Margaret Haig Thomas was born on 12 June 1883 in Bayswater, London, the only child of the wealthy industrialist and Liberal politician, David Alfred Thomas (later Lord Rhondda), from Ysgubor-wen near Aberdare, and his wife Sybil Margaret (née Haig, 1857-1941) descended from an ancient Scots Border family, with parents living at Pen Ithon Hall, Radnorshire. The Thomases spent long holidays there with numerous Haig relatives.
After a few years living in Kent they moved to Llanwern House near Newport, Monmouthshire. Governesses taught Margaret Haig Thomas at home, then she attended Notting Hill High School, London, followed by St. Leonards School for Girls in St Andrews.
She was a student at Somerville College, Oxford but chose to leave after two terms, something she later regretted. In 1908 she married Humphrey Mackworth (1871-1948, baronet from 1914). He was from a Conservative background, the oldest surviving son in one of the county's principal landowning and military families. The couple lived near Caerleon. It was not a promising match: his chief interest was hunting, hers was reading and more or less coinciding with her marriage, the women's suffrage movement. After a cousin, the suffragette and artist Florence Haig, recuperated at Llanwern following incarceration in Holloway Gaol, Margaret Haig Thomas joined Mrs Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union and was secretary of the Newport Branch for more than five years. Her mother was its president and her father a vice-president of the national Men's League for Women's Suffrage. Although not involved in suffrage, her husband was, unlike many spouses, compliant.
She attended London demonstrations, wrote in the suffrage and local press, spoke at meetings countrywide and even jumped onto the running board of Prime Minister Asquith's car in St Andrews. In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Usk Gaol and went on hunger strike after setting a letterbox alight in Newport. As a member of a prominent family she attracted considerable attention but it was only the outbreak of war that saw her cease protesting - for its duration.
Unlike most married women, she was employed, working at Cardiff Docks in the headquarters of her father's industrial enterprise. One of only three women employees - the other two were telephonists - she was D. A. Thomas's personal assistant and one of the best paid women in Britain, earning £1,000 annually.
In May 1915 she and her father returned from a business trip in the United States on the RMS Lusitania. When it was torpedoed she almost drowned but was rescued after several hours in the sea. Her father also survived but died three years later due to the pressure of ministerial work - Lloyd George had made him Food Controller - and long-term heart problems.
In 1917 she had been appointed Commissioner for Wales in the Women's National Service Department, managing the recruitment of Welsh women for war work at home and in France. The following year she became Chief Controller of women's recruitment in the Ministry of National Service based in London.
In 1918 she sat on the Ministry of Reconstruction's Women's Advisory Committee. Concerned that large numbers of women previously employed in war work were now being dismissed, she founded the Women's Industrial League and became its president. It sought gender equality in training and in industrial employment opportunities. From 1920 she chaired the Consultative Council on General Health Questions.
She had gained vital experience working for her father and, when he died, inherited coalmining, shipping, newspapers and other businesses. By 1919 she sat on 33 boards and chaired 7. In the 1920s she held more directorships than any other woman in the UK.
In 1926 she was elected the first female president of the Institute of Directors, a position she held for a decade. She was one of the first five women members of the London Chamber of Commerce and president of the Efficiency Club that supported increased cooperation among business and professional women. The Daily Herald described her as one of the five most influential individuals in the British business world. Operating in an overwhelmingly masculine environment, she learned to handle prejudice as well as weathering the adverse economic conditions of the time and long-term decline in the demand for coal.
She created one business that she valued above all others: Time and Tide. She established it in 1920, and was editor from 1926. A vibrant weekly paper, independent of political parties, it boasted a pioneering all-female board that, echoing her father's Cambrian Combine, she described as 'A New Combine'. It was, arguably, Britain's most important inter-war weekly. Run from Fleet Street then Bloomsbury from 1929, it attracted a succession of literary figures, from George Bernard Shaw to Virginia Woolf. Its staff included John Betjeman and a close friend, the novelist Winifred Holtby.
What began as a publication designed for the 'thinking' woman and man, appealing especially to newly enfranchised women, was successfully transformed after 1928 into an imaginative and progressive arts journal. From 1945, with Lady Rhondda still at the helm, it reinvented itself once more, becoming a leading political review. Despite challenges from newer forms of media, it carried on (with hefty cash injections that eroded its owner-editor's once vast fortune) until not long after her death in 1958.
