Shaw, Flora (1852–1929)

views updated

Shaw, Flora (1852–1929)

British journalist and staunch advocate of imperialism whose articles played a vital role in educating both the public and politicians about the British Empire. Name variations: Lady Lugard; Dame Flora Shaw. Born Flora Louise Shaw in December 1852 in Kimmage, Ireland; died in Abinger, England, on January 25, 1929; daughter of George Shaw (a general) and Marie (de Fontaine) Shaw; married Sir Frederick Lugard, on June 11, 1902.

Wrote children's books in effort to support herself and siblings (1874–85); published Castle Blair (1877); began writing short stories and articles for a variety of journals and newspapers; developed attitudes about imperialism while researching unfinished history of England; became colonial editor for The Times (1893); implicated in scandal over Jameson Raid (1895); was joint founder of War Refugee Committee during World War I; made Dame of the British Empire (1918).

Selected publications:

Castle Blair (1877); Hector (1883); A Sea Change (1885); Colonial Chiswick's Campaign (1886); The Story of Australia (1898); A Tropical Dependency (1905).

The last two decades of the 19th century saw a voracious European declaration of formal empire around the world. In 1885, at the height of the so-called Colonial Scramble, the European powers involved convened the Congress of Berlin in order to set ground rules and legitimize their conquest of the rest of the globe. By 1889,

European concern about the continuation of the slave trade in the newly acquired African colonies peaked and led to calls for a new international meeting to draft plans to make good on earlier promises to eradicate slavery. The Brussels Conference, convened in November 1889, primarily concerned itself with enforcing the superficial anti-slavery statements made by participants at the earlier Berlin Congress and attempted to create a concrete and detailed program to eliminate the slave trade in the African interior. Public interest in the Brussels meeting was particularly high, leading to heavy coverage by the European press. Among the crowd of journalists covering the Brussels Conference was a lone woman, Flora Shaw, who was soon to become a potent and learned force in imperial politics.

Even as a child Flora Shaw was no stranger to imperialism. Her grandfather, Sir Frederick Shaw, was a prominent figure in Irish politics and represented Dublin in the British Parliament. Flora's father George Shaw, a second son who stood to inherit neither wealth nor title, made a career for himself in the army, eventually rising to the rank of general. While serving with the British forces in Mauritius, he met and married Marie de Fontaine , the youngest daughter of the last French colonial governor. Marie's already precarious health was further weakened when she had 14 children in quick succession. Her third child, born in December 1852, was christened Flora Louise after Marie's mother.

Each year, from May to October, the Shaw children lived at their grandfather's estate at Kimmage, near Dublin. On these visits, Sir Frederick instilled in his grandchildren the sense of duty and responsibility inherent in noblesse oblige. In 1861, when Flora was nine years old, her father was promoted and made commandant of the army garrison at Woolwich, outside of London. Along with a spacious new house, the commandant and his children had access to the soldiers' extensive library. Flora quickly availed herself of the opportunity to supplement the meager education which, in true Victorian fashion, she and her sisters received at home under the tutelage of their mother and governess.

Within a few years of the move to Wool-wich, her mother had become an invalid requiring constant care, a task which fell to Flora and her older sister Mimi Shaw . Increasingly burdened with maintaining the household and caring for the growing brood of children, the young Flora soon fell ill and was sent to France to recuperate with relatives. Returning in 1869, having perfected her French while abroad, Flora entered her first season as a debutante. This exposure to the balls and parties hosted by her upper-class neighbors proved to be short-lived. When Mimi married and left home the following year, the entire burden of educating and caring for ten younger siblings, as well as nursing her invalid mother, was passed on to Flora. The constant heavy lifting and strenuous exercise involved resulted in a permanent spinal injury which was to cause years of pain later in her life.

