The struggle for equal pay for women

‘A home should be the centre of a woman’s life, not its boundary’ (Irene Ward).

Inspired by the research for my paper, Irene Ward, ‘Baroness Ward of North Tyneside (1895-1980) Unorthodox political warrior’ to the Institute of Contemporary British History seminar on 4 October 2015, the intention was to spend most of 2016 exploring further the campaign for equal pay for women, extending the focus beyond Irene Ward, looking more closely at the war-time and early post-war developments culminating in the 1954 act.

Pamphlet published in 1952 by the Equal Pay Campaign Committee. Pierotti papers, the Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE), 7 AMP/F/10/09.Miss A Muriel Pierotti was vice-chair of the committee. She also served as secretary of the National Union of Women Teachers. Image reproduced courtesy of the Women’s Library, LSE, University of London.

The first few months of 2016 were spent consulting material in the Women’s Library at LSE. The archive of the Women’s Publicity Planning Association (WPPA) proved particularly fruitful. War time files on the drive to secure ‘Equal compensation for equal danger’ for injured women civilians; nationwide meetings to encourage involvement in politics at local and national levels – the ‘Women for Westminster’ programme; or win greater representation on committees planning post-war reconstruction not only brilliantly illuminated my earlier research, but foregrounded the work of Mavis Tate, MP and Dr Edith Summerskill, MP (and included mention of Honor Balfour), all of whom, had I but known it at the time, would later  re-appear in my research into the Astors and twentieth century Cliveden.

Dr Summerskill’s private papers are also in the Women’s Library. Shifting through the archive for information on the equal pay campaign re-ignited my interest in political houses and gardens.  In the ‘noughties while exploring my political houses research, discovering that Dr Summerskill (pictured top left in the pamphlet), had commissioned a young woman architect, Elizabeth Benjamin (1908-1999) to work on  the family home suggested new possibilities. But after being advised it was (only) an interior remodelling of a Victorian villa, rather than a new build, Melrose, 1 Fitzroy Park, Highgate village, slipped off my list. But here it was again, in February 2016, on the front cover of the July 1935 issue of The Ideal Home; a reproduction of Guy Lipscombe’s delicately coloured painting of the hallway captioned ‘Alterations & improvements’. 1

In an interview with Lynne Walker published in 1996, Elisabeth Benjamin recalled how the scheme had to include dramatic spaces in which Dr Summerskill could make an entrance (the staircase), and entertain (the dining room). The enlarged and reconfigured living room acquired a chic steel fireplace. Five years after the project’s completion war broke out and display receded as an objective. With Dr Summerskill a tireless campaigner on a range of issues, not least promoting women’s equality and political participation, we can only wonder what conversations these spaces absorbed. 2



  1. The Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE), London. Summerskill papers [album] Summerskill /3/2
  2. Lynne Walker, ‘Interview with Elisabeth Benjamin’ in The Modern House Revisited. TwentiethCenturyArchitecture 2.The Journal of the Twentieth Century Society, number two, 1996, pp. 75-84.

Waldorf and Nancy Astor at Cliveden

Inspired by the depth and breadth of the Astors’ archive at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading, my current project focuses on Waldorf and Nancy Astor’s years at Cliveden and some of the less familiar stories.

From the estate papers, for example, we learn of the contribution of Captain Harry Lindsay (the estranged husband of the garden designer Norah Lindsay) to the refurbishment and repair of the mansion in 1906-1907. The cost-cutting moves which led to Cliveden’s temporary closure in 1931.

Most interesting of all however, as we move towards commemorating the centenary of women gaining the vote in 1918, and Nancy Astor’s ground breaking election in 1919, is how Cliveden fits into the narrative of the advance of women in British public life in the following three decades. A talk on this topic has been pencilled in for next year.

Power in Place?

