Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern

Years of Maturing Thought

Between the time of my return to England in 1901, and 1904, when I began my first public protest against the payment of income tax, while I still had no political representation, my mind was slowly maturing and my heart opening out on the subject of many social questions, besides that of the political vote. But my two children were at school and I lived mostly in the country or stayed with my mother at Hove, so there was little chance of working in London. But I was able, soon after the new Local Government Act, allowing women to sit on Parish and Urban District Councils, came into force to do some organising in Sussex for the Local Government Society in Tothill Street, and this work, undertaken voluntarily, gave me a great insight into the working of the Act. I visited during that time every class of person who was likely to be interested in the working of the Act, from cottagers to Bishops, and learnt how everyone was looking forward to better water supplies and better lighting for the villages, not to speak of parish halls, libraries and baths, of which the Act was full of suggestions; but, alas, when talking things over with those experienced in Local Government, I soon became convinced that it was merely the skeleton of an Act, whose dry bones must be clothed with money, if its provisions were effectually to be carried out. However, I obtained in the end promises from two or three women to stand for the Councils, though at the same time I had more than one angry interview with Chairmen of Councils who threatened to resign if women were ever elected; for they asserted it would be quite impossible to discuss questions of drainage with women present. After this experience I felt how deficient my knowledge of drainage, ventilation and kindred subjects was and I took a course of studies at the Health Society in Berners Street. I would recommend the course to any young woman who has a home of her own to look after, even if she does not contemplate sitting on a Council. I have never regretted having acquired the special knowledge that the course offers, either when there has been illness in the home, or when taking a new house, when I have surprised the landlord by pointed enquiries into drainage, cisterns for drinking water, flues of chimneys, etc.

In 1900 I had my first experience of an International Women’s Congress which was held in Brussels, where I spoke in French, giving the history of our English movement, and spoke of the Boer War, which was undertaken to enfranchise Englishmen in South Africa, while, now that we Englishwomen asked to be enfranchised we were laughed at, and often insulted in Parliament. Monsieur Jules Bois writing in the Figaro of 10th September, described the two Englishwomen at this Congress: “Mrs. Montefiore, poéte délicieuse et humanitaire, et Lady Grove, belle et philosophe comme Hypatie font toutes deux partie de l’Association des ‘Suffragistes Pratiques’ qui ne soutiennent en Angleterre que les candidats favorables aux femmes. Elles méritent de n’être pas oubliées.” As this Congress took place during my children’s holidays I took them first with a holiday governess to a little seaside place near Dieppe, and leaving them under her care, went on to Brussels for the week and then returned to spend the rest of the holidays with them. But the time was approaching when my boy would have to go to the preparatory school for St. Paul’s in London, so we had to leave our little home in Sussex and migrate up to town, where we eventually settled at the Upper Mall, Hammersmith, so as to be near St. Paul’s School.

