Elsie Bowerman

Elsie Bowerman

Elsie Bowerman, the only child of William Bowerman (1825–1895) and his wife, Edith Martha Barber (1864–1953), was born in Tunbridge Wells on 18th December 1889. She was educated at Wycombe Abbey School (1901–7) before going to finishing school in Paris.

According to Helena Wojtczak: "Around 1907, the widowed Edith Bowerman, now 43, married 67-year-old Alfred Benjamin Chibnall, a wealthy farmer. This alliance remains mysterious. Hastings Rates books and street directories show no trace that the couple ever lived together."

In 1908 Elsie Bowerman went to Girton College. The following year Bowerman and her mother joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She established a branch in Girton and in October 1910 she invited Margery Corbett-Ashby to speak to the students. Later she arranged for Constance Lytton to speak at the college. She also sold copies of Votes for Women and gave away free copies to those who could not afford the.

On 22nd November, Elsie's mother, Edith Chibnall joined a WSPU deputation to the House of Commons. She was assaulted by a policeman. She explained in a letter to Elsie: "He caught me by the hair and flinging me aside he said, Die, then! I found afterwards that so much force had been used that my hairpins were bent double in my hair and my sealskin coat was torn to ribbons." Elsie replied: "So sorry you have had such a bad time. It is sickening that this endless fighting has to go on. I am frightfully sorry Mrs. Pankhurst & Mrs. Haverfield were arrested... It is a great pity to lose all our best people just before the Election. I hope you won't go on any more raids. I think you have done your share for this week."

In 1911 Bowerman graduated with a second-class degree in medieval and modern languages. She now moved to St Leonards where her mother had established a branch of the WSPU. Bowerman helped her mother run the WSPU shop on the Grand Parade at Hastings. Bowerman was also a paid full-time organizer for the organization.

Elsie Bowerman and her mother decided to take a holiday in the Ohio. On 15th April 1912 they were passengers on the Titanic when it sank. As they were both first-class passengers every effort was made to save them. Elsie later 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."

On the outbreak of the First World War, Bowerman supported the decision by Emmeline Pankhurst, to help Britain's war effort. In 1914 Eveline Haverfield founded the Women's Emergency Corps, an organisation which helped organize women to become doctors, nurses and motorcycle messengers. Christabel Marshall described Haverfield as looking "every inch a soldier in her khaki uniform, in spite of the short skirt which she had to wear over her well-cut riding-breeches in public." Appointed as Commandant in Chief of the Women's Reserve Ambulance Corps, Haverfield was instructed to organize the sending of the Scottish Women's Hospital Units to Serbia.

On 5th July, 1916, Elsie Bowerman wrote to her mother: "Mrs Haverfield has just asked me to go out to Serbia at the beginning of August, to drive a car - May I go? I know Miss Whitelaw would let me off Wycombe to go. It is what I've been dying to do & drive a car ever since the war started. I should have to spend the week after the procession learning to drive - the cars are Fords - if I went I would come home when I come back I would not have to go to W.A. It is really like a chance to go to the front. They want drivers so badly. So do say yes - It is too thrilling for words."

According to Elizabeth Crawford: "In September 1916 Elsie Bowerman sailed to Russia as an orderly with the Scottish women's hospital unit, at the request of the Hon. Evelina Haverfield, a fellow suffragette whom she had known for several years. With this unit she travelled via Archangel, Moscow, and Odessa to serve the Serbian and Russian armies in Romania. The women arrived as the allies were defeated, and were soon forced to join the retreat northwards to the Russian frontier."

While awaiting her passage home, in March 1917, Elsie Bowerman witnessed the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg. She wrote to her mother: "Throughout we have met with the utmost politeness & consideration from everyone. Revolutions carried out in such a peaceful manner really deserve to succeed. Today weapons only seem to be in the hands of responsible people - not as yesterday, carried in many cases by excited youths. Heard that the ministers have now surrendered. Some have been shot, or shot themselves."

In 1917 Elsie Bowerman became a member of the The Women's Party, an organisation established by Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. Its twelve-point programme included: (1) A fight to the finish with Germany. (2) More vigorous war measures to include drastic food rationing, more communal kitchens to reduce waste, and the closing down of nonessential industries to release labour for work on the land and in the factories. (3) A clean sweep of all officials of enemy blood or connections from Government departments. Stringent peace terms to include the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire." The party also supported: "equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits." Christabel and Emmeline had now completely abandoned their earlier socialist beliefs and advocated policies such as the abolition of the trade unions.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918, Christabel became one of the seventeen women candidates that stood in the post-war election. Christabel Pankhurst represented the The Women's Party in Smethwick. Elsie Bowerman became her agent but despite the fact that the Conservative Party candidate agreed to stand down, she lost a straight fight with the representative of the Labour Party by 775 votes.