February 2016 brought an invitation to return to an old favourite topic: houses and gardens with modern political associations. Discussions with a potential publisher updated the list of properties to be considered. Hughenden, Cliveden, The Wharf, Garsington, Trent Park and Port Lympne; Chartwell, Wallington, Sissinghurst, Birch Grove House, The Manor  House, Hell Corner Farm, and Thenford were added to three properties from  past lectures: The Wharf, Buscot and Ditchley.

Researching the Astors at Cliveden for a sample chapter brought a reconnection with the work of campaigners for equal compensation and pay. By the late 1930s Nancy Astor’s parliamentary reputation was in decline but some of her war time interventions were beneficial to the lobbying for women’s equality. She was also vocal in her support for women to be more involved in plans for post-war reconstruction.

Cliveden forecourt border, August 2017.The planting is inspired by Norah Lindsay’s schemes for Nancy Astor in the 1920s and early 1930s. Few overt reminders of Nancy Astor survive in the gardens; the pair of gates into a former walled garden (the present location of the information centre) commemorating her eightieth birthday in 1959 a rare exception.

Cliveden was Nancy’s stage too. The papers of Waldorf and Nancy Astor in the excellent Museum of English Rural Life archive (MERL), University of Reading, reveal that during the war, campaigning women MPs as politically various as Mavis Tate (appointed chair of the Women’s Power Committee in 1941, and of the Equal Pay Campaign in 1942); Irene Ward (Chair, Committee on Woman Power, 1940) and Ellen Wilkinson were guests on separate occasions. Margaret Wintringham, Liberal politician and the second woman to take her seat in Parliament was a frequent guest long after she had lost her seat in the 1924 General Election. Nancy Astor’s steadfastness in the hostile, all-male parliament, emboldened Wintringham to stick it out at Westminster (as she gratefully acknowledged) but the key to their long-lasting friendship may have stemmed from shared Christian Science beliefs. The social and political mix of guests at Cliveden weekends was usually eclectic; an invitation brought opportunities to relax and recharge, but also network. Invitations extended beyond establishment figures to weary social workers and civil servants.

As MP for the heavily-bombed constituency of Plymouth Sutton (and regularly deputizing for her husband as Lord Mayor) much of Nancy Astor’s attention during the war years was, of necessity, focused on Plymouth. The constant travelling between the two cities, not to mention nationwide speaking engagements, was exhausting. Little time was left for reflection – a quality already largely missing from Nancy Astor’s personality.

The Astor archives at MERL far exceeded my expectations as a resource. The estate papers are particularly good and form the basis of my reassessment of the roles played by Cliveden in the era of Nancy and Waldorf Astor.

Honor Balfour fleetingly appears in both the LSE’s WPPA archive and MERL’s Astor papers, as a participant in the Brains Trust event organized by Women for Westminster in December 1944, and a guest at Cliveden in November 1949. The latter presumably as an upcoming commentator on Anglo-American relations, and freelancer on the David Astor-edited Observer newspaper. Seeing her name in the Visitor’s Book reminded me of our many conversations at her home in Windrush, and led me to regret we never discussed her impressions of Cliveden. An astute commentator on contemporary politics right to the end of her life her insights are much missed.

Botanical interlude

"A big, cream and white wooden structure shaped like a giant flower pedestal but with a human-size door was utterly intriguing."

The Historic Gardens Review published by the Historic Gardens Foundation is available by subscription from the Foundation. Copies are also accessible in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, London.

A decorative arts study tour to Helsinki in May 2016, brought an unexpected opportunity to visit Helsinki’s Botanic garden.

A major refurbishment was evidently underway but there was still much to admire, not least in the range of glasshouses chronicling the evolution of plant life.

The prospect of orange trees naturally drew me in but the real delight, and for several months a puzzle, lay outside. A big, cream and white wooden structure shaped like a giant flower pedestal but with a human-size door was utterly intriguing.

Unfortunately the photograph of the mysterious pedestal was too blurry to be included in the article subsequently commissioned by the editor of Historic Gardens Foundation’s magazine.

