Next week BBC Radio 4 shines the spotlight on Welsh suffragist Margaret Haig Thomas, better known as Lady Rhondda, appointed by former Supreme Court President Lady Hale for the Great Lives program.
Lady Hale will be joined by expert professor Angela V. John to discuss the living life of Lady Rhondda who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, went to jail for setting fire to a mailbox in the name of women’s rights and became the first and to date only a woman President of the Institute of Directors.
The show will air on Tuesday January 11 at 4.30 p.m., and again on Friday 14 at 11 p.m., after which it will be available for catch-up online.
Journalist, businesswoman and tireless champion of women’s rights, Margaret Haig Thomas (who became Mrs / Lady Mackworth and from 1918 Lady Rhondda) led a multi-faceted and powerful life as l ‘one of the animators of Welsh and English society in the first half of the 20th century. But this life was not without drama and danger as evidenced by these three extracts from his biography by Angela V. John, Turning the tide: the life of Lady Rhondda, Parthian, 2013:
In 1909, Margaret and activist Annie Kenney, both activists from Ms. Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, held a women’s suffrage meeting at the Bowen Jenkins Memorial Hall in Aberdare.
Margaret was received with cheers, hoots and whistles. She first explained the main purpose of the WSPU, since Annie Kenney had advised her to always say what she wanted and why, and then how she planned to get it. But there followed such a cacophony of sounds – boos, screams, the shrill sound of a trumpet, the screams of a cat, a police whistle and a rattle – that his words were drowned out. She persevered, mentioning Asquith (cheers followed) and noting that she could not understand “how a liberal loyal to his principles can object to the vote being given to women on the same terms as men” … But “Inappropriate gestures,” the singing of funny songs and the noise from outside where a crowd was scratching the rough windows, ensured that nothing more could be said.
The women tried to restore peace, but herrings, ripe tomatoes and cabbages were thrown onto the platform. Even Kenney, a seasoned activist, had a hard time making his voice heard …
Aberdare’s reunion quickly got out of hand. Dead mice were thrown onto the platform and live mice let loose into the body of the room, along with hydrogen sulfide, snuff, and cayenne pepper (producing loud sneezing). Windows were smashed, many chairs were smashed, and “a certain fear was fostered of something approaching panic.” Although initially refusing to give up, after another ten minutes of unsuccessful attempts to be heard, even Kenney surrendered. The women slowly exited from the back of the platform into the gymnasium and escaped in a taxi.
In May 1915, during World War I, Margaret and her father, the industrialist and politician DA Thomas, returned from a business trip to the United States. They traveled on the Lusitania and when it was torpedoed not far from the Irish coast it was sucked in with the ship.
Margaret found herself at the bottom of the water in the dark. She still held her father’s lifeline. She later told reporters that she was “more and more terrified” of drowning by becoming entangled in part of the ship. But although her wrist caught on a rope and left a lasting mark, she managed to free it. She grabbed a piece of wood a few inches wide and several feet long.
She rose to the surface in the middle of what literally appeared to be a sea of people. They were crammed with “boats, henhouses, chairs, rafts, planks and god knows what else”… Half dazed, Margaret was beyond acute fear. She later wrote that with death so near, “the acute agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and amazing for that ‘…
A few boats were visible but it was impossible to swim more than a few fathoms and Margaret was loath to give up her board. It was extremely cold and the swell was making her sick. It also caused people and debris to drift away. She thought of a possible invention: Attaching a small bottle of chloroform to each lifeline would help the drowning person pass out. Looking at the sun high in the sky, she wished she could. It was the last thing she remembered.
But after about two and three-quarters hours in the water, as it started to get dark, she was picked up by a rowing boat. She had only been located because a wicker lounge chair had floated under her, lifting her up a bit. A mark in the water was detected and Margaret was discovered. She was presumed dead. She and a number of bodies were transferred to a small patrol steamer called the Bluebell which patrolled the waters between Kinsale and Ballycotton. She was dumped on the bridge. Fortunately, an aspirant thought that maybe there was “some life in this woman” and took care of her.
After his father had obtained his daughter’s permission from the monarch to succeed him as a “full peerage”, the 2sd Viscountess Rhondda argued that she and the two dozen other women in her place should be able to sit in the House of Lords. This is not the case, argued the Earl of Birkenhead, who was both Lord Chancellor and Speaker of the House of Lords. He overturned the decision to proceed that had been taken by a Lords committee.
In Birkenhead’s view, the judgments and opinions of the “average” woman were “more tinged with emotions and personal considerations” than those of the average man and, in times of crisis, could “prove to be a source of instability and disaster for the State ”.
The subject of women in the House of Lords struck a chord. It symbolized unfinished business for Margaret and was a natural part of the protracted struggle for the vote, ending women’s struggle for parliamentary representation. For Birkenhead, it was also linked to the past, rekindling visceral feelings towards savage activists …
The notion of peer women was far more threatening to Birkenhead than female suffrage. Because it struck the heart of his world. It threatened the male establishment that this clubbable man cherished most, the space and place that nurtured, exhibited and applauded his virtuoso performances and the seat of his authority. A verse in Time and Tide [the influential weekly paper that Margaret had founded in 1920 and would edit from 1926] spoke of “Bold Birkenhead” who thought:
it would put the whole sky in a rage,
See a peerage in the golden cage.
Margaret was everything Birkenhead worried about and vice versa. Unlike many Lords, she had spent her adult life working and in the male world of business. A cartoon from the Sunday Chronicle showed Birkenhead as a medieval Horatius holding the bridge as Lady Rhondda and her “Amazonian cohorts” advanced. Her relentless attack on women’s rights helped ensure that Margaret persisted.
Turning the Tide is published by Parthian and is available for purchase here… ..