I was then able to undertake much more social and political work, and was elected by the Hammersmith Trades Council on the Hammersmith Distress Committee, which had to do with the acute unemployment of that day. The work of these Distress Committees was to me harassing and very depressing, for it seemed to me that the men who had formulated all unemployment schemes had veritably tried how not to do things. Long lists of men out of work were put before us week after week, and name after name was struck out as not being eligible for the few jobs of relief work that were going. No unmarried man was eligible, though it always seemed to me that they were the men who should be sent away, while the married men should be given work in the district. But no; married men were sent to camps for reclaiming land on the East Coast or to the very excellent Garden Colony at Hollesley Bay, and they had often been out of work so long that they had scarcely a shirt over which to button their miserable coat. Result, the men were struck down with pneumonia or some other winter complaint brought on by the icy winds of the East Coast. Then, some of us members of the Distress Committee got up an unofficial fund for buying warm winter shirts and boots for the men who were sent to these camps. I was entrusted with the buying of these garments, and this brought me into touch with the families of the unemployed, and I saw at first hand all the hopelessness and cruelty of their position. Also I saw that we, by sending the husbands away, were doing a great harm to family life, for the wives, in order to increase their scanty allowances, in many cases took in a lodger, which did not make for the happiness of domestic life, when once a month the husband was allowed home for a week-end. It will scarcely be believed nowadays that a man working in one of these unemployed camps received as pocket money 6d. a week, and that from ten to twelve shillings a week was all that was allowed to his wife and family. As we members of the Distress Committee left the Town Hall week after week, we were met in the passages and at the entrance with rows of hunger-stricken faces asking us with anxious eyes whether a job had been found for one or other of them, and in my imagination I used to see the dejected or desperate man return home with the same hopeless words, “No luck” flung into the almost empty room where the family was huddled. Is it surprising that I, with other women like Mrs. Despard, marched again and again at the head of the Unemployed Demonstrations, trying to plead their case with the Government of the day? And this was over twenty years ago! And still the people are patient, and are waiting for a Conservative Government “to do something.” Will they always wait? That is the question which prevents some of the Ministers sometimes from sleeping soundly.

As I have already written, my work for gaining citizenship for women had naturally brought me into touch with people in every class of life, and had given me “furiously to think” about many social and political problems hingeing on the possession of the vote, and the uses women would eventually make of it. I naturally realised that though women belonging to Unionist, Liberal and Labour Parties were, for the time being, working together in order to gain our emancipation, yet, when the hour struck for the granting of Woman Suffrage in Great Britain, the women now standing shoulder to shoulder would drift into opposing camps, and would help at very different angles in working out the ever-increasing complexity of social and economic problems. Looking forward, therefore, to that beckoning hour, I desired during the long years of waiting and working to obtain a real grasp of the psychology and political honesty of the two parties, other than the Conservative (to which my father belonged and in which my family traditions were rooted), and I had joined the Women’s Liberal Association, in which I found many fine and devoted women working. I was living down in Sussex, where my boy was at a preparatory school, and my girl at a High school, and I found as President of the Sussex Women’s Liberal Association, a most interesting and venerable woman, Mrs. Martindale, a Quaker lady who still wore the grey drawn satin bonnet and the richly simple dress that was formerly the costume of all women “Friends.” She had two daughters, one studying for a doctor, and the other preparing to do social work; and they had a charming home near Horsted Keynes. She was herself so wide-minded in her outlook and judgments, that, working with her as I did for two or three years, I failed to sense, as I later did, the very distinctive “Chapel” psychology of the mass of the organised women Liberals, which I felt afterwards hampered free thought and vision. There was too much of village pump politics, and, as I had travelled, and seen other aspects of humanity, and could recognise the good that underlies all its various manifestations, I found it difficult after a time to put my best energies into the Liberal pint-pot, which was not as “liberal” in its dimensions as I would have wished. Another very fine woman worker in the Sussex Women’s Liberal Association was Mrs. Corbett, whose husband at that time was Liberal Member for that part of Sussex. I had stayed in their home originally when working to get women to stand for Local Government, soon after the new Act came into force, and was delighted with the culture and intellectual guiding which surrounded the education of the son and two young daughters. None of the children went to school, but both Mr. and Mrs. Corbett devoted themselves to their education, and all three young folk, when the time came, took their University degrees. Mrs. Corbett during the years of her children’s education was on the Board of Guardians, and the Urban District Council, besides doing strenuous work for Suffrage. As is well known, her elder daughter, Mrs. Corbett-Ashby, is President of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. To my association with these and other women of a similar stamp I look back with feelings of pleasure and profit, but to the policy (the male policy I must call it) of the Liberal Party I became more and more opposed, as year after year, after our spring meetings of the Women’s Liberal Association in a large Free Church Chapel in Paddington, we made speeches and passed resolutions that were absolutely ignored by the Party, either when in or out of power. The contempt shown by the Liberal Party as a whole for our reiterated demand for enfranchisement was not the only bone I had to pick with them; and I could not forgive their obtuseness in expecting us to work for their candidates during and between elections, whilst absolutely ignoring our claims to political equality. After all, here was the same male bludgeoning of the female that I had felt during my passage-at-arms with the solicitor who pronounced with such gusto, after my husband’s death, that “in law the child of a married mother had only one parent, and that was the father.” It began slowly to dawn upon me that as long as we were too ladylike to “hit back,” always year after year turning the other cheek to the smiter, we should not get much further along the road to political emancipation. So quietly and studiously I began to read up something about Labour history and Labour demands, and in 1898 after correspondence with Julia Dawson, who wrote the Woman’s Column in the Clarion, I, on her advice, went for a fortnight to the Midlands to help some of the Clarion Vanners in their propaganda. These Vanners went from place to place, speaking night after night on Socialism and exposing social evils; then they distributed literature, and to those who seemed really interested and intelligent, they talked in a comradely way and told them of the work in the larger towns, of the Clarion Clubs. There was in fact among all the men and women I met during my short visit to the Midlands with the Clarion Vans, a very fine feeling of intellectual and spiritual comradeship, such as I had not met with in other and more orthodox parties; and it drew me to enquire further into the principles which it seemed to me had been crystallized in the writings of Ruskin and of William Morris, and can be best expressed in the formula, “Fellowship is life, and the lack of fellowship is death.” I realised afterwards, in the course of my studies, and when I felt it necessary to choose a party with whom to work more closely, that William Morris and Ruskin were Utopian Socialists, the forerunners in the wilderness of the Economic Socialists, who gave the socialist interpretation of events, as they arose, so as to guide the leaders away from the quicksands of false capitalist interpretation and the rocks of reaction.

