Organising Secretary 1900-1904
Eva was born on 22 May 1870 into a prominent Anglo-Irish family in Sligo. In 1896 she met Esther Roper in holiday in Italy in 1896, where she was recuperating from her exhausting work schedule. Esther told her about of her work in Manchester campaigning for women’s right to vote and Eva decided to leave Ireland and move to England, sharing a house with her in Heald Place in Rusholme, Manchester and later in London. Her co-worker Sarah Dickenson later recalled their first meeting in a letter to Esther.
Within months of her move to Manchester Eva was addressing branches of the local Independent Labour Party and Women’s Co-operative Guild on the necessity of women’s suffrage and was soon recognised as an activist in her own right. In January 1900 she was nominated for the Council of the MSWTUC by Mrs.Sidgwick and Margarret Ashton. In June of that year, after the departure of Frances Ashwell, she was appointed joint organising secretary of the Council. Eva worked alongside Sarah Dickenson, who later remembered Eva in a letter to Esher Roper:
“I met her first at your office when she came to Manchester, and my first impression of her was her charming and interesting personality. When I knew her better I found how very genuine she was in all her dealings and discovered all the beautiful traits in her character. The friendly way that she treated all the women trade unionists endeared her to them. If she was approached for advice or help she never failed. 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.”
Sylvia Pankhurst remembered Eva as;
“...tall and excessively slender, intensely shortsighted, with a mass of golden hair worn like a great ball at the nape of her long neck, bespectacled, bending forward, short of breath with high-pitched voice and gasping speech, she was nevertheless a personality of great charm.”
One of the difficulties they encountered in getting women to go to 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.”
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 just weeks after their establishment to a meeting at the Free Trade Hall called to protest against the imposition of a corn tax. The women’s resolution not only protested against the tax and the fact that it would fall most heavily on women “the worst paid workers in the country” but also objected to the fact that their exclusion from the franchise prevented them “from making an effective protest at the Ballot Box”. Nellie Keenan was the first Treasurer of the union and later became Secretary.
Somehow Eva found time in her busy life to write poetry and plays and a number of collections of her work were published during the lifetime. Some of her poems were set to music by her friend Max Mayer, a Manchester composer, while two others – “The Triumph of Maeve” and “Forth They Went” – were set to music after her death by the composer Edgar Bainton. Her work was also included in a collection made by her friend AE in 1904 called New Songs, appearing alongside poems Padraic Colum, Alice Milligan and others. Her interest in literature and poetry led Eva to become involved in the University Settlement, based in Ancoats Hall, Every Street, where Esther was already on the Committee. Eva passed on her love of literature to local working class young women, and after her 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: as we said among ourselves, we had no assets, but 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. After rehearsals we would give a show of our own, an imitation of what we had seen or imagined. If any of us were feeling seedy or worried about business or home she could always see, and showed such an understanding sympathy that we came away feeling we had a real friend. I remember one of the girls was very delicate and truly not really fit to fight the battles of life, and Miss Gore-Booth cared for her and sent her little delicacies, and took her to her own doctor, and in a hundred and one ways she cared for us We thought she was a being from another world. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say we worshipped her, but she never knew it, she was so utterly selfless….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 with all so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.”
Sarah and Eva resigned their posts at the Council in the autumn of 1904 in a dispute over whether the Council should also campaign for women’s suffrage as well as trades unions for women. Sarah and Eva were firmly of the opinion that they should , and resigned when the motion in favour of suffrage moved by Christabel Pankhurst was rejected by 4 votes to 2 votes at a meeting of the Council on 4 September. Eva wrote to the Council on 28 September:
“In view of the Resolution thrown out at the last Council meeting (“that it is now time that the Council should bring their policy into line with the policy of the Unions with which they are connected, by taking active part in the efforrt to gain political power for the women workers”) and after my strong protest at the time, I am sure you will understand that I find myself reluctantly obliged to give up my work for the Council. The Council has finally decided to adopt a course, which, in my opinion, cuts them off from all the broader, more progressive & more hopeful side of the modern labour movement, & separates their policy from the policy of the organised women themselves whose interests & opinions seem to me all important. It is a profound conviction of the absolute importance of political power to the workers, especially the women workers, that forces me to take this step. I have therefore put my resignation on the Agenda for the next meeting & hope you will be kind enough to read this letter to the Council.”
