The Viscountess Rhondda

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Lady Margaret Rhondda[1]
Margaret Mackworth née Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda, 49, (1883-1958), guest of honour, suffragette, industrialist, magazine proprietor, was at this time in her pomp, presiding over her weekly paper, Time and Tide, and having just published her (not terribly revealing) autobiography “This Was My World”. She might well have said that to herself as she looked around the room – populated with strong women pioneers , and twenty eight men, in many walks of life, stalwarts of the suffrage movement, writers, publishers and industrialists. There was even one guest who had been touched by the sinking of the Lusitania. Margaret was recovering from a period of illness and that year was about to form a new partnership with fellow guest Theodora Bosanquet. In the era of later TV this could easily have been a “This is your Life” event.

You can start by listening to her account of that escape with her life and more from her biographer Angela V. John interviewed some time ago on Woman’s Hour (15 minutes 16 seconds into the programme).

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Lady Rhondda at the dinner with her portrait by Alice Burton[2]

SEATED BESIDE

Margaret (we will use her own name on her own page) was seated beside the chair of the dinner, Professor Winifred Cullis, and Sir Norman Angell one of the twenty-eight men at the dinner and on foreign affairs an important contributor to Time and Tide. Both were speakers that evening. Within chatting distance was newspaper magnate Lord Camrose, very much linked to Margaret’s own Welsh industrial network and Lady Berry, the street smart wife of Lord Camrose’s younger brother Sir Gomer Berry. Though the dinner was relatively informal, we can see that protocol ensured the titled members of the party were to the fore, next to the chair and the guest of honour (herself titled, even if not entitled to take her seat in the House of Lords). Or she might say she was entitled to take her seat but nonetheless prevented from so doing.

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The head girl and her entourage, Western Mail and South Wales Advertiser, 25th March 1933 ©Mirrorpix[3]

WHAT’S ON HER MIND?

Not, “oh what a surprise”. She had been sitting for her portrait since 1931. Probably looking forward to a celebratory evening and probably not nervously thinking about her speech. And perhaps hoping that her conversation with Sir Norman wasn’t going to be too serious.

MARGARET’S STORY SO FAR

If you really want to know all about Margaret, read her recent biography by Angela V. John, Turning the Tide. You could read Margaret’s 1933 autobiography too, a not very revealing but personal memoir, which closes at 1919, and unlike many name-dropping memoirs, hardly features anyone at all by name outside her family. Of our dinner guests the sole mentions go to Cicely Hamilton, whose book Marriage as a Trade is noted, and Helen Archdale, albeit only in a footnote being acknowledged as the first Editor of Time and Tide. Stephen Gwynn is also in the copy I read, but in the back pages where his latest Macmillan book, The Life of Mary Kingsley, was being promoted.

Margaret Haig Thomas was born in London on 12th June 1883, the only child of Liberal campaigner Sybil Haig and Welsh industrialist David Alfred Thomas. Margaret was brought up in Wales, at the family home Llanwern House, near Newport. At 13, at her request, she attended boarding school in Scotland, at the progressive St Leonard’s at St Andrews, (still listed as one of their significant alumni, along with Betty Archdale). At the age of 19 she went up to Somerville College but left after two terms and returned home.

I will leave my grandfather, Rev. J.T. Rhys to pick up the story here.

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“Lady Rhondda in her autobiography has omitted one incident of her career which has probably been obliterated from her own memory by subsequent historic events, but is nevertheless written indelibly on my own. I mean her maiden speech, which was a maiden not only because it was her first, but also because it was that of a maiden who had just left school.,

Her father, who at the time was Member of Parliament, had invited a trainload of his constituents from Aberdare and Merthyr to spend a day at his home at Llanwern. I well remember the railway journey, for travelling with me was a schoolboy just arrived at his ‘teens who argued the whole way with amazing precocity on the merits and demerits of tariffs. He is today a distinguished Don at Cambridge.

