International traveller, politician’s wife, member of the aristocracy, and divorcee are all fairly important things to have achieved in the later 19th and early 20th century, but to have been all four was the preserve of Caroline.
She spent her childhood travelling between South America and the UK, which sounds fairly exotic now, but in the later part of the 19th century it was the preserve of all but the very monied. She was born to Americans living in Lima, Peru, in the early 1870s. Her father had set up an artificial ice company in Peru which grew to become a thriving brewery and took him back and forth across the Atlantic between South America and the UK. The family (Caroline was the oldest of 11) went with him – one of her brothers was born in the UK, while the rest all had Peru as a birthplace – but while her brothers were educated at British boarding schools Caroline and her sisters remained with the family and received their education closer to home.
As a wealthy white woman at this time in South America, Caroline would have socially mixed with others reckoned to be of equal standing, and it was from this pool of society that she met her husband – a man of British parentage but South American birth, who was also engaged going back and forth across the Atlantic running an importing business. They married in Lima in the mid-1890s, and Caroline became a British citizen by marriage.
Three children followed over the next few years, two born in Chile and one in the UK, and Caroline and the children still supported her husband by travelling back and forth across the Atlantic as his business demanded. As her sons grew, they were sent to British boarding schools like their uncles before them, but Caroline’s daughter remained with her parents.
On her father’s death, at the tail end of the 19th century, Caroline’s mother moved from Peru to London, bringing her younger siblings with her.
Her husband saw service during the First World War, but Caroline still appears to have spent that period travelling back and forth between the UK and South America, even at a point when shipping in the Atlantic could be risky due to U-Boat activity. Her sons also served in the armed forces, while her daughter remained with her parents.
It was as the Great War came to an end that things started to change. Caroline’s husband left his business ambitions behind him, and developed political ambitions. He stood as an independent Liberal candidate – in full support of the Coalition government but without being given a coupon – for a Wiltshire constituency in the 1918 general election. This catapulted Caroline from the wife of a company director to a political wife – which would have involved supporting not only his political views but appearing at various political meetings and rallies in her own right as his wife. The Representation of the People Act 1918 had enfranchised almost all men over the age of 21, and in this era many politicians were drawn from the higher echelons of society. A loyal and supportive wife and family background – as displayed by Caroline and her husband and children – helped politicians draw parallels with themselves in the minds of the electorate.
The Act also gave the vote to women over 30, who were householders or part of a university constituency, and another act just before this election enabled women over 21 to stand as candidates. However, with only 17 women standing over the entire country, most candidates were still traditional politicians, and the candidate’s wife was expected to appeal to the newly enfranchised women by endorsing her husband. Campaigning at this time, with no television or radio, was done through the newspapers and frequent political meetings – where the candidate’s wife would also address the assembled crowd. Caroline would have stood up and made speeches at these meetings to endorse her husband’s candidacy and political views.
Her husband failed to gain the seat in Wiltshire, where he faced the coalition-backed existing Conservative candidate, and by the next election had moved on to a new constituency in Nottinghamshire. The family, who retained a great deal of money from his successful business, had purchased a large stately home, and Caroline became mistress of this. Her home included a library, a billiards room, seven ‘best’ bedrooms, provision for many servants and ornamental gardens. Hunting parties and other pursuits befitting stately homes at this time also became part of her life. This would have befitted her status as the MP’s wife, as her husband won the seat in the 1922 election, only to lose it again in the snap election held in 1923 when Prime Minister Bonar Law fell ill and resigned. She was returned to her status as MP’s wife at the following election in 1924, and retained that role until 1930.
Her husband was also invested as a Baronet in the late 1920s, in addition to being an MP – although by this time he’d switched allegiance to the Conservative Party. Caroline became Lady Caroline.
Financial problems had led to the couple becoming bankrupt, and Caroline had to leave her large house behind as it was sold to pay debts. As a consequence of this, her husband also resigned as an MP in 1930, and Caroline could retire from that public role.
Their marriage started to disintegrate in the 1930s, and by 1938 she had become a divorcee – easier at this point in the century on account of new divorce legislation brought in in the later 1920s, but no less stigma-laden in an era where couples were societally expected to stay together and work through difficulties.
Her ex-husband remarried quickly, but Caroline remained single for the remaining six years of her life. She died just after the end of the Second World War, leaving a considerable amount of money to her eldest son and a solicitor.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.