Find out about the life of Lady Rhondda (Margaret Mackworth) and her role as one of the leading women's rights campaigners of the twentieth century.
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Margaret (née Margaret Haig Thomas) was born in 1883, the only child of Sybil and David Alfred ('D.A') Thomas, in Bayswater, London. Her parents returned to their native Wales in 1887, taking up residence at Llanwern House on the eastern outskirts of Newport, near the village of Magor. Margaret's childhood was mostly spent there, but age thirteen she went to school in London for three years, before becoming a boarder at St Leonard's school in St Andrews, Scotland. Clearly not satisfied with being defined as a society debutante, in 1904 Margaret took up a place to read History at Somerville College, Oxford. However, despite good reports from her tutors, after two terms at Somerville she decided to leave her studies and returned to live at Llanwern.
Lady Rhondda's title was passed down from her father, Lord Rhondda of Llanwern. D.A Thomas was the son of the grocer- entrepreneur Samuel Thomas, and grew up at Ysguborwen House, Aberdare. Following Samuel's death in 1879, D.A. inherited a major share in his father's business interests, including a number of mines in the South Wales coalfields. He subsequently worked in stockbroking in London, and in 1888 was elected Liberal MP for Merthyr Boroughs. He held his parliamentary position until 1910, regarded as a successful and popular MP. Perhaps surprisingly for a man of that era, DA described his relationship with his daughter as being 'not like father and daughter, we are butties' (John, 2013:33). They spent much time together walking in the countryside, debating political and social matters. As Margaret got older, D.A increasingly discussed the world of business with her, mentoring his daughter to become a businesswoman in her own right.
If D.A had a strong influence on his daughter's cultural and political development, then so did Margaret's mother Sybil, who was also politically active. Sybil Haig was daughter of the Irish wine merchant George Augustus Haig, and his wife Lady Charlotte Guest. Chair of the Aberdare and Abergavenny branches of the Women's Liberal Association, she was also a member of the Central National Society for Women's Suffrage. Margaret writes in her autobiography that her mother 'had prayed passionately that her baby-daughter might become a feminist' (1933:133), with Sybil supporting her daughter's involvement in the spheres of business and politics. The women of the wider Haig family were also highly committed to the suffrage movement. Aunts Lottie and Janetta (sisters of Sybil) were both dedicated members of the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) as were her second cousins, Florence, Eva and Cecilia Haig.
Over her lifetime, Margaret worked extensively to further the cause of equal rights between women and men. She campaigned for women’s right to vote, as well as for equality in employment and health legislation, and latterly, women’s right to enter the House of Lords as peeresses.
In 1909, a Newport branch of the WSPU was convened at a meeting chaired by Sybil Haig Thomas. Margaret subsequently took on the role of branch secretary, only a year after joining the organisation. The Newport branch, or ‘suffragette shop’ was firstly situated at 4 Clarence Place before being moved to number 46 (Crawford, 2006). In 2014 there is a supermarket at number 4, while number 46, across the road and close to the cenotaph, can be found between a takeaway outlet and a nail bar. Margaret became fully immersed in the suffragette cause, and soon began to write reports on the Newport branch activity to send back to the WSPU headquarters in London. She travelled across Wales and South West England promoting women’s suffrage, with her commitment to the cause eventually resulting in imprisonment in Usk gaol.
This photograph shows Margaret campaigning in the streets of Newport alongside her Aunt Lottie, and another local woman, Miss Lawton.
Margaret undertook political work that reached beyond the cause for universal suffrage with the objective of creating a more equal social world for women and men. During WW1 she established a women’s panel at the Ministry of Munitions, then as the war drew to a close, she was also selected as a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee created by the Ministry of Reconstruction. In both these positions she further explored the labour rights of women working for the war effort, and the consequences for women’s employment in the post-war years (John, 2013). In 1923 Margaret created the Women’s (Political and) Industrial League with a remit of furthering women’s chances of taking up skilled and well-paid employment. This was preceded by her 1921 founding of the ‘Six Point Group’ with the manifesto of equal rights for women within the workplace, and for mothers and children.
These six points were:
In the 1930s the Group also began to lobby parliament for the rights of married women to take up employment (Moynagh, 2012). Much of this political work had a platform in the journal Time and Tide that Margaret created in 1920. The journal became a significant cultural and political reference point of its time, publishing literary reviews as well as articles promoting progressive, feminist perspectives on the development of equal rights in British society, and examining political issues on an international level (John, 2013).
Despite promising her husband that she would never be sent to prison, in 1913 Margaret was charged with unlawfully placing an explosive substance in a post office letter box. In the preceding years, the WSPU had increased their acts of militancy to include the 'bombing' of postboxes and window breaking of shops and businesses. Writing about this period in her life, Lady Rhondda describes reaching a point when her conscience would no longer allow her to avoid taking direct action when other WSPU members were regularly taking the risk of imprisonment to further the suffrage cause. After bombing a postbox on Risca Road, Newport she was arrested and charged.
