Quite a lot, Hilaire discovered, when it comes to a street on her estate named Charlotte Despard Avenue.
For years, I’d vaguely wondered who was behind the unusual name of an otherwise nondescript street, which stretched the meaning of ‘avenue’, being neither broad nor tree-lined. So when Joolz and I came up with the idea of writing poems based on women who’d lived in our different neighbourhoods, one of the first names I jotted down in my notebook was Charlotte Despard.
My initial rudimentary research – a few brief mentions of her in local history books – left me feeling ambivalent towards her. A wealthy widow who, in 1890, took up residence in what was then the slum of Nine Elms in hope of improving conditions, but retreated to the family estate in Surrey at weekends. I put Charlotte Despard on the back burner, thinking perhaps I could write a poem from the point of view of a recipient of Mrs Despard’s good works; someone bridling with resentment at being patronized.
Then last May I went to a talk at Battersea Arts Centre on ‘Battersea’s political heroes’. In half an hour, Professor Penelope Corfield completely changed my view of Charlotte Despard. Yes, she was wealthy, but by the end of her very long life – she died aged 95 in 1939 – she was bankrupt, having poured her money into any number of causes and social initiatives. She was pragmatic, setting up free mother and child clinics in Nine Elms, supplying boots to children who would otherwise go about barefoot, and organising the provision of free meals at local schools as she understood that well-nourished children were better able to learn. She was also a vigorous campaigner on many issues and was deeply involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, earning a couple of stints in HM Prison Holloway. At the end of the talk I asked my burning question: how did the locals regard Charlotte Despard? The answer, according to Professor Corfield, is that she was loved and venerated. I had a new heroine.
Subsequently, I read the two available biographies – Charlotte Despard: A Biography by Margaret Mulvhill (Pandora, 1989) and An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist & Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater (Hutchinson & Co, 1980) – and amassed copious notes. Charlotte Despard was and did so much more than a short blog post can do justice to. Many of her causes were unpopular at the time, and she must have cut an eccentric figure in her mantilla and sandals. Certainly, she was flawed and complex, but her energy and commitment to social justice and equality are truly inspiring.
I knew then that I definitely wanted to write a London Undercurrents poem about Charlotte Despard. Trying to channel her voice, though, felt both impossible and overwhelming. Interestingly, Despard was something of a spiritualist and occasionally consulted Giuseppe Garibaldi for advice via her planchette!
In the end I decided to come at her slantwise, so to speak, imagining a Nine Elms matriarch casting her vote for the first time in 1918, when Charlotte Despard stood as the Labour Party candidate for Battersea. You can read the poem here on Well Versed along with a poem by Joolz, in the voice of a suffragette being force-fed in HM Prison Holloway.
Since the poem was published, it’s been pointed out that most working class women weren’t able to vote until 1928. The biographies I drew on as my main sources mention the age restriction in the 1918 Representation of the People act (women aged over 30), but not the property qualification, which the UK Parliament site describes as ‘minimum property qualifications’. I’ll have to present my poetic license here, and trust the spirit of the poem is true to this amazing woman.