Elsie Bowerman 1889-1973

Elsie Edith Bowerman M.A. Barrister at Law 1889-1973

Titanic survivor, Suffragette, friend of the Pankhursts, witness to the Russian Revolution, property magnate, first woman barrister at the Old Bailey, first head of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Early Years

Elsie BowermanBorn on 18th December 1889 in Tunbridge Wells, she lost her Father at the age of 5 but her Mother, Edith Barber, and Elsie survived comfortably on rent income from numerous properties her Father had purchased during his lifetime.

In 1901, aged 11, Elsie was sent to a relatively new boarding school called Wycombe Abbey, still with its founder, [Dame] Frances Dove, as headmistress. It was a liaison she kept up all her life.

Leaving school in April 1907, Elsie travelling to Paris before studying Mediaeval and Modern Languages at Girton College, Cambridge.

Women's Suffrage

For 35 years, since the first suffrage petition, women had been politely and peacefully requesting the vote, but to no avail: The idea had become stale with no hope of success. Then, in 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was started by Emmeline Pankhurst. Its intention was to revive the idea and to keep on going until the vote was won. By 1906, the WSPU (known as Suffragettes) were resorting to increasingly militant methods: Interrupting political meetings; holding marches and demonstrations; and sending deputations to Parliament. As each level of activity was ignored by the government, methods became increasingly militant.

Around 1908-10, Elsie and her Mother, Edith, joined the WSPU. It is notable that of the 6 suffrage societies active in Hastings at the time, they chose the militant one. As Elsie was away at college for much of the year, she formed a suffrage group at Girton.

Suffragette Leaflet In the summer of 1910, an all-party group of MPs devised the Conciliation Bill, which would extend the right to vote to around 1 million wealthy, property-owning women, and it passed its second reading by 299 votes to 189 but on Friday 18th November 1910 the PM, Herbert Henry Asquith, refused it further parliamentary time.

Suffragettes were furious and as soon as the news was received that day, Mrs Pankhurst led a deputation of 300 to the Houses of Parliament. The police obstructed them and a violent skirmish ensued. Over 100 were arrested and many were injured. Elsie's Mother, Edith, was among the deputation but escaped - shaken but unhurt. The event has ever since been referred to as Black Friday.

On Tuesday 22nd November, Edith again joined a deputation (see leaflet for the deputation on left) and declared: "It is my intention to go to 10 Downing Street, or die in the attempt". A nearby policeman replied by giving her a blow on the head. "He caught me by the hair and flinging me aside he said 'Die, then!'"

Scene from one of the clashes between the suffragettes and the police in Parliament Square between 18-22 November 1910. Edith took part and was injured on 22 November
Scene from one of the clashes between the suffragettes and the police in Parliament Square between 18-22 November 1910. Elsie's Mother, Edith, took part and was injured on 22 November.

During the 3 days of violence, 285 arrests were made, 75 women imprisoned, many were injured and 3 later died from their injuries. As the Government continued to break promises, so women's fury and impatience increased, and the WSPU resorted to damaging property including window-smashing raids and arson. Altogether, over a thousand women went to prison.

Travel and the Titanic

In 1911 Elsie, aged 21, passed the Tripos examination Class II and came into her inheritance from her father. This included a number of rental properties to which she added by further purchases. in 1918 Elsie's unearned income amounted to over £700 p.a., the equivalent of about £70,000 today.

On Wednesday 10th April 1912, Elsie and Edith, now aged 22 and 48, travelled to Southampton for their voyage to America. They were to visit relations in Ohio, then travel across the USA and Canada.

They occupied Cabin 33 on Deck E of the RMS Titanic. The story of its sinking two days later is well-known. Over 1,000 drowned, but the famous 'women and children first' tradition, supplemented by the lesser-quoted 'first class passengers take priority' maxim ensured that Elsie and Edith were among the 700 saved. Elsie wrote:

The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into life-boats, where we were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with ice-bergs floating about, is a strange experience.

The two women were in Lifeboat 6 with about 22 others including Frederick Fleet, the lookout who had first spotted the iceberg. (The 1997 film 'Titanic' featured several scenes in this lifeboat because it accommodated two of the main characters, Molly Brown, and the fictional Mrs. Ruth Dewit Bukater, mother of the heroine Rose.) The boat was the third to be lowered, at 0055hrs. Much about their time in the lifeboat was recorded:

Molly demanded that the women be allowed to row to keep warm. Hitchens tried to stop her, but Molly told him he would be thrown overboard if he attempted to stop her. Both men eventually gave in and Molly took control. She had the women rowing and distributed her furs and other clothing to the freezing passengers.

Elsie and Edith would have heard the desperate cries of people drowning in the sea around them, as they floated in the middle of the Atlantic all night before being rescued and taken to New York by the Carpathia. A small item in the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer announced that they were safe. Undeterred, they continued with their itinerary, staying at a ranch in British Columbia and visiting the Klondyke and Alaska.

First World War

When the war broke out, the suffrage movement had placed its demands on the back-burner. The WSPU became 'The Women's Party' and encouraged women to volunteer for war work and men to sign up; it opposed pacifism and socialism, and tried to halt strikes. Elsie became a paid organiser, and for months she toured nation-wide with WSPU leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. At each town, Elsie took lodgings and set about organising and advertising mass-meetings: one at Manchester drew 10,000 people. She is mentioned as sharing the platform with Christabel Pankhurst at a meeting in Bath.

In July 1916 the Honourable Mrs. Haverfield, now a leading light in the pro-war movement, invited Elsie to go to Serbia as a motor driver. This all-female unit had to travel a most circuitous route, via Scandinavia, Archangel, Moscow and Odessa, to serve the Serbian and Russian armies in Romania. Unfortunately it arrived just as the allies had been defeated. English newspapers carried reports about the women's units, which, Elsie wrote to her mother, 'make us afraid you will all think we are starving or dead or something whereas we are really having the time of our lives.'

