Margaret Haig Thomas

Margaret Haig Thomas

Margaret Haig Thomas was the only daughter of David Alfred Thomas and Sybil Haig, was born at Princes Square, Bayswater, on 12th June 1883. She was educated at Notting Hill High School and St Leonards School.

According to her biographer, Deirdre Beddoe: "She received a sound academic education, but there really never was any serious expectation that a girl of her class would work for a living. On leaving school she took the next logical step in the career progression of an upper-class girl and came out. Chaperoned by her long-suffering mother, she endured three successive London seasons. Paralysed by shyness and incapable of small talk, she found this an agonizing experience and she took herself off to Somerville College, Oxford, primarily to escape the horrors of a fourth London season, but gave that up and returned after less than a year."

Margaret married Humphrey Mackworth in 1908. Four months later she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She became secretary of the Newport branch and invited speakers such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney to Wales. During the 1910 General Election she attacked the car of Herbert Asquith. A supporter of the WSPU's arson campaign, she was sent to prison for trying to destroy a post-box with a chemical bomb. However, a hunger-strike led to her early release.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Margaret accepted the decision by the WSPU leadership to abandon its militant campaign for the vote. For the next of couple of years she worked closely with her father, who was sent by David Lloyd George to the United States to arrange the supply of munitions for the British armed forces. In May 1915, Margaret was returning from the United States on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. Although over a thousand passengers died, Margaret was one of those fortunate enough to be rescued.

Awarded the title Lord Rhondda, David Alfred Thomas was appointed Minister of Food in 1917. Margaret was also given a government post as Director of of Women's Department of the Ministry of National Service. Her report on the Women's Royal Airforce in 1918 led to the dismissal of its commander, Violet Douglas-Pennant and her replacement by Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

On the death of her father David Alfred Thomas in July 1918. As Deirdre Beddoe points out: "Margaret inherited his property, his commercial interests, and his title. The Directory of Directors for 1919 listed Viscountess Rhondda, as she now was, as the director of thirty-three companies (twenty-eight of them inherited from her father) and chairman or vice-chairman of sixteen of these. Already a famous figure whose activities were widely reported in the London press on account of her business career and of her increasingly leading role as a spokeswoman for feminism, her campaign to take her seat in the House of Lords attracted a great deal more publicity.... But although in 1922 she seemed to have won, when the committee of privileges accepted her plea for admission, the decision was reversed in May 1922."

Margaret Haig (c. 1915)
Margaret Haig (c. 1915)

Lady Rhondda divorced her husband and set up home with Helen Archdale. According to Archdale's biographer, David Doughan: "Helen Archdale had an intense relationship with Lady Rhondda, which seems to have begun in committee work during the First World War, though they also shared a background in suffrage militancy. By the early 1920s, she was sharing an apartment, and, together with her family, a country house (Stonepits, Kent) with Lady Rhondda."

In 1920 Lady Rhondda founded the political magazine Time and Tide. It was initially edited by her lover, Helen Archdale. In 1921 she launched the Six Point Group of Great Britain, which focused on what she regarded as the six key issues for women: The six original specific aims were: (1) Satisfactory legislation on child assault; (2) Satisfactory legislation for the widowed mother; (3) Satisfactory legislation for the unmarried mother and her child; (4) Equal rights of guardianship for married parents; (5) Equal pay for teachers; (6) Equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service.

At first Time and Tide supported left-wing causes but over the years the magazine, like its owner, moved to the right. As David Doughan points out: "However, philosophical disagreements, as well as Lady Rhondda's increasing editorial interventions, resulted in her being effectively forced out of the editorship of Time and Tide in 1926. Although she remained a director of Time and Tide Publishing Company, after her resignation specifically feminist concerns were gradually marginalized in Time and Tide."

Lady Rhondda did not allow politics to get in the way of good writing and contributors to the magazine included D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Virginia Woolf, Crystal Eastman, Charlotte Haldane, Storm Jameson, Nancy Astor, Margaret Bondfield, Margery Corbett-Ashby, Charlotte Despard, Emmeline Pankhurst, Eleanor Rathbone, Olive Schreiner, Helena Swanwick, Margaret Winteringham, Ellen Wilkinson, Ethel Smyth, Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, Ernst Toller, Robert Graves and George Orwell. However, it never sold well and it is estimated that during the thirty-eight years she lost over £500,000 on the magazine.

