Over the last four decades, the Fawcett Library has undergone no fewer than four moves of location, three shifts of institutional custodian, and one name-change – to the Women's Library (TWL). Throughout the years of nomadism and crises, the Library has continued to inspire fierce loyalty among its supporters. And for me it has represented the most constant beat in my research projects – largely, but not entirely, on women's suffrage.

This article is not an essay in library history. Rather, it offers personal testimony of what the Fawcett meant, and TWL continues to mean, to me. It largely draws upon my own memories from the mid 1970s onwards. These recollections I have checked more recently against dusty boxes of Fawcett-TWL research notes and newsletters that I hoarded over the decades.

In the aftermath of TWL's most recent crisis, this article is published to mark LSE's new custodianship of the Library, and its opening as TWL@LSE, with magnificent accommodation in one of the finest academic libraries in Europe.


Memory can play strange tricks. Initially you recall an experience vividly. Later, when you mention it in conversation, people grow interested – and so you tell them your story. Then gradually the original recollection morphs into part of a larger, better-known picture. So, amid all the news coverage of the Women’s Library recent crisis, my personal memory grew blurred, in the re-telling overlain by newer layers. A recollection, till recently sharp and clear, of visiting the Fawcett Library (as The Women’s Library was then called) in its old incarnation had over the last few years grown fragile. Ironically, during the publicity surrounding the Library’s move to the London School of Economics (LSE), it became almost easier to remember recent re-tellings than to summon up my original visit to the Fawcett Library almost four decades earlier. 1

So here I peel away the intervening layers, travelling backwards – to what I do recall of that visit, and of my subsequent experiences as a Library-user. This however will definitely not be an essay in library history, as that is told elsewhere. 2 Rather, it offers personal testimony of what the Fawcett meant to me, and the Women’s Library (TWL) continues to mean. It is a highly selective narrative, focusing on autobiographical moments that stand out. And it is largely shaped by my own memories, subsequently checked against my Fawcett and TWL newsletters and research notes, housed in boxes grown dusty at home. Together, these span one Library name-change, four moves of location, and three different institutional custodians. 3 Throughout, the Library represented the most constant beat in my research projects – largely, but not entirely, on women’s suffrage history. And my relationship with the Library has shifted over time: initially as a user, then as a supporter and ‘Friend of’; later as a contributor to TWL public events; then as a depositor, and most recently as one of the many fraught supporters caught up in the recent crisis and its current resolution – the move this autumn to LSE.

Fig. 1.

The purpose-built Women’s Library at Old Castle Street (opened in 2002) showing the retained façade of the old Goulston Square Washhouse (1846).

Fig. 1.

The purpose-built Women’s Library at Old Castle Street (opened in 2002) showing the retained façade of the old Goulston Square Washhouse (1846).

* * *

In the mid 1970s I was working with Jill Norris on the radical suffragists who campaigned alongside Mrs Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Most of our research visits were necessarily local – notably to Manchester’s excellent Central Reference Library, and then out into the Lancashire cotton towns to interview the suffragists’ elderly daughters – like Selina Cooper’s daughter Mary. Our local research was fairly well advanced, but one query niggled away at me obstinately: what documentary traces had the radical suffragists left in national records? I got to hear of the Fawcett Library and knew it housed crucial suffrage sources. Then living on the outskirts of Oldham (and working as a part-time adult education tutor, with all its income insecurities), I nevertheless determined to make this research visit down to London.

So what do I recall of that first original visit? I summon this long-ago memory to the surface, up past all the intervening layers. My recollection is of groping my way through a network of pokey streets near Victoria Station, to what must have seemed from the outside an unremarkable house (I have no memory of its exterior) in an ordinary London street, to which I gained entry. Housed so obscurely, it felt like an adventure – rather than a visit to a ‘proper’ library. I was let in by what seemed to be the sole elderly custodian. Who would she have been? Possibly an elderly suffragist or stalwart survivor from interwar equal rights campaigns? My abiding impression was of neglect and despondency. I felt I was trespassing into an older parallel universe, tiptoeing trepidatiously into a forgotten world on its uppers, hanging by a perilously thin thread. Were there really too few working light bulbs to cast enough light into the gloomy rooms? It seemed a ‘library’ at its last gasp, run by a dwindling band of increasingly frail volunteers. 4

We were then immersed in the women’s liberation movement: it was impatient for change and had scant time for such dowdiness and dinginess. Sheila Rowbotham had earlier conjured up this dispiriting world of hopes faded and deferred when she recalled that at seventeen feminism had meant to her ‘shadowy figures in long old-fashioned clothes’, ‘prim and stiff’ like headmistresses, and how she had seen women in general ‘as creatures sunk into the very deadening circumstances from which I was determined to escape’. 5

I have no recollection of any Fawcett Library catalogue being available. Probably the custodian guided me in the right direction, as I edged my way past crammed filing cabinets and jumbled piles teetering on stairways. Somehow I located what I was searching for: an Industrial Suffrage file plus the papers of Teresa Billington-Greig, a Manchester elementary schoolteacher who became an outspoken suffragette, her key file being headed ‘Social & Feminist Awakening’. Both were certainly helpful in the final writing of One Hand Tied Behind Us . 6 I returned up to Manchester, to add this new evidence to our typescript.