Deprived of maternal advice after Marie's death in late autumn of 1870, Shaw was continually forced to stretch her resources in order to maintain the household on the fixed allowance that her father provided. Her own financial difficulties soon led her to explore ways in which she could help her poorer neighbors, most of whom worked in a nearby carriage factory. Shaw's solution to their mutual difficulties was to open a co-op which bought and sold goods at greatly reduced prices. Her household duties and management of the co-op continued until her father remarried in August 1872, finally freeing her to visit friends and rediscover the joys of European travel.

When her sister Mimi's husband went bankrupt two years later, Flora, anxious to help, began thinking about writing for a living. Encouraged by the author John Ruskin, whom she had befriended just prior to her mother's death, Shaw began working on a series of children's stories. Her first effort, the semi-autobiographical Castle Blair (1877), received universally favorable reviews. Although it was popular enough to go through eight editions, Shaw made little money from this novel since her inexperience led her to sign a bad contract and surrender her copyright for a pittance. Shaw's newfound notoriety soon led, however, to an invitation to write for Aunt Judy's Magazine (established by Margaret Gatty ) where, over the next several years, she published an increasing number of short stories and longer serialized pieces. Some of these works were later reissued as novels, providing her with the opportunity to hone her writing skills and supplement the small allowance which she received from her father.

In 1881, Shaw took over housekeeping duties for her friend Colonel Charles Brackenbury and his wife at their home in Waltham Abbey. While living with the Brackenburys, she met a social worker who exposed her to the problems of urban poverty and prostitution which plagued Victorian England. Like many other women of her day, Shaw was appalled by the plight of the poor and resolved to make a difference. By the spring of 1883, however, she felt compelled to withdraw from established social-reform campaigns since she lacked the necessary religious convictions. Convinced that her time was better spent influencing popular opinion and educating the general public about the plight of urban workers, Flora zealously resumed her literary career.

While vacationing with friends in Surrey during the spring of 1883, the 31-year-old Shaw fell in love with the surrounding countryside and rented several rooms in the town of Abinger. She quickly established a close friendship with her neighbor, George Meredith, who introduced her to a wider literary circle which included Robert Louis Stevenson. While in Abinger, she continued to write short stories and began extensive research for a planned history of England from Elizabeth I through the reign of Victoria . As a result, Shaw became transformed into an ardent and enthusiastic supporter of the British Empire and its potential future. At the same time, however, she came to fear the inevitable decline of empires predicted by historian Edward Gibbon and worried that the slums and urban decay that had arisen as the result of the industrial revolution were the early signs of this decline. Shaw concluded that the only solution was continued imperial expansion which would both renew the imperial economy and relieve congestion at home by fostering emigration. Her enthusiasm for imperialism soon superseded her interest in both history and social reform, leading her to read everything pertaining to the colonies that she could lay her hands on.

She has got imperialism in place of ordinary human feelings or religion or sympathy or chivalry.

Mary Kingsley

Eager to see some of the areas which she had been reading about, Shaw traveled with friends to the British possession of Gibraltar in the fall of 1886. Knowing that her finances would be strained by the trip, George Meredith introduced her to the editor of the prestigious Pall Mall Gazette who offered her the chance to submit freelance articles for publication. Instead of producing typical travel essays, Shaw conducted extensive interviews with Zebehr Pasha, a Sudanese political figure and slave trader who had been imprisoned in Gibraltar by the British after the death of General Charles George Gordon. Her articles, which were sympathetic to Zebehr's cause and his demands for a trial to determine his status, were published to great public acclaim in June 1887. Shaw followed these with a longer and fuller account of Zebehr's life which was published in the Contemporary Review later that fall. Before the last segment appeared, Zebehr Pasha was released and sent to Cairo, a fact which he later attributed to her intervention. Shaw had found her vocation and spent the next 15 years as an increasingly powerful, popular and influential journalist.

