Turbulent Londoners: Clementina Black, 1854-1922

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Clementina Black, a writer, feminist and trade unionist.

Clementina Black was a writer, feminist and early trade unionist, and another inspiring radical who has slipped through the cracks of history. She was an adopted Londoner, like many millions before and since, who was born in Brighton (my home town, so I felt an immediate affinity!) in 1854. She helped to found and run numerous campaign organisations, with a focus on trying to improve the lives of working women. Her writing included multiple reports on the social conditions of the poor and 7 novels, including The Agitator, which was based on her experience in the trade union movement. She died in December 1922, when she was 68 years old.

Clementina’s mother died when she was 21, leaving her to look after her invalid father and 7 younger siblings. During this time she wrote her first novel, A Sussex Idyll. When Clementina’s father died she moved on London to continue her writing career, and this is also where her radical career really began. In 1886 she became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, a role in which she thrived, travelling the country attempting to persuade women to join Unions. In 1888 she proposed an equal pay motion at the Trades Union Congress, fighting an injustice which has still not been resolved to this day.

In 1889 Clementina helped form the Women’s Trade Union Association, later the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC), which she would eventually become president of. In 1895 she became the Editor of WIC’s journal, Women’s Industrial News. The middle class women of the WIC went to see the working conditions of working class women, and wrote reports on them in an attempt to raise awareness. By 1914 they had investigated 117 different trades.

Clementina was also involved in the Consumers League, which put pressure on employers who paid their female workers low wages through their customers- they were involved in the boycott of the Bryant and May matchmakers, who would go on to be defeated in the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888. In 1896 Clementina began to campaign for a legal minimum wage, viewing low wages as the root of the problem for female workers. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Anti-Sweating League, and helped organise several conferences on the topic in the years before the First World War.

As the campaign for women’s suffrage took off after 1900, Clementina also threw herself into that, believing that women lacked real power to affect change as long as they lacked the ability to vote. In 1906 she was made Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Franchise Declaration Committee, where she organised a petition in favour of female suffrage with 257,000 signatures. She was an active member of both the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The NUWSS was the non-violent equivalent of the WSPU and the suffragettes, and were arguably just as important in winning the vote for women. In 1912-3, Clementina was the acting editor of The Common Cause, the NUWSS’s paper which called itself ‘the organ of the women’s movement for reform.’

A plaque commemorating Clementina Black in Brighton (Source: Simon Harriyott).

Like many female activists of her era, Clementina was a tireless force in the campaign to improve the lives of women. Unlike other prominent campaigners for women’s rights such as Emmeline Pankhurst, she focussed on working women, those who needed the most help. She was not only a member, but in several cases a key leader, of multiple campaign groups. She didn’t really participate in direct action, instead using her skills as a writer to persuade others. She is not a woman who deserves to be forgotten.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 19 January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clementina_Black

Anon. ‘Clementina Black,’ Women of Brighton. No date, accessed 20 March 2015. http://www.womenofbrighton.co.uk/clementina-black.html

Simkin, John. ‘Clementina Black,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wblack.htm

Simkin, John. ‘The Common Cause,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 20 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wcommoncause.htm

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