* * *

That was my memory of my original visit almost four decades ago. Now, stirred by the latest TWL crisis, I search around at home for documentary corroboration of this trip. In this I am aided by my incorrigible hoarding habit – so I now unearth an ancient address book. Jotted down is a handwritten note: ‘Fawcett Society, 27 Wilfred St, SW1. 01-828 4966. Behind Victoria St, open Tuesdays & Fridays’, reminding me that, yes, the Library’s home then was Fawcett House, shared with the Fawcett Society itself. To me, it had felt like ‘behind Victoria Station’. But now a glance at an A-Z reveals this to be misleading; Wilfred Street is near Caxton Hall and Westminster, a strategic location for any lobbying organization. 7

My memory had grown hazy for the exact date of this visit. But I now reach for a hoarded pile of old pocket diaries. I turn up some Pluto Press Big Red Diaries – and riffle through their well-illustrated small pages. I eventually home in on February 1976. Amid jottings about ‘Feminist History Group’ meetings, and written over Joe Hill’s song ‘The Rebel Girl’ alongside the ‘Rise Up Women’ suffragette anthem, I spot: ‘join Fawcett Library’, with a note ‘[Mary] Gawthorpe B-Grieg etc’, obviously a reference to suffragette material. Then on Tuesday 14 December there is another note: ‘10-5 Fawcett Library’. It sounds as if I had for a few months wanted to visit, butt only finally managed the journey down once teaching had finished. 8

* * *

How was it that by 1976 the Fawcett Library had sunk to such a low ebb? My visit appears to have coincided with its nadir, when decline seemed doomed to be followed by closure and dispersal of the collections. ‘Fawcett’ was not a household name in the way that ‘Pankhurst’ was. The BBC TV drama Shoulder to Shoulder broadcast just two years earlier had told the suffragette story, focusing largely on the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and giving Fawcett’s NUWSS fairly short shrift. 9 So the culture of both contemporary feminism and popular history seemed to consign the Fawcett Library to inevitable sad decline.

Now, in researching for this article, however, I discover that, had I visited Wilfred Street even just a few years earlier, I would have encountered a lively and well-used library. History researchers visiting then included Barbara Winslow; she was working on Sylvia Pankhurst and remembers how:

I worked in the Fawcett in 1969–1970 and loved it. I got to meet all sorts of people including David Mitchell [researching his Queen Christabel , 1977].

 My initial visit was indeed one of awe. There were all the ‘old’ books, but books about women who had changed the world (or at least England, or at least middle class women ... as our later scholarships demonstrated).

 The library had all of Sylvia’s first editions and the first editions of so many people. Not only did I research about Sylvia but about women in England. I will also never forget – for I was a very brash American – that they served us tea and biscuits in the afternoon. I really felt I was in hallowed ground. 10

Another visitor of about the same time was similarly inspired, and even wrote a poem recalling how: ‘Footsteps rang down Wilfred Street’, then once inside ‘What a hive of industry/Occupants at every table/All as busy as could be’. 11 However, by the mid 1970s the inexorable dwindling of Fawcett fortunes had set in. Angela V. John, visiting in 1973–4 to research about pitbrow women, remembers how the building suggested decayed gentility. 12 Indeed, it appears that my foreboding sense of doom was right.

I have just a hazy memory now of a crisis, a flurry of letters, some time after my visit. By the late 1970s, the Library had hit rock bottom: it could no longer be maintained by the Fawcett Society nor remain in its present dilapidated accommodation. So this uniquely rich collection of women’s history books, archival and other materials would have to move, possibly to be dispersed around other institutional libraries. Fears about breaking up this collection triggered panic and arguments. In the end, the then City of London Polytechnic came to the Fawcett’s rescue. The entire collection, its invaluable unity maintained, moved to a new home: Calcutta House, Old Castle Street in Aldgate, east London. Crisis was averted – at least for a while. 13

I now know the date of this library move was March 1977, just months after my own visit. Small wonder that my over-riding impression had been one of despondency. I must have been one of the last visitors to the old Fawcett, in its dying ember days. In my excitement, I had missed seeing rising panic in its ill-lit gloom.