While in Gibraltar, Shaw also traveled to Morocco and began studying its politics and history. Although mostly interested in the need for reforms and the elimination from European consulates of corrupt officials who sold their protection to native merchants, Shaw quickly became an expert in the political intricacies created by the European colonial presence. When rumors of the sultan's death surfaced in the fall of 1887, the British public's interest in the Moroccan problem was renewed. Shaw cemented her reputation as a journalist by providing a largely ignorant public with detailed and informed accounts of the situation. As the result of her work in Morocco, other newspapers began expressing an interest in hiring her and the editorial board of the Pall Mall Gazette asked her to begin submitting book reviews and regular articles for its monthly magazine.

Shaw returned to England the following winter to prepare for a trip to Egypt in the company of longtime family friends. Prior to her departure, she was commissioned by the editor of the Manchester Guardian to write regular pieces for his readers. Consequently, when Shaw arrived in Cairo in December 1888, she was a fully accredited reporter for two established and influential British newspapers. In addition to playing tourist and being entertained by a grateful Zebehr Pasha, Shaw also made use of letters of introduction to gain access to people in government and official circles. Not content with this new circle of contacts, Shaw also met and befriended Moberly Bell, the local correspondent for The Times, who placed his extensive network of sources at her disposal. She used these contacts to greatly enhance her knowledge of the tense political situation in Egypt, all of which Shaw faithfully transmitted to her readers in England. In the midst of these efforts to improve her journalistic abilities, she also took the time to improve her language skills (which already included fluent French and a working knowledge of Italian and Spanish) by adding Arabic to her repertoire. These skills enhanced her ability to conduct both interviews and primary research in preparation for her many articles on colonialism.

In April 1889, Shaw returned to England and began churning out a series of reviews and daily articles for both the Pall Mall Gazette and the Manchester Guardian. Building on her reputation as a colonial reporter, she started writing on an even wider variety of subjects ranging from the use of heavy guns by the military to the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although the topics of her many articles often touched on widely disparate issues, she never wrote an article without first conducting extensive background research. As a result, Shaw soon became a well-known figure at the Colonial Office and was recognized as an authority on colonial and international political problems.

Professional recognition of her abilities and connections soon followed. In November 1889, Shaw was sent by the Manchester Guardian to cover the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference. She was quite pleased by this public acknowledgement of her work and worth, an extremely rare occurrence for Victorian women. Due to her growing stature both as a journalist and a colonial expert, she was increasingly drawn into official social circles where she met such figures as Rudyard Kipling and befriended both Sir George Goldie and Cecil Rhodes.

When the Brussels Conference ended, Shaw returned to Abinger in time for Christmas. Already tired from overwork and her ever-present spinal problems, she soon began facing financial difficulties when she agreed to pay her sister Alice 's art school tuition. Shortly thereafter, Mimi and her children returned from France and moved in with Flora, placing an even greater strain on the latter's meager financial resources. The final straw came in early February when her old friend Charles Brackenbury became ill and came to Abinger to be nursed back to health. Shaw was devastated when he died later that spring.

Characteristically, it took the prospect of new work to take her mind off these problems. In March 1890, Moberly Bell left Egypt to take over as assistant manager of The Times. After being approached for advice on how to revive the flagging reputation of the newspaper, Shaw urged Bell to begin publishing regular articles on colonial subjects. He agreed and offered her the chance to join the regular staff of The Times. This new position not only meant more money and prestige, it also provided Shaw with the opportunity to reach and educate a larger and more influential audience about the benefits of empire.

By the end of 1891, however, the combination of too many commitments and a long illness forced Shaw to relinquish her position on the permanent staff of the Manchester Guardian. Her doctors insisted that her convalescence, which was already slowed by her exhaustion from overwork, could only be completed by a long vacation, something which Shaw's altered finances could ill afford. Convinced that she would be an even more valuable colonial reporter after acquiring firsthand experience with the empire, Moberly Bell proposed a solution to her financial dilemma and offered to send her on a working holiday to South Africa as special correspondent for The Times. Shaw gratefully accepted Bell's offer and left for Cape Town in April 1892, traveling without maid or companion to lend her countenance. While in South Africa, she traveled extensively in the interior and began immersing herself in the intricacies of Anglo-Boer politics and disputes. Convinced that the future of South Africa lay in cooperation between the Boers, who were descendants of Dutch setters, and the newly arrived British immigrants, Shaw began publicly advocating conciliatory measures on both sides. Her increasingly vocal calls for Anglo-Boer cooperation soon led her into renewed contact with Cecil Rhodes, who was then prime minister of Cape Colony. Impressed by his ideas about colonial development and his vision of Africa, Shaw soon became one of Rhodes' most enthusiastic supporters both privately and in print.

