Marie Corbett

Marie Corbett

Marie Corbett, the daughter of George and Eliza Gray, was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1859. George Gray was a successful entrepreneur who made a fortune from importing fruit and producing confectionery. Both George and Eliza were ardent Liberals who supported many progressive causes.

In 1881 Marie married the radical lawyer, Charles Corbett, who had an 840-acre estate at Woodgate in the village of Danehill in Sussex. The couple believed they had a responsibility to help the less fortunate members of the community and for many years the couple provided free legal advice for people living in the area.

Her daughter, Margery Corbett Ashby, recalled in her memoirs: "My mother became an energetic cyclist, rebuked by her neighbours for showing inches of extremely pretty feet and ankles; regarded as highly indecorous. It was not only to the ankles that the neighbours objected. My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread."

A friend, Mary Hamilton, later commented: "Marie Corbett, was an ardent Feminist, one small external sign being the fact that she regularly wore the breeches she had taken to when bicycling came in, at least a decade before war-time made them permissible. She was a woman of great drive, active in local affairs and local government and all good causes."

Louisa Martindale was another family friend: "My mother became friends with Marie Corbett of Danehill, a remarkable woman who not only threw herself heart and soul into the cause, but also educated her daughters (now Mrs Margery Corbett Ashby and Mrs Cicely Corbett Fisher) to take the leading place they have in public life."

After the passing of the Municipal Franchise Act Marie became a member of the Uckfield Board of Guardians. Later she was the first woman to serve on the Uckfield District Council. Marie also took an active role in national politics and was one of the three women who founded the Liberal Women's Suffrage Society. When attempts to persuade the Liberal Government to introduce measures to give women the vote ended in failure, Marie became active in the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies.

In 1906 General Election Marie's husband, Charles Corbett, became the first Liberal to be elected to represent East Grinstead in the House of Commons. Unlike the Liberal leadership, Corbett strongly supported votes for women and in 1913 helped form the East Grinstead branch of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage.

For many years Marie and her two daughters, Margery Corbett Ashby and Cicely Corbett-Fisher, made public speeches on the subject of women's rights in East Grinstead High Street. East Grinstead was a safe Conservative seat and the crowds were usually very hostile. A survey carried out in 1911 suggested that less than 20% of the women in East Grinstead supported women having the vote in parliamentary elections.

In 1911 Marie Corbett joined with Muriel, Countess de la Warr and Lila Durham to form the East Grinstead Suffrage Society. Membership was always small and meetings rarely attracted more than ten members. She was a strong opponent of the Women Social & Political Union. In March 1912 the East Grinstead Observer published a letter from her that stated: "There cannot be more than a few hundred in all who have put themselves under the leadership of the Social and Political Union for the commission of lawless activities. The members of the East Grinstead Women's Women's Suffrage Society strongly disapprove of acts of violence."

On the 23rd July 1913, Marie organised a public meeting in East Grinstead High Street in preparation for the mass rally at the NUWSS rally at Hyde Park in London on 26th July. The local newspaper claims that over 1,500 people turned up to hear the three main speakers: Marie, Edward Steer, a local politician in favour of women's rights and Laurence Housman, a writer and campaigner for the NUWSS. A group of youths started throwing tomatoes and eggs at the speakers. When the mob began hurling stones at them they were forced to seek sanctuary in a local house. It was only when the mob broke into the building that the watching police intervened.

After the vote was won Marie concentrated her efforts on reforming the workhouse system and finding homes for orphans. After successfully emptying the Uckfield Workhouse of children Marie turned her attention to other workhouses in the area.

Marie Corbett died in 1932.

Primary Sources

(1) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her mother, Marie Corbett in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.

My mother became an energetic cyclist, rebuked by her neighbours for showing inches of extremely pretty feet and ankles; regarded as highly indecorous. It was not only to the ankles that the neighbours objected. My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread.

(2) When Mary Hamilton was at Newnham College she used to stay with her fellow student, Margery Corbett (Ashby) at her home at Danehill. Hamilton wrote about these experiences in her book Remembering Good Friends.

