There was a flurry of local events in June highlighting and celebrating the life and work of Charlotte Despard, and her lasting impact on Nine Elms and Battersea. As I’ve written before, she’s up there in my pantheon of great women, for her tireless campaigning, her commitment to social justice, and for her very practical and progressive community initiatives (e.g. providing free school meals decades before this was government policy). I also love the fact that she was shaking her fist at the establishment, and warning against the rise of fascism, right into her 90s. If only she were alive now!
I’m a reluctant Facebook user, but I have joined the Facebook group Battersea Women Celebrate the Centenary of Women Getting the Vote, or COWs for short, which is a forum for publicising news and events in this important centenary year. On the 15th of June, a small group of us gathered outside the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, to celebrate what would have been Charlotte’s 174th birthday. The embassy is built on the site of Despard House, formerly 2 Currie Street, where Charlotte Despard lived and ran many of her projects from. When she left the area for Ireland shortly after the First World War, she gave the house in perpetuity to the people of Battersea. It continued to provide support and facilities to the local community until the house was demolished in 1960 as part of a slum clearance programme.
The centrepiece of our event on 15th June was an amazing cake sculpture in the form of Charlotte Despard’s head, complete with black lace mantilla, such as the widowed Charlotte used to wear. The cake was made and decorated by local artist Phillippa Egerton, and has been such a hit it is going to be displayed at various locations in the borough, including local libraries.
Jeanne Rathbone gave a brief overview of Charlotte Despard’s long life, and why she is so important to Battersea. Jeanne is spearheading a campaign to get a statue of Charlotte Despard erected locally, preferably on or near the site of her former home, and depicting her in the famous clenched fist pose as she addressed an anti Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1933.
I read my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? and also Joolz’s poem Cat and mouse, from our London Undercurrents project, and recently published in The Pocket Poetry Book of Suffrage from Paper Swans Press. And then we all posed in front of the Charlotte head cake, clenching our fists and looking determined. A few passers by stopped to find out what it was all about, and it was a lovely evening to be sipping wine from a plastic cup and discussing radical politics in this “lousy” part of London.
Then on Saturday 23rd June we had Tea with Charlotte Despard. This was an event organised by members of COWs and Wandsworth Radio, as part of EqualiTeas, a Houses of Parliament led initiative to mark 90 years since the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act became law.
Several banners were on display, including a beautiful banner designed and sewn by local women working with the artist Ruth Ewan for Processions 2018. The slogan BELIEVE IN DISCONTENT is based on a Charlotte Despard quote ‘I have always believed in discontent’. Local food surplus initiative Waste Not Want Not supplied tea, cake and sandwiches. It was an intergenerational event, and began with a wonderful routine from an older people’s dance group from the Katherine Low Settlement. They danced to the song Sister Suffragette from the film Mary Poppins, and by popular demand did the whole routine a second time.
Wandsworth Radio’s Arts Editor Lesley Strachan interviewed a number of people about why Charlotte Despard is important to them, including Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova, and actor and poet Blair McAlpine, whose great-grandmother was a suffragette in Vauxhall. Blair also performed a poem inspired by her great-grandmother. I read both Joolz’s and my suffrage poems, and at the end of the event there was a rousing rendition of Ethyl Smyth’s anthem The March of the Women.
Hot on the heels of Tea with Charlotte Despard came the Wandsworth Radio documentary Finding Charlotte, written and produced by Lesley Strachan. I’m honoured that Lesley has included my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? in the programme, and it’s a delight to hear it performed in a proper south London accent by Blair McAlpine. There are interviews with Jeanne Rathbone, artist Liz Sargeant, Dr Naomi Paxton and moi. Do have a listen!
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
—from The March of the Women, words by Cicely Hamilton