Charlotte Despard (1844-1939)
Born Charlotte French, one of six girls and one boy, to a wealthy family in Kent, she married businessman Maximilian Despard who wrote romantic fiction. Despard travelled with her husband, who suffered ill health, leading a conventional life until after she was widowed at the age of 46.
Moving to Battersea, Despard began to engage in charitable works, establishing what became known as Despard Clubs, providing full-scale community centres, with nurses, youth clubs, clinics and good food. From this philanthropic background, she became a member of the Independent Labour Party, a member of the Board of Guardians for Lambeth and then a socialist, joining the Social Democratic Federation and sharing speaking platforms with radicals like Eleanor Marx. When militant suffrage activity began, Despard joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, serving more than one prison sentence.
She later became president of the Women’s Freedom League, another militant suffrage group but one that was formed by those critical of the lack of democracy in the Pankhurst-dominated organisation. Despard’s interest in Ireland began with the murder of Frank Sheehy Skeffington, the pacifist editor of the Irish suffrage paper The Irish Citizen. She was then asked by Eva Gore-Booth, sister of Constance Markievicz, to intercede with her brother, Sir John French, who was then commanding officer of the British army in Ireland in the post-rising period, in order to prevent the execution of Markievicz, then under sentence of death. Despard was a Labour candidate for Battersea in the 1918 general election but moved to Ireland after the war and worked particularly with Maud Gonne MacBride, sharing a home in Roebuck House and forming with MacBride the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League. She opposed the Treaty and was imprisoned during the civil war. Despard became a member of the Communist Party in 1930 and secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia, following a visit to the Soviet Union. She became increasingly disillusioned by the anti-communist and conservative nature of the Irish Free State and in 1934 decided to move to Belfast, in the belief that working-class politics were more likely in the industrialised context of the north.
After a time on the Newtownards Road and after witnessing pogroms against Catholics she moved to Whitehead, dying in 1939 following a fall in her house.
Margaret Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, a biography, (Pandora Press: London, 1989).
Andro Linklater, An Unhusbanded Life (Hutchinson: London, 1980).