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History biography: Helen Blackburn

History biography: Helen Blackburn

Pauline Murphy writes on the pioneering Suffragette author who helped found the Women’s Employment Defence League.

Helen Blackburn was born into an Anglo-Irish family on May 25th 1842 at Knights Town on  Valentia island County Kerry. She was the only daughter of Isabelle Lamb from Durham and Bewicke Blackburn, she had one other sibling, a brother.

Helen’s father Bewicke was a noted civil engineer who patented early automobiles such as the Blackburn Steam Car and three wheeler bicycles but in 1837 he was tasked with the managerial position at the Knight of Kerry’s slate quarry in Valentia.

The Blackburns lived a comfortable and charmed life in such a stunning location on the south west coast of Ireland. Although her family were of a unionist persuasion on the political spectrum, Helen did not look down her nose on the native Irish and forever held a warm affection for the land of her birth.

In 1859 when Helen was 17 years old she and her family moved to London where she enrolled in University College London and studied law before carrying on her studies to the University of Bristol.

Helen was a talented artist but she had severely poor eyesight and had to give up art by the time she was 21. Poor eyesight would dog her for the rest of life, ending her days totally blind.

In 1872 Helen joined the National Women’s Suffragette Society. In 1874 she became it’s secretary and it was a role she held until 1895.

Helen would join other women’s rights campaigners at rallies and speaking events throughout England and more often than not Helen and her fellow activists would find themselves on the recieving end of a hostile crowd and would have to take cover from stones and foul words hurled upon them. Yet, Helen remained resilient and would not let hostile attitudes prevent her in her strive for womens rights.

Helen befriended Suffragette campaigner Jessie Boucherett and they would forge a strong working relationship which would result in the setting up of the Women’s Employment Defence League in 1891. Its purpose was to defend the working rights of women which were being massively ignored by many employers in factories across England. Women were paid less than men for the same industrial output and in many cases, they worked longer hours in dire conditions.

Blackburn would use her pen to fight for womens rights and became editor of the Englishwomans Review from 1890 to 1903. She was the author of many pamphlets and works advocating womens rights, especially those who worked in the industrial realms of Victorian England.

In 1896 she wrote ‘Conditions of Working Women and the Factory Act.’ It was a book which condemned those who used the fairer sex for cheap labour and those who favoured restricting women working at all! She also wrote what many academics consider the definite study of the English Suffragette movement in the 19th century, ‘Women’s Suffrage: A Record of the Movement in the British Isles’ in 1902.

In 1885 Helen organised an exhibition of women’s industries in Bristol in the hope of pushing an emphasis of professionalism in women’s occupations.

In 1895 Helen’s activities were put on hold while she cared for her elderly ill father and for two years she diligently took care of him until his death in 1897. All the while, Helen’s own health and eyesight had been deteriorating and just six years after her father’s death she would follow him into the next world.

On January 11th 1903 Helen Blackburn died at the age of 60 at her home in Greycoal Gardens Westminster and was laid to rest in Brompton cemetery. The Suffragette movement had lost a pioneering and invaluable campaigner.

Helen, who did not have a family of her own, left her large library to Girton College Cambridge and her money was left for the establishment of a fund to train and educate women. Helen was the first to recognise and champion women’s contribution to industrialisation and although blighted by bad eyesight, ill health and an often hostile society,  she carried on her convictions with a stubborn resilience,  a trait she probably gained from the land of her birth!

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