As well as editing Time and Tide, Lady Rhondda wrote a memoir of her father and an autobiography, This Was My World (1933). After breaking up with Helen Archdale she moved in with Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary of the International Federation of University Women.

Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, died in the Westminster Hospital on 20th July 1958.

Primary Sources

(1) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

Until I was thirteen I learnt what trifles I did learn from governesses, first French and later German, but at thirteen. I was sent to Notting Hill High School. It was my father who wanted this. I suppose he realised that there was no serious connection between the governesses and education.

The German governess, however, remained, and conducted me every morning in a four-wheeler from our flat in Westminster to Notting Hill. When school was over she called for me and walked me back through the parks.

Two years later I went to St. Leonards School, St. Andrews. This was at my own wish. I had discovered that at St. Leonards girls were allowed to go out for walks by themselves without attendant mistresses. This spelt freedom, and it was for freedom that I thirsted. I went to my father and told him what I wanted to do. Would he help? He was at first a shade doubtful. He knew little of girls' boarding schools, but his sister Mary had been to one, and he thought she had learnt to be silly there. The girls, he understood, used to flirt with the boys at an army crammer's next door.

(2) Margaret Haig Thomas was very close to her father, David Alfred Thomas. She wrote about it in her autobiography, This Was My World (1933)

I must have been about eleven or twelve when he first "talked business" to me: that is, poured out a stream of description of some deal he was engaged on at the time, without any explanations - he hated explaining anything; it bored him. He walked up and down the room as he talked, turning his coins over in his pocket, and I, seated in the big armchair, listened palpitating with pride at being treated in so grown-up a fashion, but terrified of saying the wrong thing, and so showing that I was only understanding about one quarter of what he was saying, which I well knew would have instantly stopped the flood. On that occasion my mother was up in town ill, and there was no one else at home for him to talk to. He always talked business at home a great deal; he would retail every evening all that had interested him in the day's events.

(3) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

During the formative period of childhood and adolescence and and as a young woman one was treated quite differently, in a thousand different ways, from the way in which a boy would have been. One was more protected, less was expected of one in very many directions (although more, of course, in others). A girl in innumerable subtle indirect ways is taught to mistrust herself. Ambition is held up to her as a vice - to a boy it is held up as a virtue. She is taught docility, modesty and diffidence. Docility and diffidence are of uncommonly little use in the business or professional world. A girl, after all, is all the while being prepared for her own special profession; and the profession of a wife or of a daughter at home is best and most successfully carried out by those who are prepared to defer to the judgment of others before their own.

(4) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

I was determined to join the Pankhursts' organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union, but was held up in this resolve for three months by the fact that my father, who had considerable foresight and realised pretty well what joining that body was likely to mean, was inclined to be opposed to the idea. However, I finally decided that he could be no judge of a matter which concerned one primarily as a woman. Prid meanwhile had, travelling by a slightly different road, arrived at the same conclusion. She and I met one autumn day in London, and, full of excitement, went off together to Clement's Inn and joined.

One of the first effects that joining the militant movement had on me, as perhaps on the majority of those of my generation who went into it, was that it forced me to educate myself. I read to begin with, of course, the whole literature of feminism: leaflets, pamphlets, books in favour and books against. Of books that mattered dealing directly with feminism there were curiously few. Only three now stay in my mind: John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women, Olive Schreiner's Woman and Labour, Cicely Hamilton's Marriage as a Trade; and perhaps one should add a fourth, Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism. Of course, there were stray passages in others; one or two of Israel Zangwill's Essays, for example, I find unforgettable to this day.

