Blackshirts and Women: New study looks at suffragettes who became fascists

A new pamphlet from the Bristol Radical History Group explores the appeal of interwar British fascism to a number of women who were formerly militant suffragettes. Written by Rosemary L. Caldicott, Lady BlackshirtsThe Perils of Perception – suffragettes who became fascists (2017), surveys the extent to which various women who had previously fought for emancipation took surprising new ideological directions in the aftermath of the First World War.

BUF Woem's Drum Corp, lead by Heather Bond

Caldicott’s 64-page study acknowledges in its introduction that this is ‘a peculiar conundrum’, because fascism generally brings forth images of a patriarchal, disciplined, macho force, with members wearing masculine military uniforms and showing unquestionable loyalty to a male leader (often via a ‘cult of personality’ built around such a figure). Yet, as Caldicott points out, it is estimated that at one time up to 25% of the members of the ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) in this country in the 1930s were women. Moreover, the original fascist party in Britain, the ‘British Fascists’ of the 1920s (created in 1923) was founded by a woman, Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman (1888-1935), and also saw some significant input from former feminist activists, especially in the London area and the Southern Counties of England.

Seeking to explain the context to all this, Caldicott notes: ‘This was an era when many social and political organisations were opening up to new ideas…’, and ‘some women changed their political allegiance from socialism to fascism’. Moreover, a small number of former suffragettes and feminist campaigners appear to have genuinely believed that a new fascist way of running the country might ultimately achieve better living conditions for ordinary women in society.

Norah Dacre Fox (Nora Elam)

A good example is the militant feminist Norah Dacre-Fox (1878-1961), who was later known as Norah Elam. After being imprisoned three times for her actions on behalf of women, in 1913 she had been appointed General Secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the War evidently changed some of her views, pushing her to the right of the political spectrum.

In the 1918 General Election, she stood as an Independent candidate in the Richmond-on-Thames constituency, and included in her campaign various warnings about German ‘immigrants’ in the country. By the 1920s, she had moved towards the Conservatives, becoming chair of the Chichester branch. She then joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, and became the organisation’s County Women’s Officer for West Sussex (see photo).

Another example discussed by Caldicott is Mary Sophia Allen (1878-1964), former Branch Leader of the West of England Women’s Social and Political Union. Allen became Commandant of the Women Police Volunteers and, later in the interwar period, she became a speaker and propagandist for the BUF. Allen was also a keen aircraft pilot and, at one point, loaned her plane to a special flying club for BUF women members. As Caldicott observes, this did not go unnoticed by the authorities, and questions were even raised in the House of Commons, the concern being that the BUF  was enabling its own Air Defence Force.


Indeed, Caldicott has identified and discussed a notable number of women who went from feminism to fascism, and sets out some important material on how the BUF in particular set out to ‘woo’ such women. She argues that Sir Oswald Mosley (see photo from 1936), who founded the BUF in October, 1932, soon realised that the Blackshirt movement needed women to ‘politicise’ the home, the internal weapon that could convert both man and child.

Furthermore, he also needed women who were trained and already sufficiently radicalised to confront conventional, ‘mainstream’ forms of politics. Such women, he felt, would make ideal militant activists for the BUF. And former members of the WSPU and other women’s movements often met many of these requirements.

Interestingly, just six months after the launch of the BUF in 1932, the ‘Women’s Section’ was created in March, 1933, chaired by Lady Ester Makgill. Makgill was later expelled for stealing party funds, and was replaced by Mosley’s own mother, Lady Katherine Maud ‘Ma’ Mosley (1874-1948). Lady Mosley was apparently an extremely active recruiter for the BUF. Similarly, on February 28th, 1934, at Holborn in central London, the first significant BUF indoor meeting organised entirely for women was held, addressed by the Chief Women’s Officer, Anne Brock-Griggs (d. 1960), who became editor of the ‘Woman’s Page’ in the movement’s newspaper, Action. Brock-Griggs later penned a key BUF pamphlet, Women and Fascism10 Important Points (1936).


As Caldicott correctly notes, the original aim of the suffrage movement in Britain was to involve more women in politics and to secure the right to the vote. This was partly achieved, of course, in 1918. By the 1930s, however, as younger women between the age of 21 and under 30 had only been able to vote for the first time in 1929, there was still the perception that the progress of female emancipation had been too slow and limited, leaving many former suffragettes and other feminist activists disillusioned. The BUF was in the market to recruit such women and, in some cases, clearly succeeded.

