CLICK ON COVERS
Elsie Edith Bowerman 1889-1973
and her mother
Edith Bowerman Chibnall 1864-1953
In 2005 Elsie Bowerman received a Blue Plaque
EDITH BARBER AND WILLIAM BOWERMAN
Edith Martha Barber, a gardener's daughter, was born in Baddingham, Suffolk, England, on 27th
February 1864. Her family moved to Sinnock Cottage, Hastings Old Town, Sussex, England, and Edith worked
as a draper's assistant. Her employer, William Bowerman, was born in Bicester, Oxfordshire,
on 30th August 1831. He owned rental properties and a chain of drapers' shops in Hastings
and St. Leonards, in which he employed ten people.(1) After his first wife (2) died he
married Edith, who was 33 years his junior, around 1888/9.
When William was 58 and Edith 25, their daughter Elsie was born on 18th December 1889 at
Tunbridge Wells. One of Elsie's earliest memories was of Sunday evenings when her father
played hymns on the piano; later, Elsie too became a keen amateur pianist. Her parents
took great interest in public affairs, local and national, and believed in the principle
that enjoyment and happiness lay in working for others. These ideals were passed
on to Elsie.
In 1890 William sold his chain of shops and retired. He is shown in the 1891 Census as
'living on own means' at 145 London Road, St Leonards with his wife, baby daughter and
two servants. Elsie was raised in comfortable, unostentatious circumstances. Although
wealthy, her parents were careful with money. William frequently appealed against local
rates and had many rental properties reassessed in his favour, a practice continued by
his wife and daughter after his death. His accumulation of properties is central to Elsie
and Edith's future since it provided an unearned income without which their lives may have
been very different. William died of bronchitis on 3rd May 1895. Edith erected choir-stalls
in his memory in St. Matthew's church, Silverhill, St
Leonards. A commemorative brass plaque is still there today.
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
Until she was 11 Elsie studied piano under Fraulein Bischoff at Hastings
& St Leonards Ladies College, 6 Cumberland Gardens, and in 1900 gained
a pass certificate with Honours in the local piano examinations.
In 1901, Elsie was sent as a boarder to the prestigious Wycombe Abbey School.(3) Then
11, she was the youngest girl in the school. Elsie recalled that 'the anticipated tears
were firmly suppressed'.(4) Such early independence and long separations from her home
stood her in good stead for her later travels. Her intelligence was immediately noticed,
and she attained first place in a form of eleven girls nearly two years her senior.
Elsie left school in April 1907 and stayed a while in Paris before beginning her studies
in Mediaeval and Modern Languages at Girton College, Cambridge.(5) She was elected
representative of first year students, joined the committee of a missionary society,
and was in many
college teams. She especially enjoyed hockey.
Around 1907, the widowed Edith Bowerman, now 43, married 67-year-old Alfred Benjamin
Chibnall, a wealthy farmer.(6) This alliance remains mysterious. Hastings Rates books
and street directories show no trace that the couple ever lived together; only Edith
is listed. He is not mentioned in Elsie's copious correspondence throughout 1910, or
later; no photographs of him appear in Elsie's collections, nor did he accompany his
wife and stepdaughter on their many holidays between 1910 to 1915. From 1907/8 Edith
styled herself Mrs. Chibnall, but from 1910 until her death she was called Mrs. Bowerman
Chibnall. When Alfred Chibnall died in Bedfordshire in 1929 he left nothing to Edith or
Elsie; his entire estate of £10,000 was bequeathed to male friends. The reason for their
estrangement is impossible to confirm. Perhaps it was linked to his wife's involvement
in militant feminist politics.
In the thirty-five years after Hastings resident Barbara Leigh
Smith Bodichon began the first women's suffrage petition, women had been politely
and peacefully requesting the vote, to no avail. They had exhausted all the correct
methods and procedures and the idea had become stale and with no hope of
success. Then, a new organisation - the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) -
was started by Mrs. Pankhurst in 1903. Its intention was to revive the idea and to just keep
on until the vote was won. The government continued to treat the request with a contempt that
had now become entrenched. By 1906 the WSPU - known as the
'Suffragettes' - were resorting to increasingly militant methods: interrupting political
meetings, holding marches and demonstrations and sending deputations to Parliament. As each
level of activity was ignored by the government, methods became increasingly militant. Simultaneously,
the older suffrage societies carried on their ineffective methods, but their membership was
boosted owing to the publicity gained by the WSPU.
Around 1908-10, Edith and Elsie joined the WSPU. It is notable that of the six suffrage
societies active in Hastings, they chose the militant one. Women's suffragists such as Mrs. Massey and the famous American activist May Wright
Sewall (7) were Edith's guests at 145 London Rd when they visited the area to give speeches.