* * *

With its move out of Fawcett House and into a higher-education institution, the Library now entered the cultural mainstream. By the late 1970s, women’s history was shifting from the margins – into the classroom and into academic syllabuses. From here on, the Fawcett Library represented an invaluable resource to increasing numbers of feminist historians. For my own research, it certainly provided the constant beat: during the 1980s and ’90s I made regular visits down to Calcutta House. The Library collections were crucial to any suffrage research. For instance, I was then working on radical suffragist Selina Cooper, drawing heavily upon the Cooper papers preserved by her daughter Mary. However, as Selina had worked as a paid NUWSS organizer, I also relied upon NUWSS Annual Reports and executive minutes, naturally housed at the Fawcett. These put the Cooper archival and oral testimony into wider historical context. 14

I was now busy working at Leeds University’s then Extra Mural Department, and so had less time for London visits. I began to feel I had given one suffrage talk too many; my research now took me elsewhere, with only occasional trips down to the Fawcett – so a rather arm’s-length relationship. 15

To remain in touch, I subscribed to the Fawcett Library Newsletter. It started small and grew. The earliest cobwebby issue that I can now lay my hands on, April 1989, appears a testament to love, not money; its front page makes an apology for the long delay since the last issue, ‘three years, to be precise’. Inside are reports of ‘Work in Progress’ plus news of events organized by that crucial group of volunteers, the Friends of the Fawcett Library – for instance a talk on Emily Wilding Davison. 16

The Newsletter s also reported staff news. As I browse through copies again now, names flash past me. Rita Pankhurst, Sylvia’s daughter-in-law, was the Polytechnic’s Chief Librarian till 1988. One name however stands out above others: David Doughan. David joined the Polytechnic staff in March 1977, arriving at Calcutta House at the same time as the Fawcett collection. He came not by the conventional librarianship route but fresh from a job-creation scheme; some might have found his exuberance amid the bookshelves unorthodox. Yet his infectious enthusiasm, long-term loyalty, personal familiarity with the collections and his unstinting generosity with help, were to leave me – and many others – deeply in his debt. When limited staffing meant that completing the cataloguing remained an aspiration rather than an achievement, here was a librarian able to greet visitors with ‘Well, if you’re looking at that, why don’t you also have a look at this?’, leaving a volume tantalizingly at the elbow. 17 David seemed able to segue with effortless professionalism from ‘First edition of Mary Wollstonecraft over here’ to ‘Reclaim the Night leaflets over there’.

Unsurprisingly the Fawcett Library inspires fierce loyalty: Vera Douie, its first librarian, remained in post for forty-two years. David was in the same mould. Indeed, the Newsletter seemed to be almost a one-man production: ‘David Doughan plods on as the one full-time librarian, and is now referred to as The Reference Librarian’. Help came from invaluable volunteers and supporters: for instance, Katherine Whitehorn’s BBC Radio Appeal raised over £6,500 for the Fawcett Friends. 18

Yet the Library’s accommodation in Calcutta House was always idiosyncratic. Visitors had to enter the Polytechnic on one side of Old Castle Street, climb stairs, cross over a bridge and then descend – to the basement. And basement conditions were scarcely ideal for housing rare books, let alone banners and archives. Staff seemed to work in a honeycomb of cubby-holes; they might refer to ‘our dear old basement’, but I would overhear alarming references to damp.

Certainly, a quick glance through the 1990s Newsletter s reveals serious problems for the Library. Staff managed to keep up just a ‘maintenance level’, caught in a vicious circle whereby no one had time free to plan or fund-raise. Rather than rehearsing all these tales of woe, suffice it to note the great flood. A cloudburst on 11 August 1994 meant heavy rain led to flooding – and so a Library closure of ten months, with the collections removed to off-site storage for safe-keeping. Structural problems worsened. It was no way to run a library. Ironically however, by highlighting urgent needs and freeing up staff during the closure, the flooding kick-started grant applications. 19

By now I was teaching a ‘Votes for Women!’ module at Leeds; it provided a welcome opportunity to refresh my memory of the Fawcett’s suffrage collections. 20 And it was a timely moment for return visits. For instance, in 1997 the Fawcett celebrated the NUWSS centenary: it had never lost sight of its own roots in the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (later, Service), and so with Mrs Fawcett herself. 21

