Somerset, Isabella (1851–1921)

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Somerset, Isabella (1851–1921)

British philanthropist and temperance leader. Name variations: Lady Henry Somerset; Isabel Somerset; Isabella Caroline Cocks. Born Isabella Caroline Cocks in London, England, on August 3, 1851; died on March 12, 1921; eldest daughter of Charles Somers Cocks (1819–1883), viscount Eastnor and 3rd earl of Somers, and Virginia Pattle (d. 1910); sister of Adeline Cocks (later the duchess of Bedford); married Lord Henry Richard Charles Somerset, on February 6, 1872 (divorced 1878); children: Henry Charles Somers Augustus Somerset (1874–1945).

President of British Women's Temperance Association (1890–1903); founded home for inebriate women (1895); president of World's Women's Christian Temperance Union (1898–1906).

A member of the British nobility, Isabella Somerset was born in London in 1851, the daughter of Charles Somers Cocks, 3rd earl of Somers, and Virginia Pattle , whose father was a Bengal civil servant. Isabella was raised with wealth and privilege, enhanced by the friendship her father, a court attendant and member of the House of Lords, maintained with Queen Victoria . On February 6, 1872, Isabella married Lord Henry Somerset (second son of the 8th duke of Beaufort), who was comptroller of Queen Victoria's household (1874–79) and a member of Parliament for Monmouthshire (1871–80). Four years after the birth of their son, they were divorced, and Isabella retained custody of their child.

Following the death of her father in 1883, Isabella Somerset inherited a large estate in the country at Eastnor, where she lived in a castle, and another large tract in the city tenanted by over 125,000 people. Although she could have lived her life in oblivious splendor, she felt responsible for the welfare of her tenants and devoted much of her time and income to helping them.

Inspired by her father, who had been a scholar, Somerset set to studying the causes of poverty and crime and concluded that the evil underlying much of it was in the traffic in liquor. She took the pledge of total abstinence, and encouraged some of her tenants to do the same, thereby starting a temperance society. In 1895, she founded Duxhurst, a home for inebriate women near Reigate, which was the first institution of its kind in England to treat the women as patients rather than as criminals. She also visited the homes of her tenants, giving Bible readings in their kitchens, and invited mothers to the castle to instruct them in child rearing.

As word of her work spread, Somerset was often asked to speak to groups outside her own domain and began traveling on behalf of her temperance work. In South Wales, she spoke to miners and their families, holding meetings in tents and halls and going into the pits during the midday breaks. In 1890, she became president of the British Women's Temperance Association, a position she held until 1903. Her travels took her to America to attend the World's Women's Christian Temperance Union, of which she served as president from 1898 until 1906.

While in America, she met and became close friends with Frances E. Willard , the Union's founder and the leader of the National Prohibition Party. Upon her return to England, Somerset attempted to implement some of the methods she had witnessed in the American temperance movement, but with little success. At the end of her presidency of the World's Women's Christian Temperance Union, she devoted the remainder of her life to helping patients at Duxhurst, until her death on March 12, 1921.


Davis, H.W.C., and J.R.H. Weaver, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography, 1912–1921. Oxford University Press.

Woman: Her Position, Influence, and Achievement throughout the Civilized World. Springfield, MA: King-Richardson, 1902.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Somerset, Isabella (1851–1921)

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