Category Archives: Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

GUEST POST: Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Margaret Leask is a freelance researcher and theater historian as well as a former arts administrator in Australia and England. As an oral historian, she has recorded and archived interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the Sydney Theater Company.

For Ellen Terry, actress-manager Lena Ashwell (1869-1957) was ‘a passionate voice’. From her first appearance on stage in 1891 to the end of her life, Ashwell was determined to make the theatre accessible and relevant to everyone, prompting G.B. Shaw to describe her as possessing an ‘awakeningly truthful mind as well as an engaging personality.’

An inspiring and strong woman in a rapidly changing world, she was crucial both for the advancement of women in the English theatre and for the formation of the National Theatre. She made her name in H.A. Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence in 1900 and presented ‘new drama’, including Cecily Hamilton’s Diana of Dobsons (1908) and J.B. Fagan’s The Earth (1909) at the Kingsway and Savoy Theatres, as well as being active in the Actresses’ Franchise League and a committed founding member of the British Drama League. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, with amazing rapidity, Ashwell, Decima and Eva Moore and Eve Haverfield formed what Ashwell later described as a ‘really wonderful and most comic organization’, the Women’s Emergency Corps.

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

A temporary office was set up in Robert Street, Adelphi; letters were sent to the press and a public meeting convened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 7 August. The Corps’ first task was to create a register, for use by any authority requiring such services, of all women, with their particular skills, who could help the war effort. The list included cooks, interpreters, crêche and mother carers, stores’ distributors, clothing collectors and distributors, carers of horses and riders, motor drivers and ‘all women trained in any capacity’. Immediately, many hundreds of women offered their services and women’s suffrage took a back seat while Britons adjusted to a changed world.

On 4 September the WEC had 10,000 women registered and government departments, railway companies, and business houses had been informed of competent unemployed women available for work previously done by men. Ashwell also established the Three Arts Club Emergency Relief Fund, recognising female arts workers would be particularly hard hit by the war’s impact on employment. August was traditionally a time when many London theatres were closed for summer and suggestions were made to halve admission prices and actors’ salaries; already many were on the breadline. In co-operation with organisations including the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Ashwell hoped to help those in urgent need to obtain paid employment; to give training for such employment and maintenance when required; and to obtain and administer grants from existing funds for the relief of such cases.

Lena Ashwell was one of the first to suggest artists be gainfully employed to boost troop morale by providing entertainment. After initial, official, resistance to the idea, she was thrilled that, ‘on one never-to-be-forgotten day, when I had quite lost hope of the drama and music of the country being regarded as anything but useless, Lady Rodney called on behalf of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A. She had returned from France, and came from Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Committee Chairman, to ask if it was possible for a concert party to go to Havre.’

Ashwell had close connections with the royal family (she was married to Dr Henry Simson, the royal gynecologist who delivered the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret), and no doubt she told the princess of her despair and desire to help troops and artists. A request from Her Highness was less easy for officials to ignore. Ashwell obtained support from a friend to cover expenses for the first concert party while Helena Victoria and her committee made arrangements with the War Office: ‘owing to the very suffering state of men at Base Camps who had passed through a very difficult period of fighting, and were to be at the Base for rest and further training, this experiment of sending recreation should be made.’

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

For the duration of the war, Ashwell auditioned artists and prepared thousands of concerts and performances in YMCA camps and hospitals and on ships at the Front and in firing line zones. Between 1915 and 1919 over 600 artists, in parties of up to six singers, instrumentalists and entertainers gave three concerts a day all over France, in Belgium, Malta, Egypt and Palestine. Over £100,000 was raised through donations, concerts in England and colourful events to pay for this project and there were few soldiers who missed experiencing the comfort from home represented by these programmes. When peace was declared, her Lena Ashwell Players set about taking regular theatre performances into local communities throughout London and beyond. Long before educational drama and public subsidy for the arts were realities, she engaged local authorities in the provision of facilities and support for her work.

The above is just a brief sample of Lena Ashwell’s extraordinary life and commitment to a better world, through participation in the arts, as an actress, manager and advocate. Although she wrote four books about her work (including Modern Troubadours about her wartime experience and an autobiography, Myself a Player), her achievements have been largely unsung. However, with the publication of Margaret Leask’s biography, Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer, by the University of Hertfordshire Press and the Society for Theatre Research in 2012, there is now the opportunity to appreciate Lena Ashwell in the historical and cultural contexts in which she worked and which she helped to transform.

Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

The book was short-listed for the 2013 Theatre Book Prize in London. One of the judges, Penelope Keith, called it “a real page turner”! The Times Literary Supplement review, 28 June 2013, concludes: “This biography is certainly a counterpoint to simplistic narratives of English theatre in the twentieth century; when asking how, and why, we have ended up with a multifaceted theatre industry, Lena Ashwell’s career is surely part of the answer.”

Purchase Dr. Leask’s biography of Lena Ashwell from: Indiebound | B & N | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon UK | Scribd

Guest Post: Suffragette Style by Lucy Adlington

“You can always tell Suffragists by the way they are dressed,” pontificated an anonymous gentleman in 1913. “There’s that Mrs Chew, for instance – her hat’s never on straight!”

Stalwart suffrage campaigner Ada Nield Chew felt she had far more important concerns than a tidy appearance. Years later Ada’s daughter Doris commented, “How much easier it would have been today when she would not have needed to wear a hat!”

The truth is, hats, gloves, hemlines and handbags were all vital indicators of social status in the Edwardian era. Correct dress represented respectability. Women who stepped out of an acceptable female role were almost automatically branded unladylike, and satirised as unattractive.

Suffragette satire

If we view style of one hundred years ago, we find the fashions of 1914 quite alarming in their weight and constraints. The silhouette is long and sheath-like, moulded around form-fitting steel-structured stays and all-encompassing underwear. By contrast, the ideal of feminine beauty is dainty, delicate and generally pastel-shaded – hardly an icon of education, capability, or political power.

The 1914 female ideal

Some commentators did acknowledge the constraints of contemporary female fashion. “A man knows that if for a year he were to submit himself to the restraints which a woman puts upon herself, he would mentally, morally, and physically degenerate,” wrote a journalist in April 1914.

One Edwardian woman who certainly didn’t let fashion hobble her was martial arts expert Edith Garrud. Her ju-jitsu skills made a mockery of would-be muggers and over-assertive policemen alike. She kept wooden clubs in her hand-warming muff. If she sweetly dropped her handkerchief in the street it was as a prelude to a devastating bit of self-defence.

Edith Garrud in action

Undaunted by the contrast between the demands of appearance and the demand for political representation, both militant and non-violent suffragists learned to use their clothes as part of a series of battle tactics. For example, women who were dressed impeccably could pass without suspicion into public spaces or political meetings. Once in place they could whip chalk from their purses to scrawl slogans on pavements; they could pull chains from their handbags to secure themselves to railings, in order to have their say while someone searched for bolt-cutters. ‘Slasher’ Mary Richardson even concealed a small axe in her blouse sleeve, ready to attack Velasquez’s painting, the Rokeby Venus, at the National Gallery.

1914 suffragette damage to rokeby venus

More generally, the tactic of adopting all-white ensembles in mass public rallies was hugely dramatic and it gave women a tremendous sense of solidarity. The militant Women’s Social Political Union went one step further and promoted specific WSPU colours. White was for purity, purple represented loyalty to the King, and green was for hope.

Militant suffragettes used clothes creatively to disguise themselves. Emily Wilding Davison made a fetching telegram ‘boy’ attempting to gain access to Parliament. Lady Constance Lytton took on the disguise of a working-class seamstress in order to highlight the prejudiced treatment of lower-class women in prison. On one glorious occasion, several WSPU suffragettes disguised themselves as their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, in order to foil an attempt to arrest her.

Once women behaved in unladylike ways, chivalry from men was forgotten. The gloves came off on both sides. There were many reports of violence against suffragettes, from the minor outrage of torn clothes–or clothes stained with rotten eggs–to serious cases of sexual assault during suffrage rallies. Edith Garrud was employed to lead a team of bodyguards to protect WSPU speakers.

If arrested, female protesters were subjected to the further humiliation of having their respectable carapace of clothes quite literally stripped away and replaced with deliberately de-feminising prison garb.

By 1914 the green ‘hope’ of the WSPU banner was very much mingled with bitterness. Cat and mouse games between police and protesters, parliament and petitioners had reached an angry impasse. Militant terrorism was becoming increasingly shocking; peaceful petitions were still limited in success. With the declaration of war in August 1914 women found themselves facing different enemies, and poised on the brink of a veritable social and sartorial revolution. Their wardrobes would never be the same again.

