Esther Roper

Esther Roper

Esther Roper, the daughter of the Reverend Edward Roper, was born at Lindow near Chorley on 4th August, 1868. Soon after Esther's birth her parents returned to their missionary work in Africa. She lived with her maternal grandparents until being placed in a children's home in Highbury in 1872.

In 1886 she was admitted to Owens College in Manchester. Roper became interested in the subject of women's suffrage and in 1893 became secretary of the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage. In this role she tried to recruit working-class women from the emerging trade union movement.

Esther Roper met Eva Gore-Booth in Italy in 1896. According to Margaret M. Jensen they "became immediate and lifelong companions". Gifford Lewis the author of Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper (1998), has argued: "For the first time Eva was able to talk to a kindred spirit. Captivated by the woman and her cause, she impulsively decided to leave Ireland and join Esther in the suffrage cause in Manchester."

In 1897 Eva left Ireland and moved into Esther's home in Manchester. This also brought her into contact with Eva's sister, Constance Gore-Booth, who had established the Sligo Women's Suffrage Association the previous year. In 1901, Christabel Pankhurst, who was at that time a student at Manchester University, joined Esther's trade union campaign. She also met her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a member of the the Manchester branch of the NUWSS.

Esther Roper was one of the main speakers at a women's enfranchisement meeting in Westminster in 1902. The following year Esther and Eva established the Lancashire and Cheshire Women's Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee. Esther also co-edited the Women's Labour News, a quarterly journal aimed at uniting women workers. She was also active in the socialist group, the Independent Labour Party.

Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003), has argued that: "Christabel Pankhurst had formed a close friendship with Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, suffrage campaigners who lived together in Manchester. Her relationship with Eva, in particular, had become intense enough to excite a great deal of comment from her family." Sylvia Pankhurst also made comments on this: "Eva Gore-Booth had a personality of great charm... Christabel adored her, and when Eva suffered from neuralgia, as often happened, would sit with her for hours massaging her head. To all of us at home this seemed remarkable indeed, for Christabel had never been willing to act the nurse to any other human being."

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, with the help of her three daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst, formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). At first the main aim of the organisation was to recruit more working class women into the struggle for the vote and therefore initially received the support of Esther and Eva. However, she later disapproved of their use of violence.

She continued to be interested in the struggle for women's rights and in the 1908 joined with Eva Gore-Booth, Constance Markievicz, May Billinghurst, Annie Kenney and Adela Pankhurst, in the campaign against Winston Churchill in the parliamentary election in Manchester North West.

In 1913 Esther and Eva Gore-Booth moved to London. Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although its leader, Millicent Fawcett, supported the First World War effort she did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. Eva and Esther were both pacifists and disagreed with this strategy. Despite pressure from the majority of members, who held similiar views to Esther, Fawcett refused to argue against the war. Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: "She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union."

In 1914 they joined the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation formed by Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) has pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"

Eva and Esther resigned from the NUWSS over the issue of the First World War and helped establish the Women's Peace Crusade. Other members included Charlotte Despard, Selina Cooper, Margaret Bondfield, Ethel Snowden, Katherine Glasier, Helen Crawfurd, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Barbour.

After Eva's death from cancer on 30th June, 1926. Esther Roper was at her bedside and remarked: "At the end she looked up with that exquisite smile that always lighted up her face when she saw one she loved, then closed her eyes and was at peace." Gore-Booth was buried in St John's Churchyard. Her sister, Constance Markievicz, did not attend the funeral, saying she "simply could not face it all." After her death Roper edited and introduced The Poems of Eva Gore-Booth (1929) and The Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (1934).

Esther Roper died of heart failure at her home in Hampstead on 28th April 1938, and was buried alongside Eva in St John's Churchyard.

Primary Sources

(1) Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement (1931)

Eva Gore-Booth had a personality of great charm... Christabel adored her, and when Eva suffered from neuralgia, as often happened, would sit with her for hours massaging her head. To all of us at home this seemed remarkable indeed, for Christabel had never been willing to act the nurse to any other human being.

(2) Esther Roper, The Poems of Eva Gore-Booth (1929)

Soon after our return from Italy we settled in Hampstead. She cared as keenly as ever for every cause for which she had toiled in the past; the welfare of the women workers was always very near her heart. Her health made it impossible that her work should be of the same kind as formerly; but it was not for that reason any less vigorous or effective. ...

Eva Gore-Booth's sensitive and loving nature made her a perfect friend. No words of mine could ever tell the beauty of her friendship, but I can say of it truly, "Love never faileth". Through the years of difficult and trying work, through periods of terrible strain and grief, through ever-recurring times of intense pain, this was true. To the hard work which we did together for thirty years she brought a spirit of adventure and gaiety which nothing daunted. Of a gallant courage and a gentle courtesy she made life together a gracious thing. Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic - wandering through the woods of her old home, or seeking the "blue gentians and frail columbines" of a Swiss mountain, or finding "beauty and life and light" in Italy.

At the end she looked up with that exquisite smile that always lighted up her face when she saw one she loved, then closed her eyes and was at peace.