One of the most rewarding aspects of researching the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset has been making contact with academics and researchers on the other side of the world.
This summer it has been my great pleasure to meet Janet Olsen and Mary McWilliams, from Illinois, who are involved with the Frances Willard Historical Association and the Museum at Evanston, where Frances Willard used to live.
I was delighted when Janet Olsen contacted me to say she would be in England and would like to visit Reigate. It was Janet who had first repsonded to my requests for information as to what letters and memorabilia they held at the Frances Willard Museum which related to Lady Henry Somerset. Much like Reigate Priory Museum, the Frances Willard Museum is run by volunteers who do not have the time or financial resources to do justice to the archives they hold, so not all the documents and letters there have yet been fully catalogued. One day I hope to go there myself and look through some of the collection.
I was able to take Janet on a tour of Reigate and also of Duxhurst. We also spent time in Reigate Priory, where Eileen Wood, curator of the Priory Museum, was able to tell Janet the facsinating history of the building. Janet was particularly impressed with its size – she hadn’t realised it would be so large.
A couple of months later, her friend and colleague Mary McWilliams also made the trip to England and she too came to meet me in Reigate, where we did a similar tour.
We have been able to exchange books and photographs. I was particularly thrilled when Janet gave me a book Let Something Good Be Said – Speeches and Writings of Frances E Willard edited by Carolyn de Swarte Gifford and Amy R Slagell, which had been specially signed for me by Carolyn. It had been Carolyn’s book Writing Out My Heart – Selections from the Journal of Frances Willard which had so impressed and enlightened me about Lady Henry’s American friend.
Lady Henry Somerset (Isabel) formed a close bond with Frances Willard, the American temperance leader and between 1891 and 1896 the two women spent many months together, with Frances often staying in England as the guest of Isabel, sometimes at Reigate Priory, sometimes at Eastnor Castle. In 1893 Frances was in England and became too ill to travel back to the States (she had pernicious anemia amnongst other health problems) so it was Isabel who went to America to address the big conventions. She delivered the speeches which the two women had worked on together for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the 2nd World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union convention.
Sadly, when Frances died in February 1898, the two women had not seen each other for over a year, as Frances had been too ill to travel overseas and Isabel had been heavily committed to her work in England.
The World Women’s Christian Temperance Union still exists today. It was the first worldwide organisation for women and has done much to promote temperance and women’s issues around the world.