In accordance with WSPU policy, she pleaded 'not guilty', but was charged with the offence. Given the option to pay a fine or be sent to nearby Usk gaol for a month, Margaret took the option of imprisonment. She was released after three days of hunger strike under the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act. Commonly known as the 'Cat and Mouse' Act, this allowed for the release of suffragettes on hunger-strike and their subsequent re-arrest once they were deemed physically strong enough to continue their sentence. However, when Margaret returned home, she discovered that her fine had been paid anonymously, and therefore did not return to prison. She documents the loneliness and isolation of prison in her autobiography, and after observing sparrows freely moving around the prison patio, she made the resolution to 'never… keep a bird in a cage' (1933:158).
In May 1915 the First World War was fully underway, and it was then that Margaret and D.A had a close brush with death. On a voyage to the UK from New York, the ocean liner ‘Lusitania’ sank off the south-west coast of Ireland. Over 1,000 people lost their lives as the result of a torpedo attack from a German submarine. Margaret and D.A, returning from a business trip to New York, were two of the 764 survivors. Shortly after the torpedo hit, father and daughter were separated. As the boat sank, D.A escaped via a life-raft. Meanwhile, Margaret, who had gone to find their lifebelts, narrowly survived drowning. As the deck became submerged, she was trapped under the waves. She lost consciousness, but eventually was rescued, presumed dead, before being reunited with her father in Queenstown, Ireland.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Lady Rhondda had a powerful and important place in the sphere of British commerce. When D.A sought an associate to become his ‘right hand man’, his wife suggested that their daughter take on that role (John, 2013). Margaret did so, despite being recently married, and worked with her father from his offices at Cardiff Docks until his death in 1918. By that year, she was in the remarkable position as a woman of sitting on a total of thirty one boards of commerce while chairing seven. The majority of her business interest were based in the coal and steel industries, but she also sat on the boards of national and international shipping companies, as well as a range of other businesses. Passionate about the need for women to be represented in the field of commerce, Margaret was involved in creating and chairing the Efficiency Club (John, 2013), that was essentially a networking organisation for British businesswomen. In 1920 she made the move to further develop her career in cultural and political affairs, establishing what was to become the highly influential journal Time and Tide.
When Lady Rhondda died in 1958, the House of Lords still did not permit women with hereditary peerages to legitimately take up their place there. Although that year saw women being granted peerages on an equal basis to men (and entry to the House of Lords), hereditary peeresses had to wait until the Peerages Act of 1963 was passed. Margaret campaigned for decades for peeresses to have access to the House of Lords, with an early bill in favour of this being informally known as ‘Lady Rhondda’s bill’. Biographer Angela. V. John points out that while this work was related to an issue distant from the daily lives of the majority of British women, it was nonetheless crucial in increasing the range of influence that women could exert at the very highest level of public office.
Lady Rhondda married Humphrey Mackworth in 1908, living first at Llansoar House, Caerleon until 1911, before moving to Oaklands House in Ponthir. They divorced in 1923. Margaret did not remarry but did have significant relationships over the course of the rest of her life. In the late 1920s she shared a home in Kent with Time and Tide editor Helen Archdale, then lived for twenty five years in Surrey with the writer and editor Theodora Bosanquet.
Crawford, E. (2006) The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A regional survey. Abingdon: Routledge.
John, A.V. (2013) Turning the Tide: The life of Lady Rhondda. Cardigan, Parthian.
Moynagh, M. ed with Forestall, N. (2012) Documenting First Wave Feminisms Vol 1: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Rhondda, Viscountess. (1933) This was my World. London: Macmillan.
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Premiere of A Bird in a Cage animated film!
October 10th 2014, University of South Wales, Newport, Caerleon Campus.
Jul 16, 2014
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As project manager, Amy is responsible for all aspects of the programme; fundraising, recruitment, scheduling, marketing and promotion, event management, film production and project evaluation. She is also one of the workshop leaders and will produce and facilitate the Agored Cymru accredited History qualification for students at Lewis Girls School. A history graduate and keen amateur historian, Amy is the Managing Director of Winding Snake
Productions and has delivered several award winning projects during her career. She is looking forward to sharing the remarkable life of Lady Rhondda and hopes that the project will inspire people to explore their political heritage.
Lauren is leading the production of the animated film that will be created during the A Bird in a Cage project. She is also responsible for coordinating the project program for Ysgol Gymraeg Casnewydd junior school, and is one of the project’s workshop leaders. Lauren has been making films for Winding Snake for a year and a half; she has been with the project since its conception during a
tea break from a workshop at Lewis Girls school. She is looking forward to sharing A Bird in a Cage with all the different young people the team will meet along the way, and to helping them to make a film together.
Louise is responsible for producing and managing content for A Bird in a Cage website as well as developing the project evaluation framework. Over the last 15 years Louise has worked on a variety of projects within adult education and community development, and joins the team fresh from completing her PhD on refugee student experience in UK higher education. She is looking forward to seeing how the young people participating in A Bird in a Cage workshops explore their ideas about democracy using creative methods.
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