Edith also became organiser for the Hastings branch of the Women's Suffrage Propaganda League
(WSPL). Fellow member Miss G.E MacMunn rented the ground floor of Elsie's property at
5 Grand Parade (pictured above) and made it the HQ.
During 1910 Elsie's letters to her mother at 145 London Road contain a mixture of domestic issues and
references to women's suffrage. As she was away at college for much of the year, Elsie
formed a suffrage group at Girton. In the summer an all-party group of MPs devised a Bill to give votes to women. During
her holiday in July, Elsie wrote from France:
Votes for Women [a newspaper] has just arrived. Thank you so much for it. It makes me
simply long to be in the thick of the fray. Will you please send the enclosed letter to
Mrs. Pethick Lawrence (8) as soon as possible with a P.O. for 5/-. I will pay you when
I come home. I hope the peaches will arrive alright. I sent them off this morning. The
heat is frantic.
If I had known suffrage was going to be this exciting I don't think I could have come
away till after this session of Parliament was over. I have made one of the Scotch girls
quite keen & she has promised always to take 'Votes' when she goes home. I feel quite
proud of myself!!
Lots of love
PS Did you notice that one of the Labour members who voted for the Bill was called Bowerman?
The Bill to give women the vote passed its second reading by 299 votes to 189, but the PM,
Asquith, refused it Parliamentary time. Suffragettes were furious: it was the most recent
in a string of broken promises. On Friday 18th November, Asquith made a statement to the
House announcing that Parliament would be closed on the 28th, but said nothing about votes
for women. A 'Women's Parliament' had assembled nearby at Caxton Hall, suspecting Asquith
would again block the Bill. As soon as the news was received, Mrs. Pankhurst led a
deputation of 300 to the Houses of Parliament. Among them were Edith Bowerman Chibnall,
the distinguished scientist Hertha Ayrton,(9) and the Honourable Mrs. Evelina Haverfield,
(10) who was later to influence Elsie's future. The police obstructed them and a violent
skirmish ensued. Over 100 were arrested and many were injured, but Edith escaped - shaken,
but unhurt. The event has ever since been referred to as 'Black Friday'. On November 20th,
Elsie wrote from Girton College (using notepaper and envelopes with 'Votes for Women'
embossed in relief) to Edith, who was staying with Mrs Peirce in Highgate, London:
I have been simply wild with excitement these last two days. I am awfully glad you got on
so well on Friday. I think the deputation has done a tremendous amount of good, as there
are lengthy accounts of it in all the newspapers, and there was quite a long debate about
it in the house. What a pity it seems that you have to go through it all again tomorrow.
I should have thought that once would have been sufficient. I shall be frightfully anxious
to hear how you fare. You must be frightfully tired - I hope you won't go again after Monday.
I think if you have been twice you will have done enough for this time.
If you have time or energy left could you possibly send me a wire tomorrow night to tell me
if you are arrested or not. I wish I could be there to help. I expect the General Election
will be very exciting. I wonder when the polling will be at Hastings. I am awfully glad you
had people you knew with you & how glorious to have gone with Mrs. Pankhurst. It makes me
feel very envious.
On Tuesday 22nd November, Edith again went to Caxton Hall and joined a deputation. 'It is
my intention to go to 10 Downing St, or die in the attempt', she declared. A nearby
policeman replied by giving her a blow on the head. He caught me by the hair and flinging
me aside he said, 'Die, then!' I found afterwards that so much force had been used that my
hairpins were bent double in my hair and my sealskin coat was torn to ribbons.'(11)
Scene from one of the clashes between the suffragettes and the police in Parliament
Square between 18-22 November 1910. Edith took part and was injured on 22 November.
'So sorry you have had such a bad time', wrote Elsie on the 23rd. 'It is sickening that
this endless fighting has to go on. I am frightfully sorry Mrs. Pankhurst & Mrs. Haverfield
were arrested... It is a great pity to lose all our best people just before the Election.
I hope you won't go on any more raids. I think you have done your share for this week.'
During the three days of violence, 285 arrests were made, 75 women were in prison, many
were injured, and three later died from injuries received.
