Courtney and Conybeare: Women’s suffrage campaigns in Cornwall, part 2

Continuing the story of the two most influential campaigners for women’s rights in late Victorian Cornwall….. What Courtney and Conybeare had in common was they were two of the strongest campaigners in the South West for the rights of women to vote. As such, both were invited to become honorary vice presidents of the South West Suffragist Society. Both were to surround themselves with strong and able women whom they treated respectfully and as close to equals as was possible in this era where good manners were based on an unequal behavior code that demanded gentlemanly courtesies.

conybeare img Conybeare was a highly energetic individual, who tended to take a leading position on every campaign and wait for others to catch up with him. As such, the local press discussion of his relations with women tends to be less obvious, hidden behind descriptions of his regular enthusiasms and battles. The main themes that are noticeable were his enthusiastic welcoming of women into mass political meetings and his thanks to a member of a local women’s organisation for appearing on the platform welcoming him home from imprisonment in Ireland. This particular organisation was the White Rose Society, a women’s Methodist group that it has been said were effectively a suffrage society in Cornwall. Conybeare campaigned upon his support for the women’s cause, and when one of his sisters visited, suffrage meetings were held in his local home. Knowledge about Conybeare is however limited by a lack of personal archive material and by a near complete lack of published works.

courtney img

Leonard Courtney’s involvement with a fair number of well-known female campaigners on both suffragism and other issues is better known. His sister-in-law, Beatrice Webb, was to ensure that both his letters and his wife Katherine’s diaries were to be archived at LSE, the University where he had once taught. There is also a small amount of useful published material. Leonard was considered by Joe Chamberlain (leader of the party that held Leonard's allegiance) to have thrown his career away on the cause of proportional representation and suffrage, but it is unlikely that a man that is placed such a high value on integrity and honour above party loyalty was ever entirely suited to high government role. While Joe Chamberlain was to refer to Leonard as an ass, Leonard of thought even less of Chamberlain, writing to Beatrice Webb nee Potter to warn her that should she seriously consider becoming Mrs Chamberlain she would never be able to follow her own dreams; her political and social ambitions.

The next part of this series will appear soon and will focus on Kate, the wife of Leonard Courtney

Further reading:

Bradley, Katherine, Friends and Visitors: A First History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Cornwall, 1870-1914, Hypatia Trust, Penzance, 2000.

G.P. Gooch, Life of Lord Courtney (Kessinger Publishing, 2004).

Webb, B, The Diary of Beatrice Webb: 1873-1892,: Glitter around and Darkness Within (Virago, 1982). Images from: Furniss, Harry, M. P.'s in Session From Mr. Punch's Parliamentary Portrait available at

Researching Emily Hobhouse

In the autumn, I will be doing a workshop for History51 on Emily Hobhouse. Although my current research is during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the role of women was starting to change, and many of my protagonists were strong supporters of women’s rights, this is one of my first forays into looking at a woman as a primary subject. Hobhouse2 Although I knew the basics of her story, and knew a lot about one of her most influential mentors, Leonard Courtney, I am learning a great deal about Emily. This includes using her friendship with the Boer leaders to try to support Gandhi's work while he was living in South Africa. She was also to use this influence in an attempt to convince the Boers to alter their attitudes towards black South Africans. Although her meddling was to cause a rift, she was remembered as a hero by the Boers. Her ashes are interred at the Women's Memorial in Bloemfontein, that she helped design. The significance is that she is one of only 3 people to be honored in this way; remembered alongside their first president and their greatest general. This gives a very stark contrast to her native Cornwall, where none of the local newspapers published an obituary upon her death.

However, I was thinking earlier about her return to Cornwall. As the daughter of a vicar, from a ‘good’ family, she had been comfortable but not rich. However she lost almost everything during the Great War. The money to purchase a small property was raised for her by her friend, Mrs Steyn, wife of President Steyn. My feeling is that there is a reasonable comparison to be made in the Boer veneration of Emily and the veneration of  Oskar Schindler, although not an exact comparison. She was fighting to save the Boer civilians from incompetence rather than deliberate malice.

I also wanted to ask if anyone knows enough about St Ives in the 1920s to say why Emily chose there to live. My best guess at the moment is that it was the most cosmopolitan place in Cornwall at the time, and a woman with a reputation for being difficult, who had become a national anti-hero despite being proven right, would be more welcome there, than in many other places. Or at the least less unwelcome. However, my knowledge of the history of artistic communities can be written on the back of a stamp, so if you think I’m wrong in this, please let me know.

