Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)

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Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)

Feminist, socialist, and Irish republican activist. Born Charlotte French in Ripple, Kent, England, on June 15, 1844; died on November 9, 1939, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; third daughter of William French and Margaret (Eccles) French; educated privately; married Maximilian Despard, on December 20, 1870 (died, April 4, 1890); no children.

Selected publications:

Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow (Tinsley, 1874); A Modern Iago (Griffith and Farnan, 1879); The Rajah's Heir (Tinsley, 1890); Women in the Nation (1909); Women in the New Era (1910); Theosophy and the Women's Movement (1913).

In her long and eventful life, Charlotte Despard embraced a range of causes to which she gave enthusiasm, dedication, and considerable financial support: the plight of the poor, women's suffrage, socialism, Irish independence, and communism. The contradictions in her life were as varied as the causes she supported.

She was born Charlotte French into a wealthy Kent family of Irish antecedents, one of five sisters and one brother. Their mother became reclusive and mentally unstable, and when their father died the children were looked after by a strict guardian who was resented by Charlotte and her sisters. Charlotte tried to run away and become a servant in London. Educated at home, she began to write poetry. Charlotte was devoted to her only brother John, the youngest in the family, who would later distinguish himself as a soldier. During the First World War, he was Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France; in 1918, he was appointed viceroy of Ireland just as the Irish war of independence was starting, which brought him into conflict with his sister.

Danton, Louise (1777–1856)

Young French wife of Jacques Danton. Name variations: Sebastienne-Louise Gély; Louise Gély; Louise Dupin. Born Sébastienne-Louise Gély in 1777; died at age 80 in Paris in 1856; daughter of Marc-Antoine Gély (a former Admiralty official); married Jacques Danton, in 1793 (guillotined, 1794); married Claude-François Dupin (prefect, officer of the Legion of Honor, under Napoleon).

Following the death of his first wife Gabrielle Danton , who had died giving birth to their fourth son in February 1793, and concerned about his motherless sons, Jacques Danton married 16-year-old Louise Gély, a friend of the family, on June 12, 1793. Less than one year later, she was a widow. Soon after, Louise Danton remarried but, in her sorrow, never mentioned Danton's name again.

Hébert, Madame (d. 1794)

French Revolutionary. Died on the guillotine in Paris on April 13, 1794; married Jacques René Hébert (1757–1794).

In 1857, the French children went to Edinburgh to live with their mother's family who were strict Presbyterians, an atmosphere not to Char-lotte's taste. Her eldest sister Mary French came of age in 1863 and was able to take responsibility for the rest of the family. They moved to York and subsequently to London where they set up house on their own. After their mother's death, they had substantial private incomes that gave them an unusual degree of freedom for the time. Even so, Charlotte disliked intensely the conventions that hemmed in women. In an autobiographical fragment, she referred to the disadvantages of "an inferior, slipshod education" which she was determined to overcome. "We were taught a little music, a little drawing, no science or mathematics, but a little literature, geography and history. Manners of course! The impression left on the mind is of incompetent teachers and indifferent learners—nothing thorough." She longed to be of some use in the world, but for her and her sisters, as wealthy women born into a certain social position in Victorian England, "it was not thought necessary that we should do anything but amuse ourselves until the time and the opportunity of marriage came along."

Her own interest in social conditions had been awakened while living in York when she visited a rope factory and was appalled by the conditions of the women and children working there. In politics she took an interest in the cause of Italian independence and admired the leaders Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Intellectually, she was greatly influenced by Percy Shelley's writings, especially his views on women and marriage, and would remain so for the rest of her life. She deeply resented the inferior position of women in society: "Heaven had decreed that I should be a woman.…I must prove my grati tude by gentleness, obedience and submission."

By 1866, two of her sisters were married and over the next three years Charlotte and her other sisters traveled in Europe. In 1870, after returning to England from France, she met Maximilian Despard, of Huguenot Irish extraction, and married him in December 1870. Despard, whose family came from the Irish midlands, had gone to Hong Kong in the early 1860s and made a fortune there trading in tea and gemstones. He also invested in the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank which was to repay considerably over the years. He was a man of liberal views and supported a wider franchise and reform in society generally. Charlotte wrote that she "married happily in the sense that my freedom in that relation, often so difficult, was always respected." Soon after their marriage, she started writing and her first novel was published in 1874. This work and subsequent novels were marred by improbable plotting and characters.

In 1879, the Despards bought an estate in Surrey, near London. They traveled extensively and after a visit to India Charlotte became interested in Buddhism as well as seances, which she attended. Maximilian continued to trade in tea and gemstones but throughout the 1880s his health, never good, declined. They were on another journey to India when he died on board ship in April 1890.

Charlotte Despard was left a very wealthy widow. She had already taken up charity in the Nine Elms area of south London, one of the poorest districts, and after her husband's death she moved to the area. It was only after his death, as she wrote later, that "I was able to give full expression to my ideals." She was attracted to Catholicism, though she retained her interest in Buddhism and spiritualism. Despard also became a vegetarian and wore a black lace mantilla that became something of a physical trademark. In 1892, she was elected to the Kingston Poor Law Board which supervised the running of the local workhouse. She did her best to alleviate the conditions in the workhouse, particularly in regard to the treatment of elderly inmates. She also helped to set up clinics and surgeries for poor children.

