Edith C’s story

Edith led a varied life as a prominent anti-suffragist, a mathematics book author, and the wife of a renowned British composer. In addition, she was a mother, and had a foreign upbringing.

India-born Edith was the daughter of a British engineer, who had been posted to the British Raj hillpost of Mussoorie – in the northern part of the country – in the early 1860s. He was employed by the East Indian Railway, and travelled around the country working and advising on the early establishment of track and engines, and Edith’s mother therefore gave birth to her children in various different places – including Mayapore and Allahabad – and then the more conventional Kent and London.

Edith spent her early childhood in the heat of India, and then returned to London for a while. Her father was posted back to India, so she and her siblings went to live in Hove – at the British seaside – with their mother. Her eldest sister married back in India in the mid-1870s, so it’s probable that the whole family returned to India for a time during that decade, and there is absolutely no sign of Edith and her siblings on the 1881 census so it’s probable that they remained there for several years.

By 1885 one of her brothers was admitted to Cambridge from Bromley, so the whole family had returned to the UK for good, and it was from Bromley that she married in 1890. Her husband was employed at the Royal School of Music in London, and from this point onwards Edith became outwardly known by his name.

They moved into Kensington, the fashionable part of London, and over the next few years Edith gave birth to four children – two girls, and then twin boys. They had a full complement of servants – including a nurse and nursery maids – to give them a very comfortable life.

In 1906 Edith published a book on rhythm in mathematics, perhaps taking on some background from the musical atmosphere in her home. The idea, which originated with Mary Everest Boole, was that children should be taught musical rhythmic patterns in mathematics first, before moving on to more intellectual concepts. The book came with a set of punched sewing cards that enabled children to create curves and designs that encouraged patterns and harmony. Edith’s introduction to the work said of the idea:

“Beautiful curves are produced by a process so simple and automatic that the most inartistic child can succeed in generating beauty by mere conscientious accuracy; and the habit of doing this tends to produce a keen feeling for line. It has also been noticed in 649 some cases, where clean, pure, and strong colour has been used, that a remarkable sensitiveness to colour relation has grown.

“The results obtained by a child, of exquisite curved and flower forms on the ‘back’ of his card, by faithful obedience to a dull little rule in making straight stitches on the ‘front’, is of the nature a miracle. It should, therefore, be hardly necessary to insist that the less said the better, when the little worker produces anything especially beautiful or unexpected.”

The book was still being reprinted, with no real modernisation, until the mid-1970s.

The next phase of Edith’s life began as the campaign for women’s suffrage began to escalate. She opposed women’s suffrage, and was involved in the early days of the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League. She attended a meeting hosted by the Countess of Jersey in London in November 1908, and by the spring of 1909 she was honourable secretary of the league. In this role she spoke at West Hampstead Town Hall:

“… the Suffragists made the mistake of being unduly influenced by special instances rather than considering the community as a whole. The statement that women paid for the vote and therefore they ought to have it was, she thought a very mean conception of citizenship. It had never been our principle in this country. There were two classes of qualification for the vote. The first was that the voter should be a man, and, secondly, he should give some good ground for believing that he would take a permanent and stable interest in the good government of the country. The cry of the Suffragists for the vote on the same terms as men was absurd, because the first term on which men were given the vote was that they were men. (She) then spoke briefly on the subject of the vastness of our Empire, and stated that in all the Suffragist literature there was none upon the subject of women’s franchise and the Empire. Suffragists proposed to alter the whole Constitution upon which that great Empire had been built up without showing its effects upon the Empire. She also referred briefly to certain Suffragist literature, the under-trend of which, she said, seemed to be the destruction of the thought of motherhood as the highest ideal for women.”

Edith Lance Collet

Edith in Manchester in 1909

She continued to be very involved in the work of the league, proving to be a well-known and rousing speaker for their ideals, and – like her rising counterpart Gwladys – believing that women had an important role in improving society by breeding and raising better people rather than influencing politics. Her platform was presented at various meetings around the country, often working with and speaking alongside with Mary Ward, better known as Mrs Humphry Ward, including at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in late October 1909:

“… (she) said Miss Robertson (Margaret Robinson, one of the speakers for the cause of women’s suffrage) made some good debating points without upsetting Mrs Ward’s argument. “We say (she said) that government depends on the consent of the majority, and that is one of the reasons we oppose the extension of the franchise”. Nobody seemed to know what she meant, and she passed on to consider Miss Robertson’s higher view of motherhood. Miss Robertson said this high ideal was only to be attained through the vote. But it is, and always has been, attained by making better men.

“Women are always in the foreground of reforms, not that men are more evil, but because women have the whole future of the world in their hands. Reforms have been won by women influencing the good men to help. She appealed to all the women to do the work which men have given them to do, and wait till they were invited to take their place in the foreground.”

She also toured Scotland for her cause, speaking at meetings of her league and also being present at a meeting in Edinburgh where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking for the cause of women’s suffrage, and proved to be a vociferous opposer and no shrinking violet:

“In the course of her address, Miss Pankhurst was interrupted by a lady, and she said if the interrupter had been at a Liberal meeting she would have been thrown out. The lady, who afterwards gave her name as (Edith), of the Anti-Suffrage League, said she was interrupting a meeting which had to do with women’s suffrage. Miss Pankhurst and her friends interrupted meetings where Cabinet Ministers talked about something else.

“Miss Pankhurst retorted that a Cabinet Minister could not talk on any political question which was not connected with votes for women. Miss Pankhurst was severely “heckled” for about half an hour. (Edith) was prominent at this part of the proceedings, and for some time she sustained a vigorous argument with Miss Pankhurst. (Edith) challenged directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration of women engaged in the textile industries, and gave as her authority the Board of Trade Blue-book on the subject, which she advised the audience to read. (Edith), in reply to Miss Pankhurst’s declaration that taxation without representation was tyranny, pointed out that citizenship was not a matter of paying money; and Miss Pankhurst replied that men had laid down that taxation and representation must go together. (Edith) then asked, if that was so, why only 6 ½ millions of the men who paid taxes had the vote? Miss Pankhurst said it was not their business to complain of the way men worked out the general principle they had laid down. They wanted for women the principle men had set up for themselves.”

However, despite the prominence of her role in the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League, whether she found the work incompatible with her family life, or changed her views, Edith stood down as secretary at the beginning of 1910. She made one more appearance on an anti-suffrage platform, and then disappeared from view.

Interestingly, however, she appears on the first electoral role that she could appear on, in 1918. This may indicate that she had changed her views, but there is no way of knowing whether she actually did vote or not.

She and her husband, once their children had grown and left home, appear to have lived quietly supported by domestic staff in their fairly grand townhouse in Kensington. They gradually downsized their properties as their needs grew less. Her husband was knighted for his work in music in 1929, and Edith became a Lady.

She was widowed a couple of years before the Second World War, and again downsized, living with a parlour maid and a cook/housekeeper until her own death at the tail end of the war.

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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.

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