The men and women, who during the summer months worked and spoke with these Clarion vans were certainly paid organisers, but they gave themselves and any powers they possessed without stint to the cause of the workers, and they, and their like, in other pioneer socialist organisations laid the foundation for the Labour Party, which now stands on sure foundations, facing, both from the industrial and political side, organised capitalism in the Liberal and Conservative Parties. In Julia Dawson’s weekly Clarion letter, she gives Willie Wright’s Report, 9th July, 1898, from which I give extracts:—

“At 7.30 p.m. we got an audience of about 200. Wright spoke for half an hour, and then Mrs. Montefiore gave a clear and thoughtful address — her maiden speech in the open air — on Local Government.”

Comrade Bacon, another Clarion Vanner, reports in the same issue:—

“Thursday we journeyed to Newstead, a colliery village of direful aspect. If God made the country and man made the towns, the devil must have made these black, ugly, dusty villages …. Mrs. Montefiore concluded her visit to the Van, and left us praying for our success. She rendered a good service by distributing literature and speaking, while her knowledge of the world and books made her a very interesting vanner. Councillor Belt also left for Hull, to attend some important meeting, so I was left to my own reflections and the remains of the Clarion cigarettes.”

My own recollection of the trip, besides the sudden plunge into some knowledge of what the realities of working class life in colliery villages meant for men, women and children, was a walk with Comrade Wright across the Derbyshire hills to the home of Edward Carpenter, whom unfortunately we found was away at the time; but we were hospitably received by Mrs. Salt, who was in charge of a young invalid Russian called Max, and by George, who did all the housework, and whom I helped after dinner in the washing-up. Then Mrs. Salt played to us most delightful music, we strolled about the garden and visited the summer house where “Towards Democracy” was written, and in the cool of the evening walked back again over the hills to where the Van was stationed. I used to have my meals in the Van and slept at the nearest inn or hotel; and as I had my bicycle with me was able sometimes to ride on ahead and reconnoitre for a likely spot for the next halt. I also remember that on the first day of my arrival, the comrades, in order to do honour to the woman who was coming to help them, had bought a tablecloth — a luxury they had not before possessed. I could not help noticing its extreme newness and that it was not hemmed, and offered to hem it for them, and I was then told its history and special purpose!

