Another woman hidden from history
Friday 11th November 2016
Last month Irish president Michael D Higgins was at the TUC’s Congress House in London to pay tribute to an amazing, but little-known woman. PETER FROST was there.
Eva Gore-Booth, an Irish aristocrat’s daughter, was born in May 1870 in a huge mansion at Lissadel in beautiful County Sligo. The poet WB Yeats knew her as a young girl and described her as a gazelle.
Her aristocratic upbringing saw her sharing her time between the Irish countryside and her father’s Kensington house where she and her sister Constance attended grand balls and came out as debutantes being presented to Queen Victoria.
So it is hard to believe that in 1913, aged 43, she was working as a pit brow lass at one of the pits of the Lancashire coalfield and organising those women into a trade union. These women did the back-breaking work of sorting the stones out of the coal that had been brought to the surface. They worked long hours for very poor wages.
Last month Irish President Michael D Higgins gave a rousing speech at the TUC in London spelling out the many ways in which Eva Gore-Booth had become a leading campaigner for trade union rights, votes for women, peace, gay rights and Irish independence in the first three decades of the 20th century.
He told his audience it was time that both in Ireland and in Britain we recognise the immense contribution that Eva Gore-Booth and her lifelong partner Esther Roper had made to working-class and women’s struggle in both countries.
Eva travelled all over the world, sometimes with her famous explorer father and later alone. In 1896 in Bordighera, Italy, she met Esther Roper from Manchester who had been sent there to rest by friends who feared for her health. She told Gore-Booth of her work campaigning for trade union organisation among women and for women’s right to vote.
The two became friends and that early friendship soon deepened. It would be a lifetime relationship for the two of them. They would live and work together for the rest of their lives.
Gore-Booth left her aristocratic comfortable family home in Ireland and moved to Manchester to be with Roper and help her in her work. They shared Roper’s house in Rusholme.
Within months Gore-Booth was speaking about votes for women to branches of the Independent Labour Party and Women’s Co-operative Guild.
In June 1900 she was appointed joint organising secretary of the Manchester, Salford and District Women’s Trade Union Council. She worked to encourage women to set up and join trade unions.
She established the Salford and District Association of Power Loom Weavers in 1902 and encouraged its members to be interested in wider politics and particularly the suffrage campaign.
Gore-Booth spoke at the May Day demonstration in Gorton Park in 1902 and by 1903 her local reputation saw her on the education committee of the city council.
In 1904 she resigned from the Women’s Trades Union Council in protest at its refusal to support the campaign for women’s suffrage. She immediately helped set up a new organisation — the Manchester and Salford Women Trades and Labour Council.
Many of the trade unions that she had helped to set up withdrew from the original council and moved their support to the new organisation. She started a newspaper called The Women’s Labour News.
One cornerstone of the couple’s work was women’s right to work. One prominent campaign was the opposition to an attempt to prevent barmaids from working in pubs. Gore-Booth and Roper used the occasion of a by-election in Manchester in which Winston Churchill was standing to raise the barmaid issue.
Gore-Booth’s sister Constance came over from Ireland and drove an old-fashioned stage coach with four white horses around the constituency, while her sister made speeches from the coach roof.
By 1913 Roper wrote: “Illness, caused by the climate of Lancashire, made it impossible for us to live there any longer and, reluctantly, we left our many friends and went south.”
They set up home in Hampstead, north London, but if they were planning a quieter life they could not have been more wrong. WWI and the Easter Rising would see to that.
When the war broke out they worked in organisations such the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1915 they joined the Women’s Peace Crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the war.
Gore-Booth heard how Constance had joined Sinn Fein in 1908 and set up the Na Fianna Eireann as an Irish alternative to the pro-imperialist Boy Scouts.
During the 1913 Dublin Lockout Constance ran soup kitchens to help feed thousands of strikers and during the Easter Rising in 1916 she was second in command at St Stephen’s Green and was sentenced to death.
Gore-Booth crossed to Dublin to visit her sister whose death sentence had been commuted. When Constance was moved to Aylesbury jail the sisters wrote to each other daily.
Constance was finally released in June 1917 and returned to Ireland where she was the first woman elected to British Parliament in December 1918, however, she never took her seat, instead sitting in the Dail in Dublin where she was made minister for labour.
Gore-Booth’s support for her sister was just part of her active support for the Irish republican and nationalist movement.
When Roger Casement was tried for treason for his part in the Rising, she attended court every day, trying, but failing, to prevent his execution.
By 1920 the sisters’ work during the war and the trauma of the Easter Rising and war of independence had greatly affected their health — Gore-Booth, now a semi-invalid, spent time convalescing in Italy but still found time to write poetry and plays as she had throughout her life.
She died at home on June 30 1926 and Roper in April 1938 — they share a grave in St John’s churchyard, Hampstead, together in death as they were throughout their lives.