As I refamiliarized myself with Calcutta House, I began to hear conversations about a Heritage Lottery bid and a vision of converting an early Victorian Wash House on the opposite side of Old Castle Street. These ambitious plans matured, securing higher-education funds for new staff appointments and extension of Library opening hours, and then the firming up of National Heritage funding. Eventually, in May 1998, the Fawcett celebrated its £4.2 million Heritage Lottery Fund award. At last work could begin on the exciting new purpose-built Library. 22

The eye-watering sum of ‘£4.2 million’ became imprinted on my memory. It is difficult to exaggerate the exhilarating boost this lavish new funding gave for those of us who had been loyally tracking Fawcett fortunes through its vicissitudes across a quarter of a century. Not only was a brand new stylish building taking shape, but also new staff were appointed – notably a new Director from 2000, Antonia Byatt, bringing vital pizzazz. Additional new funding at long last gave the Library professionally designed bright pink publicity for its events programme, all with the aim of ensuring that the magnificent collections reached a much wider public. It was confidently renamed ‘The Women’s Library’ (TWL). After all the lean and damp basement years, it felt like untold riches.

* * *

So I was delighted to be invited in 2001 to curate the ‘A Case of Suffrage’ display, helping to celebrate the grand opening. It was a most welcome opportunity, indeed a dream invitation. To select objects for display, I worked with the helpful Exhibitions Organizer. As one archive box after another was wheeled in, she put on her regulation white gloves. I just looked on – scarcely daring to breath. My abiding vivid memory is of layer upon layer of white tissue paper billowing forth – as the wonders of the collection unfolded before my very eyes.

Priority in the display was given to visual and three-dimensional objects. Among the Library’s favourite choices for the ‘Case of Suffrage’ was Emily Wilding Davison’s diminutive purse and return ticket from Epsom Race Course, powerfully evoking WSPU militant courage. In addition, I was encouraged to make my own personal selection – and needed little urging. So I included the uncompromisingly weighty hand-beaten chain carried by the Cradley Heath women chain-makers, escorted by Selina Cooper, on the 1909 Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions and then presented to her. 23 We also included a tea service decorated in the WSPU colours (green and purple on white), its delicate design of prison chains and winged angel evoking a poignant Edwardian elegance in the face of adversity. This tea-set is just visible in the photograph (also displayed in the ‘Case’) of a very respectable fundraising garden-party, replete with well-ironed table-cloths, boys in boaters and serious millinery. 24

Antonia Byatt seemed to have a direct line to celebrities. Also invited to select from the collections were Cherie Booth QC for law, Janet Street-Porter for travel, and Jacqueline Wilson for teenage magazines. Roy Strong made choices from TWL’s stupendous collection of suffrage banners – which could at last now be hung in a magnificent double-height glass-fronted display cabinet. The grand opening was held on Thursday 31 January 2002 in the new ground-floor exhibition space. It was crowded and the mood exhilarating; speakers included the university Vice Chancellor, Cabinet Minister Tessa Jowell – and even a political heckle, surely a first for a library? 25

Courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund and energetic fund-raising by the Friends, these new facilities could not fail to impress. TWL’s spacious foyer offered a small shop plus a designated place for Friends to meet. Upstairs was a beautifully-equipped Reading Room, books lining shelves all along one side, archive material ordered up from basement storage for collection at the desk. Above were staff offices plus a workroom for restoration and repairs. Goodbye cubby-holes, goodbye damp.

Then TWL followed up its glitzy launch with a ‘Cooks and Campaigners’ talks programme, with a sumptuously illustrated catalogue. Offering an introduction to the Library, speakers included Marguerite Patten, England’s ‘cookery queen’, on food, and I gave my ‘A Case of Suffrage’ talk. 26

TWL then enjoyed a brilliant decade. Its newly designed pink Newsletter blazed with arresting headlines: ‘Lord Bragg meets Mary Wollstonecraft’ (2006) remains one of my favourites. Compelling events followed one after another in glorious succession. They are almost too numerous to mention; but ‘Art for Votes’ Sake’ (2003) on the visual culture of the suffrage campaign, and ‘What Women Want’ (for instance ‘Pensions – Paradise or Poverty?’, 2006) remain striking. My memory is deliciously crowded with such events. But, from the bundle of colourful programmes fanned in front of me now, perhaps a couple stand out.