As I continue on this journey through Emily’s life, I will be sure to keep you updated. I will also be speaking at the Institute of Cornish Studies conference this autumn. Their theme this year is ‘Daughters of Cornwall’ which should prove very interesting.

Further reading:

B. Roberts, Those Bloody Women: Three Heroines of the Boer War (John Murray, 1991).

T. Pakenham, The Boer War (Futura, 1982).

Courtney and Conybeare: Women's suffrage campaigns in Cornwall part 1

Eleanor Tench, Cornish historian, on the politics of two Cornish politicians and their views on women's suffrage. 

The Third Reform Act of 1884 was a watershed event in British politics that got a large proportion of the working class men the vote. Although when Gladstone pushed for reform, he was told that the working classes, particularly in London, would likely vote Tory, he followed the Liberal shibboleth of ‘trust the people'. A proportion of MPs wanted to go further. Not only to enfranchise the rest of the working class men, but to also enfranchise women.

Two of the strongest supporters of women’s rights in parliament were representatives of Cornish constituencies, Leonard Courtney and C.A.V. Conybeare.

Leonard Courtney

He believed that parliament should avoid legislating on any major issues until after those had been achieved, because only then, could the true will of the people be known.

Courtney was from a Penzance family, middle class, but not hugely well off. His father worked for Bolitho’s bank, where Leonard also worked while waiting for a place at university. Leonard was to become a barrister, a statistician and later a professor of politics at LSE, there are rumours that the quote, ‘there are lies, dammed lies and statistics’ can be originally attributed to him.

Although he was generally Whiggish in his politics, he was, like many of his contemporaries, radical in one area. As a disciple of John Stuart Mill, he promoted Universal adulthood suffrage and proportional representation. He believed that parliament should avoid legislating on any major issues until after those had been achieved, because only then, could the true will of the people be known.

"Proper self-sufficiency" Caricature of Courtney by "T" (Théobald Chartran) in Vanity Fair, 25 September 1880.

C.A.V. Conybeare

The rights of women were always going to be one of his major platforms.

On the other hand, Conybeare never met a cause he wouldn’t campaign for. An exceedingly energetic and intelligent man, he had inherited enough family wealth to ensure working was not a necessity for him.

As such, he became a campaigning barrister, and even before he stood for parliament, he was known as a troublemaker. His 1885 election campaign in Camborne  against the Whig incumbent Arthur Pendarves Vivian caused ructions throughout Cornwall.

He was unable to resist a cause, anything from mining reform, suffrage reform, Irish land rights and independence, to the gating of local common land. The rights of women were always going to be one of his major platforms.

One of his publications was on the need for and the effect of the Married Women’s Property Act, that gave women the right to hold their own property after marriage. When he married a women’s suffrage campaigner, he was to gift her half of his inherited estate, an almost unheard of act during this era.

More to follow…


Further reading

Bradley, Katherine, Friends and Visitors: A First History of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Cornwall, 1870-1914, Hypatia Trust, Penzance, 2000.

Deacon, B. Conybeare For Ever, in Knight, T., Old Redruth: Original studies of the town's history. Redruth Old Cornwall Society, Redruth, 1992.

Nuns, war, songs and International Women's Day

... it is clear to see why any attempt to highlight poor female representation both in history and today needs to be made, and to be taken seriously as a mainstream, rather than a niche, problem.

International Women's Day logoThis week we have discussed, debated and explored a variety of topics from 'where did Cornish women go to be nuns' (there were no nunneries in medieval Cornwall) to what shall we do for International Women's Day on 8 March.

A recent analysis of women's roles in British society by Unlock Democracy showed that in spite of making up 51% of the population women don't even make up one-quarter of British MPs:

Read Gender Balance. The canary in the mineshaft

Here in Cornwall and Scilly, the figures for political representation are in fact slightly better. Women make up nearly 27% of the Cornwall Council membership (33/123).

I had been in error before thinking the Cornish figures to be worse than central government representation. That said, there are daily changes reported by the media with resignations and many changes of colour. We will revisit these figures following the next Cornish elections in May.

Cornish Women's Year?