I have distinct recollection of the day as one of unalloyed pleasure, for our Member had made princely provision for his guests and the most disgruntled of us could not, if he had tried, have succeeded in being very miserable.”

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“When the speeches of thanks were being moved, I happened to be with Mr. Thomas and knowing how he loathed public speaking, I chaffingly told him that we expected him to bring the proceedings to a fitting climax by a long and important pronouncement on contemporary politics. With his eyes full of that mischievous fun which made him such an interesting conversationalist, he told me he was not going to make a speech at all, but that he was going to play a trick on his daughter. She had never spoken in public in her life, and he was going to tease her by getting her to respond. “She is very amusing and has plenty of ability” he added with that delightful and engaging candour which always characterized him when talking of his family.

The young lady was duly called, spoke, and captivated every member of the party – the least hostile she has ever addressed – not only with her charm but also with her common sense. I remember she was as much as ease and as free from embarrassment as if she were a veteran in public speaking.

I can vouch from personal knowledge that Lady Rhondda’s maiden speech in the marquee at Llanwern was a distinct success.”

Rev. J. T Rhys[4]

I include all this because as far as I know it has not been recorded elsewhere. That said Lady Rhondda herself recounted in her memoir her own recollections of her first speech, that being when she was seven she was taught a little Welsh and so she could stand up, steal the show, and say “Please vote for my father, everybody”.[5] Long live the anecdotes!

She began work at her father’s company Consolidated Cambrian, in Cardiff Docks, a little controversially, a woman in a man’s world, earning the rather substantial sum of £1000 per annum. She also spent three years as a debutante. At the age of 25 she married Humphrey Mackworth and shortly afterwards joined the WPSU. The marriage didn’t last but her life as a campaigner for women’s rights never stopped. Two incidents are well recorded: jumping on the running board of Mr Asquith’s car in St Andrew’s, though she says she forgot to shout anything at him, and later posting a bomb in a letter box in Newport, which got her gaoled and then, to her dismay, bailed out by some unknown well-wisher.

In 1915 she and her father were on the Lusitania when it was sunk by a German U Boat: dramatically she was picked out of the water, assumed drowned but a sharp eyed seaman noticed some life in her and a very worried father, who had survived, was reunited with her later that day. For her it was a life changing moment, as she told James Drawbell in his interview later in 1933, as it “at last gave her confidence in herself and destroyed her fear[6] . For her father some believe it contributed to his death three years later.

The death of her father in 1918 saw her inheriting both his business empire as well as the title of Viscountess Rhondda. She was already involved in his businesses at a senior level, for example becoming Chairman of Sanatogen in 1917. She fought a lifelong campaign to take her seat in the House of Lords, initially the case being won but then snatched away by her nemesis F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, who placed a roadblock in the way which was only removed shortly after her death.

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The 2nd Viscountess Rhondda of Llanwern 6th May 1937 © National Portrait Gallery[8]
The businesses continued, she sat on 33 boards, chairing many of them, was part of a somewhat infamous network bringing together industry and the media, sketched in a wonderful cobweb diagram in the Daily Herald – linking her with Lord Camrose, Tom Callaghan, William Lysaght and Sir Gomer Berry.[7] She was the first woman to head the Institute of Directors (and the only one until recent years).

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This was not, of course, an easy time to be running businesses. For example, in 1924 Margaret was on the board of more than a dozen Welsh coal companies. Six years later she was still on the boards of two thirds of these but many were consolidated into Welsh Associated Colliers Ltd (where she was not on the board) and by the time of the dinner, in 1933, she was a director of just two coal companies and both were gone within another four years. In 1926 she sat on 26 different company boards: this had halved by 1929.[9]

Her companies included the following:

Anglo-Spanish Coaling Co. Ltd. Britannic Merthyr Coal Co. Ltd; British Fire Assurance Co. Ltd., Chairman Cambrian Collieries Ltd; “ Cambrian News” (Aberystwyth) Ltd; Celtic Collieries Ltd; Consolidated Cambrian Ltd; Compania General de Carbones Barcelona, S.A.; Cynon Colliery Co. Ltd; D. Davis & Sons Ltd; Genatosan Ltd., Chairman Glamorgan Coal Co. Ltd; Graigola Merthyr Co. Ltd; Gwaun-cae-Gurwen Colliery Co. Ltd.