I returned home feeling that there was much more than reading and study to be done in order to get the right angle from which to study social conditions and evolve a possibility of a cure for the horrors I had observed of bad housing and poverty. I must study at close quarters working-class conditions, and before I joined definitely any party either reformist or revolutionary in its outlook, I must (not being myself a member of the working class) train my imagination and intelligence to see eye to eye with the workers in their class struggle in which they were so severely handicapped. I have never gone back from that attitude, and in all my suffrage work I was confirmed in it, because I realised more and more, year after year, that it was the working woman who needed citizenship much more than did her middle-class sister, and who needed also to be taught, just as the working man had needed to be taught, how to use that citizenship in her own class interests.

It was also during this period of growing intensive work for suffrage and social questions, when I had in my immediate circle of friends many Russian exiles, both men and women, who though forced to live out of Russia, were working none the less successfully to undermine the terrible autocracy that was crushing out the life of their country — that my revolutionary spirit was both evolved and strengthened by my daily contact with these self-sacrificing and self-effacing revolutionaries. They felt in my suffrage speeches and propaganda a temperamental, if only as yet sub-conscious revolt against existing social conditions, which they knew, with their greater theoretical knowledge that I then possessed, could not be altered by parliamentary and constitutional methods, but would have to come after the birth pangs and travail of the bursting into life of a new social order. I used often to recite to them by request those wonderfully revolutionary lines of John Davidson’s: “To the Generation Knocking at the Door,” and those lines were translated, I know, more than once into Russian and reached by devious ways the “Politicals” in Russian prisons. The following letter from a Russian woman comrade, who had been more than once in a Czarist prison for the offence of organising industrially women textile workers, and who in the intervals of imprisonment had stayed in my house in Hammersmith, is of interest in view of developments in 1917 and after; and I publish it as a link in the chain of political events in my life. The writer was at one time the wife of a Member of the Duma; when he became reactionary she divorced him; she was a Jewess, brilliantly intellectual; and when she studied, whilst in England, at the School of Economics, though she had not yet mastered our language, she soon outstripped the other students, and gained many honours.

Paris. 1st August, 1909.
4, Rue du Parc Montsouris.

Let me tell you about a great change in my life; I am a mother. I shall not be spared in this life anything that concerns a woman’s lot. She — for it is a girl — is a dear little black-eyed creature seven weeks old. The baby I had eleven years ago died five months old — so the sensations of motherhood now seem new, quite new, to me. They bring me both joy and sorrow, and complicate considerably my life. For this little being that I love already dearly, is a new problem to me and yet I won’t give up any of my old ones.

I do not think a woman becomes less strong because she is a mother; on the contrary, motherhood brings her new strength. And even you see nature has its own laws, and revenges those who dare not follow them. So perhaps on the whole the loss of time and energy occasioned by the appearance in my life of the wee creature shall be less than if I remained childless. In my time of life — I am 32 — a woman feels very strongly — though often unconsciously — the want of motherhood, and I am no exception to the rule.

And so “I laugh at all rebuff,” and accept cheerfully the duties of motherhood, and yet hope to remain true to the duties of a revolutionary. “Es lebe das Leben!” My cheerfulness does not coincide perhaps with material conditions of life — my own, and that of my comrades, and yet I remain cheerful, quand même. It is something awful how we Russian people starve here, and yet they get so used to it from day to day that they lose the capacity of being afraid of anything. So have! All winter I gave lessons, and kept with my small earnings, and some money that my mother sent me, as many workless people as I could. I left work for the last two months of pregnancy only, and then went at a free hospital for my confinement. Now, although my wee daughter is not yet two months old, and though I suckle her myself, I look already for work. I made the acquaintance of the lady who translated into Russian the works of Dickens, and she wants me to work in company with her. She has excellent literary, or rather “publishing” connections in Russia, which I lack, but she lacks connections with English literary people, which I have, having the good fortune to know you and Mrs. Havelock Ellis. Therefore begin by asking you and her to indicate rue such new books, novels or plays that you shall judge interesting to be translated. Kindly mention also the prices and publishers.