In 1922 Elsie Bowerman and Flora Drummond established the Women's Guild of Empire, a right wing league opposed to communism. Drummond's biographer, Krista Cowman, pointed out: "When the war ended she was one of the few former suffragettes who attempted to continue the popular, jingoistic campaigning which the WSPU had followed from 1914 to 1918. With Elsie Bowerman, another former suffragette, she founded the Women's Guild of Empire, an organization aimed at furthering a sense of patriotism in working-class women and defeating such socialist manifestations as strikes and lock-outs." By 1925 it was claimed the organization had a membership of 40,000. In April 1926, Bowerman and Drummond led a demonstration that demanded an end to the industrial unrest that was about to culminate in the General Strike.

Elsie Bowerman, a member of the Middle Temple, read for the bar, and became one of the first women barristers. According to Elizabeth Crawford: "She practised on the south-eastern circuit from 1928 until 1946, was involved with the Sussex sessions from 1928 until 1934, and wrote The Law of Child Protection (1933)."

In 1938, she joined forces with the Marchioness of Reading, to establish the Women's Voluntary Service, and from 1938 to 1940 edited its Monthly Bulletin. During the Second World War she worked for the Ministry of Information (1940–41) and was liaison officer with the North American Service of the BBC (1941–5).

Elsie Bowerman suffered a stroke, and died at the Princess Alice Hospital, Eastbourne, on 18th October 1973.

Primary Sources

(1) Elsie Bowerman, letter to her mother, Edith Chibnall (5th July 1916)

Mrs Haverfield has just asked me to go out to Serbia at the beginning of August, to drive a car - May I go? I know Miss Whitelaw would let me off Wycombe to go. It is what I've been dying to do & drive a car ever since the war started. I should have to spend the week after the procession learning to drive - the cars are Fords - if I went I would come home when I come back I would not have to go to W.A. It is really like a chance to go to the front. They want drivers so badly. So do say yes - It is too thrilling for words.

(2) Elsie Bowerman, letter to Edith Chibnall (13th March, 1917)

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. Very difficult to settle down to anything - sat at hotel window in afternoon, watched crowds in streets, lorries crowded with armed men.

Youths left in charge of the hotel kitchen - armed with ferocious carving knives & muskets. Managed to loot some glasses of milk - all other food locked up. Fresh alarm in hotel in evening when rifle shot suddenly heard in the building. Merely one of the revolutionary sentries. Banged rifle on floor in his excitement & shot went through the ceiling. Rumour that hotel will be fired during the night so we packed our haversacks carefully in case we had to make hurried departure in the night. Retired to bed. Great luck to share such comfortable quarters. Hotel Astoria has been sacked & guests turned out.

(3) Elsie Bowerman, letter to Edith Chibnall (14th March, 1917)

Crowds in streets but much quieter than yesterday. Soldiers maintaining order. Passed houses which had been occupied by police etc where papers in piles burning in the streets - still being thrown on by soldiers. Headquarters of police & detective force burnt to the ground & still burning - people firing at a police stronghold in house above us... rushed across to take refuge in a church doorway - found the shots were being sent in that direction - presently soldiers came rushing into the building with pistols so we decided to move into doorway of a house in the courtyard - but soldiers came pouring in so we decided to get out while we could. Got out before things became any warmer.

Throughout we have met with the utmost politeness & consideration from everyone. Revolutions carried out in such a peaceful manner really deserve to succeed. Today weapons only seem to be in the hands of responsible people - not as yesterday, carried in many cases by excited youths. Heard that the ministers have now surrendered. Some have been shot, or shot themselves.

(4) Elsie Bowerman, letter to Edith Chibnall (15th March, 1917)

Anglo-Russian hospital - thankful we are not staying there. They have been under orders to stay indoors all through the revolution - Hotel now quite organised again. Meals etc as usual. Reported that 3600 people have been killed & wounded in street affrays. People have decided to ask the Tsar to abdicate in favour of his son.

(5) Elsie Bowerman, letter to Edith Chibnall (17th March, 1917)

In afternoon went down Nevski Prospect. Huge crowds in every direction. Presently motor came along - people flocked around - officer & also man in civilian dress made two announcements from the car - viz., that the Tsar had abdicated in favour of his brother Michael & Michael had placed the power in the hands of the people, therefore to all intents & purposes Russia is now a republic. 2.30pm Mar 16th 1917. People cheered and cheered - wildest excitement. Rushed off & fetched ladders to take down the eagles off various public buildings. Rumour that there is a sanguinary revolution in Berlin & that the Kaiser is dead! Seems too good to be true. We spent the evening in wild speculation.