Cicely Corbett Fisher

Cicely Corbett Fisher

Cicely Corbett, the daughter of Charles Corbett and Marie Corbett, was born at Danehill, Sussex in 1885. Cicely and her older sister, Margery Corbett, were educated at home. Charles taught the girls classics, history and mathematics and Marie taught them scripture and the piano. A local woman gave them lessons in French and German.

For many years Charles Corbett and Marie Corbett 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 her autobiography, Margery Corbett described how the people of East Grinstead reacted to her parents support of women's rights: "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."

At the age of fifteen, Cicely, Margery and a group of friends formed a society called the Younger Suffragists. In 1904 Cicely went to Somerville College, Oxford to study Modern History. While at Oxford she was an active member of the local branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Disappointed with the poor record of the Liberal Party with respect to women's suffrage, Cicely and her sister Margery broke away from the Women's Liberal Federation and formed the Liberal Women's Suffrage Group.

National Federation of Women Women Workers
National Federation of Women Women Workers

After completing her university studies, Cicely went to work with Clementina Black at the Women's Industrial Council, an organisation that campaigned against low pay and bad working conditions. By 1910 women made up almost one third of the working population. The vast majority worked in jobs with low pay and poor conditions. Cicely was also an active member of the Anti-Sweating League and in the years preceding the start of the First World War, she organised several conferences on the subject. At the time sweated labour was defined as "(1) working long hours, (2) for low wages, (3) under insanitary conditions". Most sweated labour took place in the homes of workers. Children employed after school hours in the home were also victims of sweated labour. Cicely Corbett's conferences often included speeches and demonstrations of sweated labour by women from industrial towns and cities.

At a meeting in East Grinstead in May, 1912, Cicely stated: "Chief among these evils of sweated labour is the exploitation of child labour. Children of six years and upwards were employed after school hours, in helping to add to the family output and even infants of 3, 4 and 5 years of age work anything from 3 to 6 hours a day in such labour as carding hooks and eyes to add a few pence per week to the wages of the household."

In 1913 Cicely married the radical journalist, Chalmers Fisher. Both Cicely and Chalmers adopted the surname, Corbett Fisher. After the First World War, Cicely was active in the Labour Party and the Women's International League.

Cicely Corbett Fisher died at Danehill in 1959.

Primary Sources

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

No one can have had a happier childhood than myself, brought up, with a younger brother and sister, in a large, old-fashioned, country house. In my youth I shared every advantage with my brother equally - from love and affection to the best possible education and opportunities, and the critical but unstinted encouragement which to the young is like sunshine to a plant.

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) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her childhood in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.

We were educated at home. Lessons were divided. Mother took scripture and music… My father taught us history, geography, mathematics and Latin. From the age of four I read everything I could lay my hands on. I remember lying on the floor reading contemporary accounts of the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War in my grandfather's library, where there was a complete set of Illustrated London News. He had bookshelves to the ceiling… In my father's library the big bookcases also went up to the ceiling.

(3) 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.

(4) 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.

(5) Cicely Corbett Fisher, a representative of the Women's Industrial Council, gave a talk on sweated labour at East Grinstead in May 1912 .

Sweated labour may be defined as (1) working long hours, (2) for low wages, (3) under insanitary conditions. Although its victims include men as well as women, women form the great majority of sweated workers. The chief difficulty is combating this evil abuse is that nearly all sweated work is done in the homes of the workers. During the recent strike of Jam makers in Bermondsey the wages of the girls only just sufficed to provide them with food, and left no margin whatsoever for the purchase of clothes, for which they were entirely dependent on gifts from friends… Chief among these evils of sweated labour is the exploitation of child labour. Children of six years and upwards were employed after school hours, in helping to add to the family output and even infants of 3, 4 and 5 years of age work anything from 3 to 6 hours a day in such labour as carding hooks and eyes to add a few pence per week to the wages of the household.