I am bound to spend abroad a year more — because of my girl, but next spring we shall move towards Russia. I do not know why, but Parisian air does not agree with me, somehow, and I always regretted that I left England. This is the country which, after Russia, I like most to live in. I hoped to be able to return there, if the dictionary business would have a go, but it failed, hélas! The father of my daughter is in South America, and though I promised him to go and stay with him there a year or so (as soon as he shall gain money enough to send me a ticket), I hardly think I shall keep the promise, for that would mean to go very far from Russia, and make my return there very difficult. And besides, his position down there is still very undefinite, and I have no patience to wait.

The Russian socialistic parties are in a tight corner, not only because of the persecutions outside, but also on account of the demoralisation inside. The have-nots remain indifferent to politics, constitution, and all such stuff “voir même le suffrage universel.” If ever the leaders of our socialistic parties become members of a provisional revolutionary government, they shall be bound to shoot the hungry ones, asking for food, tout comme M. Thiers. Russia has lived too long her old life, she went too far into the way of ruin and desperation to amuse itself with parliamentary politics. They do for the intellectuals, but not for the people, being not able to save the nation from degeneracy. Socialism only can do this. And so, while the parties belonging to the holly church of socialism are amusing themselves with politics in this life, and live [leave] the social problem for the future, a new and very powerful current is coming from the depth of the suffering classes. It does not constitute itself into a centralised party body, it does not preach “organisation for organisation,” but it is a natural organisation of class-war. The political people count but little with that new stream, and often repeat that the people has betrayed them, because the have-nots did not choose to support them in their fight for the constitution. But the fact is the starving classes do not care a straw for the constitution, and if a national civil war is possible in Russia, it shall be no doubt fought on social lines. Those of the new current have not as yet concentrated together, for new groups kindle everywhere spontaneously, without knowing each other, but having naturally the same lines of action, to take hold of factories in town and of land in country, to bring up a revolution based on “The miracle and magic of the deed,” and to go straightforward to the goal, having done once for ever with words, revolutions, speeches and there likes ….

But it is too wide a subject to be treated in a letter. It may be I shall as yet meet you in life; and then we will have a long talk about it all.

And now I shall expect your answer impatiently. Shall you blame my conduct and say — like other people do — that a child is to great a luxury for one who has any serious problems in life, and does not possess a fortune?

What has become of V. Grayson? How is the Clarion work progressing under your Chairmanship? Have you taught them yet much of your own conception of class war? Are you always busy, as you usually were? Find a “moment perdu” to write me about your own life and the English movement! Do! Greetings to Mr. Shawe.

Yours always,

I have left her exact spelling. It was the “Clarion Scouts” to which she refers. A comrade of the name of Shaw was organising them, and had asked me to be chairman for the National Body of Clarion Scouts. I cannot remember meeting “Seraphina” again, though my impression is she came the following year to England with her child, and wrote me from some seaside place in the south; but the exigencies of propaganda kept me moving and in 1910 I went on a lecturing tour through the United States, where I believe her letter announcing her arrival in England was forwarded to me. She is one of the dear comrades I have possessed and have lost; I always hoped the breakers of the revolution in Russia would throw her on the shore where all revolutionaries meet, but though I have searched for her since 1917 I have heard no news of her, and greatly fear she may have expended all her physical strength during the long years of fighting; but, if ever revolutionary saint deserved the palm of victory this frail Jewish girl did, and whether she be dead or alive, I am laying one now at her feet.

I also received from the women of Odessa the following greeting to be read to English women at some of our meetings.