It was an unpleasant time for Eva as shown in a further letter she wrote to the Council on 11 October:
“You will find all the information about the different unions very carefully recorded in the diary, also there is a record of every meeting. I think you will understand that it will be pleasanter for me not to be present at the Council tomorrow considering the repeated discourtesies of several of the members of the Council and the extraordinary language they have allowed themselves to use to me. I cannot go on listening to repetitions of such things. Mrs Dickenson agrees with me in this matter.”
A number of unions resigned from the MSWTUC and joined the new Council set up in October by Eva, Sarah and Esther: the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council. These were the Shirtmakers, Powerloom Weavers, Patent Cop-Winders, Bookbinders, Tailoresses, Clay Pipe-Finishers, and Women’s Federation. The new Council was based at 5 John Dalton Street, sharing offices with the Lancashire and Cheshire Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee, set up to campaign for the vote amongst working class women.
On 11 November a letter appeared in the Manchester Guardian concerning the MSWTUC’ s nomination on to the Education Committee. The writers explained that the Women’s Trades Council was one of the bodies given the right to nominate to the Committee.
“During the past year, as result of the radical differences of opinion between the Trades Union Council and the trade unions, the principal women’s trade unions decided to withdraw from the Women’s Trade Union Council. They were convinced that the time had come when it was essential for the unions’ progress and future development that they should stand on an independent and self-reliant basis and formulate their own policy. A representative Women’s Trades and Labour Council was therefore constituted. It will be seen that this Council is not in the real sense a new and untried body as it formed of representatives of the most important and long established unions. The Women’s Trades and Labour Council wish to protest strongly against the nomination of a working women’s representative to the Municipal Education Committee by Manchester, Salford and District Women’s Trades Union Council. Miss Gore-Both was chosen by the women trade-unionists to be their representative, and they are quite satisfied with her and do not wish for a change. Miss Emily Cox, who is now supposed to represent them was nominated without any woman trade-unionist in the city being consulted. With all due respect to Miss Emily Cox, who, we have no doubt, is a most worthy lady. She has no claim whatever to represent the women trade unionists of this district.
The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council strongly deprecate that this nomination should be in the hands of any philanthropic body, no matter how well intentioned. They claim that that they represent the body contemplated by the education scheme, as their constituent societies form the only federation of women’s unions in this city. They venture to urge the authorities not to take a right that they greatly value
Nellie Keenan, Secretary, Powerloom Weavers’ Association
Sarah Dickenson, Secretary, Machine and Electric Workers’ Union
Evelyn Tonkin, Secretary, Women’s branch of Shirt and Jacket Makers
Isabel Forsyth, Secretary, Society of Women in the Bookbinding and Printing Trades
Nellie Kay, Secretary, Tailoresses’ Union
Violet Whalley, Secretary, Winders’ Trade Union
According to Esther the next ten years:
“were full to overflowing with organisation, writing, speaking at large gathering in all parts of England, deputations to Cabinet Ministers and to Members of Parliament. To this was added a new activity, when well-meant and ill-meant efforts were made to restrict women’s labour in various fields. On different occasions, women pit-brow workers, barmaids, women acrobats and gymnasts, and women florists were successfully organized in their own defence.”
Their success enabled them to start a quarterly newspaper called The Women’s Labour News which gave a full account of all the industrial and political activities of the women’s trade unions. In her editorial in the first issue Eva wrote:
“Many are the difficult questions connected with labour, many are the misunderstandings and confusions, many are the obscure corners of the industrial world, and many are the wrongs done in the darkness. Those who are working for the betterment of political and industrial conditions of women have great need of fellowship, of coherency and fee discussion, and the ventilation of pressing grievances. The aim of this little paper is to light a few street lamps here and there in the darkest ways, to let us at all events see one another’s faces and recognise our comrades, and work together with strong, organised and enlightened effort for the uplighting of those who suffer most under the present political and industrial system.”
