Dora Marsden

Early life and Schooling

Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden was born at The Hey, Reddisher Road, a large house on the outskirts of the village of Marsden in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the third daughter of Fred and Hannah Marsden who at the time of Dora's birth had John six, Marion five and Eleanor two. Their fifth and final child Ewart was born soon after.

The Hey, just off Reddisher Road was described as a Gentleman's Residence and was owned by Dora's grandfather who was a skilled draughtsman at the Iron Foundry on Carrs Road, Marsden. He died before Dora was born.

The Hey

The Hey

At some point The Hey was divided into two residences, with Fred's sister and her three daughters in one half and Fred, his wife Hannah, their children and Fred's mother in the other half. Fred was a woollen waste dealer and was claimed to be one of the first to recover wool from rags and call it shoddy.

The family suffered a fall in income as the textile trade was suffering a recession in the 1880s and 1890s. This was compounded as Fred was increasingly to be found in the Junction Inn, not far from his home, gambling and frittering his money away. Whatever his motives, around 1890, Fred left his family for the USA where he set up a textile Mill. He died on 21st November 1913.

As a result of their abandonment, Dora's mother Hannah and her children left The Hey and went to live with Hannah's mother Mrs Gartside in Crow Hill, a large house in its own grounds on Carrs Road near the village centre. In order to support her family at this difficult time Hannah worked as a seamstress.

Dora's schooling

The 1870 Education Act ensured that all girls would receive an education. When Dora's father had left them Dora was already attending the strictly non-denominational Town School on Brougham Road. No clergymen were allowed to be trustees. The school prospered and in 1878 moved to new buildings. Reports by School Inspectors show reasonable satisfaction with the school, although they often noted that "half timers" i.e. children who spent some of their time working in local industry, were a problem.

Attendance was a worry for the headteacher, W.H. Griffiths. The problems were the weather, which could be particularly severe in Winter and exacerbated more seriously by outbreaks of smallpox in 1893 and Scarlet Fever in both 1895 and 1896. Regular attendees at the Town School were rewarded by annual trips to the seaside, Blackpool on the west coast, being a popular choice. Promising boys and girls became "monitors," then "candidates" for a pupil-teacher post and finally pupil teachers. Those selected would be a candidate for one year and a pupil teacher for four years. They had to sit annual examinations before being awarded their Elementary Teacher's Certificate.

The School Inspectors were constantly calling for more teachers for the Town School. A candidate, Lilian Cockerham resigned and as a reflection of the school's recognition of her abilities, at the age of 13 years Dora Marsden was appointed on probation. Her duties as a candidate and later as a pupil teacher included assisting the more senior staff and taking lessons herself. As a candidate she was paid £20 per annum and as a pupil teacher £30 per annum.

Dora had great responsibility at a very early age. Her grandmother had died in 1891 leaving Hannah Marsden to single handedly support and raise her family. Although a skilled seamstress, she would not have been earning much and Dora's salary must have been crucial to the family's finances.

The resignation of Mr Gledhill, who was the only male member of staff, apart from Mr. Griffiths, necessitated a reorganisation of staff and Dora was employed in the Infants School for the next few years. The Infants School was in fact in rooms in the adjacent Mechanics' Institution. According to Dora, she taught in the very room in which her grandfather and others established a library for his fellow workmen at the foundry.

Dora enjoyed being a pupil teacher, but it was a hard life because, in addition to the lessons and sporadic tests set by Mr Griffiths, she had to sit annual examinations that led to the Elementary Teacher's Certificate. Training for this was held at the Huddersfield Technical College in Huddersfield where she would attend a "Day Special Teachers Class." At sixteen, in addition to teaching in Marsden, Dora had to follow a demanding programme at the college. Monday evenings from 6:30 pm to 8pm were spent in the laboratory studying human physiology, followed by a lecture on the same subject the following day from 7:15pm to 8:15 pm. Wednesday nights from 7:10pm to 9:10pm were devoted to geometric drawing and on Friday from 7:15pm to 8:15 pm to personal hygiene. For Dora, most weekdays would begin around 7am and she would walk to school which finished around 4pm. She would return home to Crow Hill for tea, then walk up to the railway station to catch the train to Huddersfield, getting home about 10 pm. This devotion, determination and commitment bore results and at the age of 18 years she qualified as a teacher.