Margery's mother, Marie Corbett, was an ardent Feminist, one small external sign being the fact that she regularly wore the breeches she had taken to when bicycling came in, at least a decade before war-time made them permissible. She was a woman of great drive, active in local affairs and local government and all good causes. The house was apt to swarm with people. The Corbett's hospitality was in the best English tradition. Friends of Margery, of her younger sister Cicely - extravagantly pretty, and at the time we were at Cambridge, preparing to go Oxford and of her elder brother Adrian, then at Oxford, assembled for dances and week-end parties…. At college Margery was intensely keen on civil liberties, free trade, international good will, democracy… She spends time and energy without stint or personal ambition… She has an immense sense of duty, and must have spent a very large part of her entire life on committees and at meetings. Not to like her is and always has been impossible; she has charm and complete sincerity, and has made a success of life, in its essential relationships. She was a good daughter: she is a good wife and mother. The one boy, born during the 1914 war, when his father was in France with the B.E.F., was, as a baby, so delicate that it did not seem possible he should live; Margery insisted that he should; he has grown up a superb physical specimen.

(3) Louisa Martindale became interested in the subject of women's rights in the 1860s and eventually became a leading figure in the Sussex Women's Liberal Association. Hilda Martindale wrote about her mother's involvement in the movement in her book From One Generation to Another.

In the 1860s mother began reading widely, and learnt how Mary Wollstonecraft had vindicated the rights of women in burning words, how Caroline Norton had struggled for her rights over her children, and how Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson showed what determination was needed by young women who wished for academic or professional education. She read Barbara Bodichon's Englishwomen's Journal, which discovered and exposed the obstacles to the employment of educated women, and she learnt about Florence Nightingale and her work on the vast problem of nursing and sanitary administration. In the 1860s women realised that the only way to civil rights, higher education, and equal status lay through the parliamentary franchise… My mother became friends with Marie Corbett of Danehill, a remarkable woman who not only threw herself heart and soul into the cause, but also educated her daughters (now Mrs Margery Corbett Ashby and Mrs Cicely Corbett Fisher) to take the leading place they have in public life.

The overwhelming victory of the Liberal Party at the polls in January 1906 gave them fresh hope but many of the most ardent women political workers were disillusioned; amongst these was my mother…. Henceforth she worked chiefly for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which was carrying on the work of organisation amongst those women who believed that the cause of freedom could be won without violence.

(4) Marie Corbett, letter to East Grinstead Observer (16th March, 1912)

Those guilty of disturbances on Friday and Monday are a small and decreasing minority amongst suffragettes. There cannot be more than a few hundred in all who have put themselves under the leadership of the Social and Political Union for the commission of lawless activities. The members of the East Grinstead Women's Women's Suffrage Society strongly disapprove of acts of violence.

(5) On 26th July 1913, East Grinstead Observer reported a riot that had taken place in the town three days previously.

The main streets of East Grinstead were disgraced by some extraordinary proceedings on Tuesday evening. The non-militant section of the advocates of securing women’s suffrage had arranged a march and public meeting on its way to the great demonstration in London. The "procession" was not an imposing one. It consisted of about ten ladies who were members of the Suffrage Society. Mrs. Marie Corbett led the way carrying a silken banner bearing the arms of East Grinstead. The reception, which the little band of ladies got, was no means friendly. Yells and hooting greeted them throughout most of the entire march, and they were the targets for occasional pieces of turf, especially when they passed through Queen’s Road. In the High Street they found a crowd of about 1,500 people awaiting them.

Edward Steer had promised to act as chairman, and taking his stand against one of the trees on the slope he began by saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen". This was practically as far as he got with his speech. Immediately there was an outburst of yells and laughter and shouting. Laurence Housman, the famous writer, got no better than Mr. Steer. By this time pieces of turf and a few ripe tomatoes and highly seasoned eggs were flying about, and were not always received by the person they were intended for. The unsavoury odur of eggs was noticeable over a considerable area. Unhappily, Miss Helen Hoare of Charlwood Farm, was struck in the face with a missile and received a cut on the cheek and was taken away for treatment.

Some of the women were invited to take shelter in Mr. Allwork’s house, but as they entered the crowd rushed the doorway and forced themselves into the house. The police arrived and the ladies were taken out the back way and escorted them to the Dorset Arms Hotel, their headquarters, and this was for a long time besieged by a yelling mob…. Mrs. Marie Corbett slipped away and took up a position lower down the High Street on the steps of the drinking fountain. A young clergyman who appealed for fair play was roughly hustled and lost his hat. Mrs. Corbett had began to speak from the fountain steps but the crowd moved down the High Street and broke up her small meeting.

(6) Marie Corbett was one of the first women in Britain to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. Her daughter Margery Corbett Ashby described her mother's work as a Poor Law Guardian in her book Memoirs.

My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor. She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed all the children, whom she boarded out with village families… When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died, many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me… and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."