Annie Besant: ‘I will speak for all the despairing silent ones’

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Last month, the Phoenix Retirement Association in Crystal Palace hosted one of its regular talks, this time about the Victorian radical Annie Besant, a woman who led the matchgirls’ strike, popularised the cause of birth control, was courted by George Bernard Shaw, admired by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, and visited by Gandhi, and who played an important part in Indian independence. By BERNARD WINCHESTER

Radical: Annie Besant

For much of her life, Annie Besant’s name was famous – some would have said notorious – throughout the land, but there are particular, local reasons for remembering her, too.

She was born Annie Wood in Clapham in 1847 to an Irish mother and a father who was Irish on his mother’s side. She remained fiercely proud of her Irish heritage. Her father had trained to be a doctor, but worked as an underwriter; he had grown deeply sceptical of his mother’s deep Catholic faith and, when Annie was only five, he ejected from the room the priest his wife had sent for as he lay dying of consumption.

At 19, Annie met and married a strict evangelical clergyman, Frank Besant. She was taken to his parish in Lincolnshire where she had a son and a daughter. Childbirth took its toll, and it was then that Annie asked her husband to consider methods of limiting further pregnancies. The response was volcanic: “On various occasions he threw her over a stile, kneed her and pushed her out of bed so that she crashed on the floor and was badly bruised.”

In 1873, Frank Besant expelled Annie from the family home because she refused to take Holy Communion at his church.

Annie returned to London to look after her terminally ill mother, renting a house at 39, Colby Road, Upper Norwood, near Gipsy Hill station. This was so that her mother could benefit from “the purer air of Norwood”.

Emily Wood died on May 10, 1874.

South London home: Annie Besant and her mother’s house in Gipsy Hill

The house now bears a blue plaque commemorating Annie Besant’s time there.

While living in Upper Norwood, Besant met the great secularist orator Charles Bradlaugh, quickly becoming close friends and accepting a job on his campaigning newspaper The National Reformer.

Bradlaugh was separated from his wife. His and Besant’s households became close, giving ammunition to the vitriolic attacks upon them in rival newspapers, accusing them of believing in “free love” and the “destruction of the marriage tie”.

The fact that neither of them could obtain a divorce prevented them from living together, as in reality Bradlaugh “abhorred free love as much as he worshipped free thought”.

It was Bradlaugh who began Annie’s career as a public speaker by inviting her to give public lectures on subjects that she felt strongly about, beginning with a talk in August 1874 on “The Political Status of Women”. She quickly gained the reputation of being an outstanding public speaker.

The famous Irish nationalist MP and journalist, TP O’Connor, was captivated: “What a beautiful and attractive and irresistible creature she was then with her slight but full and well-shaped figure, her dark hair, her finely chiselled features with that short upper lip that seemed always in a pout”.

Beatrice Webb said that she was the “only woman I have ever known who is a real orator, who has the gift of public persuasion”, adding, though, that to “see her speaking made me shudder, it is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world”.

Tom Mann commented: “The first time I heard Mrs Besant was in Birmingham, about 1875. The only women speakers I had heard before this were of mediocre quality. Mrs Besant transfixed me; her superb control of voice, her whole-souled devotion to the cause she was advocating, her love of the down-trodden, and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for all children, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, resolved that I would ascertain more correctly the why and wherefore of her creed.”

Family: Besant with her mother, Emily Wood, with whom she shared a home in Upper Norwood

Besant and Bradlaugh’s fervent support of birth control led them to publish an instructional pamphlet in 1877 which led to their prosecution under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. The prosecution boosted sales of the pamphlet from 700 copies in 1876 to 125,000 in the three months before the trial.

The pair defended themselves passionately in court with the aid of expert witnesses, but despite impressing the jury with their sincerity, the judge sentenced them both to six months imprisonment and a fine of £200. In February, 1878 the Court of Appeal quashed the sentence.

After the court case, Besant gained further notoriety when she wrote and published her own book in support of birth control. The Times called it “an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book”, a view which helped Frank Besant to persuade the courts to grant him custody of their daughter, Mabel.

In the 1880s, Annie Besant became a socialist. She grew close to George Bernard Shaw, who invited her (unsuccessfully) to live with him. The character, Raina Petkoff, in Shaw’s Arms and Man is based on her. She joined the new Fabian Society and helped to formulate the principles of English socialism. In 1887, she spoke at several meetings in the East End of London, spellbinding audiences with “her eloquence and social passion” and joining William Stead to establish the newspaper The Link.

In 1888, when the matchgirls at the Bryant and May factory in Bow went on strike, Besant’s half-penny weekly carried on its front page a quotation from Victor Hugo: “I will speak for the dumb. I will speak of the small to the great and the feeble to the strong… I will speak for all the despairing silent ones.”