In November 1916 they set up a hospital near the Danube, then had to dismantle it and join the retreat to the Russian frontier. It was bitterly cold and Elsie asked in her almost-daily letters home for gloves, scarves and thick stockings, as well as a dozen Kodak Brownie films, Suchard chocolate, and a book of Robert Louis Stevenson's stories.

Elsie found the whole experience wonderful. In her detailed pencil-written diary she described pitching tents for the field hospital, and serving meals to 250 people with the help of only one Russian, who could not speak English. She described sleeping in the open air just twenty miles from the firing line, having singing parties with soldiers around camp fires and going on a cross-country ride with Russian officers. She was in charge of wagon-loads of equipment which frequently got lost and had to be recovered, and this in the midst of a war.

She was in St Petersburg in 1917 and her diary contains not only eye-witness testimony of living in the midst of the Russian Revolution, but it reveals something of her personality, her use of language, and her interests and priorities.

March 13th 1917, St Petersburg
Great excitement in street - armoured cars rushing up and down - soldiers and civilians marching up and down armed - attention suddenly focussed on our hotel & house next door - rain of shots directed on to both buildings as police supposed to be shooting from top storeys - most exciting. Several shots went through windows. Presently our hotel searched by rebels - came into each room searching for police spy - very nice to us - most polite - several civilians as well as soldiers.

One 'revolutionary' came into our room to dress - didn't know how to wear his sword - we had to assist with the strapping up. Much to our disgust all hotel servants also the manager disappeared - nothing to eat - picnicked in our rooms.

Shooting & shouting continuously all day in the street - several search parties through the hotel at intervals. V. difficult to settle down to anything - sat at hotel window in afternoon, watched crowds in streets, lorries crowded with armed men.

By March 24th, Elsie was on her way home by train through Scandanavia, arriving back in Highgate at midnight on 4th April 1917.

The Vote

On February 6th 1918, women finally won not only the vote, but also the right to stand for election to Parliament, and Elsie acted as Christabel Pankhurst's Election Agent.

Christabel stood as a Women's Party candidate, in alliance with the Lloyd George/Conservative Coalition in the Smethwick constituency. She was narrowly defeated, losing by only 775 votes to the Labour Party candidate John Davison.

Between the Wars

Elsie felt driven to educate people in politics and economics, to encourage individual responsibility and enterprise, and to oppose socialism and communism. With these ends in view she joined the newly-formed 'Women's Guild of Empire', which was eventually to boast 40,000 members in 30 branches.

Having been so involved in political campaigning and war work, and with her large private income obviating the need to earn a wage, it was not until the late age of 31 that Elsie turned her sights to a profession. She decided to become a lawyer. She could not have done this very much earlier, in any case, because until the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act women were barred from entering the legal profession. It took a lot of cash, too: initially, a £ 50 deposit and over £50 in fees was demanded. Elsie was accepted as a student by the Middle Temple in 1921 and was called to the Bar in 1924.

She became the first woman barrister to appear at the Old Bailey when she won a libel action brought by the National Union of Seamen against a communist. This was perhaps ironic, given her anti-union beliefs. In the mid-20s Elsie published a book, The Law of Child Protection and in 1928 the London Evening Standard printed her essay, Why women do not write Utopias.

The Second World War and After

In 1938 Elsie gave up law and enrolled in the brand-new and, later, famous Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). For two years she was organiser in the Information and Public Meetings department. She then worked briefly for the Ministry of Information before spending three years in the USA as a liaison officer in the BBC Overseas Services. She resigned around 1943-45 and became Chief of General Services to the London office, responsible for conferences.

In 1946 she went back to the USA to help set up the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Elsie was the representative of the Secretary-General, and was Acting Chief of the Section on the Status of Women.

She was in contact with historian Antonia Raeburn sometime between 1968 and 1972 and is acknowledged in Raeburn's book, The Militant Suffragettes, as 'Miss Elsie Bowerman M.A. Barrister-at-Law' for giving information on her mother's experience on Black Friday. Described by Miss Fisher of Wycombe Abbey as 'blessed with a gift for writing,' she wrote articles for the school magazine, and in 1965 produced a 95 page book about its founder Dame Frances Dove, entitled Stands There a School.

Throughout her life Elsie retained her connections with Wycombe Abbey. She was a member of the school council and carried out a considerable amount of organisational work during the war to ensure the school's survival. She helped set up an endowment fund and established the Dove-Bowerman Trust, dedicated to the fortunes of Wycombe Abbey, and described it as 'the crowning work of her life'.

Elsie suffered a stroke in 1972 and died on 18th October 1973, aged 83, leaving over £143,000 - the equivalent of over a million pounds today.

As her life drew to its close her thoughts turned to abiding loyalties, loyalty to church, country, school and friends; though finding it hard to lose her independence because of failing strength, she rejoiced in her remembrance of a long and happy life; as ever, she looked to the future. Let the last words be hers:

As one approaches the end of life an unaccountable feeling of melancholy creeps over one. This is not because of any fear of the life to come, rather a joyful anticipation.

Life has been so full of surprises that one cannot believe that there are not even greater joys and adventures in store.

Here's Au Revoir to all my friends and countless thanks for all their love and kindness which has given me such a happy life in this world - Here's to our next happy meeting in the next one.

Elsie Bowerman

A Blue Plaque was unveiled on 19th November 2005 at 23 Silchester Road, St Leonards, in memory of Elsie.

An extract from, and with thanks to, the Hastings Press