It was Sidney Webb, not Beatrice, who first supported women’s suffrage. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Women’s Library: a treasure house of women’s literature

The LSE recently took over custodianship of the Women’s Library, which houses everything from Emily Wilding to Barbara Cartland and has close links to Beatrice and Sidney Webb. 

On 12 June 1912, Sidney Webb wrote to Ruth Cavendish Bentinck, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, about his own long-standing support for the cause. On the second page he permitted himself a little domestic joke: “My wife bids me add – I have converted her!”

By this point, Beatrice Webb’s supposed opposition to women’s suffrage was well known. In 1889, she put her name to an open letter in the journal the Nineteenth Century titled “An Appeal Against Female Suffrage”. She believed the movement’s focus was too narrow and that true equality could be achieved only through wide-sweeping reform.

Whether Sidney did “convert” her is unclear, but there are distinct signs of a change of heart. Just a few months after they founded the New Statesman in April 1913, the Webbs wrote a joint article stating that “the Socialist takes for granted not only an extension of the suffrage to all adults but also the entire removal of artificial disabilities for duty or office”. Her conversion may not have been absolute, though – in November of that same year, she stressed in the pages of this magazine that “the Awakening of Women” was “not mere feminism”. The vote on suffrage was won decades ago, but the conversation that Beatrice started in the NS continues to this day.

The New Statesman was the less well known of the Webbs’ two “children”, as Beatrice termed them in a 1936 diary entry. The other, the London School of Economics, which they co-founded in 1895, recently took over the custodianship of the Women’s Library – a collection of over 60,000 books and 5,000 museum objects, as well as the personal papers of everyone from Emily Wilding Davison to Barbara Cartland.

Seen in the light of this new home, the connection to the location captured by Sidney Webb’s letter to Bentinck becomes rather symbolic – in 1909, Bentinck put together a subscription library of feminist materials that formed the core of what became the Women’s Library.

Naturally, much of the library’s holdings relates to the women’s suffrage movement, including letters and papers from campaigners such as Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. Katie Gliddon’s prison diary, which she wrote in 1912 in the spaces around the verses in her copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works, is a fascinating artefact, as are the tiny purse and return ticket found in Emily Wilding Davison’s pockets after she jumped in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. The collection isn’t by any means focused exclusively on the early 20th century – other highlights include John Dunton’s Ladies Dictionary, published in 1694, and the first ever issue of Spare Rib magazine from 1972.

It is hoped that the LSE will be a permanent home for the Women’s Library, which has had to move more than once in its history. A petition calling for it to remain at its previous location, a converted wash-house in Aldgate, east London, attracted over 12,000 signatures – but London Metropolitan University could no longer afford to run it, and so invited bids from other institutions. Long after the building work was complete, debate raged on in the letter pages of the Guardian.

Yet the passionate response that the move provoked is only to be expected. From the start, the people who have worked on the collection have fought to keep it safe and accessible to the widest possible audience.

The objects and papers are vital for research, of course, but they have come to symbolise something else, too – a feminist outpost in the male-dominated academic sphere. It’s something worth fighting for.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
Show Hide image

"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage