with their other issues. “ Dora Marsden’s aim was equality for women on ALL issues , with suffrage, being only part of the big picture. Dora resigned her position with the WSPU at the end of January 1911, declining to accept two months severance pay, and threw her lot in with the ” Women’s Freedom League ” ( WFL). The Women’s Freedom League was an organization foundered by former members of the WSPU in 1907 who felt that the WSPU was not democratic or listening to its membership ; they also disagreed with with violent forms of demonstration, like arson and window breaking , preferring to demonstrate by chaining themselves to fences , refusing to fill in census forms etc.
Dora , and her good friends, Mary gawthorpe and Grace Jardine, began work for the WFL publication – ” The Vote” , with the intention , of persuading the WFL to finance Dora’s own more radical publication . The WFL refused to finance Dora’s weekly feminist review – so Dora and the WFL parted company in April. Dora had already made some plans for her own publication, so in November 1911, Dora published ” The freewoman” with Mary Gawthorpe as co- editor.
This publication caused outrage when it hit the streets, among other things Dora was urging women not to marry, and was also advocating ” Free love”. It was described as a ” nauseous publication ” and ” a disgusting publication … indecent, immoral and filthy. ” Although not everyone was critical , and in a paper called “The American Review of Reviews” Dora was praised “The writer of The Freewoman editorials has shot into the literary and philosophical firmament as a star of the first magnitude … She speaks always with the quietly authoritative air of the writer who has arrived. her style has beauty as well as force and clarity” Dora also found that editing The Freewoman she could always have a dig at the WSPU – which she did on several occasions. In the following months Dora’s opinions changed , and she began caring little for women’s suffrage – changing course like this shows that Dora was questioning her own thoughts and actions, and perhaps may have been the first sign of her later mental health problems. Mary Gawthorpe actually criticized Dora and said ” Intellectually you have signed on as a member of the coming aristocracy. free individuals you should have us be, but would have us in our ranks…..I watch you from week to week governing your paper. You have your subordinates. You say to one go, and she goes.You say to another come and she comes. Mary Gawthorpe resigned her position, she had basically found Dora impossible to work with, and though Dora claimed in the Freewoman that Mary had resigned through ill health this was not entirely true. Mary had fallen out with Dora big time, and taken her bat and ball home. Dora did write letters to Mary after she had gone, which does suggest something slightly more than just a professional relationship; and Mary did return all Dora’s letters, asking her not to write again!.-(Big fall out) Following a controversial article in the Freewoman in August , about women and marriage, WH Smith decided that they would no longer stock the magazine, and the publisher told Dora that he was losing money, so try as she might, she could no longer run The Freewoman. – end of The Freewoman. Dora Marsden was down but not a spent force, and had plans to relaunch another journal; trying to raise funds she had a business meeting with a woman called Harriet Shaw- Weaver, miss Weaver was well educated coming from a wealthy family – her mother having inherited a large sum of money.
Dora and Harriet met to discuss business, and though their characters were very different, – Dora being a feisty, fiery , action girl and Harriet being a calm, measured, and methodical type of person, they left as great friends . Harriet would turn out to be Dora’s longest lasting and most faithful friend in later life. With Harriet Shaw-Weavers investment , a new publication was born – ” The New Freewoman ” with Harriet being the owner,Rebecca West, the editor and Dora being a (main) contributer. Dora claimed that ” The New Freewoman has NO cause … The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of women, but for the empowering of individuals – men and women. ” But Dora being Dora she still used the paper to have a go at the Pankhursts and the WSPU , using the death of Emily Davison (killed by the king’s horse) as making use of dedicated individuals, who were otherwise seen as troublemakers, only when it suited them; remember Dora had been arrested With Emily Davison (and others) in 1909 and been sent to Strangeways prison. The New Freewoman evolved into a more literary publication, than protest publication
An expatriate American poet, and critic called Ezra Pound joined the editorial staff, and Rebecca West resigned in October 1913; The last issue of The New Freewoman appeared on the 15th December 1913. The New Freewoman got a new name the “Egoist”, still backed by Harriet Shaw- Weaver, with Dora still being contributing editor ( still attacking the Pankhursts), but the Egoist was really the vehicle for the works of Hilda Doolittle, James Joyce, Ezra Pound. etc. Though Dora’s part in evolution of the publications had become just a memory, she bore Harriet Shaw -Weaver no Malice, and remained associated with The Egoist until it had run its course, and ceased production at the end of 1919.
By 1919 women who met certain criteria ( property owners over the age of 30) had been granted voting rights; which satisfied the middle classed Pankhurst WSPU association, so the suffragettes faded away into post war Britain. Dora, it seems, was also faded, she had become quite detached from her associates, and Dora and her mother, who was still living with Dora, moved up to the lake district; they moved into a cottage near a small hamlet called Seldom Seen. The hamlet Seldom seen, is close to Glenridding, Penrith, at the bottom of Helvellyn, Ullswater, and consists of a row of miners cottages and a school. Whereabouts Dora and her mother lived I do not know, but I shall put some pictures on of the area from Google earth.
Dora decided that this was the place where she could write her Great works (as she called it)- a several volume works on philosophy, funded by her friend Harriet Shaw-Weaver, and apart from the occasional visit from Miss Weaver, Dora only saw her aging mother and became very reclusive. It was 1928 when Dora sent her finished manuscript for her work ” The Definition of The Godhead” to Harriet Shaw- Weaver. Miss Weaver did not like the work and was critical of it, and passed it on to other critics to view, who suggested to Dora that ” it should not be published in its present form” Dora was reluctant to change her work, and eventually persuaded Harriet Shaw -Weaver to restart the Egoist press to publish her work. The Definition Of The Godhead was published in December 1928; copies were sent to several university professors, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell, but received only negative reviews. In total The Definition Of The Godhead sold only six copies -it bombed ! Harriet Shaw- Weaver spent £549-18s publishing the book, and got a return of £4-9s. Dora tried again and in 1930 wrote ” the Mysteries of Christianity”, Harriet, having learned a lesson only bound 100 copies – a wise move as this did not sell well either. It would seem that what Dora was writing went against most peoples accepted beliefs, and they didn’t want to know. Following the failure of her ” Great works” Dora’s moods varied from delusory optimism of her works, to dejected acceptance of her failure. Dora had a nervous breakdown, after the failure of her works and in 1935 attempted suicide after her beloved mother passed away. She was diagnosed as suffering with psychotic depression and was treated at Crichton Royal Hospital, in Dumfries, Scotland, paid for by he loyal friend Harriet Shaw-Weaver, (no free health service [NHS] until 1948), Harriet had been funding Dora in some way since 1913. Dora never left the hospital , and stayed there till she died on 13th December 1960, she was buried on the 16th December at Dumfries high cemetery. Dora died a lonely and forgotten figure, who in her early life made a remarkable contribution to suffragism and early 20th century feminism. James Dyson, Dora’s brother in law wrote to Harriet Shaw-Weaver in 1955, about Dora saying ” Nobody has had a better or more considerable friend and colleague than you have proved to be” Harriet Shaw-Weaver died less than a year after Dora on 14th October 1961.
Harriet Shaw -Weaver quote about one of Dora’s works – “it was a pity to make so much of sex, my view, for what it is worth, is the best way to treat sex is to forget it as far aspossible.”
My view on Dora Marsden is that it is a pity that the village of Marsden where she was born and spent her childhood has largely forgotten her – very few of the residents will have ever heard of her and she was a remarkable woman !
As with all my posts I try to check the facts before writing – this does not mean that there will be no errors, and I may edit at a future date if required.