Elsie, mid-term at Girton, wrote: 'I have been so excited all this week it is hard to
work.' She wore suffragette badges in lectures, shared and sold copies of 'Votes for
Women' and organised suffrage debates. As the Government continued to break promises,
so women's fury and impatience increased, and the WSPU resorted to damaging property
including window-smashing raids and arson. Altogether, over a thousand women went to
prison. They demanded the privileges of political prisoners and when treated instead
as common criminals many went on hunger-strike, and some were force-fed. In 1913
Levetleigh , a house in St Leonards was destroyed
by arsonists, believed to be suffragettes.(12) Some WSPU members resigned in disapproval
of the violence, but Edith and Elsie continued their membership and, moreover, Elsie
later became a paid organiser to the WSPU leaders.
A car loaned to the WSPU by Rev. Hope of Bexhill, outside the Suffragette Headquarters at 8
Claremont, Hastings, about to set off around town to advertise Mrs. Pankhurst's forthcoming
speech at the Public Hall, Cambridge Road. Elsie Bowerman is in the front
seat, the Reverend Hope alongside her. (19 November 1912.)
In 1911 Elsie, aged 21, passed the Tripos examination Class II and came into her
inheritance from her father. This included a number of rental properties to which
she added by further purchases. The income they provided left Elsie free from the
necessity to work. Edith was in the same position and, although the two had a large
income - in 1918 Elsie's unearned income amounted to over £700 p.a., the equivalent
of about £70,000 today - they did not indulge in extravagant purchases or high
living. They lived modestly, mending not replacing, buying sale goods, and saving
money whenever they could. Their 'penny-wise' attitude is exemplified in a letter
from Elsie in Paris, in which she warns her mother to bring her own soap as, to her
annoyance, Elsie had been charged a franc by the hotel for a single bar. Yet, just
months later, they blew £55 on two first-class tickets to New York on board the most
luxurious and glamorous steamship ever built.
On Wednesday 10th April 1912, Elsie and Edith, now aged 22 and 48, travelled from Warrior Square station to
Southampton. They were to visit William Bowerman's relations, and a friend, Mr Guthrie,
in Ohio, then travel across the USA and Canada. They occupied Cabin 33 on Deck E of the
RMS Titanic . The story of its sinking
two days later is well-known. Over 1000 were drowned, but the famous 'women and children
first' tradition, supplemented by the lesser-quoted 'first class passengers take
priority' maxim ensured that Elsie and Edith were among the 700 saved. Elsie wrote:
The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and
telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into life-boats, where we were
told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and
to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with ice-bergs floating about, is a
The two women were in Lifeboat 6 with about 22 others including Frederick Fleet, the
lookout who had first spotted the iceberg. (The 1997 film 'Titanic' featured several
scenes in this lifeboat because it accommodated two of the main characters, Molly Brown,
and the fictional Mrs. Ruth Dewit Bukater, mother of the heroine Rose.) The boat was the
third to be lowered, at 0055hrs. Molly Brown wrote much about their time in the lifeboat:
Molly demanded that the women be allowed to row to keep warm. Hitchens tried to stop her,
but Molly told him he would be thrown overboard if he attempted to stop her. Both men
eventually gave in and Molly took control. She had the women rowing and distributed her
furs and other clothing to the freezing passengers.
Elsie and Edith would have heard the desperate cries of
people drowning in the sea around them, as they floated in the middle of the Atlantic
all night before being rescued and taken to New York by the Carpathia. They were listed
in a report in the
Cleveland Plain Dealer as being safe. A small item in the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer announced that they were safe. Undeterred, they
continued with their itinerary, stayed at a ranch in British Columbia and visited the
Klondyke and Alaska. While away, Elsie wrote an article for the Wycombe Abbey Gazette
entitled 'The Magnetic North'.
The pair returned to Hastings as minor celebrities. On 24th April 1913, the Hastings &
St Leonards Observer published this photograph of Elsie, standing in the gutter (15) on the
sea front, at the corner of Claremont and White Rock, Hastings, selling copies of the
newspaper The Suffragette to passers-by. The caption explained that it was self-denial week
for Suffragettes. In these weeks, treats and luxuries were forsaken and the money saved
donated to the campaign.
Their nightmare journey to New York did not deter either from travelling: they visited
Arundel and Loch Lomond in 1913, Betts-y-Coed, Winchester and Rome in 1914, and Dartmoor
in 1915. Photographs taken in 1915 show Elsie and her mother in the garden at Heathfield,
their country house in Thakeham, with a few close friends, such as the Hon. Evelina Haverfield, Mrs.
Peirce, and Miss Hogg and Miss Tristram, both Hastings suffragettes. Few men appear; Mr.