Globe Shipping Co. Ltd; Imperial Navigation Coal Co. Ltd; International Coal Co. Ltd; Lysberg Ltd., Chairman John Lysaght Ltd; North’s Navigation Collieries (1889) Ltd; Naval Colliery Co. (1897) Ltd; Plisson & Lysberg (Insurance) Ltd; Pure Coal Briquettes Ltd; Rhondda Engineering and Mining Company, Ltd; South Wales Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd; “South Wales Journal of Commerce” Ltd., Chairman; Sheppard & Sons Ltd; Salutaris Water Co, Ltd; Société Maritime et Commerciale Franco-Anglaise; Thomas & Davey Ltd., Cardiff; Time and Tide Publishing Co. Ltd; Welsh Navigation Steam Coal Co. Ltd; “Western Mail” Ltd.

As Angela John has pointed out the Davies sisters, (Gwendolen Davies was also at the dinner) spent their inherited coal wealth on supporting the arts in Wales. In reality Margaret spent pretty well all her money on launching and running her greatest achievement, the feminist political and literary weekly, Time and Tide. Many of her companies supported the paper through advertising in its pages.

But Time and Tide drained most of her personal fortune and most of the legacies she made in her will could not be fulfilled, and her partner Theodora Bosanquet was left very hard up.

But Margaret was a hugely successful networker,  also setting up the Six Point Group from 1921, campaigning on a manifesto of six main objectives, and backing the women’s movement in as many ways as she could.

The six original specific aims were:

  1. Satisfactory legislation on child assault;
  2. Satisfactory legislation for the widowed mother;
  3. Satisfactory legislation for the unmarried mother and her child;
  4. Equal rights of guardianship for married parents;
  5. Equal pay for teachers
  6. Equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service.

These later evolved into six general points of equality for women: political, occupational, moral, social, economic and legal.

Margaret wasn’t always as radical a feminist as some would have liked, as she aimed to make Time and Tide viable, with a wide audience. Nonetheless on 23rd March 1933 her network came to the Rembrandt Rooms to celebrate her life.  But of course there were the differences, without which any network would be rather moribund.

Reviewing This Was My World earlier in the month Violet Scott-James wrote in the Yorkshire Post :

“Lady Rhondda trusts and respects business men, but it is regrettable that she does not trust artists. “One is less likely to be swindled a businessman” she concludes ” than by a Civil Servant, an artist, a writer, a politician, or a protected woman.” I cannot help feeling that she is hard on artists, and I include writer in that term.”

That said, she also praised its “imaginative and penetrative passages”.

More trickily, relations with Vera Brittain were difficult. Vera had told Winifred Holtby that she thought it a “slight” book … but later she wrote that she was

loving it, and thinking what a really charming an honest and honourable person emerged from it, and puzzling over why I’d never liked her and she’d never liked me when we have almost everything in common except, perhaps, my faculty as an artist and her business experience”.

Winifred replied:

“I’m so glad you like Lady Rhondda’s book. She really is like that – “charming and honest and honourable’ – and I feel that she too some day will learn to understand you”.   Winifred subtly trying to suggest that what emerged from the book was the real thing.