Do you want to be part of something special and really help make Cornish women's history count?

Against this backdrop it is clear to see why any attempt to highlight poor female representation both in history and today needs to be made, and to be taken seriously as a mainstream, rather than a niche, problem.

We have been thinking about ways to use International Women's Day to start something public and different until 8 March next year when we intend to do something much more high profile.

Our strength is in highlighting and sharing information about women's heritage so what can we do to help contribute positive female role models to young women and girls in Cornwall and Scilly in particular. So a few ideas are:

  1. Launching a survey on attitudes to women in Cornwall, and archiving the responses so we may repeat the survey in 5 or 10 years time and chronicle any change.
  2. Finding stories about women from the local papers 100 years ago and publishing them on our website and promoting them online and in the local media on a weekly basis.
  3. Launch a campaign to publicise one fact a day until International Women's Day 2014 on any aspect of women's heritage and women's lives today in Cornwall.
  4. Start planning for a big event next year (2014), but what should that be?

Do you want to be part of something special and really help make Cornish women's history count? Why not leave a comment and give us your ideas?

Cornish nuns

Susan Hoyle posed a really interesting question on our Facebook page:

"I believe that there was never a nunnery in Cornwall; there were very few monasteries, but nary a convent. It is said that the low take-up for monasticism in Cornwall is because of the Celtic influence. Whatever the truth of that, convents fulfilled various functions for women and their families in the middle ages: it was a safe place for women on their own -- single women, widows, orphans -- and also for women who were a problem for other reasons. It was also a place where inconvenient women could be locked away. My question is, what institution(s) performed these functions in Cornwall? What happened to women who needed protection? What happened to women who felt the religious vocation? Anyone know?"

We referred it to medieval historian Oliver Padel, also an expert on Cornish history and topography. He confirmed that there were indeed no female monasteries in Cornwall in the Middle Ages. Here is part of his reply:

"There were no female monastic communities in Cornwall. The matter is easy to check now, because Victoria County History of Cornwall, vol. II, Religious History to 1560 (2010) gives a definitive list of monastic communities in the county.

This might not have been seen as a significant lack. Cornwall generally had fairly small religious houses (no abbey, though two just in Devon, at Tavistock and Hartland). Anyone entering a religious community expected to give up their family ties anyway, so going to another county would probably not have seemed exceptional. A bit analogous with people leaving home and going elsewhere to study at university, usually to another part of the country (although admittedly that is temporary, not permanent).

I know of one example of a woman of a Cornish family who went to Devon to become a nun -- Joan daughter of John Arundell of Lanherne (who died in 1435) apparently became abbess of Canonsleigh Abbey in Devon (I don't know at what date, or when she died, though that is probably known): Cornish Wills, 1342-1540, ed. Nicholas Orme (Devon & Cornwall Record Society, 2007), p. 67."

So that left the question, where did women in Cornwall or Scilly who wanted to be nuns go? Susan wondered if the linguistic closeness of Cornish and Breton might have persuaded women to head south to Brittany, or whether they tended to journey into England and beyond? Considering the journey, the need to travel safely and have enough money to be accepted into a religious house, was the religious life the preserve of the more well-off women in the Middle Ages? We hope that Susan carries on her quest and finds those Cornish nuns, wherever they may have gone.

Cornish women at war and women in war in Cornwall

This winter Liskeard Museum is mounting an exhibition on Emily Hobhouse, a Cornish woman speaking out against the South African war and British concentration camps there. We will also be hosting one of our History 51 workshops here on the theme of Women in War (and Peace).

We need your help.

Are you interested in being our War Correspondent? We know there are many other themes related to women and war that we could also explore as part of a workshop, e.g. the role of women in war, for good or bad, their historical role in armed forces, their work on the home fronts, their role in recording, documenting and preserving stories of war and of course women's roles in peace and anti-war movements.

Remember we will provide support in the form of training and resources to all those leading or helping to co-ordinate History 51 workshops. Please contact us with any and all suggestions or leave a comment here.

Alice De Lisle in word and song

 ...performing, dancing, role-playing publicly so that Alice slowly seeps back into our community's imagination.

Do you know Alice De Lisle? She was the Patroness of Penzance. History 51 is campaigning to get her officially recognised as part of Penzance's 400th anniversary charter celebrations in 2014. In fact it is 1332 that we should be celebrating as without Alice's charter there would be no 1614 Charter of Incorporation.