To find out more on this subject Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe by Lucy Adlington is available online and in bookstores. Pre-Order on Amazon US or Buy from Amazon UK.

Follow Lucy on twitter @historywardrobe or on the History Wardrobe facebook page. Visit for details of costume-in-context presentations, or &

The Life of Frances Guest, Lady Chelmsford


In September 1957, Lady Chelmsford died at Westminster in London, aged 88. She had outlived her husband, three of her children and lived through the reigns of six separate monarchs. During her life, she did what was expected of her as an upper class woman. She mixed with upper class society, married a suitable man and participated in a variety of social works. She also lived a life of travel and lived in England, Australia and India at different stages in her life. She is a perfect study to get a snapshot of upper-class life during this period and what it meant to be a lady during this time.


Lady Chelmsford was born Frances Charlotte Guest on the 22nd of March 1869 at London. She was the eldest daughter of Ivor Guest and Lady Cornelia Henrietta Maria Churchill-Spencer and she would be the first of nine children. Ivor Guest’s father had made his money in the mines in London and so Ivor had the stain of having gained his money from business, instead of being born to wealth like his wife. The match was not seen as a good one for Lady Cornelia and Ivor was seen as making the match to rise socially.  Frances is listed as being a guest in 1883 at the Atholl gathering, a Celtic festival where Scottish highlander culture is celebrated and Highlander games are played and on the 2nd of May 1888, her mother held a ball for her coming out into society. In January 1890, she rode with a royal procession to open a park her father had donated the land for. Everyone had gathered from the town of Poole to see the opening of the People’s Park and for a chance to glimpse royalty. France’s mother actually rode with Prince George, while Frances rode in another carriage with her family and guests.


Frances’ younger sister actually married before her, leading to speculation that France’s was choosy with her suitors and that she wanted a love match.


 Sir Egbert Sebright

The baronetage of England by John Debrett, Published 1840

On the 29th of January, 1894, it was announced that Frances was to marry Sir Egbert Sebright of Hereforshire. He was born in 1871, to John Sebright and Olivia Fitzpatrick, and was described as being handsome and from a good family. He would later die unmarried in Java, Batavia, while on a worldwide tour for health reasons in 1897. On the 17th of Feburary 1894, it was announced that the marriage would not be taking place and not long after, a new suitor was announced.

Lord and Lady Chelmsford at Government House Brisbane 1905

Lord and Lady Chelmsford at Government House, Brisbane, 1905. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Frederic Thesiger

Frances was next announced to be engaged to Frederic Thesiger. Frederic was a cricket and sport lover and had graduated from Oxford to become a lawyer. On the 28th of July, 1894, they were married and the bride was described as wearing white, with silver embroidery and a diamond star brooch, which had been a gift from the groom. They then proceeded to a honeymoon in Branksome Dene, so Frances could be close to her father.


Frances  followed her husband to Australia when he became the governor of Queensland and involved herself in the social and moral issues of her adopted home. She was especially interested in issues involving women and children and was involved with committees which centered around hospitals, kindergartens and education of young women. Her husband was governor from 1909 until 1913 and then they returned to England.

Frances Chelmsford wife of the Queensland Governor Lord Chelmsford

Frances Chelmsford, wife of the Queensland Governor, Lord Chelmsford. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

In 1916 her Frederic was made Viceroy of India and she continued to take an active role in the causes she believed in, by raising money for the Red Cross in India and making sure the troops in India were well-supplied and comfortable.


  • “girls should develop each side of their nature-the physical, mental and spiritual, otherwise their faculties would be cramped and useless.”
  • “…care should be exercised in regard to young girls dress, and she particularly warned the girls against the “pneumonia blouse” in cold weather. That is one of the difficulties of Sydney, owing to the sudden changes of temperature- a condition that will be understood by Tasmanian ladies. It  is not only in winter that it is dangerous to wear thin clothing After very hot days, during which the garments worn are as thin as possible, and the “pneumonia blouse’ is a matter of course, we have the cool and sometimes cold, southerlies, and very soon the ladies got a fit of shivering, which indicates an incipient cold.”
  • “that husband and wife owed each other courtesy, and that the home was the place of peace.”

Further Reading

Canford Village history
The Atholl Gathering
The Peerage
British Newspaper Archive
Trove – National Library of Australia

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