Guthrie was one. In contrast to many photographs of middle-class women of that era, Elsie
and her young friends were not at all ladylike or dainty; they happily lolled around on
the grass with their pets, and Edith is seen gardening. Elsie was a sturdy woman of
average build. She was 5' 5', with thick brown wavy hair with a centre parting, blue
eyes, a low forehead, square chin, straight nose, round face, full mouth and fair
complexion.(16) She appears open and sincere, almost tomboyish, with a zest for life,
and completely without airs, graces or coquetry.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
In July 1916 the Honourable Mrs. Haverfield, now a leading light in the pro-war movement,
invited Elsie to go to Serbia as a motor driver. Although 26 years old, Elsie begged her
mother's permission (see illustrations below) and mentioned incidentally that she
would have to spend a week learning to drive. When Edith consented Elsie thanked her,
adding, 'It is good of you always to be so splendidly unselfish - everyone I have met
is fearfully envious of me having the chance to go.' However, a different job was found
for Elsie and in September, she became an orderly in the London Unit of the now-famous
Scottish Women's Hospitals, run by Dr. Elsie Inglis.(17)
The letters reads:
International Women's Franchise Club Ltd.
[It is unclear what obligations Elsie had towards Wycombe Abbey School, since she was
26 years old at the time.]
July 5th 
Mrs Haverfield has just asked me to go out to Serbia at the beginning of August, to
drive a car - May I go? I know Miss Whitelaw would let me off Wycombe to go. It is
what I've been dying to do & drive a car ever since the war started. I should have to
spend the week after the procession learning to drive - the cars are Fords - if I went
I would come home when I come back I would not have to go to W.A. It is really like a
chance to go to the front. They want drivers so badly. So do say yes - It is too
thrilling for words.
Ever so much love
PS I do hope you will have your breakfast in bed while you are at St. Leonards.
This all-female unit had to travel a most circuitous route, via Scandinavia, Archangel,
Moscow and Odessa, to serve the Serbian and Russian armies in Romania. Unfortunately it
arrived just as the allies had been defeated. English newspapers carried reports about
the women's units, which, Elsie wrote to her mother, 'make us afraid you will all think
we are starving or dead or something whereas we are really having the time of our lives.'
In November 1916 they set up a hospital near the Danube, then had to dismantle it and join
the retreat to the Russian frontier. It was bitterly cold and Elsie asked in her
almost-daily letters home for gloves, scarves and thick stockings, as well as a dozen
Kodak Brownie films, Suchard chocolate, and a book of Robert Louis Stevenson's stories.
However, she begged her mother not to send Christmas puddings. In addition to copious
letter mail, Elsie sent telegrams at every opportunity. Despite this, Edith wrote
several frantic letters to the headquarters of the Scottish Women's Hospitals from whom
she received repeated reassurance that Elsie's unit was safe.
Elsie found the whole experience wonderful. In her detailed pencil-written diary (18)
she described pitching tents for the field hospital, and serving meals to 250 people
with the help of only one Russian, who could not speak English. She described sleeping
in the open air just twenty miles from the firing line, having singing parties with
soldiers around camp fires and going on a cross-country ride with Russian officers.
She was in charge of wagon-loads of equipment which frequently got lost and had to be
recovered, and this in the midst of a war. Although Elsie was an orderly, she sometimes
helped with the wounded. However, on 1st March she wrote in her diary 'Life is one long
chuckle at present', and described her shopping sprees, and commented that she sometimes
deliberately left her purse behind to curb expenditure. She was in St Petersburg in 1917
and her diary contains not only eye-witness testimony of living in the midst of the
Russian Revolution, but it reveals something of her personality, her use of language,
and her interests and priorities.
Great excitement in street - armoured cars rushing up and down - soldiers and civilians
marching up and down armed - attention suddenly focussed on our hotel & house next door
- rain of shots directed on to both buildings as police supposed to be shooting from top
storeys - most exciting. Several shots went through windows. Presently our hotel searched
by rebels - came into each room searching for police spy - very nice to us - most polite
- several civilians as well as soldiers. One 'revolutionary' came into our room to dress
- didn't know how to wear his sword - we had to assist with the strapping up. Much to our
disgust all hotel servants also the manager disappeared - nothing to eat - picnicked in
our rooms. Shooting & shouting continuously all day in the street - several search
parties through the hotel at intervals. V. difficult to settle down to anything - sat at
hotel window in afternoon, watched crowds in streets, lorries crowded with armed men.
Youths left in charge of the hotel kitchen - armed with ferocious carving knives & muskets.
Managed to loot some glasses of milk - all other food locked up. Fresh alarm in hotel in
evening when rifle shot suddenly heard in the building. Merely one of the revolutionary
sentries. Banged rifle on floor in his excitement & shot went through the ceiling.
