Mrs Alys Russell

Alys
“Sister Hannah’ (Alys W. Pearsall Smith) 1892”[2]

Mrs Alys Russell, 65, (1867-1951) was an American born Quaker social relief organiser, the first wife of Bertrand Russell and “an early “libber” who not only worked politically for women’s rights but also sought to improve the immediate social conditions of poor women.”[1] Considered to be under-appreciated to date, new work on her life is planned, drawing on many papers. We look forward to it!

 

SEATED BESIDE

It is possible that Alys was not necessarily the most upbeat and lively dinner companion: the light picture we have gained so far suggests someone very keen to do good works and for whom the high-octane Bloomsbury set was not the best social environment. Her interest in child welfare may have given her common cause with Eva Handley-Read and her refugee work a link with Alice Benham.

WHAT’S ON HER MIND?

Probably keen to discuss her causes.

ALYS’S STORY SO FAR

Alyssa Whitall “Alys” Pearsall Smith was born in Atlantic City, NJ, USA,[3] on 21st July 1867 to Hannah Whittall and Robert Pearsall Smith, Quakers, and prominent figures in the Holiness movement in America and the Higher Life movement in Great Britain. They lived in London between 1873 and 1875 and then who moved permanently in 1888 when their daughter Mary married an Irish barrister (and who later re married, becoming Mary Berenson). Alys was a graduate of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a recently founded (in 1885) women’s college, associated with the Quakers until 1893, and now one of the “Seven Sisters”, seven North East US liberal arts colleges that are historically women’s colleges.[4] [5] She would have been one of the very early intake if she left in 1888. Alys was an active relief organiser – and also the first wife of Bertrand Russell (married 1894, separated 1911, divorced 1921).[6]

Alice-and-Bertrand.png
Uncle Bertie and Aunty Loo (Alys Russell) 1895[7]

She chaired the general committee of the St Pancras Mothers’ and Infants’ Society, which set up a School for Mothers (also known as Mothers’ & Babies’ Welcome) at 6 Chalton Street, London, N.W. (off the Euston Road) in 1907. This centre provided a range of services aimed at reducing infant mortality, such as weighing babies, providing expectant and nursing mothers with meals, and medical and mothering advice. She had developed the idea after visiting a similar institution in Ghent, Belgium.[8] It is for this pioneering centre Alys is undoubtedly best known (apart from being married to Russell). It may also have been a point of common interest with fellow guest Eva Handley-Read.

Alys-family
Alys’s brother Logan Pearsall Smith in the white hat with Hannah Whitall Smith (their mother, seated), and order unknown: Lady Henry Somerset, Mary Berenson (sister), Karin Stephen and Ray Strachey. [9]

In 1915 Alys was elected to the Executive Committee of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (N.U.W.S.S.).

In the 1930s she chaired the Italian Refugees Relief Committee for those fleeing Mussolini’s Fascism.[10]

A recent online note posted from McMaster University suggests she has been to date underappreciated, noting:

Alys Pearsall Smith Russell was an early “libber” who not only worked politically for women’s rights but also sought to improve the immediate social conditions of poor women. She was involved deeply in movements for temperance, better factory conditions, and higher education. No one, however, has paid her any attention since her death, perhaps because the material relating ·to her has never been brought together. Alys’s own articles, for example, are more numerous than anyone had supposed, and the list which follows is sure to be incomplete. Some of her writings are quite delightful – particularly “Four Days in a Factory” (1903). Her grand-niece, Miss Barbara Halpern, has told us she is planning to write a biography of Alys.”[11]

We will welcome the biography! Perhaps it will tell us more about the character of Alys, well connected through family to the Bloomsbury set, clearly upset by the breakup of her marriage, who according to Virginia Woolf (not one for mincing words) carried “an air of hypocrisy”, whose language was one of thee, thou and thee’s.[12] [13]

Alys2.jpg
Alys Russell[15]

At the time of the dinner she was living at 11 St. Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea with her brother Logan Pearsall Smith, essayist and critic, where she had been at least since 1921 (the time of her divorce). He has been described as a bon vivant manic depressive, so perhaps not always the best company for Alys? Or maybe just what she needed.[14] 

WHAT ALYS DID NEXT

In May 1934 Alys was a co-signatory of a Manifesto on Liberty and Democracy with many others, but also including fellow dinner guests Sir Norman Angell, Vera Brittain, St. John Ervine, Winifred Holtby, Capt. Harold Macmillan, and Lady Rhondda. At dinners like this the germ of such ideas may have been hatched and/or signatories and support gathered.[16]

We look forward to the new book to learn more.

Alys died at 25 Wellington Square, London SW3 on 22nd January 1951.

BACK TO TABLE 14


[1] The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family, McMaster University, Russell: The Bertrand Russell Research Center, accessed 13.2.2018

[2] The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family, McMaster University, Russell: The Bertrand Russell Research Center, accessed 13.2.2018

[3] According to the 1911 UK census: Wikipedia says Philadelphia. 1891 census also indicates New Jersey.

[4] Bryn Mawr College Wikipedia accessed 6.2.2019

[5] Seven Sisters Colleges Wikipedia accessed 6.2.2019

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alys_Pearsall_Smith

[7] The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family, McMaster University, Russell: The Bertrand Russell Research Center, accessed 13.2.2018

[8] Sue Davies, The St Pancras School for Mothers, Wellcome Library, online blog accessed 13.2.2018

[9] Wikipedia Logan Pearsall Smith

[10] Robert Cumming, My Dear BB . . .: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959, Yale 2015

[11] The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family, McMaster University, Russell: The Bertrand Russell Research Center, accessed 13.2.2018

[12] The Observer 1.5.1983

[13] Bertie Minded Old Devils, The Guardian, 29.5.1997 p44

[14] The Observer 1.5.1983

[15] The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family, McMaster University, Russell: The Bertrand Russell Research Center, accessed 13.2.2018

[16] The Guardian, 17.5.1934 p7

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