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. When David Shackleton, , Secretary of the Darwen weavers, publicly supported this view, Eva wrote a pamphlet entitled Women’s Right to Work, which pointed out how he represented 74,000 married women workers in the cotton industry. When there were an attempt to prevent bar-maids from working Eva and Esther used the occasion of a by-election in Manchester in which Winston Churchill was standing to raise the issue. Eva’s sister Constance came over from Ireland and attracted publicity in a characteristic manner, as the Manchester Guardian reported in April 1908:
“A coach of the olden times was driven about Manchester yesterday to advertise the political agitation on behalf of the barmaids. It was drawn by four white horses, and the ‘whip’ was the Countess Markievicz, sister of Eva Gore-Booth. In all parts of the city the coach and its passengers excited general interest, and in the North-West division especially, the cause of the barmaids was made known not only by demonstration, but by speeches and personal interviews and distribution of literature.”
Eva and Esther also campaigned over the working conditions of other women workers, such as florists’ assistants and the pit-brow women, who worked on the surface at the head of mines in Lancashire sorting the coal. They wore a distinctive working garb of wide trousers and headscarves and wielded shovels with great manual dexterity. In 1911, when parliament threatened to ban women from the work, Eva and Esther organised protest meetings in Wigan and Manchester and made sure that the pit-brow women were on the platform.
Although the split in 1904 had been acrimonious some years later their organisation formed a joint Committee with the MSWTUC, and they worked closely together during the First World War on the Manchester Women’s War Interest Committee.
In May 1906 Eva, alongside Sarah Dickenson, Margaret Ashton, Emmeline Pankhurst and other women prominent in the suffrage movement, was one of delegation which met the new Liberal Prime Minister 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 very large number. These women are all labouring under the gross disability and industrial disadvantage of an absolute want of political power. Every day we live this becomes a more grave disadvantage, because industrial questions are becoming political questions which are being fought out in Parliament. The vast number of women workers have their point of view and their interest to be considered; but those interests are not considered and the whole effect of their crushing exclusion is to react on the question of their wages. I am a trade union secretary in Manchester, and know from personal experience what women’s wages are and the sort of money they get for their work. Six or seven shillings a week is not a sufficient sum of money to live on. This not the rate of wages that could be possibly be enforced upon the enfranchised citizens of a free country. We feel, and I think women in other classes, who are working, also feel that our industrial status is being brought down. It results from the fact that we have no political power. That is the lesson which the working women of Lancashire have learned, and that is the thought they want to bring before you and want you to consider.”
In June 1908 Eva, her sister Constance, Esther and Sarah Reddish went down to London for a large rally organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Eva told the crowd of several thousand in Trafalgar Square that five million women were working in Britain who were not paid properly for the work that they did, many receiving half the male wage. Constance got the crowd cheering by declaring that “they cannot abolish woman, take away her occupation, and let her starve…We are told that the bar is a bad place for women, but the Thames Embankment is far worse.”
In her memoir Esther Roper records that in 1913 “illness, caused by the climate of Lancashire, made it impossible for us to live there any longer, and reluctantly we left our many friends and went south, though we came back constantly for work”. Not just the soot-filled damp air but surely years of long hours, travel and snatched meals must have taken its toll on the health of both women. In London they took up residence in Hampstead at 14 Frognal Gardens. There was to be no peaceful retirement for Eva and Esther for they were soon caught up in the enormity of the First World War and then the bloody events of the Easter Rising and its aftermath
When the war broke out they opposed it as pacifists as did many of their suffragist and socialist friends, some of whom were active in organisations such the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 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. In 1915 the two women joined the Womens’ Peace crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the war. These were very brave actions given the climate of jingoism and anti-German hysteria whipped up by the government and the “patriotic” press.