Rumour that hotel will be fired during the night so we packed our haversacks carefully
in case we had to make hurried departure in the night. Retired to bed. Great luck to
share such comfortable quarters. [Hotel] Astoria has been sacked & guests turned out.
[Female colleagues] Brown & Hedges went to Embassy in afternoon in case there were any
orders for British people - didn't get any enlightenment. They 'wished us luck' - no
other suggestions to offer. At intervals during the day motors rush by - scattered
news-sheets &declarations to the people. Brown & Hedges ran into street affray -
had to take cover in a canal.
Crowds in streets but much quieter than yesterday. Soldiers maintaining order. Passed
houses which had been occupied by police etc where papers in piles burning in the streets
- still being thrown on by soldiers. Headquarters of police & detective force burnt to the
ground & still burning - people firing at a police stronghold in house above us ... rushed
across to take refuge in a church doorway - found the shots were being sent in that
direction - presently soldiers came rushing into the building with pistols so we decided
to move into doorway of a house in the courtyard - but soldiers came pouring in so we
decided to get out while we could. Got out before things became any warmer.
Throughout we have met with the utmost politeness & consideration from everyone.
Revolutions carried out in such a peaceful manner really deserve to succeed. Today
weapons only seem to be in the hands of responsible people - not as yesterday, carried
in many cases by excited youths. Heard that the ministers have now surrendered. Some have
been shot, or shot themselves.
[Visited] Anglo-Russian hospital - thankful we are not staying there. They have been
under orders to stay indoors all through the revolution - Hotel now quite organised
again. Meals etc as usual. Reported that 3600 people have been killed & wounded in
street affrays. People have decided to ask the Tsar to abdicate in favour of his son.
In afternoon went down Nevski [Prospect]. Huge crowds in every direction. Presently
motor came along - people flocked around - officer & also man in civilian dress made
two announcements from the car - viz., that the Tsar had abdicated in favour of his
brother Michael & Michael had placed the power in the hands of the people, therefore
to all intents & purposes Russia is now a republic. 2.30pm Mar 16th 1917. People cheered
and cheered - wildest excitement. Rushed off & fetched ladders to take down the eagles
off various public buildings. Rumour that there is a sanguinary revolution in Berlin &
that the Kaiser is dead! Seems too good to be true. We spent the evening in wild speculation.
(Extracts from diary entries March 17th - 23rd)
Went with Walker to be manicured - Went to Russian church in station square. Very full
- so came away to another - also crowded. Railway through Finland reopened so we may
possibly return home via Norway- We are told we shall have utmost discomfort - no
accommodation food or water. Don't mind if we can only get off home - Eagles on Winter
Palace all draped with Red.
March 24th - 25th
Got up 5 am. To station. People at that hour already standing in long queues outside
bread shops. Train left 7.40. Very comfy. Travelled through Finland. Sat outside train
on step for a long way. Delightful restaurant car and sleeping berths. [25th] Arrived at
Tornea Finnish frontier 12 noon. Drove in sleigh over river to Customs House. On by
sleigh to Haparanda in Sweden - Drive in sleigh over snow through woods. Most comfy
sleighs could lie right back - 1st class sleeping berths most delightful train -
spotlessly clean - nice women attendants.
After a short stay in Sweden the unit made its way back via Bergen and Aberdeen, to
London Euston Station. Elsie made straight to Mrs. Peirce's house in Highgate,
arriving at midnight on 4th April 1917.
On her return to England, Elsie divided
her time between her country house at East Lavington and London, where she was a
member of the University Club for Ladies.(19) She received the Certificate of the
Russian Medal for Meritorious Service. Never one to rest on her laurels, she soon
became involved in another round of public work.
When the war broke out, the suffrage movement had placed its demands on the back-burner.
The WSPU became 'The Women's Party' (20) and encouraged women to volunteer
for war work and men to sign up; it opposed pacifism and socialism, and tried to
halt strikes. Elsie became a paid organiser, and for months she toured nation-wide with
WSPU leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. At each town, Elsie took lodgings and
set about organising and advertising mass-meetings: one at Manchester drew 10,000 people. She
is mentioned as sharing the platform with Christabel Pankhurst at
a meeting in Bath.
Elsie found the events 'thrilling' and felt passionate about her endeavours. She wrote
to Edith 'It is awfully exhausting work for Mrs. Pankhurst; it makes one so angry to
think that people should need to be urged to patriotism at a time like this.'
Something of Elsie's personality is revealed in a letter to Edith from Sheffield in June
1917: 'how tired one gets of the Yorkshire accent - it IS hideous. I do hope I
shan't catch it.' While on this tour Elsie, dissatisfied with her letting agent,
Chennells, of Hastings, took personal control of the maintenance and rent collection
of her properties. Mother and daughter corresponded profusely about property matters
and Edith arranged the maintenance for the properties owned by herself and Elsie.
