Dilke, Emily (1840–1904)

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Dilke, Emily (1840–1904)

English trade union leader who was an artist, art historian and critic. Name variations: Lady Dilke; Emilia Dilke; Frances Dilke; Emily Pattison; Frances Pattison; Emilia Frances Strong. Born Emily Frances Strong in Ilfracombe, Oxfordshire, England, on September 2, 1840; died in Pyrford Rough, near Woking, England, on October 24, 1904; daughter of Henry and Emily (Weedon) Strong; had private education followed by two years at South Kensington Art School, London; married Mark Pattison (1813–1884), on September 10, 1861; married Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843–1911), on October 3, 1885; no children.

Joined the Women's Suffrage Union (early 1870s); was a member, Women's Protective and Provident League (WPPL), known as the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) after 1891 (1875–1904), president (1902–1904).


Numerous articles, several books on French art, and two collections of short stories.

To many, Lady Emily Dilke was an inspiration. Her early years and first, extremely unhappy marriage to a man almost 27 years her senior inspired at least three novelists. In 1872, the most famous of the three, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), based her Middlemarch character Dorothea Brooke on Dilke, who was then a young woman known as Frances Pattison. Shortly after Lady Dilke's death, more than 40 years later, her beloved second husband Sir Charles Dilke wrote that his wife had "an overmastering sense of duty, and an unfailing courage, little short of sublime." It was that sense of duty that prompted Lady Dilke to commit the last 20 years of her life to the trade union cause. As an accomplished art critic and wife of a wealthy member of Parliament, she could have chosen to devote herself to her career as an art historian and to her social obligations as the wife of a baronet active in politics. Instead, she chose as her obligation to society the improvement of the conditions of labor for English working women.

She was born Emily Frances Strong, the middle of Henry and Emily Weedon Strong 's five children. Henry Strong, who had served as a British officer in India, was manager of a small bank in Oxford, England, by 1841. There, Frances, or "Fussie" as she was known to family and friends, grew up in a pleasant and politically liberal, middle-class home. Her father, despite the loss of two fingers during his army career, was an amateur artist and encouraged his daughter in her artistic interests. A family friend showed several of Frances' sketches to the renowned British artist John Ruskin. He announced she had talent, and Frances was allowed to go to London to study art over her mother's objections.

From 1859 to early 1861, Frances attended the South Kensington Art School, an intellectually stimulating environment that further defined her developing social conscience. Popular among her fellow students, she was also recognized as a promising artist by the faculty, receiving prizes in two subjects. But despite her artistic training, she had few options outside of marriage, given the social constraints of her class, and, in February 1861 she moved back to her parents' home, likely a difficult return following her days as an art student. By June, she was engaged. In September 1861, shortly after her 21st birthday, she married Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

By contemporary accounts, Pattison was a lifeless academic, who was bitter over his apparent inability to leave behind his background as a poor cleric's son. For both husband and wife, the marriage was unhappy from the start. If marriage for Frances had seemed her only escape, she now found herself in another sort of prison. Divorce was not then the viable option for women it would later become, so she focused on her work, traveling abroad every year to study and to write. Her first published work, The Renaissance of Art in France, appeared in 1879. By then, she had also renewed her friendship with a former fellow art student, Charles Dilke. Three years younger than the vivacious Frances Strong, Charles had admired her from afar at South Kensington. When they met again, in Paris in 1875, he was a recent widower, a wealthy baronet, and a government official. Charles Dilke's radical Liberal politics appealed to Frances as much as his youth and charm, and the two became very close. After Mark Pattison died in 1884, they were seemingly free to marry. However, marriage was delayed for more than a year while Charles, his political career at stake, had to defend himself against charges of adultery brought up in a nasty and very public divorce case. Finally, on October 3, 1885, Emily Frances Strong Pattison and Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke married. Now known as Lady Emilia Dilke, she had the social position and the financial resources to lead a comfortable life. That she did, at the same time devoting herself to assisting women who led lives far different from her own.

Happiness in marriage seemed to provide Lady Dilke with the emotional strength to pursue interests she had long held. Although she had joined the Women's Protective and Provident League (WPPL) in 1875, it was only after her second marriage that she became truly involved in the League. Founded in 1874 by Emma Paterson , the WPPL sought to facilitate trade unionism for English working women. After Paterson's death, Lady Dilke became in effect the head of the WPPL which in 1891 changed its name to the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). While she was not officially elected president of the WTUL until 1902, Lady Dilke was one of its most public champions, writing numerous articles and making countless speeches. She was also one of the WTUL's most generous donors, giving an average of £100 a year.

While her husband, now a radical Liberal member of Parliament, was instrumental in the passage of protective labor legislation, Lady Dilke helped organize laundry workers, rag pickers and linen weavers. She represented the cause of working women at several Trade Union Congress (TUC) annual meetings, urging that male-dominated organization to welcome women into the TUC as equal partners. However, unlike some of her female contemporaries who stressed equality, Lady Dilke also advocated for the protective labor legislation her husband supported in Parliament. While some argued that such legislation did more harm than good by lumping women in with children as a class in need of protection, the Dilkes felt otherwise. As long as linen carders had an average life expectancy of 30 years because of harsh working conditions and starvation wages, Lady Dilke argued that both government intervention and trade unionism were needed.

Until her death in 1904, Lady Dilke helped the WTUL grow in strength and numbers. In 1876, less than 20,000 of England's working women were trade union members. By 1904, that number had risen to over 125,000, most of them textile workers. Lady Dilke's impassioned speeches as well as her social and political connections were instrumental in the growth of the WTUL. She died at her country home shortly after her 64th birthday, having helped her nation respond to the needs of its women wage earners. Her wit had been an important asset. In a play on words regarding Great Britain's turn-of-the-century preeminence as a world power, Lady Dilke's motto was: "Don't think of the Empire on which the sun never sets—think of the wage that never rises."


Askwith, Betty. Lady Dilke: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Soldon, Norbert C. Women in British Trade Unions, 1874–1976. London: Gill and Macmillan, 1978.


Dilke Papers, British Museum, London.

Women's Trade Union League Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

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Dilke, Emily (1840–1904)

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