Henry Devenish Harben

Henry Devenish Harben, the grandson of Henry Harben (1823-1911), the chairman of the Prudential Insurance Company, was born in 1874. He was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College. After leaving the University of Oxford, he trained as a barrister.

A member of the Conservative Party, he was a candidate in the 1900 General Election. However, he gradually moved to the left and he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Party candidate in the 1906 General Election.

In 1907, several left-wing intellectuals, including Henry Harbin, Henry Nevinson, Laurence Housman, Charles Corbett, George Lansbury, Henry Brailsford, C. E. M. Joad, Israel Zangwill, Hugh Franklin, Gerald Gould, Charles Mansell-Moullin, and 30 other men formed the Men's League For Women's Suffrage "with the object of bringing to bear upon the movement the electoral power of men. To obtain for women the vote on the same terms as those on which it is now, or may in the future, be granted to men."

Henry Harbin and his wife Agnes became very involved in the struggle for women's suffrage. By 1911 it became clear that Herbert Asquith and his Liberal Party were unwilling to support legislation. At its annual party conference in January 1912, the Labour Party passed a resolution committing itself to supporting women's suffrage. This was reflected in the fact that all Labour MPs voted for the measure at a debate in the House of Commons on 28th March. Soon afterwards Henry N. Brailsford and Kathleen Courtney, entered negotiations with the Labour Party as representatives of NUWSS.

In April 1912, the NUWSS announced that it intended to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary by-elections. Emily Davies, a member of the Conservative Party, and Margery Corbett-Ashby, an active supporter of the Liberal Party, resigned from the NUWSS over this decision. However, others like Henry Harben, left the Liberal Party in protest against the government's attitude to the suffrage question.

Harben now joined the Labour Party and donated money to the NUWSS Election Fighting Fund (EFF). This money was used to support Labour candidates in by-elections. During this period Harben became friends with Muriel de la Warr, who was also helping to fund the EFF. With her encouragement he joined the board of The Daily Herald. On 14th February, 1913 Harben wrote to Emmeline Pankhurst about his financial support of the newspaper: "It would have been a disaster if the only daily paper which has furiously championed militancy in both the women's and the labour movements, had been allowed to die, and I was at work till after eleven last night to advert this." Sylvia Pankhurst claims that this money was used to acquire the Victoria House Printing Press.

In June 1913 Harben and his wife Agnes were delegates to the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Budapest. He represented the Men's League For Women's Suffrage and she the Fabian Women's Group. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Chrystal Macmillan, formed the Women's International League of Great Britain. Other women who joined this group included Sylvia Pankhurst, Mary Sheepshanks, Charlotte Despard, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Agnes Dollan, Ethel Snowden, Ellen Wilkinson, Margery Corbett-Ashby, Selina Cooper, Helena Swanwick and Olive Schreiner.

C. E. M. Joad met Henry Harben during this period: "Looking back, I can date the change from a meal which I had with Mr. H. D. Harben in the autumn of 1914 and the homily which it provoked. H. D. Harben was a Socialist; he was rich, he was a gentleman, and he had a large place in the country. He was also an ardent suffragist. Suffragettes, let out of prison under the Cat and Mouse Act, used to go to Newlands to recuperate, before returning to prison for a fresh bout of torture. When the county called, as the county still did, it was embarrassed to find haggard-looking young women in dressing-gowns and djibbahs reclining on sofas in the Newlands drawing-room talking unashamedly about their prison experiences. This social clash of county and criminals at Newlands was an early example of the mixing of different social strata which the war was soon to make a familiar event in national life. At that time it was considered startling enough, and it required all the tact of Harben and his socially very competent wife to oil the wheels of tea-table intercourse, and to fill the embarrassed pauses which punctuated any attempt at conversation."

On 6th February 1914 a group of supporters of women's suffrage, who were disillusioned by the lack of success of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and disapproved of the arson campaign of the Women Social & Political Union, decided to form the United Suffragists. This included Henry Harben and his wife. Other members included Henry Harben, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Evelyn Sharp, Mary Neal, Henry Nevinson, Margaret Nevinson, Hertha Ayrton, Barbara Ayrton Gould, Gerald Gould, Israel Zangwill, Edith Zangwill, Lena Ashwell, Louisa Garrett Anderson, Eveline Haverfield, Maud Arncliffe Sennett, John Scurr, Julia Scurr and Laurence Housman.

During the First World War Harben joined forces with Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury to establish the League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives. Pankhurst later recorded: " "When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances." Harben also purchased the Hotel Majestic in Paris to turn it into an English hospital. He also donated money to the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF).

A member of the Labour Party he stood and was defeated in 1920 for the Woodbridge constituency in Suffolk. A close friend of Sylvia Pankhurst he helped to pay for her son's education at the London School of Economics.

Henry Devenish Harben died in 1967.

Primary Sources

(1) C. E. M. Joad, Under the Fifth Rib (1932)

Looking back, I can date the change from a meal which I had with Mr. H. D. Harben in the autumn of 1914 and the homily which it provoked. H. D. Harben was a Socialist; he was rich, he was a gentleman, and he had a large place in the country. He was also an ardent suffragist. Suffragettes, let out of prison under the "Cat and Mouse Act", used to go to Newlands to recuperate, before returning to prison for a fresh bout of torture. When the county called, as the county still did, it was embarrassed to find haggard-looking young women in dressing-gowns and djibbahs reclining on sofas in the Newlands drawing-room talking unashamedly about their prison experiences. This social clash of county and criminals at Newlands was an early example of the mixing of different social strata which the war was soon to make a familiar event in national life. At that time it was considered startling enough, and it required all the tact of Harben and his socially very competent wife to oil the wheels of tea-table intercourse, and to fill the embarrassed pauses which punctuated any attempt at conversation.

(2) Sylvia Pankhurst disagreed with the way the WSPU supported the government during the First World War.

When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.