Flora's published letters from South Africa were so popular with The Times' readers that Bell asked her to continue her duties as special correspondent in Australia. Before leaving the Cape, Shaw set up a series of local contacts, a process which she repeated everywhere that she traveled, thereby enabling her to remain well informed about colonial affairs even after her eventual return to London. On arrival in Australia, she quickly plunged into the intricacies of antipodean politics and economics for the benefit of her readers in the metropole. The continued popularity of Shaw's articles and letters in The Times soon led to new orders to return home by way of Canada where she was to continue gathering information and establishing contacts for later use in her work. As Bell had hoped, on her return to England in June 1893 Shaw was able to use the extensive firsthand experience with the empire acquired on her world travels to inject new life and detail into her many colonial articles, to the delight of both her readers and her editors.

While in Australia, Shaw had learned of her father's death. Since none of the Shaw children had a good relationship with their stepmother, Flora resolved to secure her sisters' independence by supporting them financially after her return to England. For the next eight years, Shaw was to share her home with her sisters Alice, Marie and Lulu . As if this were not enough for her already overburdened finances, Flora also periodically supported her sisters Mimi, Thomasina and their children. As her financial burdens increased, Shaw requested and received a raise from The Times on condition that she cease her work for other newspapers. Along with her raise, she was given new responsibilities and was made colonial editor, a position she was to hold for the next seven years. As colonial editor, she appointed all correspondents, organized their work, wrote lead articles for the paper, and controlled some of the flow of information on which politicians and other public figures based their decisions about matters of imperial policy.

Throughout the winter of 1894, Shaw wrote consistently sympathetic articles in support of Rhodes and the British settlers in the autonomous Boer Republics who were agitating for full political rights. The Jameson Raid in December 1895 almost proved her undoing. L.S. Jameson, a close friend and associate of Rhodes, had simply tired of waiting for a planned uprising of British settlers against the Boers and acted on his own. When news of the raid reached her in London, Shaw printed a forged telegram sent to her by contacts in Johannesburg which made it appear as if Jameson and his invaders had been invited into the Transvaal to protect revolting British settlers. When the full details about the Raid became known, both Shaw's reputation and that of The Times were in jeopardy. Because she had printed the forged telegram, which was used in good faith to justify the Raid, and had been in close contact with both Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, many imperial critics thought that Shaw was the go-between in a Colonial Office plot to engineer an incident which would result in full-scale British intervention. Moreover, since Shaw was a prominent member of The Times' staff, the newspaper's credibility as an impartial reporter of events was also called into question. Early efforts at damage control proved futile. Against Shaw's advice, Rhodes refused to reveal the extent of his role in the Raid and was eventually called to London to testify before a Parliamentary Committee investigating the situation in South Africa. Shaw herself was twice called to testify before the committee. Each time, she was careful to say that she had acted as a private citizen when encouraging Rhodes' ventures and steadfastly refused to implicate The Times in the Raid. In the end, the investigating committee was forced to reluctantly accept Shaw's explanation that her contacts with Rhodes and Chamberlain were merely part of her job as a journalist rather than evidence of participation in a sinister government plot. Shaw's testimony went a long way toward restoring her damaged reputation and many later congratulated her for her calm, cool performance on the stand.