Even this great success was not enough for Dora, she decided to apply to a university. Dora entered the Queen's Scholarship scheme, achieving a first class pass which meant that her tuition fees were paid, as well as a maintenance grant, on condition that she taught for at least five years after graduation.

So it came to pass that in the Autumn of 1882 at the age of 18 years Dora left Marsden for Manchester. She became a student at Owen's College, created by an endowment from John Owen, a local businessman. The endowment specified that the institution was to exclude women, but the restriction had been removed by legislation in 1870 - 1871.

Besides the training course, Dora also took a range of options as part of her BA degree. She studied Latin, English Language, Geography and Pure Mathematics and later Music, History and Philosophy too. During this time she met Christabel Pankhurst, eldest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and Eva Gore-Booth amongst others. She graduated in 1903 with an Upper Second Class Degree.

Post University

Dora found teaching posts in Leeds, then Colchester and then, at the age of twenty two, as Assistant Mistress at Altrincham Pupil-Teacher Centre near Manchester. Dora's salary was £110 p.a., a comparatively good salary for a woman in her twenties. The headmistress was Frances M. Kirk, a contemporary of Dora's at Owen's College. In 1905 Roma Robinson another friend from Manchester University joined the Centre.

Although successful, Miss Kirk and her fellow colleagues were always under pressure. Kirk was ill in 1907 and again in May of 1908, finally resigning the following September. At the age of 26 years Dora was appointed Headmistress with a salary of £130 p.a. However within a year both Dora and Roma had resigned. Partly over a disagreement over wages, but also owing to their growing involvement in the suffragette movement.

Dora Marsden Suffragette

The 1869 the Municipal Franchise Act gave the vote in local elections to unmarried women rate payers. Married women were excluded as they had no legal status beyond that of their husband. It was not until 1907 however, that women were permitted to be members of County and Borough Councils. It is worth noting that at this time not every man had the right to vote.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

In 1903 the Women's Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and others who were frustrated at the lack of progress in getting women the vote. Membership was limited to women and Emmeline's daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were all heavily involved; their slogan "deeds not words." They felt that peaceful protest had brought about little change and that more forceful militant action including attacks on property was needed.

In 1908, Henry Herbert Asquith the Chancellor of the Exchequer became Prime minister. Asquith was a strong opponent of women's suffrage. In the year that Asquith became Prime Minister, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) held a rally attended by a crowd of 150,000 at Heaton Park, Manchester. This mass rally demonstrated the strength of support for votes for women. Dora not only appeared but spoke at this rally.

In March 1909 Dora became an organiser and activist in the North West of England for the WSPU founded by the Pankhursts. Later in the same month she was arrested at a demonstration outside the House of Commons and sentenced to one month in prison. In September 1909 Dora was arrested for breaking windows of a hall in Old Trafford, Manchester where anti-suffragette MP Augustine Burrell was speaking. She was sentenced to two months imprisonment in Strangeways Prison, Manchester. Dora refused to wear prison clothes, went on hunger strike and petitioned the Home Secretary to be given Political Prisoner status.

Dora Marsden under arrest

Dora Marsden under arrest,
30 March 1909
Click to enlarge

Probably one of the most famous and iconic images of this period is that of Dora, slightly built and only 4 feet 6 inches in height in academic dress, having taken part in the disruption of meeting by the Chancellor of Manchester University, being led away by two policemen in either side. This got a lot of publicity.

Dora wrote for the suffragette publication "Votes for Women" including an article about a demonstration in her home town of Huddersfield that attracted over 50,000 people.

As time passed, Dora began to question the leadership of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Dora's aim was for equality for women on all issues, not just on the right to vote in a general election. However, Christabel Pankhurst had stated that "Suffrage was a cause that should not be tied to other causes trying to help working class women." Victor Grayson, the Socialist MP for Colne Valley (which included Dora's home village of Marsden) said "the right of women to the vote must be discussed on other basis than the value of the franchise. The claim to be recognised as human beings."

Christobel Pankhurst

Christobel Pankhust

Theresa Billington-Grieg wrote that many activists "began to recognise that the 'vote' cannot secure of itself any single women's emancipation...a slave woman with a vote will essentially be a slave".

Constant refusal by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to agree to the drawing up of a democratic constitution led to members such as Theresa Billington and Charlotte Despard leaving the WSPU in 1906 to form the Women's Freedom League. They were unhappy about working for democratic reform in an undemocratic organisation.