One unforgettable recollection reflected TWL’s unique collection of interview tapes recorded by Brian Harrison between 1974 and 1981. This pioneering oral-history collection comprises almost 200 interviews with suffragists and suffragettes, or their descendants. Professor Harrison combined effortlessly sophisticated scholarship on the Votes for Women campaign with exquisite listening skills, gently prompting an elderly respondent only when required. Sound tapes however are fragile and vulnerable to disintegration; so happily – once more – the Friends raised sufficient funds to transfer the interviews into digital format, and to enhance and edit the catalogue. 27 Thus in October 2008, TWL mounted a special event: ‘The Brian Harrison Interviews: Oral Histories of the Suffrage Movement’. Recordings were selected by Harrison, who gave a bravura introductory talk. Then followed suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and myself: I played extracts from the interviews Jill Norris and I had originally recorded with Selina Cooper’s daughter Mary in 1976. 28 The Harrison oral-history collection subsequently inspired an ‘Archive on 4’ BBC radio documentary, ‘The Lost World of the Suffragettes’. The voices of this heroic generation of women, interviewed often shortly before they died, sounded compellingly mesmerizing. 29

* * *

Even before its 2002 launch, the TWL had become central to my own research. One of the unexpected highlights when preparing the ‘Case of Suffrage’ was uncovering TWL’s invaluable suffrage postcard collection – including poignant photographs capturing the NUWSS horse-drawn caravan tours trundling across rural Yorkshire in summer 1908 and 1909. This discovery helped inspire me to new research, tracking suffragettes and suffragists across the vast Yorkshire region. And TWL’s records of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), moreover, include the minute book of a remote WFL branch up in Middlesbrough; here, at the North Riding’s tip, two feisty sisters-in-law confirmed ‘Votes for Women – everywhere!’ 30

I became an ever more frequent visitor to TWL, grateful to its unfailingly helpful Reading Room staff. Then in 2009, with the release of the household schedules from the 1911 census, Elizabeth Crawford and I plunged into research on the suffragette census protest and the arguments surrounding boycott or compliance. TWL collections are essential for exploring the boycott’s wider context. It houses the papers of the small but vocal Women’s Tax Resistance League which, with WFL, provided the original inspiration and argument for the boycott. 31 It also contains the voluminous branch files of the large and powerful London Society for Women’s Suffrage [LSWS] which, from the constitutional suffragist position, stonewalled approaches from suffragette organizations to entertain boycott speakers on their well-regulated agendas. Our article was published in this journal as part of the wider centenary commemorations of the census boycott in spring 1911. 32

* * *

TWL’s cataloguing now began to catch up with its impressive deposits; and it had grown adept at finding ways for its treasures to reach a wide public audience. As well as community outreach projects in east London, it ran women’s-history walks – through Whitechapel and Spitalfields, Bloomsbury and Belgravia, for instance, and also a suffrage walk which Tara Morton and I led through Kensington, past the homes of its artists and writers involved in the 1911 census boycott. 33

For unusually, TWL combined a library with an archive, a museum with an exhibition space. It was a time of triumphs: TWL garnered awards which included recognition in 2011 by UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’, when some of TWL’s most treasured suffrage items were inscribed on the UK Register. 34 By New Year 2012, alongside the broadcast of ‘The Lost World of the Suffragettes’ and plans for suffragettes to be portrayed in the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Votes for Women – and hence TWL – seemed to be topping the public history agenda.

* * *

Yet the troubles of the Library were by no means over. Critics of TWL might charge that, except for big events, its facilities were underused: there could often be just a handful of researchers in the Reading Room, and the purpose-built café had to shut. 35 Worse was to follow: since 1977 the Library had found a welcome home within higher education. But its host institution, now renamed London Metropolitan University (‘London Met’), faced serious financial problems; these were exacerbated by changes in funding for humanities teaching, and closure of its history department was threatened. With TWL’s nomination for UNESCO inscription pending, one anxious member of this department emailed: ‘And if the library wins, there is even greater ammunition to bring against the axing of history. It makes no sense to have the women’s library in a university that doesn’t even have a history degree!’ 36 London Met saw the future in similarly stark terms too – but unfortunately drew a less forgiving conclusion. From then on, the threat to TWL escalated alarmingly.

Along with many others, I duly lobbied the vice-chancellor against the threatened closure of History, acknowledging ‘the severe pressures … upon the teaching of humanities degree courses’, but stating how damaging it would be if London Met suspended teaching history to undergraduates. 37 Reassurances were sought – but not obtained. TWL’s future looked increasingly bleak. Unions like UNISON whirred into action, expressing ‘profound regret’ that London Met’s Board of Governors had decided ‘to seek a new home’ for TWL. A ‘Save the Women’s Library’ Facebook group and blog sprang up, with followings on twitter and a ‘Save the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University’ petition. As the dire news spread, emails flew around rapidly. 38

From July 2011 the Chair of the Friends was Anne Summers, a History Workshop Journal editor. Luckily for TWL at this crisis-ridden time, she combined British Library experience with being a historian. In March 2012, she met London Met’s Deputy Chief Executive: his official statement was that if a new home was not found by the end of the year, TWL’s opening hours would be pared down to one day per week, to be reviewed after three years.