She was the first president of the Women's Press Club and an assiduous editor. She had first produced a magazine - sold to her many cousins - when she was 15 and had long been interested in the idea of a wide-ranging weekly review. She contributed to Time and Tide's content via Leaders, Middles, editorial comments and signed articles. In the early years she penned book reviews and pseudonymous theatre reviews. Her six-part series (as 'Candida') on 'Women of the Leisured Classes' resulted in a public debate with G. K. Chesterton, chaired by her friend Bernard Shaw. She wrote long literary articles on the women in Shaw's plays and four articles critiquing H. G. Wells' writing on women.
She contributed to the paper's popular Notes on the Way column from the late 1920s, editing an eponymous book of essays in 1937. She also wrote polemical essays on Empire, later published as a Time and Tide pamphlet and, in a lighter vein, features for the Four Winds column. Although anonymous, readers would have been aware that it was their well-connected editor who, for example, described dining with the Roosevelts at the White House.
The paper provided a useful platform for her causes, most notably her Six Point Group, started in 1921. Its six-point charter aimed to make gender equality paramount. Its prescient programme provided a legal and social context for the Representation of the People Act (1918) and Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (1919), addressing issues such as legislation on child assault and equal pay for teachers. She also helped found the Open Door Council to advocate equal pay, status and opportunities for women.
Between 1921 and 1924 she was national president of the Women Citizens' Association. From 1926 she immersed herself in a new campaign for equal franchise. She chaired the Equal Rights Demonstration Committee that organised the last mass suffrage demonstration in Hyde Park and its successors the Equal Political Rights Campaign Committee, which coordinated the activities of 22 societies advocating political reform, and the Equal Rights General Election Campaign Committee formed after the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. She became treasurer of the Pankhurst Memorial Fund.
Committed to international feminism, she sat on the British committee of the American National Woman's Party and helped to found Equal Rights International, the only organisation urging the League of Nations to adopt the Equal Rights Treaty.
In the 1920s she was a familiar figure in deputations to prime ministers and she was largely responsible for securing women a seat in the House of Lords. Her beloved father had been made Viscount Rhondda in 1918 and, by special arrangement with the monarch, had made provision for his daughter - his sole legitimate heir - to inherit his title. She became the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda.
As one of a couple of dozen women with hereditary titles that were merely nominal, Lady Rhondda held that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act which stated that a person should not be disqualified on grounds of sex from holding a public position, provided leverage for change. Like new male peers she therefore petitioned the king to receive a writ of summons to Parliament and the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords duly granted it in 1922. However, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead who was the presiding officer of the House of Lords, intervened and secured a new committee that reversed the decision.
Lady Rhondda campaigned vigorously for women peers for decades, earning the sobriquet 'The Persistent Peeress'. The Life Peerages Act, passed when she was dying in 1958, resulted in female life peers but only in 1963 were female peers in their own right entitled to take their seats.
In 1933 she published This Was My World, a memoir that suggested how much she revered her father (she had previously edited a book in 1921 about his life and work). A fascinating account of her decades in Wales, it provides a vivid picture of women's suffrage. But ending when she still had another quarter of a century ahead of her, it can tell only a partial story of her varied achievements. And it was reticent about her personal life.
Her marriage had ended with an amicable divorce in 1923. The Mackworths were childless and had gone their own ways during the First World War. Lady Rhondda lived post-war in London and Kent with the former suffragette Helen Archdale who was for a short time the editor of Time and Tide. From 1934 until the end of her life - for far longer than she had lived with her husband - she shared a home with Theodora Bosanquet, former amanuensis to Henry James and a writer herself who became Time and Tide's literary editor. They were based in Surrey though the indefatigable Lady Rhondda spent most of the week working in London.
Her last years were difficult as she battled with the paper's rising costs and ill health. Despite her father's politics, disillusionment with the Liberal Party over its stand on suffrage had led her to repudiate party political affiliations though in the inter-war years she had espoused progressive views. Her close friends included Labour's Herbert Morrison and 'Red Ellen' Wilkinson. But the Second World War shifted her perspectives. Once a stern critic of Churchill, by the 1950s she was applauding his domestic policies in particular.
Lady Rhondda died of stomach cancer in Westminster Hospital on 20 July 1958 soon after her seventy-fifth birthday. Her funeral was in London but, reflecting her bifurcated life, her ashes were interred at her parents' grave in Llanwern.
She had straddled a number of worlds, most notably big business and Bloomsbury, as well as Wales and England. Although she had not lived in Wales for many years, she returned often to Llanwern to visit her mother who lived until 1941. Post war she returned annually to Pen Ithon. Time and Tide always contained news of Wales, whether of sheep dog trials at the Royal Welsh Show in Aberystwyth, the Minutes of AGMs of Welsh colliery companies or accounts of Eisteddfodau. In 1949 alone there were nine substantial articles on Wales. She had been one of the first women magistrates in Wales when appointed in 1920. Thirty years later she was the first female president of a Welsh University College (at the forerunner of Cardiff University). She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales in 1955.
