Women’s Suffrage before the Suffragettes: Anna Swanwick, 1813-1899

Anna Swanwick in 1888. Frontis to M.L. Bruce, Anna Swanwick (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903).

‘Give [women] a sound, practical education, remove their social and political disabilities, and in their energy and sympathy, conscientiousness and tenderness we shall, I believe, have a reservoir of power which will lift this great nation to a higher level of social and political life.’ (Anna Swanwick, 1873, qtd. Bruce, p. 163)

Anna Swanwick’s life was a remarkable one for a woman born in the early decades of the nineteenth century. It would be a pretty extraordinary record of achievements in any era.  By the last decades of the century,  those fortunate enough to enter the ‘little Madeira’ of her purposefully toasty drawing room overlooking Regent’s Park encountered one of the best-known German and Greek translators of the century, a woman instrumental in the founding of Bedford College, a tireless campaigner for working-class education, free libraries, recreation, and women’s suffrage.

But perhaps the very length of her life was the thing that made it truly distinctive. It was a life lived nearly all the way along the sweeping upwards curve of reform in the nineteenth century: a century in which those, who like Swanwick, believed that every individual needed to be allowed to pursue rational inquiry to get closer to God, must have felt the divine edging ever closer thanks to the emergence of the modern state. In her memoir of her aunt, Mary L. Bruce reflected that Swanwick ‘lived to see many of her dreams realised, the establishment of university settlements, polytechnics, extension lectures, evening recreation schools, and Morley College … – these were the fruits of the labours of a few zealous workers in the middle of the last century’ (Bruce, Anna Swanwick, 1903, p. 55). Born to a wealthy family in Liverpool, in 1813, Swanwick was a child of the radical years that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, who remembered, like her near contemporary, George Eliot, the excitement that surrounded the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 and its massive realignment of Parliamentary representation.

Just looking at the portraits in Bruce’s book brings home the meaning of such a long life in that period.






On the left is a miniature from around 1826, when Swanwick would have been 13. It was the height of portable image capture in the Georgian period, painted as Scott was still churning out his novels and the shock of Byron’s death was still fresh in memory.

On the right, an enlarged photo, taken from a friend’s Kodak photograph in 1897. The casual intimacy of the ‘snap’ demands that we recognise how close this world is to ours: a late Victorian Britain of railways, public libraries, higher education (in theory) for all, mass literacy, instant communications; great progress, too, in technologies of warfare and mass killing.

Early Feminists: Swanwick and Women’s Rights

The brilliant success of the militant suffragettes was founded in their absolute focus: Votes for Women – a dedicated, single-minded, single issue political campaign. But the protests and attacks carried out by the activists of the WSPU and the WFL in the early 1900s built on the work of a broader spectrum of women’s political campaigning over the previous half century. For these earlier activists, women’s rights were pursued alongside a whole host of other humanitarian campaigns.

Like so many women active in reform movements of the mid nineteenth century, Anna Swanwick was from a Unitarian family with a proud tradition of radical, but rational, dissent against state and Church. Kathryn Gleadle’s book The Early Feminists (1993) is the best introduction to this vital intellectual force in women’s suffrage and political activism. The cause of women’s education and suffrage sat alongside Swanwick’s commitment to a wide range of causes from the 1840s. Her signature is to be found on the 1866 Suffrage Petition, presented by John Stuart Mill, the first mass petition addressing women’s suffrage in the UK Parliament. Her first public speech of any sort was delivered at a meeting for the cause of women’s suffrage in 1873. Swanwick’s friend, the journalist Frances Power Cobbe, recollected her astonishment that someone could, at the age of sixty, stand up and command a packed meeting room for a twenty minute impromptu speech, full of reason and example ‘without the smallest experience of public oratory’ (Bruce, 161). From then on Swanwick was much in demand as a public speaker, delivering addresses at fundraisers from causes from public libraries (‘Books: Our Best Friends or Our Deadliest Foes?’), the temperate working-class leisure of the Old Vic Music Hall (‘An Utopian Dream – and How it May be Realised’) and the value of poetry in education and politics (‘Poets: the Interpreters of their Age’).IMG_3360

But all this came after Swanwick’s work for Bedford College for Women, from its foundation until her death in 1899. From her enthusiastic enrolment as one of the college’s first students in 1849, to her appointment as the first female Visitor to the College in 1884, succeeding Erasmus A. Darwin and Mark Pattison in that role, her work for Bedford was as vital then as it is now, sadly, overlooked. Here, however, the Bedford archives held at Royal Holloway yield their riches at a few cursory scratches. Wherever I look in the college records, Swanwick’s name crops up in copperplate, addresses gliding across the terraces of Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, and Regent’s Park as the years go by, but remaining constant, loyal to her cause: nothing less than human flourishing and the pursuit of Utopia, step by step, line by line.


It was this that her friends and admirers acknowledged in their extraordinary tribute to Swanwick on her eightieth birthday. A ‘deputation of ladies’ called on Swanwick to present her, according to Bruce, with not just the single dedicatory Kelmscott History of Troye that remains in the archives, but with a six volume set of Morris’s beautiful ‘black letter press’ works (Bruce, 205).


In my next post I’ll be exploring the women who signed that dedication and how Swanwick and Bedford College stood at the centre of a network that made women’s suffrage a tangible prospect in the field of vision of so many at the turn of the century.




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