In the course of her work in south London, she met members of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, including Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx , and became a socialist: "Socialism to me is a religion," she declared. But her work in south London had also brought home the conditions faced by working women, and she became actively interested in women's suffrage. Despard predicted that the 20th century would see the rise of two great movements—women and labor. In 1906, she joined the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and succeeded Sylvia Pankhurst as secretary in June 1906. For a time, Despard enjoyed immunity from arrest during WSPU demonstrations because of the prestige that her brother, Sir John French, enjoyed as a military hero of the Boer War. Charlotte had bailed out her brother on several occasions when he got into debt, but he regarded her suffragist activities with increasing disapproval. In February 1907, she was sentenced to 21 days in Holloway Jail after a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. She loathed prison and this fuelled a growing disillusionment with the Pankhursts' leadership of the WSPU. In October 1907, she supported the formation of a new organization, the Women's Freedom League, of which she subsequently became president. The League did some valuable work, notably the setting up of watch committees to monitor the inequalities in the way the courts sentenced women. Administration, however, was not Despard's strong point. She often failed to consult members of her executive about policy and was accused of being too dictatorial. An attempt was made to unseat her as president but she survived.

Suffrage was not Despard's only interest. In 1909, she met Mohandas Gandhi who was on a visit to London and who would later describe her as "a wonderful person." That same year, she also met James Connolly, the Irish Marxist labor leader, when she visited Dublin and spoke to his Irish Socialist Republican Club. When the First World War broke out, Despard was strongly pacifistic and joined the British section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She and the League looked after the wives and families of men fighting at the front. They also strenuously resisted attempts to reintroduce the Contagious Diseases Acts which enforced compulsory medical inspection of women suspected of having venereal disease. At the end of the war, she stood as a Labor candidate for the British Parliament in the general elections of December 1918 and was defeated.

Charlotte Despard maintained a consistent, if sporadic, interest in Irish affairs for many years. Her own antecedents were Irish as were her husband's; she had known James Connolly who was executed after the 1916 Rising in Dublin; she campaigned for the release of Maud Gonne who had been arrested by the British authorities; last, but no means least, those same British authorities were symbolized in the person of her own brother, now the earl of Ypres, who had become the viceroy of Ireland and, as such, titular head of the British administration in Ireland. But it was the death in October 1920 of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, which spurred her to more active participation in Irish affairs. Despard went to Ireland in January 1921, and she and Maud Gonne toured the southwest, a dangerous proceeding as the area was then under martial law.

When stopped by British forces, Despard had no hesitation in using her brother's name, which infuriated him. To the great disapproval of her family, she gave up her houses and activities in England and moved to Dublin where she bought Roebuck House in south Dublin, which she shared with Maud Gonne. She became involved with the White Cross organization which helped the wives and families of Sinn Fein prisoners.

She and Maud Gonne opposed as inadequate the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which gave independence to southern Ireland in December 1921. When civil war broke out in June 1922, they tried to effect an agreement between the opposing sides but to no avail. As more and more republican prisoners were arrested, Charlotte Despard became president of the Women's Prisoners' Defence League which helped families, gave information as to where prisoners were being held, and organized public demonstrations. The League was banned in January 1923, though the ban was ignored. Roebuck House became a base for Maud Gonne's children, for assorted republicans who were either on the run or just released from prison, and for refugees from Belfast. In 1924, a jam factory was set up in its grounds to give employment to former prisoners.

Despard's brother, Lord Ypres, died in 1925; he had refused to see her, despite her requests. She became increasingly attracted to Communism and she gave James Connolly's son, Roddy, money to set up the Irish Workers' Party and a newspaper The Workers' Republic. However, faced with political apathy and the opposition of the Catholic Church, the new party failed to make any headway. In 1930, at age 86, she visited the Soviet Union with the Friends of Soviet Russia, of whose executive she was a member, and was greatly impressed by what appeared to be a new socialist utopia. On her return to Ireland, she bought a house in Dublin which became the headquarters of the Friends of Soviet Russia and the Irish Workers' College. This was wrecked by a right-wing Catholic mob in 1933.

It was at the urging of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington that Despard decided to leave Dublin and go to Belfast. Sheehy-Skeffington told of the distress being caused there by unemployment and the attempts to unify Protestant and Catholic workers. These hopes of unity were short-lived and vanished in sectarian riots which erupted in 1935. Despard remained in Belfast but began to speak out against the rise of Fascism in Europe. On her 93rd birthday in 1937, there was a celebration in London attended by many distinguished guests including Sylvia Pankhurst, Nancy Astor , Paul Robeson and George Bernard Shaw. Despard died two years later in November 1939 and was buried in the republican plot at Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery. Maud Gonne in her funeral oration described her friend as "a white flame in the defence of prisoners and the oppressed."


Fox, R.M. Rebel Irish Women. Talbot Press, 1935.

French, Gerald. The Life of Field-Marshal Sir John French, First Earl of Ypres. Cassell, 1931.

Linklater, Andro. An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist and Sinn Feiner. Hutchinson, 1980.

Ward, Margaret. Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. Brandon, 1983.

Deirdre McMahon , Dublin, Ireland, Assistant Editor, Dance Theatre Journal (London), and author of Republicans and Imperialists (Yale University Press, 1984)