Corbett, Marie (1859–1932)

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Corbett, Marie (1859–1932)

British suffragist. Born Marie Gray in Tunbridge Wells, England, in 1859; died in 1932; daughter of George (a fruit importer and candy manufacturer) and Eliza Gray; married Charles Corbett (a lawyer), in 1881; children: Margery Corbett-Ashby (1882–1981); Cicely Corbett Fisher (1885–1959).

Political activism was very much a part of Marie Corbett's life from an early age. Her mother Eliza Gray and her father George Gray, a successful fruit importer and candymaker, were staunch Liberals who supported numerous progressive causes. In 1881, Marie married the radical lawyer Charles Corbett and settled on his large estate at Woodgate in the village of Dane-hill in Sussex. For many years, the couple put their combined social conscience into action by providing free legal advice for those living in their area. They also raised two daughters, Margery Corbett-Ashby and Cicely Corbett Fisher , educating them at home with the help of a language tutor.

Marie's political career began following the passage of the Municipal Franchise Act, when she joined the Uckfield Board of Guardians and subsequently became the first woman to serve on the Uckfield District Council. A champion of women's rights, she was instrumental in founding the Liberal Women's Suffrage Society, which was organized to persuade the Liberal government to give women the vote. When the efforts of the Society failed, she joined ranks with the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies. In 1906, when Charles Corbett became the first Liberal elected to represent East Grinstead in the House of Commons, he also supported women's suffrage, even though it distanced him from his Liberal colleagues.

Corbett continued as an early voice for suffrage, and when the Liberal Party did not advance the cause sufficiently, she and her daughters helped form the Liberal Women's Suffrage Group. Marie also enlisted her daughters as speechmakers. On their campaign rounds, the women often met with hostile crowds, especially in the Conservative seat of East Grinstead, where less than 20% of the women supported the suffrage movement. In 1911, Marie joined Muriel, countess de la Warr , and Lila Durham to form the East Grinstead Suffrage Society, but membership remained small and meetings were poorly attended.

As the suffrage movement grew in numbers and intensity, hostility sometimes erupted into violence. On July 23, 1923, at a pre-rally on East Grinstead High Street to prepare for a mass rally at Hyde Park on July 26, a crowd of 1,500 had gathered to hear speeches. Joining Corbett on the platform were Edward Steer, a local politician in favor of women's rights, and Laurence Housman, a writer and campaigner for the Suffrage Union. As the speeches got under way, a group of rowdy boys began hurling eggs and tomatoes at the speakers. Eventually the crowd turned ugly and threw rocks, forcing Corbett and the others to take cover in a nearby house. Only after the crowd began breaking into the building did the police intervene.

Following passage of the Equal Franchise Act in 1928, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, Marie Corbett set out to reform the workhouse system. Before her death in 1932, she was successful in closing down the Uckfield Workhouse and finding homes for all the orphans therein.

suggested reading:

Corbett-Ashby, Margery. Memoirs. 1996.

Hamilton, Mary Agnes. Remembering Good Friends. 1944.

Harrison, Brian. Prudent Revolutionaries. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Roberts, Marie, ed. The Suffragists. 1995.

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Corbett, Marie (1859–1932)

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