A pair of local folk musicians had already heard of Alice De Lisle before we launched our campaign. Thanks to the power of social media, one of our followers alerted us to two songs that had been written using Alice as an inspiration. One was a love song, 'Alice of the Island' - a play on her name and the other was the story of Alice's achievement for Penzance.

They came and demoed the songs to us at the Hypatia Trust yesterday. We were transfixed! They also then sung part of Alice's market charter to us to the tune of the love song. We were delighted when they agreed to look into recorded these songs and to also think of something we could all do for the charter celebrations next year: performing, dancing, role-playing publicly so that Alice slowly seeps back into our community's imagination.

The songs will eventually be recorded and we may even think about a whole album dedicated to stories of Cornish women!

Coincidently one of our contributors, Anna McClary, local Penzance tour guide, was also at Trevelyan House to talk through ideas about creating a school resource back about Penzance history, using Alice De Lisle as a central figure. We talked about activities from colouring in images of the market cross to enacting a play between Alice and King Edward III and then when we heard the songs we thought it logical to include one or more or these as a song children could sing in assembly.

We hope to bring you a recording of Alice De Lisle soon!

275,000 Cornish women will know the reason why!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing'

Unknown learned woman, Cornwall

There are approximately 275,000 women and girls living in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly today--yes, 51% of the population, that is a majority!

This week at History 51 we have been musing and debating the maleness (?) of Cornish history and heritage. The story of men is written into the DNA of the over-arching narrative of Cornish history being based on the fisherman, the miner and the engineer. However we all know that it is not as simplistic as that.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a critique of Cornish heritage, provoked by what seems to be an innocent statement written in a newspaper article by Cornwall Councillor, Bert Biscoe. He begins the article:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

Bust of Richard Trevithick, Cornish inventor, engineer and hero I have qualified my criticism of Bert Biscoe's words as I do not believe he is a sexist person but it is alarming in many ways that such a thing can be so easily written and reproduced without comment.

Trelawney has become the Cornish national anthem. In it we intone the following:

And shall Trelawney live? Or shall Trelawney die? Here's 20,000 Cornish men Will know the reason why!

Repeated with passion by those of us who sing it, are we accidentally surrendering to the male narrative and absorbing it into our consciousness?

And that is why I have decided to comment, and encourage all those who care about the diversity and totality of Cornish history, identity, culture and heritage to do the same for the sake of everyone's better understanding of the past: men and women, girls and boys.

There is no history without women!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing' - women being known in particular about being fussy (I prefer to call it being particular) or c) you are 'man-bashing' and causing a generation of boys to lack confidence.

Why is women's history important?

Three comments, one from a man, two from women, we received on our Facebook page and via email particularly resonated with me this week in answer to this question:

"...that's like saying why is history important? There is no history without women!"

A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn't use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman.

I would not like to be a young woman lacking in self-confidence these days. I've never had much time and will not tolerate men (or women) referring to women as 'bitches', 'whores' and 'sluts'.

Remember the bread makers, not just the bread winners

Cornish history is full of testimony and evidence of women's lives and achievements. It's just not easy to find. We will be changing this. Because we have based our public histories on activities and events led by men e.g. hunting, war, conquest, raiding, engineering... they privilege those protagonists as the drivers of change in our society. We should remember those that make the bread as well as those that win it.

Penzance should honour Lady Alice De Lisle

Penzance Harbour with the town in the background today

2014 Year of Penzance

2014 is the Year of Penzance. Next year the town will be celebrating 400 years since it received its Charter of Incorporation (town charter) from King James I which granted it rights to govern its own affairs and hold its own courts. It will also be 200 years since the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall was founded in Penzance, then a leading centre for scientific and intellectual endeavour.

A quick look at Penzance Town Council's website suggests that the town’s origins are to be found in the fifteenth century with the grant of a market in 1404.

However this could not be further from the case.

Alice was the Mary Portas of her day

Over 80 years earlier, Lady Alice De Lisle, became Lord of the Manor of Alverton, the economic centre of Pensans (Cornish for 'holy head/headland). She inherited the manor from her rebel brother, Baron Henry Le Teys, who was executed by King Edward II in 1321.

