Margaret Nevinson

Margaret Nevinson

Margaret Jones, the daughter of the classical scholar, Rev. Timothy Jones, was born in Leicester on 11th January 1858. Margaret was the only daughter in a family of five sons. Her father, the vicar of St Margaret's Church, taught her Latin and Greek with her brothers. She was later educated at a High Church convent school and a Paris finishing school.

In 1880 Margaret became a teacher at South Hampstead High School for Girls. She also started on a degree at St Andrews University, which she eventually obtained. Interested in women's rights she became involved in the campaign in favour of the Married Women's Property Act.

On 18th April 1884 she married the radical journalist, Henry Nevinson, who she had known since childhood. Initially they lived in Whitechapel and both worked at Toynbee Hall. The couple had one daughter, Mary Nevinson, a talented musician, and one son, the successful painter Christopher Nevinson. After the birth of Christopher she suffered from post-natal depression.

Margaret Nevinson did charity work and and helped with St Jude's Girls' Club. In 1887 the Nevinson's moved to Hampstead (4 Downside Crescent) and for a while at Hampstead High School. According to her biographer, Angela V. John she was "always a pioneer, from her shingled hair and hatred of lace curtains to her espousal of modern art, European outlook, and commitment to social justice." Nevinson was a school manager in the East End, then for the London County Council. In 1904 she became a Poor Law Guardian. She took a particular interest in the impact of the poor law on women from working-class backgrounds.

Nevinson was a great advocate of women's suffrage. She was a member of a variety of groups including the National Union of Suffrage Societies, the Church League for Women's Suffrage and the Women's Writers Suffrage League. Her husband, Henry Nevinson, shared her views and along with Laurence Housman, Charles Corbett, Henry Brailsford, C. E. M. Joad, Israel Zangwill, Hugh Franklin, Charles Mansell-Moullin, was a founder of the Men's League For Women's Suffrage.

However, in 1906, frustrated by the NUWSS lack of success, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation established by Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst. The main objective was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.”

In 1907 Nevinson began to to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Clare Mordan and Mary Blathwayt were having too much influence over the organisation. In the autumn of 1907, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton and Charlotte Despard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Nevinson became treasurer of the Hampstead branch.

In 1911 Edith Craig of the Actresses' Franchise League, established the Pioneer Players. Under her leadership this society became internationally known for promoting women's work in the theatre. Ellen Terry was president of the Pioneer Players and Christabel Marshall contributed as dramatist, translator, actor and a member of the advisory and casting committees. One of the first productions of the group was In the Workhouse, a play written by Margaret Nevinson. The play, based on a true story, told of how a man who used the law to keep his wife in the workhouse against her will. As a result of the play, the law was changed in 1912.

Nevinson wrote several pamphlets published by the including A History of the Suffrage Movement: 1908-1912 (1912), Ancient Suffragettes (1913) and The Spoilt Child and the Law (1913). She also contributed articles to the Women's Freedom League journal, The Vote. It was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms.

Henry Nevinson was spending more and more time away from the family home. He later recalled that he endured a "dismal marriage". He argued that they were incompatible as she was "by nature and tradition, catholic and conservative, always inclined to contradict me on every point and all occasions." He admitted that he "thrived on intimate friendships" but she liked "few men and fewer women". He noted that his wedding anniversary reminded him only of a "day to be blotted out."

Olive Banks argued: "Henry Nevinson had no talent for domesticity and his temperament craved a life of adventure." Nevinson became the lover of Evelyn Sharp. In 1913 Nevinson wrote to Sidney Webb: "She (Sharp) has one of the most beautiful minds I know - always going full gallop, as you see from her eyes, but very often in regions beyond the moon, when it takes a few seconds to return. At times she is the very best speaker among the suffragettes."

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Nevinson was appalled by the behaviour of the WSPU and instead agreed with the Women's Freedom League approach to the conflict. This included the campaign of the Women's Peace Crusade for a negotiated peace. Her son, the artist, Christopher Nevinson, was a pacifist and refused to become involved in combat duties, and volunteered instead to work for the Red Cross on the Western Front.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act Nevinson continued to campaign for women's rights. In 1923 the Women's Freedom League published The Legal Wrongs of Women. This was followed by two volumes of autobiography, Fragments of Life, Tales and Sketches (1922) and Life's Fitful Fever (1926). She was asked twice to stand for the House of Commons, but each time she refused.

Margaret and Henry still lived together. They used to eat separately except for Sundays. According to her biographer, Angela V. John: "Her final years were lonely ones, plagued by depression." Christopher Nevinson described their home "a cheerless uninhabited house". Henry wrote: "Children are a quiverful of arrows that pierce the parents' hearts."

In 1928 Margaret told friends that she wanted to go into a nursing home "and have done with it". She tried to drown herself in the bath. Henry Nevinson wrote to Elizabeth Robins about her health: "At present I am in great tribulation, for Mrs. Nevinson's mind is rapidly failing, and I am perplexed what is best for her. To send her to a mental home among strangers seems to me cruel, but all are urging it, partly in hopes of reducing the great expense. I am so much opposed to it that I should far rather go on spending my small savings in the hope that she may end quietly here."