She employed Mr. Jinks, a handyman of 53 Bohemia Rd, and Pettit's, a firm of builders
based at 182 Queen's Road. Curiously, Elsie sent her laundry home while on her
nation-wide tour and complained in 1918 that her laundress 'is hopeless! Has sent no
clean combinations to wear and no stockings.'
From a letter from Elsie to Edith regarding property, 1918.
On February 6th 1918, women finally won not only the vote, but also the right to stand for
election to Parliament, and Elsie acted as Christabel Pankhurst's Election Agent.(21)
With Elsie away, Edith lived a quiet life, staying mainly in St Leonards with
sojourns at the country houses. Despite owning much property, Edith mostly lived in
boarding houses, at Mrs. Smith's at 63 Warrior Square (see right), or Mrs. Piggot's at 9
Church Rd. This could have been for financial reasons: she could let the large houses for
great sums and take inexpensive lodgings, a practice which also ensured she had
company. In 1918 she advertised in The Lady for a housekeeper.
BETWEEN THE WARS
Elsie felt driven to educate people in politics and economics, to encourage individual
responsibility and enterprise, and to oppose socialism and communism. With these ends
in view she joined the newly-formed 'Women's Guild of Empire', which was eventually to boast
40,000 members in 30 branches. Elsie was secretary and edited the Guild's journal
The Bulletin (slogan: 'Women Unite to save the Nation'). The Guild believed that
strikes caused misery and unemployment and that unions should keep out of politics.
In 1919 she was Honorary Secretary of 'Deeds Not Words', a committee formed to
collect money to present to Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel, in recognition of their
great financial and personal sacrifice for the suffrage movement.
Christabel Pankhurst in 1909.
Having been so involved in political campaigning and war work, and with her large
private income obviating the need to earn a wage, it was not until the late age of
31 that Elsie turned her sights to a profession. She decided to become a lawyer.
She could not have done this very much earlier, in any case, because until the 1919
Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act women were barred from entering the legal
profession. It took a lot of cash, too: initially, a £ 50 deposit and over
£50 in fees was demanded. Elsie was accepted as a student by the Middle Temple in
1921 and was called to the Bar in 1924.(22) Elsie and Edith took a celebratory
trip to Geneva. Elsie, based in Pump Court, (23) practised on the South Eastern
Circuit. She became the first woman barrister to appear at the Old Bailey when
she won a libel action brought by the National Union of Seamen against a communist.
This was perhaps ironic, given her anti-union beliefs. In the mid-20s Elsie published
a book, The Law of Child Protection and in 1928 the London Evening Standard printed
her essay, Why women do not write Utopias .(24) Elsie joined The International
Federation of Women in Legal Careers (F.I.F.C.J.), founded in Paris in 1928.
Elsie Bowerman in 1928.
Photo: Evening Standard
THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND AFTER
In 1938 Elsie gave up law and enrolled in the brand-new and, later, famous Women's
Voluntary Services (WVS). For two years she was organiser in the Information and
Public Meetings department. She then worked briefly for the Ministry of Information
before spending three years in the USA as a liaison officer in the BBC Overseas
Services. She resigned around 1943-45 and became Chief of General Services to the
London office, responsible for conferences. In 1946 she went back to the USA to help
set up the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Elsie was the representative
of the Secretary-General, and was Acting Chief of the Section on the Status of Women.
Her name is listed on the D.A.W. website.
After her return to England in the late 1940s, Elsie spent weekdays at her flat near
the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (25) and, from 1951, weekends at a modest flat
on the top floor of one of her properties: 23-25 Silchester Road, St Leonards.(26)
Edith, now 87, was in a nearby nursing home.(27) As a wealthy and powerful woman,
and a former barrister, Elsie was an unusual person to find in a working-class area
of tradesmen and small shops. She was then 63, an assertive, no-nonsense woman, very
stout and grey-haired. She drove an impressive black Rover car and once had a council
parking restriction lifted because it inconvenienced her.
