Jan 28, 2014

The Many Names of Lady Rhondda

Posted by: Angela John

Question: What do the following have in common?

  • Margaret Thomas
  • Mrs M.H. Mackworth
  • Lady Mackworth
  • The 2nd Viscountess Rhondda
  • Anne Doubleday
  • Candida

Answer: They are all the same person!

These were the different names used by Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883-1958). They suggest how tricky – but also how intriguing- it can be tracking the life of an individual in the past, especially if that person also lived in a number of places. Margaret was born in London, lived in Kent as a tiny child, grew up in Llanwern, Monmouthshire then, when she married, lived nearby in Llanhennock.

After the First World War Margaret spent the rest of her life based in south-east England, She lived in a flat in Chelsea during the week and in Kent at weekends before moving to several other flats (the final one in Piccadilly) and a house near Shere in Surrey. In her last years she returned to Wales quite often, staying in her mother’s childhood home in the Radnorshire countryside. When she died her ashes were buried in the family plot at the church close to her childhood home in Llanwern.

Margaret might have been born in Victorian times but she was always willing to try the new and daring. She even flew to places like Paris and Tangier in the inter-war years. She was plucky as well as adaptable. In her later years she relished long sea voyages. Yet in 1915 she had almost drowned. Margaret and her father were returning to Wales from New York aboard the passenger ship the Lusitania when it was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Margaret suffered a horrifying ordeal as she was sucked down with the ship. The story of how she survived is a remarkable one and, like other episodes in her long life, suggests her gritty determination.

Here was a woman not just of many names but also of numerous and varied achievements. As MARGARET THOMAS this daughter of Sybil Haig Thomas and the wealthy industrialist and Liberal politician D.A. Thomas attended the progressive Scottish girls’ boarding school, St. Leonards. She went on to Oxford University but left after two terms, something she later regretted.
In 1908 Margaret married a Monmouthshire man, Captain Humphrey Mackworth and became MRS M. H. MACKWORTH. His chief interest seems to have been fox-hunting. Margaret’s was hunting down opponents of the vote and persuading them of the need to enfranchise women.

She was the founding secretary of the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union, (WSPU) the suffragette organisation created by Mrs Pankhurst. Margaret helped to steer the branch throughout its five and a half year existence, aided by her mother and a group of committed local women. The WSPU was increasingly dedicated to advocating ‘Deeds not Words’ and so was Margaret.

In 1913 she set fire to a letter box in Newport for which she received a prison sentence. She went on hunger strike in Usk Gaol. It was whilst watching the sparrows cheerfully chirping outside her prison cell that she vowed that she would never keep a bird in a cage.

When the First World War began, Margaret exchanged protest for patriotism. She had become LADY MACKWORTH on the death of her father-in-law. She was appointed Commissioner of Women’s National Service for Wales based in Cardiff. Then in 1918 she became Chief Controller of women’s recruitment within the Ministry of National Service in London.

In this year Margaret lost her beloved father. Just before he died he had been made a viscount in recognition of his work as a wartime government minister. He obtained special permission from the king for his daughter to inherit his title. Margaret therefore became VISCOUNTESS RHONDDA though she was not allowed to take her seat in the House of Lords. She fought a long and bitter battle to have the law changed. Lady Rhondda never made it to the Lords and it took until the year of her death 1858 for the first women peers to take their seats.

Margaret inherited her father’s vast industrial empire and became one of Britain’s leading industrialists. But the business she valued above all others was one she created herself. In 1920 she founded a weekly paper called ‘Time and Tide’. It had a pioneer all-female board and was addressed to the thinking man and woman, especially those women who, like Margaret, had got the vote in 1918. It was deliberately not allied to any political party. Margaret became its editor in 1926. She wrote not only editorials but also many articles, signed and unsigned. In the early years she provided regular theatre reviews under the name of ANNE DOUBLEDAY.

By the 1930s the paper had become a leading space for exciting new writers such as Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain and D.H.Lawrence as well as for well-established figures such as Margaret’s friend George Bernard Shaw. Under the pseudonym CANDIDA, Margaret wrote lively articles about the women in his plays.

Somehow the paper managed to adapt to changing times. By the 1940s ‘Time and Tide’ was a respected political commentator on national and international affairs but it was tough meeting challenges from newer forms of media such as the popular wireless and the television. Margaret’s dwindling fortune was being poured into propping up the paper. It only just outlived her.

When Margaret died in 1958, ‘The Times’ newspaper headed its obituary with the words ‘Champion of her Sex’. Margaret Haig Thomas/ Mackworth/ Rhondda had played many parts. She had been a suffragette, a wartime administrator, a peer of the realm, a businesswoman, a journalist and editor and much else. But had somebody asked her ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ it is likely that she would have replied that she was an advocate of equal rights for girls and women since that belief permeated her many activities and achievements in Wales and England.
For more information about Margaret’s life see Angela V. John, ‘Turning the Tide. The Life of Lady Rhondda’, Parthian, 2013.