News of the prospective whittling away of TWL went viral. Like other supporters, I was soon receiving email alerts every few hours. Not surprisingly, London Met found itself at the receiving end of intense, angry lobbying, though the lobbyists were not all necessarily aware of the changes to humanities-degree funding. One measured email however came from David Doughan. Since retirement, he had been Secretary to the Friends from 2000 to 2008, and so, while recognizing the justifiable criticism levelled at London Met, was particularly well-placed to take a longer view:

Just a word in favour of London Met: in the 35 years since the Library came to what was then City Poly (and this was a rescue job), it has not been merely maintained, but has grown in size and reputation, to the extent that it now appears to be the repository of choice for many major women’s organizations ...

 However, even in 1977 City Poly was (to put it mildly) not one of Britain’s best funded HE institutions, and in recent years London Met has increasingly had money problems. It … is no longer in a position to provide appropriate funding for the Library, and … is taking steps to try and assure its future. 39

Once again, new custodians needed to be identified – urgently. Could TWL retain its iconic building, purpose-built at considerable public expense? Could it keep the collections together? The spectre of dispersal rose again. 40

Support for TWL widened impressively around Easter 2012. In the new History Workshop Online Angela V. John offered an overview of the situation, and Gemma Romain wrote about her research into interwar Black Histories while Vera Douie Fellow at TWL. 41 Prestigious supporters ranged from the President of the Royal Historical Society to broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, happy to state ‘the Women’s Library is one of the most inspiring places in Britain’ and adding ‘it is truly a national treasure and should be maintained at all costs’. 42

Soon expressions of interest had been received from half a dozen institutions. 43 By autumn, however, only one bid survived: that from the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. The good news was that this new custodian would indeed keep the collections intact and preserve TWL’s distinctive identity; but this was tempered by disappointment that, as some had predicted, it would not keep the iconic building. However, in the current austere political climate, LSE’s central London location and stable funding undoubtedly offered the best outcome and the best chance to secure TWL’s future. So, after all the turmoil and with TWL publicly recognized as ‘the Greatest Collection of Women’s History in the World’, TWL was saved – as June Purvis suggested, ‘thanks to our brilliant Save the Women’s Library team’. 44

* * *

In October 2012 I was delighted to attend the launch of TWL’s exhibition ‘The Long March to Equality: Treasures of the Women’s Library’, marking the tenth anniversary in its new building. Sandi Toksvig opened the evening; dignified Friends circulated with canapés; the ‘treasures’ ranged impressively from Lydia Becker’s frock to a Greenham Common encampment reconstructed in a corner. 45

LSE undertook custodianship from 1 January 2013, and badged the Library as ‘TWL@LSE’. In February, at a celebration of the Library’s future, speakers included Anne Summers as Chair of the Friends. She stressed that TWL sprang from ‘a continuing social and political movement’, predating and independent of ‘any fixed institutional arrangements of bricks and mortar’. Indeed, after the nomadism, all supporters hoped TWL’s ‘time of wandering’ had ended – at LSE’s ‘magnificent accommodation in one of the finest libraries in Europe’. She then perhaps startled her audience by putting in:

a good word for that much-misunderstood hero, the Vicar of Bray. You will recall that it didn’t matter who was on the throne, he went on being the Vicar. Instead of being seen as the epitome of a turncoat, it should be remembered that he went on baptising, confirming, marrying, visiting and burying. That was because he was charged with the cure of souls; he was, indeed, their curator. In this world of constant change and challenge, I think it’s a picture that every librarian and every archivist can recognize; and so can the Friends. 46

So a huge sigh of relief all round! Summer 2013 was a period of transition and relocation. Following this, The Women’s Library @ LSE archives, museum objects and print collections were to be available from September 2013, with plans for the creation of a new reading room, teaching and activity room and exhibition area announced around the same time. 47 As LSE remains an élite higher-education institution where humanities teaching seems fairly secure, the future of TWL@LSE so far feels very good – hopefully on this new site for at least another hundred years. 48

However, this is not a library history but rather a personal memory piece, so I end on two personal reflections. First, when I jotted my original 1976 diary note, must ‘visit Fawcett Library’, it was mixed up with innumerable other strands of hectic activity. Among all these, I would never have predicted that dingy old Wilfred Street would prove to be the most long-lasting, and be recognized as ‘the Greatest Collection of Women’s History in the World’. Nor could I have imagined that my recollection of that first visit nearly four decades ago would have prompted such fascination, and so much telling and retelling. 49

