A Talent for Humanity – the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset is an easy to read biography of an amazing woman. It has been described as a real ‘page-turner’. Click on the Buy the books page to purchase from Amazon.
In her day, Lady Henry Somerset was compared to Florence Nightingale. She topped a poll of readers of the London Evening News as the person they would most like as the first female Prime Minister. Yet today she is not well known, perhaps because she championed the temperance cause and this has long gone out of fashion.
The story of her life is fascinating; the list of her achievements long and varied. She overcame the sorrow of an unhappy marriage to become a leading social reformer, a powerful orator who could pack halls around Britain and throughout America. She promoted women’s issues well before feminism became a popular movement.
Isabel Caroline Somers Cocks was the eldest daughter of Charles, 3rd Earl Somers. Her mother, Virginia, was a renowned socialite and beauty. The family owned great swathes of land in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, including Eastnor Castle, as well as most of the town of Reigate in Surrey where they had a fine country house, Reigate Priory. They also owned much of the less salubrious Somers Town, in the St Pancras area of London.
In 1872, as a shy 20-year-old, Isabel married Lord Henry Somerset, second son of the Duke of Beaufort. A glittering life of aristocratic pleasures seemed to lie ahead of her. Sadly her hopes of a happy marriage and a large family were dashed within days of her society wedding; the honeymoon at Reigate Priory was a disaster.
To Isabel’s dismay, her husband announced he wanted them to lead separate lives. She could not understand what she had done wrong. For a brief period marital relations were resumed and a son was born. But Isabel could not turn a blind eye to her husband’s behaviour. For Lord Henry was a homosexual and at that time, homosexuality was not just frowned upon, it was a crime.
It took Lady Henry several difficult years to escape from the marriage. In challenging her husband, Comptroller of the Queen’s Household and a protégé of Disraeli, for custody of their son, she flouted all the social conventions of the period. She may have won the court case, but it was a hollow victory as she was the one then shunned by society. Gossip spread that she had “invented a new sin”, something only mentioned in the Bible and gentlemen did not want their wives associating with her.
For several years, Isabel nursed her hurt pride, living primarily at Reigate Priory. It was here that she had a moment of divine revelation. As she sat under the shade of a tree by the Priory lake, weighed down by worries, she queried the very existence of God. Then, as she later recounted, she heard a voice as if from deep within herself saying, “Act as if I am and thou shalt know I am”. From that time on, her religious conviction never waivered. Although, at one stage, she flirted with Methodist teaching, in later life she became increasingly High Anglican.
Following the death of her father, she moved back to Eastnor where she began to visit the sick and needy. Distressed by the alcohol-fuelled squalor of Ledbury’s Bye Street, she set up a mission and encouraged people to sign the Total Abstinence Pledge. She led by example and took the pledge herself.
In 1890, Lady Henry became President of the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA) and set about expanding its remit, refusing to be the titled figurehead some people had thought they were electing.
When not on the campaign trail, arguing for the restriction of opening hours rather than the full prohibition favoured by her American colleagues, she preferred to offer practical help. She set up homes in both Eastnor and Reigate where young girls, often from the workhouse, could be trained for domestic service. She established a settlement in the East End of London.
Isabel was one of those women who always had to be busy. She was multi-talented: an author, journalist, artist, sculptor. Most importantly she had what Chekhov described as “a talent for humanity”. Despite her own health problems, she espoused many social causes, not just those relating to drug and alcohol abuse.
Her friendship with the American temperance leader, Frances Willard, brought her some comfort but she was at times extremely lonely. She chastised herself for being interested in the theatre and the arts and even society gossip and always thought she could be doing more for others less fortunate than herself.
She was a woman who saw not only the bigger picture – a liquor trade which was almost uncontrolled, due to vested interests and the ability of governments around the world to raise taxes from its sale – but also the intimate portrait of the family or individual whose life had been blighted by alcohol abuse.
She would campaign tirelessly, lobbying governments and politicians of all parties. She would address huge rallies, leading carriage processions round Hyde Park. She would go down the pits to talk to miners about God’s love for them.
She even bought her own newspaper, the Woman’s Herald, which later evolved into Woman’s Signal, to promulgate her message of restraint.
But words, however powerful and eloquently delivered, were not enough for Isabel. Action was required; action which made a real difference to the lives of real people, whatever their class or rank in society; action which proved without words that each person was valued, whatever their circumstances.
Her own experience as a victim of society’s harsh and ill-informed censure, following her separation from her husband, gave her a special empathy with those less fortunate. It also gave her the sense to realize that often there was often a story behind a person’s behaviour which was not always apparent to the casual observer. It meant she started to look into the causes of alcoholism, not just the effects.
Isabel’s cousin and staunch supporter, the Reverend E. F. Russell, recounted another reason for Isabel’s compassion for women suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
“ … her own dearest friend, a lady of great gifts, and great charm, fell a victim to the seductive habit [excessive alcohol consumption], which dragged her gradually down, until at last she perished by her own hand.”
Isabel was very strong-willed and not afraid to fight for her beliefs. Not surprisingly her approach upset some of her fellow campaigners and under her presidency there were many internal battles within the British Women’s Temperance Association. In 1893, the inevitable happened and those who did not agree with her reforming agenda broke away to form their own Women’s Total Abstinence Union.
This gave Isabel more scope to progress some of her schemes. Whilst the BWTA had had a house at Sydenham for the care of inebriate women, Isabel was content for this to go to the breakaway faction. She had grander ideas. She didn’t just want a house, she wanted a whole village.
In November 1893, Isabel secured the passing of a resolution of the Annual Council of the renamed National British Women’s Temperance Association (NBWTA) to launch an appeal for funds to establish an Industrial Farm Village. And just three miles south of her own Reigate home, she found the perfect site – Duxhurst.
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