I can find no mention of any romantic attachment in the whole of Elsie's life. In her
letters and other documents there is only one hint of a liaison or intimate relationship
with anyone. One day she told her ground floor tenants that she was having her flat
refurbished because a 'close lady friend' was coming to live with her. Soon afterwards,
they were shocked to find her sobbing on the stairs: her friend had died suddenly. Elsie,
a woman they thought not given to displays of emotion or weakness, was inconsolable.(28)
Elsie was present when her mother died on 8th October 1953. Little is known of Elsie's
life after this time. She purchased Bachelors, a large and costly country house at
Cowbeech Hill, near Hailsham, Sussex. She was in contact with historian Antonia
Raeburn sometime between 1968 and 1972 and is acknowledged in Raeburn's book, Militant
Suffragettes, as 'Miss Elsie Bowerman M.A. Barrister-at-Law' for giving information on
her mother's experience on Black Friday. Described by Miss Fisher of Wycombe Abbey as
'blessed with a gift for writing,' She wrote articles for the school magazine, and in 1965
produced a 95 page book about its founder Dame Frances Dove, entitled Stands There a School.
Elsie had carried out voluntary work for the United Girls' School Mission since her
schooldays. Between 1931 and 1962 she was successively treasurer, secretary, and
chairman of the Finance and General Purposes Committee, whereupon she became chairman
until her death. Elsie saved the Mission from closure during its years of crisis,
(she once even stood-in as resident warden). Thanks to her it re-emerged as the
Peckham Settlement, supported by the Union of Girls' Schools for Social Service.
Throughout her life Elsie also retained her connections with Wycombe Abbey. She was
a member of the school council and carried out a considerable amount of organisational
work during the war to ensure the school's survival. She helped set up an endowment
fund and established the Dove-Bowerman Trust, dedicated to the fortunes of Wycombe
Abbey, and described it as 'the crowning work of her life'.
Elsie suffered a stroke in 1972 and died on 18th October 1973, aged 83, leaving over
£143,000 - the equivalent of over a million pounds today. Her bequests reflected
the things closest to her heart. £1000 went to the Chichester Cathedral Fund (to
increase stipends); £500 each was left to the Seaman's Mission, Arthur Owen of
Rye, and Mary Jenner of Hellingly. £ 200 each went to Warbleton Parish Church,
the Gardeners' Benevolent Fund and the RNLI; £100 went to the Old Hastings
Preservation Society. To Margaret Cousins, of Benedicts, Ardingly, she left
the remainder of her possessions and the largest personal bequest: £4000.
Her books, piano, music and records went to Wycombe Abbey School, as did
the bulk of her estate, which she left to the school's Dove-Bowerman Trust,
which is still in existence. Although her funeral was held at St Mary the
Virgin, Warbleton, Elsie was buried in the family grave along with her parents
in Hastings cemetery.
In an obituary, Miss Fisher of Wycombe Abbey wrote:
It was the vitality and the gaiety of Else Bowermans' spirit that captivated us
and made us respond with smiles whenever she appeared in the School. Welcome
everywhere, but happiest in the Cloister, she invigorated us with her penetrating
comments, lively wit and clear-sighted vision.
Miss K.A. Walpole, headmistress of Wycombe Abbey described Elsie as:
As her life drew to its close her thoughts turned to abiding loyalties, loyalty to
church, country, school and friends; though finding it hard to lose her independence
because of failing strength, she rejoiced in her remembrance of a long and happy life;
as ever, she looked to the future. Let the last words be hers:
... not just an able, strong-minded woman. Determined? Yes. Impatient? Yes - with
injustice and narrow-minded foolishness. But essentially she was modest, friendly,
relaxed. She loved the good things of life - music above all, art, her garden; she
enjoyed good food, good wine, fun, sociability. Many of us will remember her generous
hospitality, a smaller number the joy of her close friendship. Her concern also
reached out to all those who lived about her - her daily help, her taxi-driver, the
people of the village, those with whom she worshipped in the village church.
'As one approaches the end of life an unaccountable feeling of melancholy creeps over
one. This is not because of any fear of the life to come, rather a joyful anticipation.
Life has been so full of surprises that one cannot believe that there are not even greater
joys and adventures in store. Here's Au Revoir to all my friends and countless thanks
for all their love and kindness which has given me such a happy life in this world -
Here's to our next happy meeting in the next one.
(1) Property in Hastings and St Leonards, later inherited by Elsie & Edith, included
2, 5 &:8 Grand Parade; 7 &:7a South St; 1,2,3,4 &:5 Crystal Square (now demolished);
11 North St; 62 Norman Rd; 4 &:5 Castle St; 68 &:69 Marina; 9 &:19 Wellington Place;
37 London Rd. Most were shops with flats above. The shops were at 14 Robertson St
(hosier), 33/35 London Rd and 9 1/2 Castle St.
(2) Emma Smith and WB married at St Bride's Fleet Street, 1865. They had no children.
(3) High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1896. A Church of England school whose
alumni include the Rt Hon Lady Justice Butler-Sloss and Lady Elspeth Howe.
