Eva Gore-Booth (1870 - 1926)

Born: 1870 | Died: 1926 | Grave: B 027 | Categories: Literature, Politics | Tags: Campaigner, Christabel Pankhurst, Esther Roper, Pacifist, Poet, Suffragette, Trade unions, Women's rights, Writer

Eva Gore-Booth was an Irish poet and dramatist, but was primarily known as a committed suffragette, social worker and labour activist.  She was involved in adult education for women and in the women’s trade union movement.  Eva was also a pacifist, and during World War I she argued strongly against persuading young men to join the armed forces. She lived in Frognal Gardens.

Eva Gore Booth grave

Grave B27 in the ABG

 

 

Personal History

Eva was born in Lissadell, CountySligo in May 1870 into a prominent Anglo-Irish family, the Gore-Booths. She enjoyed a conventional upper-class upbringing, but from an early age was entranced by nature and by the delights of novels and poetry. The second of three daughters and the third of five children, Eva was educated at home by a governess.  She was studious and introspective, quite different from her flamboyant and more robust elder sister Constance.  The poet W. B. Yeats was thoroughly charmed by her when he stayed at Lissadell in 1894, when they talked of each other’s poetry.

The west of Ireland was not a suitable climate for Eva’s poor constitution; suspected consumption (Tuberculosis) led her to travel toItalyin 1896 to restore her health.  There she met Esther Roper who became her lifelong friend and who had a profound effect on Eva’s future.  Esther was an organizer for the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage; for the first time Eva felt she was able to talk to a kindred spirit.

Eva and her sister Constance © Mary Evans Picture Library

Eva helped to get the death sentence lifted that had been passed on her sister, Constance Markievicz, following the Irish Easter Rising (1916). She continued to work for prison reform.  She published two volumes of poetry – ‘Unseen Kings’ and ‘Death of Fionavar’.  Eva lived at 14 Frognal Gardens.

Women’s Labour Movement

Eva moved to Manchester to live and work with Esther Roper in the Women’s Labour Movement.  She was soon recognized as an activist in her own right and addressed local branches of the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s Co-operative guild on the necessity of women’s suffrage, alongside Sarah Dickenson – another famous women’s rights campaigner.  Sarah described Eva in a letter as:

“having a charming and interesting personality, genuine in all her dealings.  The friendly way she treated all the women trade unionists endeared her to them.  She is remembered by thousands of working women in Manchester for her untiring efforts to improve their industrial conditions, for awakening and educating their sense of political freedom, and for social intercourse.”

Over the next few years both Eva and Esther worked very hard to encourage women to set up and join unions. It was rarely an easy task. A section in the 1903 Trades Council report described the problems:

For however severely trade grievances may be felt, the first steps in organisation are always difficult. The timidity of inexperience is hard to overcome, and people naturally fear to jeopardize their week’s earnings’.

An important campaign waged by Eva and Esther was in defence of women’s right to work. Many men (and some women) – including some leading trade unionists and socialists – believed in the notion that men should be paid enough to support a wife and family, and that in an ideal society married women would not have to work.

Eva and Esther also campaigned over the working conditions of women, such as florists’ assistants and the pit-brow women, who worked on the surface at mines in Lancashire sorting the coal. They wore a distinctive working garb of wide trousers and headscarves and wielded shovels with great manual dexterity.  The most successful women’s union established by Eva and Sarah was the Salford and District Association of Power Loom Weavers, set up in April 1902.

As well as trade unionism the women workers were also interested in politics and the suffrage campaign, sending a resolution to a meeting at the Free Trade Hall just weeks after their establishment objecting to the imposition of a corn tax. The women’s resolution not only protested against the tax but also the fact that it would fall most heavily on women.  Christabel Pankhurst became a friend of Eva and Esther in 1901 and was swiftly drawn into their activities.

Literature and Education

Somehow Eva found time in her busy life to write poetry and plays, and a number of collections of her work were published during her lifetime. She published ten volumes of poetry, including Unseen Kings (1904) and The Death of Fionavar (1916). Her best-known poem, found in many anthologies of Irish verse, was The Little Waves of Breffny. Her poems, from the first volume of 1898, which she was encouraged by W. B. Yeats to publish, dwelt on constant themes: Christian mysticism, love of nature, distaste for the ‘iron fort’ of materialism, and for the militaristic urge to dominate and control.