Shaw emerged from the enquiry exhausted and soon returned to work in order to forget the whole ordeal. The discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1898 renewed British interest in Canada. Consequently, she was sent to the Yukon by The Times to record her impressions of the goldfields. What she found was a near total lack of sanitation, high mortality, rampant disease and corrupt local officials, all of which she dutifully reported to her readers. When her account finally appeared in the Canadian press, it caused an uproar and led to a full-scale government investigation. Once public scrutiny of the Klondike goldfields had begun, Shaw moved on and traveled throughout the rest of Canada, greatly increasing her knowledge of Canadian politics and history.

By mid-November 1898, she was back at work in London. In addition to her regular articles in The Times, which increasingly focused on the events leading to the 1899 outbreak of the Boer War, Shaw published The Story of Australia. In the spring of 1899, she also wrote and edited the articles on imperialism for the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which was being sponsored by The Times. These articles were followed in early 1900 by several introductory chapters which she wrote for The Times History of the South African War. Despite Shaw's seeming success, the turn of the century found her increasingly unhappy with both her private life and her position at The Times. According to some biographers, Shaw had fallen in love with Sir George Goldie several years previously. When he failed to propose after the death of his first wife, she was devastated and reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. Her relationship with her chief editor, who had never forgiven her for compromising the reputation of The Times during the Jameson Raid scandal, had become equally problematic. On the advice of her doctors, who worried that her health might be immutably ruined unless she avoided further stress, the 48-year-old Shaw resigned from the permanent staff of The Times in early September 1900.

Shaw's retirement, which proved to be short lived, was marked by a steady stream of visitors to her home in Abinger. Among them was Sir Frederick Lugard whom she had first met in 1893 when she reviewed one of his books for The Times. Shaw soon discovered that they had a great deal in common and maintained a regular correspondence with him over the ensuing years. Their friendship took on new depths when Lugard, home on extended leave in 1901 from his post as governor of Northern Nigeria, asked Shaw to marry him in Madeira the following spring. After announcing their engagement, Flora, who had become increasingly concerned and upset about the continuation of the Boer War and the atrocities committed by both sides, decided to travel to South Africa in order to gain firsthand knowledge of events. Recommissioned as a special correspondent for The Times, she set sail for South Africa in early December 1901, accompanied for the first time by a maid as a concession to her future husband. As always, her detailed accounts of events in war-torn South Africa were eagerly awaited by a British public hungry for news.

Shaw returned to England in March 1902 to begin preparing for her wedding. Within a few months, she set sail for Madeira in order to await Lugard's arrival. They were married on June 11 and after a brief honeymoon set out for Nigeria where Flora spent most of her time reading and entertaining. Shortly after her arrival at her husband's post, Shaw contracted a severe case of malaria and was forced to return to England by the end of the year. Although she periodically considered rejoining Lugard in Africa, her health never improved enough to make that possible. Instead, she busied herself with her first social season as Lady Lugard and began writing a history of Nigeria from antiquity through the period of British administration. Published in 1905, the extensively researched and erudite A Tropical Dependency was well received by critics who hailed it as the definitive work on British policy in Nigeria.

Sir Frederick returned to England on leave in May 1905. Although she was very proud of her husband's achievements, Shaw was not above using her own extensive contacts in the Colonial Office to try and influence his career. Despite an earlier favorable response to her suggestion that Lugard be given six months of leave for each six-month period that he spent in Nigeria, when Lord Elgin took over the Colonial Office in 1906 he flatly refused to sanction such an arrangement. Upset by the prospect of another separation and worried about his wife's health, Sir Frederick resigned from his post and briefly retired to Abinger in September 1906. This arrangement was not to last since he was simply too good an administrator to keep at home. Although his primary interest was in Africa, Lugard readily accepted the governorship of Hong Kong which the Colonial Office offered him in the spring of 1907. Shaw accompanied him to his new post and briefly assumed the duties expected of a governor's wife. The Chinese climate and Shaw's busy schedule, which included endless social functions and language lessons, took an inevitable toll on her health. Over the next several years, she spent more time in England recuperating from operations and recurrent illnesses than she spent in Hong Kong with her husband.