But it was through the HGF‘s encouragement to contact an expert on Finnish gardens, the Swiss scholar, Dr Eeva Ruoff, that the mystery was eventually solved.

Dr Ruoff immediately identified the wooden structure as one of Helsinki’s few surviving original well huts.

Once a common feature on the streets of Helsinki and elsewhere, pavement laying and road extensions decimated their numbers. That in the Helsinki Botanic Garden survives because it was relocated and re-purposed as a garden feature.

The delightful well-hut is located in Rauma, on the west coast of Finland. Image courtesy of Dr Eeva Ruoff.

Others, like this one at Rauma, on Finland’s west coast and north of the old capital, Turku, survive in situ.  Rausa’s old town with its wooden houses is  a  UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Irene Ward – Doughty Parliamentarian and Campaigner

Dame Irene Ward’s life is the main focus of Helen’s research in 2015, following on from her March 2015 lecture at Westminster.

Among the highlights of Dame Irene’s long parliamentary career, her involvement in the campaign for equal pay for women is perhaps her most lasting achievement.  The following image shows women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election:

Women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election

Women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election. Image reproduced with the permission of Parliamentary Archives, PUD/8/32.


The names of the women MPs who worked closely with Dame Irene in the campaign for equal pay for women are highlighted in bold.

Standing, left to right: Harriet Slater, Lena Jeger, Patricia McLaughlin, Alice Cullen, Joan Vickers, Alice Bacon, Megan Lloyd George, Lady Gammans, Bessie Braddock, Elaine Burton, Evelyn Emmet, Barbara Castle, Mary McAlister, Jean Mann, Joyce Butler, Irene Ward

Seated, left to right: Lady Davidson, Edith Summerskill, Edith Pitt, Mabel Howard, Pat Hornsby-Smith, Florence Horsbrugh, Margaret Herbison

2015 Lecture at Westminster to mark International Women’s Day

A recording of Helen’s 2015 lecture on Dame Irene Ward given at Westminster to mark International Women’s Day is below:

The Quest for Reggie Cooper

This research grew out of a study of the gardens created by Sir Philip Sassoon (1883-1939). Intrigued by what had once been - and may in the future be again - a very attractive building, the quest for its amateur architect, Reginald (Reggie) Cooper began in earnest in 2014.

Reginald Cooper (1885-1965) – Reggie – has proved to be an elusive figure. He appears to have left no papers, private or otherwise. There’s a tantalizing reference to him as a correspondent of the garden designer and writer, Margery Fish (1892-1969) 1, owner of East Lambrook Manor, another medieval Somerset gem in need of restoration in the 1930s, but not the content of the so far untraceable letters.

The biggest boost in the quest for Reggie Cooper has been a conversation with Mrs Mary-Anne Robb, the current owner with her husband, Alastair, of Cothay, who generously shared her knowledge of Cooper’s work and life at Cothay from 1925 to 1937.

Other key sources have been the diaries and ledgers in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre of the conservation architect, Sir Harold Brakspear (1870-1934) 2; Country Life articles, most of which were written admiringly by Cooper’s friend, the architectural writer Christopher Hussey (1889-1970) between 1927 and 1950 3 and English Heritage archives. Cooper has walk on parts in a handful of published sources, most notably the writings of his old school friend and British Embassy colleague, Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) but his own voice is silent.

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  1. John Horsey’s outline for East Lambrook’s garden history course lists Cooper as a correspondent Mrs Fish acquired East Lambrook Manor in 1936, towards the end of Cooper’s time at Cothay.
  2. Sir Harold Brakspear’s papers include a batch of uncatalogued diaries which staff very kindly drew to my attention and made available.
  3. Christopher Hussey was editor Country Life’s between1933-1940.

Irene Ward, Disraeli & the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations

2015 brings... a lecture on Irene Ward MP, a paper on Disraeli to the Oxford University TORCH symposium and plans for a seminar series marking the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations.