Dora herself left the WSPU and in March 1911 joined The Women's Freedom League (WFL) and together with her friend, Grace Jardine, began working for their publication "The Vote." She hoped the WFL would finance her own publication "The Freewoman" but was refused and they parted company.

Mary Gawthorpe

Mary Gawthorpe

In 1911 along with Grace Jardine and with fellow protester Mary Gawthorpe as co-editor, she succeeded in publishing The Freewoman. She now began a new career as a journalist. On the 23rd November 1911 the first Edition of The Freewoman was published. From the outset the journal tackled a variety of often controversial topics such as free love, feminism, marriage, morality and attacking the Pankhursts as a dictatorship more interested in power than the emancipation of women. Mary Gawthorpe was unhappy at Dora's continued attacks on the WSPU and their relationship deteriorated. Additionally she also had conflict with Charles Grenville, her publisher. Whilst the journal attracted authors such as H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, in March 1912 Mary Gawthorpe who had at various times been imprisoned, gone on hunger strike and had suffered internal injuries after being beaten up by stewards at a meeting, resigned as co editor.


Click to enlarge

Mary claimed she had resigned not because of ill health, but because she found Dora difficult to work with and a bully. Dora subsequently wrote a number of letters to Mary but they were all returned. In August the publisher Charles Granville said that as the magazine was losing money he could no longer support it and it closed. All these conflicts and her inability to relax had an adverse effect on Dora's health. She refused to delegate and consequently was overworked. She was forced to go home to her mother, who now lived in Southport to recuperate. Both her mother and Grace Jardine made Dora's life bearable.

Harriet Shaw-Weaver

Harriet Shaw-Weaver

Dora however was not beaten and she met with Harriet Shaw-Weaver to discuss business and who would be a long lasting friend. Harriet was from a wealthy family who had inherited a large sum of money from her father and, with her investment "The New Freewoman" was launched in June 1913. The author Rebecca West was its first editor and Dora was a main contributor. Rebecca West resigned as editor in October as she was unhappy with the direction the journal was taking.

The American poet Ezra Pound joined the editorial staff. The New Freewoman changed its name to the "Egoist" to reflect that it was about more than the advancement of women. For example, it championed and published the works of James Joyce.

Despite poor sales Harriet Shaw-Weaver continued to support the Egoist, but in the end it was forced to cease publication in 1919.

The Egoist

The Egoist

In 1920 Dora withdrew from the London literary scene and she and her mother moved to Seldom Seen, a row of former miners cottages cottages near Glenridding in the Lake District. She spent the next 15 years writing her magnum opus drawing from philosophy, physics, theology, mathematics and biology. Apart from visits to Harriet Shaw-Weaver, who funded two publications of this work, namely "The Definition of the Godhead" in 1928" and "Mysteries of Christianity" in 1930, she lived an isolated life. These works were very poorly received. Dora's mental health deteriorated and this was compounded by the death in 1935 of her mother Hannah who had been a central, hugely important figure in Dora's life.

In 1935 Dora was admitted to the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, Scotland which was internationally recognised for its forward thinking in mental health care and psychiatric research. Dora continued working on her "Magnum Opus" for the next 25 years until her death on December 13th 1960.

Thus ended the life of Dora Marsden of Marsden, a complex, historically important feminist, philosopher, teacher, suffragette and author.

Recommended reading

The seminal work on the life of Dora Marsden is the biography written by Dr Les Garner. This is a scholarly, comprehensive and clearly written account of her life and times, personality, influences, strengths, weaknesses, trials, and tribulations from her birth in the village of Marsden, in the then West Riding of Yorkshire, to her death in Dumfries, Scotland.

"A Brave and Beautiful Spirit. Dora Marsden (1882 - 1960)"
Author: Dr. Les Garner.
Publisher: Union of Egoists 2019
Previously published by Avebury Gower( Aldershot 1990).

"Stepping Stones to Women's Liberty: Feminist ideas in the Women's Suffrage movement"
Author: Dr. Les Garner
Heinemann Educational Books. London. 1984

This book examines feminist ideas of suffragists and contributes to our understanding of feminism today. It asks questions about the oppression of women as a sex, but also about the importance of class. It contains an excellent discussion on Dora Marsden's publication, 'The Free Woman' and much more in other chapters.

Roger Logue August 2023