Second: alongside feminist history’s most celebrated sites – Emily Wilding Davison’s census-boycott cupboard at Westminster, the Peace Camp at Greenham Common – TWL itself has also become a ‘site of memory’. The TWL collections are not only a way to memorialize feminist campaigns and feminist achievements: the collections in their entirety, since the Library’s formation in the mid 1920s (and in this article, since Wilfred Street days in the mid 1970s), have themselves become a key ‘site of memory’, albeit a distinctly nomadic one. Thus my half-recalled 1976 visit, overlain subsequently by questions answered and websites browsed, confirms that twenty-first-century women, a ‘people of memory’, can be proud of having a history of their own. 50

Thanks to Barbara Winslow, Jane Grant, David Doughan, Lucy Bland, Angela V. John, Mari Takayanagi and Anne Summers, who have been helpful throughout. Sadly, it has not been possible to include all the TWL images planned, as this article was written at the height of the removal period. However, to see images referred to, please go to http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/collections/thewomenslibrary


1 See final endnote.
2 For instance, ‘Outline of Talk on the Women’s Library’, Jane Grant, 2008 (an earlier version of her talk at the 2011 Women's History Network (WHN) Conference).
3 And their names change: the Fawcett Society; then from the City of London Polytechnic to Guildhall University to London Metropolitan; and now LSE.
4 The story then current was of elderly suffragists pasting tissue-paper over the offending pages of minute-books – surely apocryphal? Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us: the Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1978), 1984, and new Preface, 2000, p. xiii.
5 Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973), 1974, p. 12. Redrafting this article now, I dug out my old copy: yes, chapter 2 opens with this; my pencilled underlinings suggest the impact such sentiments had had on me; my half-memory was proved correct.
6 Billington-Greig broke away from the WSPU to found the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1907.
7 And a later (typed) address book adds for Fawcett Society: ‘president: Pamela Anderson’. Previously, in Marsham Street, just along from the Houses of Parliament; it had a terrible war – see Jane Grant, ‘Outline of Talk on the Women’s Library’, on this and its London Society for Women’s Suffrage History.
8 Also, 11 May 1976, I note ‘Fawcett Library’ – an aspirational visit, not yet the real thing?
9 It relied heavily on Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement , 1931, reissued by Virago, London, 1977.
10 Barbara Winslow, email to author, 7 May 2012; Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism , Sheila Rowbotham, Barbara Winslow and June Purvis, 1996.
11 Cynthia White, quoted in Grant, ‘Outline of Talk on the Women’s Library’, p. 5; Grant also notes archives stored in a garden shed, hence alarming ‘rodent damage’.
12 Email from Angela V. John to author, 7 May 2013.
13 Documents dated October–November 1976; ironically, LSE was considered, but the books would then have been distributed among LSE stock; Grant, ‘Outline of Talk on the Women’s Library’, p. 5 and endnote 2.
14 Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper 1964–1946 , Virago, London, 1984; I deposited the papers with the Lancashire Record Office.
15 Liddington, The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and Anti-militarism in Britain since 1820 , Virago, London, 1989, though I referred to Fawcett Library pamphlet boxes. I was delighted it won the Fawcett Book Prize, which brought me back into direct contact with the Society.
16 Fawcett Library Newsletter (FLN) 6, April 1989.
17 David soon trained, becoming a Chartered Librarian in 1980. He later reflected on how this job, highly welcome, arrived so unexpectedly: Doughan, ‘Some Books that Changed My Life’, Women’s History Network [WHN] conference, 2011.
18 FLN 6 and 9, April and December 1989, typed by Doughan using a daisywheel printer. Catherine Ireland retired as Fawcett Librarian in 1988.
19 FLN 20 and 23, January 1994 and January 1995. There was also further flooding (January 1997) and closure for three weeks, Grant, ‘Outline of Talk on the Women’s Library’, p. 7.
20 School of Continuing Education, module guides from 1997; class visit to new building 2002–3.
21 FLN 29, January 1997.
22 FLN 27, June 1996; 29, January 1997; and 31, May 1998. The bid was submitted by the now London Guildhall University.
23 Letter to author from Antonia Byatt, 13 July 200; meeting with Louise Trodden, 14 August 2001; the chain was deposited in October 2001.
24 TWL, Cooks and Campaigners Compendium , launch exhibition, February–July 2002.
25 The heckle was prompted by the minister’s reference to Afghanistan, thus protested about American bombing. See June Purvis, ‘Opening of the Women’s Library, London’, Editorial, Women’s History Review 11: 2, 2002. This is illustrated by a photograph of retired librarians Catherine Ireland and David Doughan, noting that David had been awarded an MBE in March 2001.
