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Edith Lanchester and Elizabeth Wolstenholme

Rebellious Daughters of History #47


by Judy Cox

Edith Lanchester. Photo: The bar Sinister (1895), via catfordcentral.com. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Edith Lanchester, free love and ‘lunacy’


In October 1895, a young socialist, Edith Lanchester, announced that she intended to live with her working-class Irish lover and fellow member of the Social Democratic Federation in Battersea, Shamus Sullivan.


Edith’s father was appalled and recruited Dr George Fielding Blandford, who, along with three of her brothers, interrogated Lanchester at her lodgings. Lanchester insisted that she would lose her independence if she married. Edith was pronounced mad, put into handcuffs, carried to a carriage and taken to The Priory Hospital, Roehampton.


The "Supposed Cause" of her insanity was recorded on the certificates as "over-education".

Edith’s case created a national scandal. John Burns, MP for Battersea, intervened, and The New York Times reported that the affair had "rivet[ed] the attention of three kingdoms" and that "no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week".


The SDF attempted to release her and SDF supporters sang The Red Flag from outside the asylum's walls.


During the four days of her incarceration Edith was subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse. She was examined by the commissioners of lunacy, and found to be sane. She was released and lived with her lover until his death in 1945.


In 1897 Edith became secretary and friend to Eleanor Marx. Edith’s first child, Waldo Lanchester, was born in 1897 and Eleanor invited Edith and her baby to recuperate at her home in Sydenham.


During World War 1, Waldo registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for one year.


Edith’s second child, Elsa Lanchester, was a noted actress and the wife of actor/director Charles Laughton. She was the Bride of Frankenstein.


Edith never stopped campaigning for socialism and women’s rights. By 1917 Edith was a communist. Her daughter recalled how the name Karl Marx was more familiar to her than nursery rhymes. Lanchester continued to attend political meetings as long 'as she was physically active enough to walk to the bus.’ Edith Lanchester died in April 1966 at Brighton.

Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy (1833–1918) British essayist and poet. Photo: https://historyofwomen.org/. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Remembering Elizabeth Wolstenholme


Elizabeth was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester in 1833, the daughter of Reverend Joseph Wolstenholme.


She joined the College of Preceptors in 1862 and campaigned for girls to be given the same access to higher education as boys. Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865 and in 1866 she gave evidence to the Taunton Commission into education, one of the first women to give evidence at a Parliamentary Select Committee.


Elizabeth founded the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women (MCEW) in 1866. She became the first paid employee of the women's movement when she was paid to lobby Parliament.


In 1867, she set up the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage.In 1877 the women's suffrage campaign was centralised as the National Society for Women's Suffrage, and Elizabeth was a founding member.


Elizabeth met mill owner, radical and feminist Benjamin John Elmy. They set up a Ladies Education Society that was open to men. Elizabeth began living with Elmy in the early 1870s as they both followed the free love movement. When she became pregnant in 1874, her colleagues were outraged and demanded that the couple marry. They went through a civil registry office ceremony in 1874. Their son Frank was born the following year.


In 1891, a Mrs Jackson of Clitheroe was kidnapped by her estranged husband who was demanding his conjugal rights. The courts decided he had the right to hold her captive, but this was overturned by the court of appeal.


In response, Elizabeth set up the Women's Emancipation Union. The Union encouraged women to resist all authority and fight for equality. The Union held outdoor rallies in London's East End. Over a 100 of the WEU organisers were elected as Poor Law Guardians or Parish Councillors.


Elizabeth was a friend of Emmeline Pankhurst, and was invited onto the executive committee of the Women’s Social and Political Union but she resigned in 1913 in protest against its increasingly violent tactics.


Elizabeth became vice-president of the Tax Resistance League and supported the Lancashire and Cheshire Textile and other Workers' Representation Committee formed in Manchester by Esther Roper in 1903.


Elizabeth became secretary to the Married Women's Property Committee from 1867 until 1882 when the Married Women's Property Act was introduced. In 1869, Elizabeth helped to set up the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts that successfully campaigned for the repeal of the acts.


Elmy died in 1906 and Elizabeth died on 12 March 1918, the year women finally won the vote.