Of the quantities of books on politics, economics, finance, the working of the Exchanges, sociology, anthropology and psychology which I read during the first few happy years of that new revelation, some few still remain fresh in my mind. I can still, for example, vividly remember reading Havelock Ellis's Psychology of Sex. It was the first thing of its kind I had found. Though I was far from accepting it all, it opened up a whole new world of thought to me. I discussed it at some length with my father, and he, much interested, went off to buy the set of volumes for himself; but in those days one could not walk into a shop and buy The Psychology of Sex; one had to produce some kind of signed certificate from a doctor or lawyer to the effect that one was a suitable person to read it. To his surprise he could not at first obtain it. I still remember his amused indignation that he was refused a book which his own daughter had already read. But the fact was that the Cavendish Bentinck Library, to which I, in common with many others, owe a deep debt of gratitude, was at that time supplying all the young women in the suffrage movement with the books they could not procure in the ordinary way.

(5) In May 1915, Margaret Haig Thomas was returning from the United States on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. She wrote about the experience in her autobiography, This Was My World (1933)

It became impossible to lower any more from our side owing to the list on the ship. No one else except that white-faced stream seemed to lose control. A number of people were moving about the deck, gently and vaguely. They reminded one of a swarm of bees who do not know where the queen has gone.

I unhooked my skirt so that it should come straight off and not impede me in the water. The list on the ship soon got worse again, and, indeed, became very bad. Presently the doctor said he thought we had better jump into the sea. I followed him, feeling frightened at the idea of jumping so far (it was, I believe, some sixty feet normally from "A" deck to the sea), and telling myself how ridiculous I was to have physical fear of the jump when we stood in such grave danger as we did. I think others must have had the same fear, for a little crowd stood hesitating on the brink and kept me back. "And then, suddenly, I saw that the water had come over on to the deck. We were not, as I had thought, sixty feet above the sea; we were already under the sea. I saw the water green just about up to my knees. I do not remember its coming up further; that must all have happened in a second. The ship sank and I was sucked right down with her.

The next thing I can remember was being deep down under the water. It was very dark, nearly black. I fought to come up. I was terrified of being caught on some part of the ship and kept down. That was the worst moment of terror, the only moment of acute terror, that I knew. My wrist did catch on a rope. I was scarcely aware of it at the time, but I have the mark on me to this day. At first I swallowed a lot of water; then I remembered that I had read that one should not swallow water, so I shut my mouth. Something bothered me in my right hand and prevented me striking out with it; I discovered that it was the lifebelt I had been holding for my father. As I reached the surface I grasped a little bit of board, quite thin, a few inches wide and perhaps two or three feet long. I thought this was keeping me afloat. I was wrong. My most excellent lifebelt was doing that. But everything that happened after I had been submerged was a little misty and vague; I was slightly stupefied from then on.

When I came to the surface I found that I formed part of a large, round, floating island composed of people and debris of all sorts, lying so close together that at first there was not very much water noticeable in between. People, boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts, boards and goodness knows what besides, all floating cheek by jowl. A man with a white face and yellow moustache came and held on to the other end of my board. I did not quite like it, for I felt it was not large enough for two, but I did not feel justified in objecting. Every now and again he would try and move round towards my end of the board. This frightened me; I scarcely knew why at the time (I was probably quite right to be frightened; it is likely enough that he wanted to hold on to me). I summoned up my strength - to speak was an effort - and told him to go back to his own end, so that we might keep the board properly balanced. He said nothing and just meekly went back. After a while I noticed that he had disappeared.

(6) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

Various small acts of militancy had been performed by our local branch, but we had not done anything very spectacular or been particularly successful. I decided that we had better try burning letters. As it happened, burning letters was the one piece of militancy of which, when it was first adopted, I had disapproved. I could not bear to think of people expecting letters and not getting them. I had come round to it very reluctantly, partly on "the end justifies the means" principle; but chiefly on the ground that everyone knew we were doing it and therefore knew that they ran the risk of not getting their letters; and that it was up to the public to stop us if they really objected, by forcing the Government to give us the vote.

However, when it came to the point it was obvious that in the case of a local district, at some distance from head-quarters, burning the contents of pillar boxes had, tactically, much to recommend it. Acts which shall damage property without risking life and which shall not involve the certain risk of being caught are, as anyone who has tried them knows, very much more difficult to perform than they sound.