WHAT MARGARET DID NEXT

In 1933 Margaret went on a five month cruise with Theodora Bosanquet, after which they set up home together, as discretely as possible. Theodora became literary editor of Time and Tide in 1934. Influenced by Theodora, Margaret attended some medium sittings in 1933, Theodora being an Associate of the Society for Psychical Research since 1912 (as was Margaret’s mother in the 1920s). She had a sitting in February 1933, seeking connection with her father “probably her chief motivation”.[10]

From 1933, along with the Open Door Council, the Six Point Group spearheaded the movement for the right of married women to work, and was responsible for establishing the Income Tax Reform Council and in 1938, the Married Women’s Association.

In these years Margaret was also supporting the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson (known as “Red Ellen” and who had lost her seat in 1931 – to regain it later). Wilkinson wrote to Winifred Holtby:

“I like Lady Rhondda enormously, but always feel rather ashamed when I’ve left her. I feel as tho’ I’ve talked her head off. She would have made a wonderful psycho-analyst. I find myself talking easily to her about anything that comes into my head. And I enjoy her delicious habit of accuracy. I say largely ‘it’s thirty miles’, and she says ‘well it’s precisely 9 and half’”.[11]

Wilkinson and Lady Rhondda were among the 200 British delegates at the vast International Peace Campaign congress in Paris in 1938, protesting against the bombing in the Spanish Civil War[12]

Margaret Mackworth died on 20th July 1958. If her financial legacy fell short, within a month of her death, women were finally allowed to enter the House of Lords, with the passing of the Life Peerages Act 1958, Time & Tide continued to appear but passing through different guises before finally closing in 1986. Rebecca West described Margaret as being

“one of the last women whom Charlotte Bronte foresaw in Shirley: daughters of the men who had made great fortunes from modern industry, who were resolved to give more service to society than had been the habit of rich women”.[13]

And finally, the brush of Alice Burton has left us with three paintings of Margaret.  One relatively formal portrait is hanging in the House of Lords, close to her nemesis Lord Birkenhead.  One is hanging in St Fagan’s National Museum of History at Cardiff, part of the National Museum Wales, and the third, presented to her on that evening of 23rd March 1933, is, we hope, still somewhere waiting to be rediscovered for the public.

If you look closely, you will see a picture of Margaret on the plinth of the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. The only other woman sharing that space who was at the dinner is the Hon. Mrs Franklin – like Margaret, someone who inherited wealth and sought to put it back into society.

Recently Lady Rhondda was on the shortlist of candidates for a new statue in Cardiff. Though the people’s vote went to a local Cardiff headteacher there are plans underway for a statute in Newport.

Here is an article about the statue vote.

BACK TO TOP TABLE


[1] From James Wedgwood Drawbell, A Gallery of Women, Contemporary Portraits No.7. Viscountess Rhondda,  Britannia and Eve, 1.11.1933 p61, image ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans

[2] From James Wedgwood Drawbell, A Gallery of Women, Contemporary Portraits No.7. Viscountess Rhondda,  Britannia and Eve, 1.11.1933 p61, image ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans

[3] Western Mail and South Wales Advertiser, 25.3.1933, ©Mirrorpix. Created courtesy the British Library Board.

[4] Rev. J.T. Rhys, Lady Rhondda’s Maiden Speech, typed unpublished document, in which he recalls speeches by both Margaret and by her mother Sybil.

[5] The Viscountess Rhondda, This Was My World, pp7-8, Macmillan, 1933

[6] James Wedgwood Drawbell Britannia and Eve, 1.11.1933

[7] Margaret Haig Mackworth (née Thomas), 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate film negative, 6 May 1937, NPG x152772, © National Portrait Gallery, London

[8] Daily Herald 28.4.1929 ©Mirrorpix. Created courtesy of the British Library Board. Colour markings highlight the main players in the Rhondda network – Rhondda, Lysaght, Berry, Callaghan, all at the dinner.

[9] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, p273, Parthian, 2013

[10] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, pp478-480, Parthian, 2013

[11] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, pp485-6, Parthian, 2013

[12] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, p487, Parthian, 2013

[13] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, p533-4, Parthian, 2013

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