Her interest in literature and poetry led Eva to become involved in the University Settlement, where Esther passed on her love of literature to local working class women. After Esther’s death one of them (Louisa Smith) lovingly recalled those classes:

“We were a class of about sixteen girls. I think we were all machinists and we were rough…..We called ourselves the Elizabethan Society because we had no scenery:  we enjoyed every minute of the rehearsals. We were very raw material but keen on acting; she showed such patience and love that we would do anything to please her and she got the best out of us.  She took us on picnics, and they seemed to be different picnics from any I had ever been to, so jolly and free, no restraint about them. She was also very keen on women’s rights and trade unions. She persuaded me to join…She was always sympathetic with the downtrodden, and worked and lectured might and main, interviewing Members of Parliament, etc., on their behalf till conditions were mended. She was very frail and delicate herself, but full of pluck and determination, and would stand up for people she knew to be unjustly treated, even though the world was against them, and withall so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.”

The Right for Women to Vote

Eva and Esther’s greatest success was in attracting large numbers of women from the working class to the suffrage movement. In 1901, when the membership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was about 10,000, they organized a suffrage petition with 30,000 signatures.

In May 1906 Eva, alongside Sarah Dickenson, Margaret Ashton, Emmeline Pankhurst and other women prominent in the suffrage movement, met the new Liberal Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. In her speech Eva stressed the economic contribution of women on behalf of the fifty working women who had come to London with them from Lancashire:

“The number of women who are engaged at this time in producing the wealth of this country is double the population of Ireland. It is a very large number. These women are all labouring under the gross disability and industrial disadvantage of an absolute want of political power.”

To the bitter disappointment of the women Campbell-Bannerman refused to move on the issue, and in response the WSPU adopted increasingly militant tactics, beginning with attempts to ‘rush’ Parliament, chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and eventually committing arson, burning postboxes and even churches. The ‘suffragettes’ as they had now become known were often brutally treated by the police on demonstrations and when they were imprisoned went on hunger-strike.

The dismay of Eva and the northern suffragists at the tactics of the WSPU were set out by Eva in a letter to Mrs Fawcett, the most prominent constitutional campaigner, in the autumn of 1906:

“There is no class in the community who has such good reasons for objecting and does so strongly object to shrieking and throwing yourself on the floor and struggling and kicking as the average working woman, whose dignity is very real to them. We feel we must tell you this as we are in great difficulties because our members in all parts of the country are so outraged at the idea of taking part in such proceedings that everywhere for the first time they are shrinking from public demonstrations. It is not the fact of demonstration or even the violence offered to them, it is being mixed up with and held accountable as a class for educated and upper class women, who kick, shriek, bite and spit. As far as importance in the eyes of the Government goes, where shall we be if the working women do not support us?”

One of the difficulties in getting women to go to union meetings was solved by starting a Tea Fund in 1902 to buy tea, sugar, milk and cake:  “It was found that the tea was a great convenience, as many of the women live in outlying districts they are naturally anxious to hurry home to tea when their work is over and it is both inconvenient and expensive for them to come back to meetings in the evening. We are glad to say that the tea had good results in introducing a social element that promoted good fellowship and a friendly spirit among the members, and the attendance has largely increased.”

Peace Movement and Abolition of Capital Punishment

Eva was a pacifist and, horrified by the outbreak of the First World War, she worked tirelessly as a representative of the No-Conscription Fellowship for conscientious objectors at their trials by tribunal, and for the Women’s Peace Crusade; this involved travelling all over Britain.  Eva wrote a short story called The Tribunal (which was printed as a leaflet) in which she dramatises the experience of conscientious objectors when arguing for their beliefs before hostile magistrates.

After the war her health broke down and she retired, with Esther, to Hampstead (living at 14 Frognal Gardens). Following the Irish Easter Uprising in 1916 Eva’s sister Constance, who was second-in-command at St Stephen’s Green, was sentenced to death, though this was commuted to life imprisonment.  As a result, Eva became a member of the Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and worked for prison reform.

© ##http://www.prints-online.com/##Mary Evans Picture Library##

Sources

 

Manchester’s Radical History – Eva Gore-Booth

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Eva Gore-Booth’s biography (Spartacus Schoolnet)

 

 

 

This page was last updated on May 19th, 2012.

Comments

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Top of page