Margaret Nevinson died of kidney failure at her Hampstead home, 4 Downside Crescent, on 8th June 1932.

Primary Sources

(1) Christopher Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice (1937)

My mother was then a very religious woman, and she was in perpetual indecision as to whether or not she should become a convert to Rome, a grave step at all times, but particularly for her, as she was the daughter of the Rector of St. Margaret's at Leicester. She was not the kind to hold her peace during spiritual conflict, and this no doubt accounts for my wide knowledge of the Bible and of the various dogmas. But religion has always left me untouched, my public-school training having killed the mystic that lurks within me, though my intimate friends always say I will yet become an intensely religious man!

(2) Henry Nevinson, letter to Elizabeth Robins (4th June, 1932)

At present I am in great tribulation, for Mrs. Nevinson's mind is rapidly failing, and I am perplexed what is best for her. To send her to a mental home among strangers seems to me cruel, but all are urging it, partly in hopes of reducing the great expense. I am so much opposed to it that I should far rather go on spending my small savings in the hope that she may end quietly here.

(3) Angela V. John, The Life and Times of Henry Nevinson (2006)

Margaret was deeply hurt and disillusioned by Henry's behaviour. Quire when she became aware of his affair with Nannie is not clear but it may have been between mid-1893 and early 1895, a period for which no diary survives. When Margaret died, Henry wrote of his "overwhelming passion for a woman which broke her heart". Early in 1901 he had been seen with Nannie in the lane and "abused as a devil & all manner for what to me is as innocent & natural as sunshine or breath". Margaret seems to have resolved in these years to map out her life as independently as possible whilst remaining married. She was deeply religious and much of her energy went into Anglo-Catholicism. She enjoyed travelling abroad and became one of those, often unsung, women who dedicated considerable time and energy to local government.

She was an elected school manager for a quarter of a century, working first in the East End under the London School Board and then, in the late 1890s, transferring to the Haverstock Hill and Fleet Road Group. Although in the poorer end of Hampstead, the Fleet Road School was known as the best elementary school in London. Margaret was one of its twelve hard-working managers. In August 1901 she was elected a Poor Law Guardian for Hampstead. Despite some local opposition, she topped the poll, serving for nearly eighteen years. Women had been entitled to be Poor Law Guardians since 1875 but not until the property qualitication was abolished in 1894 did their numbers grow. Hampstead had been one of the first boards to Include women but Margaret's position was unusual. Although a middle-class married Hampstead lady without paid employment, she had lived and worked in a deprived area and now represented Hampstead's poorest ward (Kilburn). The Hampstead Minute Book from September 1904 until the end of 1921 reveals her dedication. She played an active part in over fifty meetings a year, chaired sub-committees and used her familiarity with the workhouse and infirmary to write fiction, drama and campaigning articles about the problems facing impoverished women. Her play In the Workhouse challenged a married man's legal right to decree that his wife be detained in the workhouse against her will. It helped change the antediluvian law.

In 1920 Margaret became a pioneer justice of the Peace. She had lectured on the need for women magistrates and now sat on the Hampstead Bench as the first woman in London to adjudicate at Criminal Petty Sessions. She had long found comradeship and challenges in the women's movement, particularly through women's suffrage. She was on the committee of the Hampstead branch of the NUWSS and then joined the new WSPU. After its split in 1907 she was a founder member of the Women's Freedom League (WFL), participated in demonstrations and debates, was a witty speaker and wrote pamphlets. She was a branch treasurer for the W FL, national treasurer of the Women Writers' Suffrage League and active in the Church League for Women's Suffrage and Cymric Suffrage Union.

Both Henry and Margaret participated in the passive resistance tactics encouraged by the WFL. Margaret was a tax resister (as later was Evelyn) and Henry refused to complete the 1911 census form. In the same year Philippa Nevinson married the architect Sidney B. R. Caulfield at the Chapel Royal, Savoy. The ceremony was conducted "in accordance with Suffragist principles". The Revd Hugh Chapman, a member of the Men's League, officiated and the word "obey" was omitted.

In the late 1890s Henry wrote that his wedding anniversary reminded him only of "a day to be blotted out". Yet despite a mutually unhappy marriage, the couple never divorced. When Margaret died in 1932 they had been married for forty-eight years. Since 1901 they had lived at 4 Downside Crescent, a modern redbrick, semi-detached house just off the fashionable Haverstock Hill. We do not know whether they discussed divorce or legal separation. But social attitudes to divorce were markedly different to today's even though the future of marriage was keenly debated in the late 1880s and 1890s in progressive London circles. "New Woman" novels, short stories, plays, newspapers and feminist groups all considered the marriage question. But Margaret would have needed to prove aggravated rather than "simple" adultery to divorce Henry. Gendered laws meant that offences like cruelty or desertion had to be cited as additional grounds for a woman to obtain a divorce rather than a judicial separation. Not until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 (when Margaret was sixty-five) did wives gain the right to divorce on the same grounds as men.