Utopia Calling – Remembering Eleanor Rathbone

January 2016 sees the 70th anniversary of the death of the celebrated social reformer Eleanor Rathbone. To commemorate this event, an exhibition of items from Special Collections & Archives’ Rathbone Papers seeks to highlight her life and times.  Eleanor’s political career, social campaigning, family and legacy are examined through photographs, political manifestos, correspondence, publications and ephemera.

Eleanor Rathbone (centre) and other Liverpool suffragists campaigning in support of the pro-women’s suffrage candidate in the Kirkdale by-election, 1910. RP XIV.3.101

Eleanor Rathbone (centre) and other Liverpool suffragists campaigning in support of the pro-women’s suffrage candidate in the Kirkdale by-election, 1910. RP XIV.3.101

Born in Liverpool and educated at Kensington High School, London and Somerville College, Oxford, Eleanor was the second daughter of William Rathbone VI (1819-1902) and his second wife Emily Lyle (d.1918).  The Rathbone family were a Liverpool dynasty of non-conformist merchants and ship-owners, philanthropists, politicians and social reformers, artists and patrons of the arts.  From 1788 until 1940 the Rathbone family home in Liverpool was Greenbank Hall, which was bequeathed to the University in 1944.

In 1909 Eleanor Rathbone became the first woman elected to Liverpool City Council, standing as the independent councillor for the Granby Ward until 1935.  During this period she was a prominent campaigner for the cause of women’s suffrage, and in 1909 helped to establish the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society.  In the years after the First World War, Eleanor became a leading voice in the movement which saw the introduction of widows’ pensions in 1925 and the equal franchise legislation of 1928.

In 1929 Eleanor Rathbone was elected as the Independent MP for the Combined English Universities, a position she held until her death in 1946. She was one of the first politicians to realise the potential danger from the Nazi party in the 1930s, and was a relentless critic of the government policy of appeasement. Instrumental in the establishment of the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees in late 1938, Eleanor was a formidable campaigner on behalf of refugees from Francoist Spain and Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Building on her earlier social work, Eleanor was a vocal advocate for the introduction of family allowances, more commonly known as ‘child benefit’.  The Family Allowance Act was passed in 1945, with Eleanor instrumental in ensuring the benefit was paid directly to mothers.

The exhibition is open during SCA opening hours (Monday to Friday, 9.30am-4.45pm), and is also accessible at weekends during the core Sydney Jones Library opening hours of 12pm to 5pm.  Please ask for access at the main Sydney Jones Library reception desk.  The exhibition runs until April 11th 2016.

Politics past and present

Nick Hobbs, Politics student, with Lord Owen

Nick Hobbs, Politics student: a selfie with Lord Owen

With the general election just a week away, the selfie-with-politician is everywhere, and politics is at the forefront of many people’s minds, not least the University’s politics students. A second year student who has been exploring the collections gives his view on discovering resources in SC&A below.Our display of election material continues in the showcases outside the Reading Room: Election fever


So after spending nearly two years studying International Politics at the University of Liverpool I finally got round to visiting the Special Collections and Archives. All I can say is WOW – what have I been missing!


I was prompted to visit SCA because it’s that time of year when second year students have to start thinking about dissertations. Not all students have to complete one but it’s mandatory on the course I have taken. I will be researching Lord David Owen, former Labour minister and Foreign Secretary and former Chancellor of the University between 1996-2009. He defected from the Labour party in 1981 and co-founded the Social Democrat Party and in 1992 he was made Life Baron of the City of Plymouth (my home city).


Lord Owen donated his papers to Special Collections and Archives and this now forms the Lord Owen Collection, including hundreds of newspapers articles, correspondence between officials ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury, to academics, to foreign diplomats, House of Lords reports, books reviews, speech transcripts, UN presentations, and much more.


It was by pure chance that I discovered this collection, when – feeling like a change of scene – I was studying in Central Library, Liverpool City Centre, and I bumped into Dr Niall Carson, lecturer from the Irish Department here at the University of Liverpool. We got chatting and I was telling Niall about my dissertation and how I wanted to research something relating to the European Union. Niall informed me of Lord Owen’s generous donation to SCA and we both agreed this would be a great opportunity to carry out some primary research because Lord Owen was a senior politician around the time Britain was considering its membership with the EU. Furthermore, Lord Owen defected from the Labour party partly because of its anti-Europe views.


Later that day I returned to the Sydney Jones Library and met SCA staff. They explained how it all works and showed me the Reading Room. It’s a very tranquil and peaceful environment and a great place to relax and study. The SCA staff are very helpful and will assist you with anything. It is clear they enjoy working in the archives because they are very positive about what’s in there and they are friendly. If you use the service I would advise against what I did and request loads of documents at once because there’s only so much you can read in a day. Overall it was a positive experience and immensely beneficial to my research.