Lewisham’s famous women: Edith Lanchester (1871-1966)
Many people know of famous Catford born actress Elsa Lanchester, but what do you know of her socialist and feminist mother, Edith?
Edith ‘Biddy’ Lanchester was born in Hove, Sussex on 28 July 1871. She was the fifth child of a family of eight. Her parents were Henry Jones Lanchester, an established architect (1834-1914) and Octavia Ward (1834-1916).
After attending the Birkbeck Institution and the Maria Grey training college, Edith first worked as a teacher and then as a clerk-secretary for a firm in London. By 1895 Biddy was a confirmed socialist and member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
In 1895 Lanchester, who was now living at 72 Este Road, Battersea, informed her family that, in protest against Britain’s patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit with her lover, Irish factory worker, James ‘Shamus’ Sullivan. Her socialist feminist convictions had led Lanchester to conclude that the wife’s vow to obey her husband was oppressive and immoral and she did not wish to lose her independence. She was politically opposed to the institution of marriage.
This was the 19th Century when many Western countries had been influenced by Christian doctrines on sex, which opposes unmarried cohabitation. It was forbidden among polite society to cohabit, although it continued quietly among the labouring families of rural communities and also in the poverty-stricken underworld of the big cities.
Also, at this point in history a woman’s role was seen to be child-rearing and taking care of the home. They didn’t even have the right to vote and and yet, here was Biddy, refusing to get married. Can you imagine the outrage?
Her family tried everything to dissuade her. Biddy even offered to change her surname and live abroad, but would not marry.
Outraged by her announcement, Biddy’s father and brothers barged into her house and forcibly subjected her to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment.
He immediately signed emergency commitment papers under the Lunacy Act of 1890, because she could not see that her plans meant ‘utter ruin’ and ‘social suicide’ for a woman.
Edith’s own father and brothers bound her wrists and dragged her to a carriage destined for the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.
This created a national scandal that gathered a lot of press attention. John Burns, MP for Battersea, intervened, and The New York Times reported that the affair had “rivet the attention of three kingdoms” and that “no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week”.
The Marquess of Queensberry wrote to The Standard offering Lanchester a cheque for £100 as a wedding present if she would go through the legal marriage ceremony but under protest. His Lordship said:
I do this because I wish personally to be associated with what will be a strong protest against our present marriage laws, and should be delighted to give such a brave woman a wedding present.”
The psychiatrist explained his reasoning in a news report stating:
Lanchester had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin. If she had said that she had contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question.
I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide. She is a monomaniac on the subject of marriage, and I believe her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.”
A meeting was called by Lanchester’s comrades with the help of the Legitimation League, a body set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage. At the meeting, a resolution was passed against Fielding-Blandford, and Lanchester’s landlady, the SDF activist Mary Gray, was urged to take legal action against her tenant’s brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.
During the four days of her incarceration Biddy was subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse. Under Section 11 of the 1890 Lunacy Act, Biddy could be detained for up to seven days but that further incarceration would require another certificate.
After four days of lobbying by the SDF, with the help of MP John Burns, the Commissioners of Lunacy proclaimed her sane though “foolish” and released her.
After this incident Edith Lanchester never saw her father alive again.
Independent Labour Party leader Keir Hardie accused Lanchester of discrediting socialism; but her stand was a brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society’s highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity.
In 1897 Lanchester was taken on as secretary to Eleanor Marx, a feminist and socialist campaigner. Marx had been aware of Lanchester’s situation in 1895 and had been disgusted by the misogynistic failure of male socialists to support and defend Lanchester’s position, and more generally their failure to recognise the class dimension of the feminist struggle.
Marx’s ire was particularly directed towards SDF activist Ernest Bax who had publicly passed bourgeois moralistic judgement on Lanchester. Marx challenged Bax in a public letter to an open debate on “the woman question”, but he declined, citing his rhetorical weaknesses.
Lanchester’s first child, Waldo Lanchester, was born in 1897. It was a difficult pregnancy that was not assisted by the social pressures that her ‘love-child’ pregnancy attracted. Marx invited Lanchester to recuperate for a few weeks at Marx’s home (The Den) in Sydenham where Edith and Waldo were protected and looked after.
Upon Marx’s death in 1898, Lanchester received Eleanor’s writing pen as a memento.
On 28 October 1902 Edith gave birth to her second child Elsa. By this time the family were living at 48 Farley Road, Catford.
During the early years of World War I, Biddy developed a growing interest in the pacifist principles of Quakerism. Her daughter, Elsa, recounts in her biography that Biddy and Shamus were “violently anti-war” and that pacifism ‘roared through’ the house.
When Waldo was conscripted he registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for one year. Upon his release Waldo was supported by his mother to become a puppeteer and weaver.
When Edith’s mother, Octavia, died in 1916, Edith invested her £400 inheritance in the Jordans Quaker community project.
By 1917 Lanchester identified politically as a communist describing socialist as ‘practically Tories’ who had let the working-class down.