A taste of what Helen is working on in 2015:

  • Delivering the 2015 Speaker’s Advisory Committee of  Works of Art International Women’s Day lecture, ‘Irene Ward  MP (1895-1980), doughty parliamentarian and campaigner’ .
  • Revisiting and re-evaluating representations of Disraeli’s legacy in a paper to the Oxford University TORCH symposium convened by Sandra Meyer and Megan Kearney, ‘The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli: Fame, Legacy and  Representation.’
  • Contributing to plans for a series of seminars in Brighton, Oxford and London marking the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations

If you would like more information about past or current projects please contact Helen directly.

Views from the Orangery: the gardens of Sir Philip Sassoon

This research returns to the topic of gardens as ‘living documents’. It uses the orangery at Trent Park, Enfield as the starting point for an exploration of the gardens created by Sir Philip Sassoon (1888-1939). The two gardens examined (Port Lympne, Kent being the second) are ‘living documents’; cultural landscapes connected to the worlds of politics, the arts, and design and significant meetings in both world wars.
The orangery designed by Reginald Cooper, c. 1931

Figure 1. The orangery designed by Reginald Cooper, c. 1931 (photographed by kind permission of Middlesex University, 2006).

The orangery at Trent Park was built c.1931 to designs by Colonel Reginald Cooper (1885-1965) now a rather elusive historical figure. It was designed in the neo-classical style as part of Sassoon’s remodelling of the large Victorian house on the estate inherited in 1912 from his father Sir Edward Sassoon (1856-1912), from whom he also “inherited” his Hythe constituency.

Like many authentic Georgian orangeries, Trent’s combined a strategic visual location with horticultural and social roles; switching from overwintering the Versailles citrus trees to providing poolside shelter in the summer.

Trent (created from 1926) was the garden of maturity; devoid of the grandiosity of Port Lympne, more in keeping with Sassoon’s progress up the political ladder. But there are common threads.

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Sir George Scharf & the Orangery at Knole Park

Helen has long been interested in the history of orangeries, and so was delighted to act as one of the advisers on the re-instatement of the orangery at Knole Park in late 2009/early 2010. The position brought unexpected archival dividends for her research into historic orangeries, and prompted further research using the sketch books and diaries of Sir George Scharf as a manuscript source. This article gives a first outline of some of her findings.
The Buzalgo stove

Figure 1. The Buzalgo 1

Acting as one of the advisers on the re-instatement of the orangery at Knole Park in late 2009/early 2010 brought unexpected archival dividends for my research into historic orangeries. Standing in the then empty orangery, marvelling at the amazing stove (later identified as a Buzaglo – see FIG. 1) and watching the play of the wintry light through the huge windows with their coloured glass insets, sparked a wish to return to the topic at some future date. In the autumn of 2011 the opportunity arose. With the Sackville papers temporarily unavailable while the Centre for Kentish Archives relocated to their new site, the focus of my research switched to the National Portrait Gallery Heinz Archive & Library and the papers of the Gallery’s first director, Sir George Scharf (1820-95).

Scharf was a man with a mission. Appointed Secretary to the newly-established gallery in 1857 then, from 1882, Director, he was charged with the task of collecting portraits for the new gallery. He visited many of the key historic houses of the era to make an inventory of portraits (including engravings) in private hands, as well as in public collections. The findings would also help the gallery distinguish copies, and identify the best methods of capturing images. With photography still in its infancy his sketchbooks are the pictorial record of his visits, a nineteenth century precursor to the notion of an image bank.

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  1. The Buzalgo stove is a rare survivor of an 18th century heater invented by Abraham Buzalgo (d.1788). An online article ‘Hot Air from Cambridge Library’ notes that in 1744 there were eleven models in production in various sizes. Knole’s may be one of the only two surviving stoves on public display (the other said to be at Williamsburg, Virginia, in the United States.