The successful advance of the movement of a group of persons, but which is based on the principle of the revival of manhood and its further development, will not be stopped by anything, even the bloody blazing fire which is threatening it; this blazing will only show clearly the great necessity of such a movement, and will give its adherents new glory of martyrdom.

We Russian women are leading now hard struggle for human rights, we are sending you hearty greetings, our dear citizens of England who are struggling so well and so bravely for those dear ideals we are cherishing so much.

The dawn of new life is breaking off, and the time is close by when the women will enjoy the full human life and all rights. The fate of the nowadays women is to bear the inheritance of the past centuries; there are so many weak, full of superstitions, demoralised women and men whose strivings and wishes do not go beyond the recent moment. Such striking specimens is given us by the Liberal man, Mr. Evans, full of the most conservative traditions; he was not ashamed to push forward his retrograde views, and to scorn the high enthusiasm for liberty and happiness of the best women, who are the true representatives of our time! This opposition, full of stupidity and harmless anger and hatred will not prevent the struggling of high aspirations of women; thanks to the courage and energy of women the movement will advance fast forward on the path of human progress, and the victory will be celebrated earlier than Mr. Evans, and such as he will wish it for.

We consider already as victory on the elections that the workmen’s party is presenting to parliament the bill of women’s rights. We are greeting the workmen’s party, and we express our assurance that only the struggle under the flag of the socialist party, which struggles to abolish all class suppression, will give to the women all economical and social independence, and will put an end to the dependency of women on the men.

We Russian women show much indignation, and we are full of scorn and hatred to the man, Mr. Evans, who wanted to put aside the question of women’s rights.

We send you, dear friends, our sincere compassion, and best wishes for great and complete success; we strive our best, and we go along with you.


I had also, when living in Paris for my children’s education, written in collaboration with a Russian friend her recollections, as a child of eleven, of the freeing of the Serfs in 1861. This was published by Heinemann under the title, “Serf Life in Russia”; and since then I had, in collaboration with Russian refugees, translated several of Gorki’s stories which were published by both Heinemann and Duckworth. In fact, my volume containing “The Orloff Couple” and “Malva” was the first translation of Gorki published in England, and the little biography with which it is prefaced was sent to Madame Jakowleff, with whom I collaborated, by Gorki himself: All this Russian literary work helped to make my house a Russian centre, and in 1903 Mr. Stead wrote me the following letter: —

Mowbray House,
Norfolk Street,
Strand, London, W.C.
29th June, 1903.

Mr. Long tells me that your house is quite a nest of Russians. Let me therefore tell you, henceforth and forever, that when you get any Russians coming to London who would like to see me, I should always be delighted to see them; and if you would send me a card saying where they are, I should consider it a great favour. Also, would it be possible for you to get together any information as to the number of Russians in London, excluding the mass of Russian Jews in the East End, with whom we cannot attempt to grapple, at any rate at present. Would any of your Russian friends be willing to act as secretary to the Russian group? I do not think we could depend upon the Kropotkins, as they live out of town, and are too much identified with the extreme party.

I had a letter from Mrs. Elmy the other day which I wish to speak to you about, but I had no time on Saturday. We want to hold that Committee of friends of Woman’s Suffrage to decide upon the plan of campaign for the autumn in three weeks or a fortnight. Do you think that we could get them down to Cambridge House (I don’t mean on a Saturday), some evening. We would not ask more than a dozen, and we could then talk matters over seriously.

Yours sincerely,
(Signed) W. T. STEAD.

I may, perhaps, be allowed to explain here that the Russians who frequented my house were not altogether anxious to frequent Mr. Stead’s, as Madame Novikoff was too often there, but I managed to make excuses for my revolutionaries without hurting his feelings. Mr. Long understood the situation more thoroughly.

Next: Chapter VI. “Women must vote for the Laws they Obey and the Taxes they Pay”