The newspaper campaigned against “sweated labour, extortionate landlords, unhealthy workshops, child labour and prostitution”.

When Besant heard about the pay and conditions under which the women worked at the match factory she was horrified.

Union action: Annie Besant, standing, centre, with the strike committee of the Bryant and May matchworkers

An occupational disease that affected those who worked in the factory was “phossy jaw”: when the vapour of the white phosphorus used in making the matches was inhaled it could cause osteonecrosis of the jaw bone. Matchgirls commonly suffered from toothaches and flu-like symptoms, initially, but then would suffer tooth loss, abscesses, swelling of the gums, and later the formation of fistula and necrosis of the jaw. Of those who had necrosis of the jaw, 1-in-5 died.

Besant went to interview the matchworkers and wrote an article in The Link called “White Slavery in London”. A strike and the dismissal of 1,400 employees ensued.

Other newspapers took up their cause and called for a boycott of Bryant and May matches. The women decided to form a Matchgirls’ Union, and Besant agreed to become its leader. After three weeks, the company gave in, accepting the committee’s terms and enabling the women to return to the factory in triumph.

Annie Besant’s life as a campaigner in the late 19th century seems to be more relevant than ever in a period when equality is centre stage.

While editing the National Reformer and subsequently The Link, she wrote many articles on women’s rights which led to her being called “the Voice of the Suffrage Movement”; her support for the matchgirls made her a pioneer of trade unionism and even prompted one of the first pieces of legislation for health and safety in the workplace.

Since her childhood, Besant had been a secularist and atheist, but in 1889, her curiosity over Spiritualism was reawakened. A yearning “to obtain some direct evidence of the existence of Soul and of the superphysical Worlds” consumed her. She was asked to review two large volumes by “Madame Blavatsky”, Helena Blavatsky, the Ukrainian-born mystic and author who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

Influential: Madame Helena Blavatsky

Blavatsky, who was a practising Buddhist in later life, described Theosophy as “the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy”, proclaiming that it was reviving an “Ancient Wisdom”. which underlay all the world’s religions.

For Besant, the books seemed to answer all her questions and “the very Truth was found”, but naturally a rift then arose with her socialist friends.

The review was published in The Pall Mall Gazette on April 25, 1889. Besant met Blavatsky soon after and joined the Theosophical Society. By August she was a member of the inner circle and lecturing on why she had become a theosophist. By September, she was sharing the editing of the monthly theosophical journal with Blavatsky, becoming president of the Blavatsky Lodge in January.

Among the visitors and members of the Lodge established in London by Blavatsky were occultist and poet WB Yeats and Indian lawyer Mohandas Gandhi.

In the summer of 1890, Blavatsky moved from her home on Crownhill (now Crown Dale), Upper Norwood, into Besant’s rented home in Holland Park.

‘One of the world’s most distinguished women’: the flyer for the talk given by Besant at Stanley Halls, South Norwood, in 1927

In April 1891, Besant became an international lecturer for Theosophy starting with a tour of America. Madame Blavatsky said “she is a very wonderful woman, my right arm, my successor”. Blavatsky died, aged 59, in May 1891 of flu, when Besant was on her way back to London.

Besant continued her activities as international speaker, delivering hundreds of lectures in the United States, Europe, India and Australasia. A number of her lectures were published in book or pamphlet form.

From 1892 to 1904, Besant wrote a series of books on Theosophy, including The Seven Principles of Man. From 1893 she spent the winter months in India and became President of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death.

Her adopted son, J Krishnamurti, became a great philosopher and teacher in his own right, eventually settling in England.

Stanley Halls has a framed poster advertising talks to be given by him and Annie Besant in July 1927 (tickets £1, £1/10 and £2, plus tax). The second of the talks concerned the future of India, and reflects the extraordinary part that Annie Besant, “one of the world’s most distinguished women”, played in campaigning for its independence.

She was a staunch supporter for Indian home rule, so much so that during World War I she was interned by the British. In 1916, she established the Home Rule League and became its president. On her release, she became president of the Indian National Congress in 1917 and general secretary of the Indian National Convention in 1923.

She died in Madras, now known as Chennai, on September 20, 1933, and has been recognised in the naming of a suburb there, Besant Nagar. It is long overdue, but there’s surely a case for naming at least a street after one of the world’s most distinguished women someone near where she lived in Upper Norwood.

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1 Response to Annie Besant: ‘I will speak for all the despairing silent ones’

  1. Ahmed Y says:

    A great insight into local historical figures. Poor recollections from attending the Fabian Society’s lecture series circa 1998 reinginated her story, especially one of advocating for an Indian home rule. A great read for a firecracking Sunday evening.

    Thank you for posting this.

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