As lord of the manor, gender was irrelevant. Alice would have had to make decisions on behalf of the entire Manor, which directly or indirectly employed much of the working population of the area. She was the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Mayor rolled into one.

She was a Mary Portas of her day.

Penzance Market Cross, a carved cross originally thought to date to the 11th century and later used to mark Penzance's market centre in Greenmarket, now outside Penlee House (credit: Tom Goskar)

Why were medieval markets important?

Medieval markets were not like the farmer’s markets of today. They were the high streets, town centres and retail parks rolled into one. They were where profits and losses were made and deals were struck. It was a chance for traders to check out the competition and measure their prosperity.

Villages and towns that wanted or needed a permanent market had to get permission from the monarch in the form of a grant. This grant, if accepted, was written up into a charter.

In ten years, Alice oversaw the growth of Penzance from a manor and small fishing village into a major urban centre with a commercially viable port that now needed a permanent market. In 1876, antiquarian and historian George Bown Millett said:

…let all Penzance do honour to her memory, for she was our lady patroness, and used her influence successfully in behalf of the town, at an early period of its history.

In 1332 Alice De Lisle changed the course of Penzance’s history forever.

Alice's petition to the King, 1332

Alice petitioned King Edward III for a permanent weekly market to be held on a Wednesday and an annual seven-day fair starting on the festival of St. Peter in Chains (1 August).

Alice was granted her petition and a charter was awarded.

Penzance's first market charter 

The document is now held by the National Archives in London (TNA C53/119), formerly the Public Record Office. It is dated 25 April 1332 and was written in Latin. It was granted by King Edward III while he held court in Nottingham.

“Know that we of our special grace have given and have confirmed by this our Charter to our beloved Alice who was wife of Warin de Insula [de Lisle] that she and her heirs may have for ever one market every week on Wednesday at her manor of Pensans in the County of Cornwall and one fair there every year lasting for seven days namely on the Eve and Day of St. Peter ad Vincula and for five days next following.” (reproduced from P.A.S. Pool's History of Penzance, p. 211)

This is really Penzance’s earliest notable historic document and it is this award that Penzance should be celebrating.

Penzance in its heyday in the 19th century (from Rev. Lach-Szyrma's History of Penzance, 1878)

The importance of Alice's market charter

Without Alice’s petition, the 1404 grant, which just confirmed Alice’s charter of 1332, would not have been made. Still less would we have been granted the 1614 town charter. And without that Penzance would not have become one of Cornwall’s major coinage towns in 1663.

Penzance’s later fame as a major centre of industry, commerce and banking, and as an intellectual and scientific centre, could never have happened.

In fact, Penzance as we know it may not have existed at all.

It is sad that the Town Council has not even mentioned Alice in their history of the Town Charter.

How should we honour Alice?

We don't know much about Alice herself, nor what she looked like. We have to use our imagination for that.

What we do know about her deeds in Penzance is pieced together from medieval documents on the Manor of Alverton, some of which are held in Cornwall while others are held elsewhere such as at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. There is a small amount of evidence about the Teys family into which she was born, and about the De Lisles. Her descendants continued as lords of Alverton until the fifteenth century.

We think the centre of the manor was situated on Alverton Farm, now where the Lariggan stream crosses the road to Land's End.

Perhaps this was where Penzance's Market Cross, now in Penlee Park, once stood, before it was moved to Greenmarket on Alverton Street?

We would like to see Alice De Lisle honoured and her role as the patroness of Penzance officially recognised by the town authorities. We should celebrate her achievement during the 2014 Charter celebrations.

Should it be a statue? Should we make a commemorative tapestry? A plaque on St John's Hall, perhaps? Or rename a street, a pub? Maybe a local school or college could name a classroom after her? Should we institute a Penzance Alice Day during Golowan or Penzance Literary Festival?

Could readers suggest what form this could take?

We will be formally writing to all Penzance town councillors and Cornwall councillors to support our campaign to discuss the most appropriate ways we may honour Alice De Lisle. We believe she would be a great focus for the town in a time when there is strong feeling that Penzance is not living up to its full economic potential.

Vote for Alice!

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Support our campaign to honour Alice De Lisle.

You can also Vote in our Facebook Poll (Elizabeth Treffry Collection), or leave a comment here.

This campaign is part of the Hypatia Trust's Heritage Lottery Funded project History 51 which is documenting and sharing information on the lives of historical women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.