(4) A women's college co-founded by Hastings resident and early suffragist Barbara Bodichon.
(5) K.A. Walpole. Article in Wycombe Abbey school magazine, Seniors' supplement (1974).
(6) Born 12 April 1840. In 1881 he was owned 197 acres and employed 14 staff. He was
married with five children and lived at Kempston, Bedfordshire (1881 Census)
(7) May Wright Sewall B.A. M.A. (1844-1920), feminist, educator, author and lecturer.
President, National Congress of Women,1891. President, International Congress of Women, 1899.
(8) National treasurer of the WSPU.
(9) Whom Barbara Bodichon had sponsored in her early days.
(10) Raeburn, A. (1973) The Militant Suffragettes p 172.
(11) Evelina Haverfield, daughter of Lord Arbinger. An excellent horsewoman,
she accompanied her army officer husband to South Africa when he fought in the
Boer War. Member of the WSPU and was imprisoned for militancy. During the war,
she was Commandant in Chief of the Women's Reserve Ambulance Corps and head of
the transport for the Scottish Women's Hospitals.
(12) The remains can still be seen at Dane Rd, St Leonards.
(13) K.A. Walpole. Op cit.
(14) Lifeboat 6 was rescued by the Carpathia at about 6.00 am. It was under the
command of Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who wrote:
'We lowered away from the ship. I told them in the boat that somebody would have to
pull. There was no use stopping alongside the ship, which was gradually going by the
head. We were in a dangerous place, so I told them to man the oars - ladies and all.
'All of you do your best.' I relieved one of the young ladies with an oar and told her
to take the tiller. She immediately let the boat come athwart, and the ladies in the
boat got very nervous; so I took the tiller back again and told them to manage the best
way they could. ... I do not remember that the women urged me to go toward the 'Titanic'.
I did not row toward the scene of the 'Titanic' because the suction of the ship would
draw the boat, with all its occupants, under water. I did not know which way to go
back to the 'Titanic'. I was looking at all the other boats. We were looking at each
other's lights. After the lights disappeared and went out, we did hear cries of
distress - a lot of crying, moaning and screaming, for two or three minutes.'
(15) Suffragettes stood there to avoid arrest for obstructing the footpath.
(16) Description taken from her 1916 passport and from photographs held at the
National Library of Women, London.
(17) Elsie Inglis (1864-1916) studied medicine at the Edinburgh School of Medicine
for Women, founded by Sophia Jex-Blake, (a Hastings-born woman). Dr. Inglis helped
set up the Scottish Women's Suffrage Federation. On the outbreak of the First World
War, against strong male opposition she and her Committee sent an all-female medical
unit to France. In 1916, the London Suffrage Society financed Inglis and eighty women
to support Serbian soldiers fighting in Russia. A government official there remarked 'No
wonder England is a great country if the women are like that.' Inglis was taken
ill in Russia and travelled home, where she died. Ishobel Ross wrote of a visit to the Balkan Front with Dr. Inglis:
'We went up behind the camp and through the trenches. It was so quiet with just the
sound of the wind whistling through the tangles of wire. What a terrible sight it was
to see the bodies half buried and all the place strewn with bullets, letter cases, gas
masks, empty shells and daggers. We came across a stretch of field telephone too. It
took us ages to break up the earth with our spades as the ground was so hard, but we
buried as many bodies as we could. We shall have to come back to bury more as it is
very tiring work.'
(18) Held at the National Library of Women, London. 7/ELB.
(19) 2 Audley Square, London W1.
(20) The Women's Party supported equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce
laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and
opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits.
(21) Miss Pankhurst failed to get elected. She gave up politics and emigrated to America.
(22) The first woman had been called to the Bar in 1921.
(23) A little Court which lies between Middle Temple Lane and the Cloisters, leading
to Temple Church. It is one of the oldest in the Temple.
(24) Evening Standard 17th July 1928.
(25) 22b Egerton Gardens, SW3.
(26) 23-25 Silchester Rd, St Leonards. She bought the properties in 1913 and converted
them into flats.
(27) Belfield Nursing Home, 1, Hollington Park Rd, under the care of Matron Miss. C V
Cane. Prior to entering Belfield, Edith lived at Mrs Picken's boarding house: Lauriston,
The Green. The 1950 telephone directory lists a Mrs. E. M. Chignall (sic) The Nurseries,
Ridgewood, Uckfield, Sussex. Belfield still stands and is now the Sussex Clinic.
I am indebted to Mr. F.W. Carley for his personal memories of Elsie.
(c) Helena Wojtczak