In 2018, the year of the centenary of the partial winning of the vote for women, Welsh National Opera's powerful, exuberant production 'Rhondda Rips It Up!' toured Wales and England to great acclaim. The House of Lords has acquired a portrait of Lady Rhondda by Alice Burton and another is on show at the National History Museum, St Fagans. She is now the subject of a website, an animated film and television programmes in Welsh and English and represented on the plinth of Gillian Wearing's statue of Dame Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. In 2019 she was selected as one of five historical women to be memorialised in Wales by a statue. She already has a plaque in Newport and her statue will be there too, acknowledging the life and legacy of one of the movers and shakers of twentieth-century Britain.
Published date: 2021-06-11
Article Copyright: http://rightsstatements.org/page/InC/1.0/
Born 12 June 1883 in Bayswater, London, the only child of David Alfred Thomas and his wife Sybil Margaret, daughter of George Augustus Haig, Pen Ithon, Radnorshire. She was taught initially by private governess at home. Then she was sent to Notting Hill secondary school, where she started a printed magazine, The Shooting Star, to which her relations contributed. From there she went to St. Leonard's School in St Andrews, Scotland, where the Haig ancestors hailed from. She was at Somerville College, Oxford, for a short while, but was not happy there. She did not care either for the social life which London offered, preferring the solitude of Radnorshire around Pen Ithon and the gentleness of Llan-wern, her home in Gwent. She did not learn any Welsh except for a short sentence which she used whilst canvassing in her father's elections in Merthyr Tydfil. She threw herself into her father's industrial interests, and acted as his secretary, which was useful in preparing her for the period when she had to take her father's place on industrial boards when government work weighed heavily on his shoulders, and after his death in 1918.
In 1908 she married Humphrey Mackworth (baronet after his father's death in 1914) in Trinity Church near Caerleon, Monmouth. This was an ill-matched union. He was twelve years older than she was, with hardly any interests except in his hunting hounds - he was the master of the Llangybi pack; she was an avid reader, while he hardly ever opened a book; he was a Tory, she the daughter of a prominent Liberal, though out of a sense of duty she resigned from the council of the local Liberal Association on her marriage. They made their home in Llansoar, not too far from her parents' house. Within four months, in spite of her husband's dissatisfaction, she had thrown herself into the daring activities of Mrs Pankhurst's followers by marching through Hyde Park with her cousin Florence Haig. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union and took part in the campaign for votes for women. She jumped onto the running-board of H.H. Asquith's car in St Andrews. She learnt how to set pillar boxes on fire and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment in Usk for her acts in Gwent. Because of her refusal to eat, she was released after five days. She was the correspondent of the Newport branch of the movement.
She and her father were amongst those saved when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in 1915. After returning home she was a commissioner for the national women's service in Wales and in 1918 was made chief recruiting officer of women in Britain. When her father died she inherited the viscouncy in accordance with the arrangement made by Lloyd George when her father was elevated to the title as there was no male heir. She herself presented a petition in 1920 to be summoned to the House of Lords, and though Lord Hewart and the Committee of Privileges were in favour, a large majority, under the leadership of Lord Birkenhead, voted against consenting to her request. To her the petition was an entirely natural development of her efforts on behalf of equality for women. Although she failed, she succeeded in the same year with a group of women of similar persuasion to form a company which published the influential weekly Time and Tide as a paper entirely independent of any sect or party which met the needs of a new post-war period. She edited it for the rest of her life; her stamp was upon it, though it was Helen Archdale who edited the first issues. It was through Time and Tide that she realised one of the dreams of her youth. She succeeded in drawing able and eminent contributors to the paper. In the midst of her busy life - she was a justice of the peace in Gwent and in 1926 was the president of the Institute of Directors, the demands of industrial management weighed heavily upon her and her health was fragile - she insisted on keeping a watchful eye on all the paper's contents for nearly thirty-eight years. Her great concern during the last months of her life was to secure a safe financial base for the paper, and she succeeded in her effort. She stood steadfastly for the freedom of the individual. To her every human being, man or woman, should be treated like an individual with an immortal soul. She published D.A. Thomas, Viscount Rhondda (1921), Leisured Women (1928), This was my world (1933) and Notes on the way (1937). She was president of the University College, Cardiff, from 1950 to 1958 and was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree by the University of Wales in 1955.
She was divorced from her husband in 1923. They had no children and the title became extinct at her death at Westminster Hospital on 20 July 1958.
Published date: 2001
Article Copyright: http://rightsstatements.org/page/InC/1.0/
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