Constance had followed a very different political path to Eva, joining Sinn Fein in 1908 and setting up the Fianna na hEireann in 1909 as an Irish alternative to the pro-Imperialist Boy Scouts recently established by Baden-Powell. She was an expert shot who in turn taught her young men how to shoot and many of them later took part in the Easter Rising. During the 1913 Dublin Lockout Constance ran soup kitchens to help feed thousands of strikers. During the Rising in 1916 Constance was second in command at St Stephen’s Green and was sentenced to death, though it was commuted to life imprisonment. Eva was granted permission to see her and crossed to Dublin with Esther. On the day they landed they saw newspaper placards announcing the execution that morning of James Connolly. They had been warned not to tell Constance but she guessed from their faces. Writing in Socialist Review a few weeks later Eva said that the rebellion has been a blow to all those who had hoped for a lessening of the hostility between England and Ireland:
“But the severity with which the rebellion was crushed was, many of us believe, a far worse blow. England had her opportunity, an opportunity of treating the Irish rising as De Wet’s rising was treated in South Africa. The rising was crushed, her enemies were at her feet. What a glorious opportunity for killing with clemency the old tradition of hatred and the memory pf the atrocities of ’98 that have festered so long in the imaginations of the Irish people. By some malign fate, as ever England showed her hardest side in her dealings with Ireland. Those irresponsible and extraneous shootings and horrors which seem to be inseparable from the advance of a conquering army were not enough. Fourteen deliberate executions of men widely known and admired were carried out under heart-rending circumstances. And thus Ireland’s old tradition of defiance and hatred gets a new lease of life….”
Constance was moved without warning to England but Esther, usually the more down-to-earth one, had a premonition one late afternoon and they set off to meet the Irish Mail, where Eva found Constance being escorted under armed guard to Aylesbury Gaol. They wrote to each other daily and the letters that survived were eventually published. Constance was let out of prison under an amnesty declared by the British government in June 1917 and returned to Ireland where she became even more involved what was now an Irish revolution. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in December 1918, but along with the rest of Sinn Fein did not go to London to take her seat, sitting in the Dail in Dublin instead. Constance was made Minister for Labour in the revolutionary government.
Eva also gave support to Roger Casement who was tried for treason for his part in the Rising, attending court every day and trying in vain, along with others, to prevent his execution which took place on 3rd August 1916. Many of her poems written at this time reflected the sorrow she and others were suffering in the wake of the Rising and the executions and repression that followed and were published in 1918 under the title Broken Glory, dedicated to Roger Casement. In “Easter Week” she wrote thus:
Grief for the noble dead
Of one who did not share their strife
And mourned that any blood was shed
Yet felt the broken glory of their state
Their strange heroic questioning of Fate
Ribbon with gold the rags of this our life.
By 1920 Eva and Esther’s work during the war and the trauma of the Rising and War of independence had greatly affected their health, with Eva remaining a semi-invalid for the last years of her life. The two women spent much time travelling in Italy. Always inclined to mysticism Eva became very interested in theosophy, though she still followed affairs in Ireland closely. On 1st July 1921 a letter written jointly by Eva and Clare Annesley appeared in the Manchester Guardian, drawing attention to the fact that a man called Patrick Casey had been condemned to death by a military court for possessing arms and 13 rounds of ammunition. They called on the government to intervene. “If there is to be any chance of peace with Ireland all executions must stop.”
On 10th January 1923 the Manchester Evening Chronicle reported that Eva had refused to do jury service, stating that religion meant to her the determination to avoid punishing or hurting anybody, what ever they might have done. Her pacifist views remained undiminished:
“It is absolutely impossible for me to take part in any proceedings which would, under any circumstances, involve me in any share, however small, in inflicting punishment on any human being. For many years I myself have held the opinion that it would be wrong for me to appeal to law for any problem to myself or to take part in passing judgement on anybody else. I, therefore, could not conscientiously sit on a jury.”
Eva continued to write and publish poetry and took up the study of Greek in the last year of her life. She died at home on 30 June 1926 at their home in Hampstead. A complete collection of Eva’s poems, together with a biographical introduction by Esther, was published in 1929 and that same year in June Esther unveiled a beautiful memorial window to Eva in the Round House, Ancoats, sadly long since demolished and the window lost. Esther herself died in April 1938 and was buried in the same grave as Eva in the nearby St John’s churchyard.
Michael Herbert, “Up Then Brave Women”: Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918 (2012)
Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, “One Hand Behind Us”: the Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1978, reissued 2000)
Esther Roper, Poems of Eva Gore-Booth , Complete Edition...and a Biographical Introduction (1929)
Sonja Tiernan, Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics (2012)
Sonja Tiernan, The Political Writings of Eva Gore-Booth. (2015)
Sonja Tiernan, The Poetry of Eva Gore-Booth. (2016)