In early 1912, the Colonial Office asked Lugard to return to Africa to oversee the consolidation of Northern and Southern Nigeria under a single governorship, a move which he had long advocated. After consulting with Flora, whose declining health necessitated her permanent relocation to England, he accepted on condition that he be given more frequent leave to spend with his wife in England. Shaw, who maintained homes in both London and Abinger, filled the time between his visits with a growing interest in domestic politics. She was particularly interested in the question of Irish home rule and publicly supported the Ulster Protestants who feared that Irish independence would make them a minority in a united Catholic Ireland. Convinced that civil war was imminent, Shaw began making contingency plans for the evacuation of women and children.

When World War I broke out, Shaw set aside her concerns about Ireland and transformed her plans for evacuating Irish children into a campaign to evacuate Belgian refugees instead. As a founding member of the War Refugee Committee, she was involved in all stages of planning the evacuation, including fundraising, publicity and the arrangement of transportation and accommodation. Although her efforts were very successful, rising tensions stemming from her tendency to bypass official channels forced Shaw to withdraw from the War Refugee Committee's daily operations. Her commitment to the cause did not diminish, however, and she continued to work behind the scenes as a member of the organization's executive committee. When the war finally ended, Shaw turned her attention to arranging the repatriation of refugees who had fled to England. As a reward for her ceaseless wartime efforts, she was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918.

When Sir Frederick's governorship of united Nigeria expired the following year, the Lugards retired to their home in Abinger. Shaw occupied her time with writing occasional articles for the Manchester Guardian and reviews for The Times Literary Supplement, and helped her husband with his book The Dual Mandate. Her primary occupation, however, was agriculture. When the war broke out, growing food was depicted as an act of patriotism. Shaw took part zealously and soon became an accomplished farmer. In 1921, she started a hamper trade which sold and delivered the produce from her prizewinning farm. Despite its popularity, the hamper trade proved to be an unprofitable business, and within a few years Shaw was forced to divest herself of all but a market garden which she retained until her death.

Although she traveled to Geneva with Sir Frederick for the 1923 League of Nations Mandates Commission, which was to decide the fate of the captured German colonies, by 1925 Shaw's traveling days were over. While eagerly working on several articles with her husband for the Cambridge History of the British Empire, Shaw suffered a serious heart attack in September 1927 which left her bedridden for the better part of a year. Her brief recovery after Lugard was made a baron in the 1928 New Year's Honors List proved to be illusory. Within a few weeks, she had suffered a relapse and died peacefully in her sleep on January 25, 1929.

Despite her many unusual accomplishments, Flora Shaw proved unable to escape from typical Victorian notions that women and their contributions were less important than men. Convinced that her own life was unworthy of being recorded, she spent her final days working on a biography of her husband, leaving it to future chroniclers to piece together the enormity of her own impact on British public opinion and imperial affairs.


Bell, E. Moberly. Flora Shaw (Lady Lugard, DBE). London: Constable, 1947.

Callaway, Helen, and Dorothy O. Helly. "Crusader for Empire: Flora Shaw-Lady Lugard," in Western Women and Imperialism. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 79–97.

Cumpston, Mary. "The Contribution to Ideas of Empire of Flora Shaw, Lady Lugard," in Australian Journal of Politics and History. Vol. 1. May 1959, pp. 64–75.

Perham, Margary. Lugard. 2 vols. London: Collins, 1956.

suggested reading:

Callaway, Helen. Gender, Culture and Empire: European Women in Colonial Nigeria. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Jane. Women in England 1870–1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Strobel, Margaret. European Women and the Second British Empire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Trollope, Joanna. Britannia's Daughters: Women of the British Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1983.

Woods, Oliver, and James Bishop. The Story of The Times. London: Michael Joseph, 1983.


Correspondence and papers located in The Times Archives, London; Rhodes House Library, Oxford University; Lugard papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

Kenneth J. Orosz , Ph.D. Candidate in European History, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York

About this article

Shaw, Flora (1852–1929)

Updated About content Print Article