Setting fire to letters in pillar boxes was amongst the easiest of the things we could find to do. So one summer's day I went off to Clement's Inn to get the necessary ingredients. I was given, packed in rather a flimsy covered basket, twelve long glass tubes, six of which contained one kind of material and the other six another. So long as they were separate all was well, but if one smashed one tube of each material and mixed the contents together, they broke, so it was explained to me, after a minute or two into flames. I carried the basket home close beside me on the seat in a crowded third-class railway carriage, and the lady next door to me leant her elbow from time to time upon it. I reflected that if she knew as much as I did about the contents she would not do that.

Having got the stuff home, I buried it in the vegetable garden under the black-currant bushes, and a week or so later, dug it up and took it one day into the Newport Suffragette Shop to explain to the other members of committee what an easy business setting fire to pillar boxes would be for us all to practise in our spare moments.

(7) Margaret Haig Thomas, Time and Tide (14th May, 1920)

That the group behind this paper is composed entirely of women has already been frequently commented on. It would be possible to lay too much stress upon the fact. The binding link between these people is not primarily their common sex. On the other hand, this fact is not, without its significance. Amongst those to whom the need we have spoken of is apparent today are a very large number of women. Women have newly come into the larger world, and are indeed themselves to some extent answerable for that loosening of party and sectarian ties which is so marked a feature of the present day. It is therefore natural that just now many of them should tend to be especially conscious of the need for an independent press, owing allegiance to no sect or party. The war was responsible for breaking down the barriers which kept each individual or group of individuals in a watertight compartment. The past five years have taught the importance of that wider view which sees the part in relation to the whole.

There is another need in our press of which the average person of today is conscious, but which must specially weigh with women - the lack of a paper which shall treat men and women as equally part of the great human family, working side by side ultimately for the same great objects by ways equally valuable, equally interesting; a paper which is in fact concerned neither specially with men nor specially with women, but with human beings. It must be admitted that the press of today, although with self-conscious, painstaking care it now inserts "and women" every time it chances to use the word "men" scarcely succeeds in attaining to such an ideal.

(8) Charlotte Haldane, Daily Express (19th May, 1922)

Lady Rhondda is the most remarkable businesswoman in the world. She is a most feminine creature of the greatest outward simplicity, whose soft grey eyes and light brown hair were matched in their gentleness only by the charm of her low, even, and tranquil voice.

If she wins her battle for the right to take her seat in the House of Lords she will have created another record, and added another victory to her championship of women's equality.

(9) Crystal Eastman, Christian Science Monitor (8th March, 1920)

The question "Is the Leisured Woman a Menace to Civilization?" the topic of the recent debate at Kingsway Hall between Viscountess Rhondda and G. K. Chesterton, with Bernard Shaw in the chair, had almost a Bolshevist flavor. Yet Lady Rhondda, who maintained the affirmative is a wealthy woman, owner of vast coal properties, with no Socialistic tendencies whatever; she is a peeress in her own right, only daughter of David Alfred Thomas, later Viscount Rhondda, who was given a peerage in recognition of his services as food controller during the war.

Viscount Rhondda left to his daughter not only his title but full possession, direction and control of his extensive properties, exactly as though she had been a son. She inherited not only his money but his directorships, his active place in the financial world. And she made a gallant and distinguished fight to take his seat in the House of Lords. Twice, however, it has been decided, after a long legal battle with counsel of the very highest rank on both sides, that no woman may sit in that august body.

"Lady Rhondda is the terror of the House of Lords," said Bernard Shaw, in introducing her on this occasion. "She is a peeress in her own right. She is also an extremely capable woman of business, and the House of Lords has risen up and said, 'If Lady Rhondda comes in here, we go away!' They feel there would be such a show-up of the general business ignorance and imbecility of the malesex as never was before."

No, it was not radicalism that led Lady Rhondda to attack the idle women of her own class, it was feminism. She is a feminist, heart and soul, consistent to the last degree. She owns and edits a weekly journal. Time and Tide, which in style and matter and in general interest holds its own with the other serious English weeklies. It is in no sense a propaganda organ, and yet it never misses a chance to set forth, explain and uphold the feminist position on every issue which arises.

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