Eleanor Rathbone – An Independent Woman

This past weekend welcomed the launch of the exhibition ‘Eleanor Rathbone – An Independent Woman: Suffragist, Politician & Social Reformer at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool. This exhibition is drawn from the extensive Rathbone Papers held here in Special Collections and Archives.  

RPXIV.3.96. Eleanor Rathbone in 1910.

Eleanor Rathbone (1872 – 1946) was one of the most remarkable British women of the 20th century. Born into a prominent Liverpool family, she spent her career fighting against injustices and trying to make life better for those in need. This new exhibition uses documents from Eleanor’s own archive to tell the story of her life as a Suffragist, politician and ground-breaking social reformer. Her portrait by Sir James Gunn, which usually hangs in Portcullis House, Westminster, is on display in Liverpool for the first time as part of the exhibition.

Eleanor joined the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society in 1896 and was at the forefront of the national suffrage movement.

Her research on the working conditions at Liverpool Docks and its impact on families started a life-long campaign for a family allowance. Eleanor was elected Councillor for Liverpool’s Granby Ward in 1909, standing as an Independent rather than aligning with a political party. She held her seat for twenty-six years.

In 1929 Eleanor was elected MP for the Combined English Universities, again standing as an Independent. During the Spanish Civil War and Second World War she worked passionately on behalf of refugees. Just months before her death in 1946, after decades of campaigning, the Family Allowances Act was passed.

The exhibition is open to view Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Victoria Gallery & Museum, Ashton Street, Liverpool L69 3DR. For general enquiries on visiting the Victoria Gallery and Museum, telephone 0151 794 2348 or email vgmrecep@liv.ac.uk. For further information about the exhibition contact Dr Amanda Draper, Curator of Art & Exhibitions at amanda.draper@liverpool.ac.uk.

For enquiries regarding the Rathbone papers or to book an appointment, please contact scastaff@liverpool.ac.uk.

Saving the Children in the 1930s

In 1948, United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This significant declaration is now used as a guideline for many nations around the world when implementing laws or adopting policies. As Human Rights Day commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes place in December, we thought it fitting to show some of the material we have in Special Collections and Archives that champions the rights of children and refugees across the world.

Eleanor Rathbone

Portrait of Eleanor Rathbone [c. 1910].

Portrait of Eleanor Rathbone [RP XIV.3.96, c. 1910].

In particular, social reformer and M.P. Eleanor Rathbone was instrumental in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those affected by war and any subsequent geographic displacement. As she formed the Children’s Minimum Committee in 1934 to actively campaign for the eradication of children in poverty, it is perhaps very fitting that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was further expanded in 1946, the year of Eleanor’s death. This promoted the safety and welfare of children across the world.

In the later 1930s, she was an active participant in campaigning for peace and the safety of Spanish civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Here at Special Collections and Archives we hold material in the Rathbone Collection (RP XIV.2.13) that relates to Ms Rathbone’s attempts to ensure that the British government were doing all they could to assist refugees and injured civilians in Spain. The below telegram to the future Prime Minister Clement Attlee outlines Eleanor’s attempts to persuade the government to protect refugee ships leaving Spanish and French ports.

Telegram from Eleanor Rathbone to Clement Atlee, dated 19th June 1937 [RP XIV.2.13(26)].

Telegram from Eleanor Rathbone to Clement Atlee, dated 19th June 1937 [RP XIV.2.13(26)].  “Will you consider moving [adjournment?] [Monday?] to consider Spanish petition and protest against Government’s refusal to protect ships taking refugees from Bilbao to Spanish ports and also from Santander to French ports – stop latter prohibitions…”

Telegram from Eleanor Rathbone to Clement Attlee, dated 19th June 1937 [RP XIV.2.13(26)]. "on private information [privately?] confirmed [&?] Foreign Office [It?] closes the last door as Bilbao [?] understood to be almost unusable."

Telegram from Eleanor Rathbone to Clement Attlee, dated 19th June 1937 [RP XIV.2.13(26)]. “…on private information [privately?] confirmed & Foreign Office It closes the last door as Bilbao understood to be almost unusable.”

Eleanor was also instrumental in lobbying for the safe removal of refugees from those countries whereby the threat of Nazi Germany was prominent, and further their safety and ensuring the best treatment whilst in Britain [RP XIV.2.17]. In particular, she was keen for those families that were separated across international borders to be reunited in Britain as soon as possible. Eleanor wrote to the Home Secretary in reference to the Government’s regulations on allowing refugees into the country, which she described was “as though one were to throw a child out of the top window for fear of catching cold through leaving the door open”. [RP XIV.2.17(3), Letter to Home Secretary dated 3rd February 1940].

Current support for child refugees can be found in December through Christmas Jumper Day, in aid of Save the Children. This was certainly a cause close to Eleanor’s heart, and as the page below taken from The Girl’s Own Annual demonstrates, children in the 1930s should be safe and showing off their rounders positions!

SPEC JUV 573 1935-6 Edition p. 202

SPEC JUV 573 1935-6 Edition p. 202

See here for an overview on the Rathbone Collection. As always, the material is available to view here at Special Collections and Archives. We are based in Sydney Jones Library, Liverpool University, and open Monday to Friday, 9:30am until 4:30pm.

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.