The first all-women shortlist, and investigating an unrecorded life

With thanks to Mel Prideaux.

Here’s a quirky story that came to my attention recently, and is posted here simply to record the results of internet research pursued in idle moments.

The second president of the Cambridge University Fabian Society (the predecessor body to Cambridge Universities Labour Club) was Edith Moggridge, of Girton College. That was in 1906, a long time before women were allowed to vote in national elections and even longer before women were allowed to take degrees at Cambridge.

Edith was definitely part of a vanguard. The Fabian Society was the first student society at Cambridge to be founded for both men and women members; one of its co-founders was Amber Reeves of Newnham. Even in the very progressive political circles of the national Fabian society, the existence of this mixed student society and the election of a female president were judged noteworthy enough to be mentioned in the national newsletter. Unfortunately Edith’s college apparently didn’t see eye to eye with Edith and her fellow Fabians, and refused to allow her to take up the post. This was all the more unfortunate because, as the letters of one of the society’s founder members (Frederic “Ben” Keeling) make clear, Edith’s election was the result of a deliberate plan to make a statement about commitment to women’s equality. It was the result of what was probably the first ever use of an all-women shortlist.

“We were all keen Feminists… After the presidency of V. H. Mottram we decided to elect a woman as president, to assert the principles of female equality as aggressively as possible. Two Newnhamites were nominated in order that we might have the fun of an election. When they were ordered to stand down by their college authorities, Edith Moggridge, of Girton, was surreptitiously communicated with, put up, and elected. But she was never allowed by her college authorities to take the chair at a meeting. The position was therefore left vacant for a term by way of protest, and ever since the Society has had a woman treasurer, Mrs. Bianco-White being the first. (Some of them have kept accounts, which was more than one of the two male treasurers did.) No doubt it was all very childish. But Cambridge and life generally have been very different experiences for me owing to the fact that women were admitted to the C.U.F.S. I only hope that others feel that it was a small shove worth making…”

(Frederic Keeling, The Keeling Letters, edited by E.T. (London 1918), pp. 10-11)

Nothing new under the sun.

So you can’t help wondering, or at least I can’t – who was Edith Moggridge, how did she get involved with the Fabians, and what happened to her next? I’ve been having some fun pursuing this human-interest story. Here’s what I think we know.

Edith was born in about 1886 in Monmouthshire, which had been her family’s home (intermittently, as we’ll see) for some generations. She was the youngest of seven children – four elder brothers and two elder sisters (of whom I think all survived into adulthood).

Her family had a very long history of social reform and intellectual enquiry. Her great-grandfather, John Hodder Moggridge, was something of a radical among industrialists, using the considerable wealth he acquired as a clothier in Somerset to set up “model” communities (on similar lines to Robert Owen’s New Lanark) in Wales. Edith’s great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle were also keen botanists and natural historians. The uncle, John Traherne Moggridge, was a correspondent of Charles Darwin; he’s listed in the edited volume of Darwin correspondence as an “orchid specialist”.

John Hodder Moggridge was a leading Unitarian, but at some point at least some of the family went “Establishment”, because Edith’s father Matthew Weston Moggridge graduated from University College Oxford and was ordained in the Church of England. There are some puzzles about his career; he moved around a lot (at the time of his brother’s correspondence with Darwin Matthew was a curate in Leicestershire; but the seven children were born in various different places – Surrey, Bradford, Hampstead and back in Monmouthshire) and he doesn’t appear always to have been a parish priest. In the 1881 census he gave his occupation as “Journalist and Editor of “Social Notes” [a journal devoted to debating “social questions”]”. He was a prolific writer on social issues; titles like “Method in Almsgiving”  and “Public-Houses for the People: A Plea for Better Taverns” don’t exactly inspire confidence in his commitment to far-reaching social reform, but he clearly inherited his grandfather’s concern for the responsible use of wealth and for structural as well as individual responses to societal problems.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if Edith, the baby of the family, would have had the chance to get to know her father at all, let alone debate social questions with him. Her mother (also Edith) died in the year she was born; I would like to know more about the first Edith but haven’t found it yet. Five years later Matthew Weston Moggridge (having taken up a post as priest in charge of a mission church in Dufftown, Fife) was drowned in the sea off Lossiemouth, while trying to rescue two boys from his Sunday-school trip who had swum out too far. The boys both survived. The 1891 census, a few months later, finds Edith and all her siblings (except the eldest brother, who was an undergraduate at Cambridge) back in Wales – presumably where their family’s property was. The 1901 census finds most of them in London. And – five years later Edith was at Girton, being surreptitiously elected president of a political society.

I’d rather hoped to find that she went on to a glittering political career (like her Girton near-contemporary Dorothy Jewson, one of the many interesting people I found out more about along the way to this story), but she nearly disappears from the internet-accessible records. The 1911 census finds her aged 25 living in London on “private means” – which in her family must have been considerable (though she seems to be living with her elder, also unmarried, sister, who is recorded as a “pianist and teacher of music”).  At least some of her time was spent writing poetry; and at least some of her poems were published in Modernist journals – some of which some kind people have archived or indexed online. One of the poems is entitled “Butterfly Orchids”, which makes me wonder whether she was influenced by her uncle and grandfather and whether her Tripos would have been natural science. She either didn’t marry, or wrote under her maiden name.

A privately-printed book of “selected poems” by Edith Moggridge was issued in Cambridge in 1972; if that wasn’t a posthumous publication, it puts her in her late eighties. I’d like to think that she was still alive in 1972 to see the first admissions of women to formerly all-male colleges. And as the second-hand copy of her book says it has an inscription “by the author”, I’ll allow myself to think that.

And I love the fact that all of this and more is available from a sequence of internet searches, many of them leading to primary documents.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Fascinating – thanks for sharing. I hope she did live to see the first women allowed into the colleges.


  2. […] « The first all-women shortlist, and investigating an unrecorded life […]


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