26 The catalogue for the launch exhibition had the WSPU garden party photograph wrapped right round the cover. Looking back at my notes for this talk (March 2002), I realized that, with reference to my original Wilfred Street visit, I had actually gone back to revisit the site, jotting down ‘very dingy’, and for 2002 ‘spanking fresh paint, gentrified street’. Small wonder then that, by 2013, I was struggling through layers of memories to drill back down to the original visit. I had forgotten revisiting, till now.
27 TWL Newsletter , autumn–winter 2006.
28 Tapes and transcripts I had deposited at TWL in 2007.
29 Broadcast 11 February 2012.
30 See Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls: their Fight for the Vote , Virago, London, 2006, chap. 9 on vanners; chap. 7 on the WFL branch; and pp. 329–30 for Marion Coates-Hanson and Alice Schofield-Coates.
31 Women’s Tax Resistance League mss, consulted September 2009 and March 2012.
32 ‘ “Women do not Count, Neither shall they be Counted”: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census’, History Workshop Journal 71, spring 2011.
33 Liddington and Tara Morton, ‘Walking with Women’s Suffrage in Kensington and Chelsea’, Herstoria 8, spring 2011.
34 ‘Documentary Heritage of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1865–1928’, jointly with Parliamentary Archives: the documents can be seen online at http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/unesco/ .
35 Possible reasons for this under-use could include TWL security procedures for access to the Reading Room, which may have deterred those who were not dedicated academics, and its location, east of Liverpool Street.
36 Email from Lucy Bland to author, 26 April 2011.
37 Email, author to Malcolm Gillies, 3 May 2011.
38 Email circulated to myself and others by Angela John 19 March 2012. TWL hosted the Women’s History Network conference, September 2011.
39 Email, David Doughan to WHN circulation list, 31 March 2012. One criticism of London Met was its unwillingness to fund cataloguing posts; an inadequate catalogue inevitably makes any library less useful – and used.
40 Arguments sometimes grew heated. In the end, six institutional sponsors indicated interest. I was asked to support Manchester’s bid, which I gladly did.
41 Angela V. John, ‘To Make that Future Now: the Women’s Library and the TUC Library’, 20 April 2012: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/to-make-that-future-now-the-womens-library-the-tuc-library/ ; Gemma Romain, ‘Researching at the Women’s Library’, 25 April 2012: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/researching-at-the-womens-library .
42 Colin Jones, ‘Presidential Letter’, Royal Historical Society Newsletter New Series 9, 15 May 2012, p. 1; Guardian , 30 April 2012.
43 Email circular from Maureen Castens, Secretary of the Friends, 31 July 2012. The interested bodies were Senate House, University of London; Manchester City Council; London School of Economics, University of London; Warwick University; University of York, and two others which soon withdrew.
44 The Aldwych-Kingsway site (now redeveloped by LSE) incorporates the building in Clements Inn which was the location of WSPU headquarters! http://womanandhersphere.com/2012/10/15/suffrage-stories-where-and-what-was-clements-inn/ ; and Michael Wood, ‘Story of England’, BBC 4, 2010, episode 6.
45 Also ‘Long March’ audio clips, including Bill Nighy, and Sally Alexander, ‘Sisterhood and After’, on the Night Cleaners’ campaign: http://thelongmarchtoequality.wordpress.com/ .
46 Also speaking were Professor Paul Kelly, LSE Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning, and Elizabeth Chapman, Director of LSE Library Services.
47 Maureen Castens, Friends’ Update, 7 Feb. 2013; those on the Executive tour (30 Jan.) were impressed. The role of Friends as volunteers is being explored.
48 For further information on plans, see The Women’s Library @ LSE: a Perfect Fit for the Future , a well-illustrated booklet: http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/newsandinformation/Womens-Library-at-LSE-bid-brochure.pdf .
49 Including One Hand , new Preface, 2000 (see note 4, above); the ‘Case of Suffrage’ talk, 2002; TWL treasures discussion at WHN conference, 2011; and writing this, 2013.
50 Pierre Nora’s phrase, see Liddington, ‘Era of Commemoration: Celebrating the Suffrage Centenary’, HWJ 59, 2005, especially pp. 196, 198, 201 and 211–4. The same HWJ issue includes a feature, ‘Rethinking Memory’, introduced by Katharine Hodgkin and Susan Radstone; it focuses on larger memory themes (giving voice to experience of loss, emigration, political violence); yet apparent are linkages to the small-scale recollection explored here, with an emphasis on memory as a mediated process, rather than a sealed box, constantly interacting with the cultural sphere, changing over time (p. 131).