Although the topic of women and British fascism has been previously covered in the work of historians such as Martin Durham, Stephen Cullen and Julie Gottlieb, Caldicott’s new pamphlet is a worthy addition to the available historiography, and offers further important detail on fascist policy towards women.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)



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Between Antiquity and Nature: The Gendered Politics of the French Revolution and Wollstonecraft in Norway

Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor in History at Kingston University and one of Britain’s leading experts on the French Revolution, recently gave an invited keynote lecture for the meeting of the Norwegian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was held at Trondheim, Norway, from 31st August to 2nd September, 2017.

Marisa MW 1

The subject of Marisa’s talk was ‘Between Antiquity and Nature: The Gendered Politics of the French Revolution’. The venue for the conference was the beautiful Ringve Museum, Norway’s national museum of music and musical instruments, and included a special conference dinner (see photo). It was ‘a great event’, Marisa reports; her hosts were ‘very welcoming’ and the conference both intellectually stimulating and inclusive, a genuine ‘republic of letters’.

The day before the conference there was a masterclass for doctoral students, where Marisa led a session discussing Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in SwedenNorwayand Denmark. First published in 1796, Wollstonecraft’s book was both profoundly intellectual and deeply emotional. It combined her insights into the impact of the French Revolution in Scandinavia, observations on communities and customs in the places where she travelled, thoughts on the oppression of women, and deeply personal reflections on her own life. It was a journey simultaneously into what was then a remote part of Europe, and into the nature of human existence.

Marisa MW 3

The book was published by Wollstonecraft’s regular publisher in England, Joseph Johnson, and was the last text issued during her tragically short life (she died aged just 38, following complications caused by childbirth). It sold very well in the 1790s, and was praised by critics, as well as Mary’s future husband, William Godwin. The text was translated into Dutch, German, Portuguese and Swedish, and also appeared in America.

Wollstonecraft’s book produced a lively discussion in the doctoral class. In Marisa’s view, the students ‘were terrific – enthusiastic, well-informed and full of insights’. Marisa says, ‘I learned as much from the students as they did from me, and they made me see a book I thought I knew well from a different perspective. Mary Wollstonecraft would have loved it!’

Marisa Linton’s publications include Choosing TerrorVirtueFriendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013)

(Image of Wollstonecraft: WikiMedia Commons)

Marisa MW 2

Marisa with some of the Doctoral students after the masterclass

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African Explorer: The brief but dramatic career of Joseph Moloney (1858-1896)

Being a historian is a bit like being a detective. A simple inscription on an old broken memorial led me to piece together a fascinating story about human endurance. The main cemetery in Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey contains the grave of a relatively young Irish explorer, now largely forgotten, who helped save a major expedition to the African Congo in the nineteenth century and guide it back to safety.

Dr Joseph Moloney

Joseph August Moloney (1858-1896) died at the early age of 38 of a heart problem, which his close friends and others believed was due to his experiences in Africa. Moloney (see photo) had recently returned to Kingston, after leading an expedition in 1895 to plant the British flag in territories to the west of Lake Nyassa, on behalf of the British South Africa Company.

In its story on the surprise death of Moloney, the local Surrey Comet newspaper reported that Moloney’s illness was ‘no doubt’ brought on by the privation he suffered when he was engaged as a Medical Officer (MO) on an earlier expedition to the Congo in 1891. It was this expedition, known as the ‘Stairs Expedition’, which provided me with some fascinating insights into a tale of adventure and high risk.

Moloney, who was born in Newry, Ireland, and studied medicine at Dublin University, practiced as a doctor for several years in south London. However, perhaps in search of something more challenging, he offered his services as an MO to the Stairs Expedition, which was led by a British Army Officer, William Stairs, and sponsored by Belgium. Moloney’s account of the expedition was later published in in his book With Captain Stairs to Katanga (1893), and was also outlined in a paper he gave to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in 1893.

It is evident from this material and other archive sources that Moloney was instrumental in saving the Stairs Expedition from disaster. Captain Stairs, who had been involved in several expeditions to Africa, had obtained permission from the British War Office to command the Belgian Katanga Company Expedition (the ‘Stairs Expedition’) which, backed by the Belgian Government, left for ‘Katangaland’ in May, 1891. The Katanga territories lay at the heart of the Congo and were rich in copper deposits; as part of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ the area had seen some intense rivalry between European states but also, at certain junctures, some cooperation as well, especially between Britain and Belgium. State-sanctioned companies often employed soldiers to ruthlessly wipe out any local tribal opposition. The Katanga Company, an international syndicate, was a good example of this.

The Stairs Expedition, with Stairs as leader, Captain Bodson as second-in-command and the Marquis de Bonchamps as the third officer, also included Thomas Robinson as the carpenter and Joseph Moloney as the MO. The five Europeans were supported by a native caravan of 336. The column set off in June, 1891, marching through various territories and, on October 9th, encamped at a French mission station. From that point onwards, the Expedition took on a much more dangerous nature, passing into largely unmapped areas of mountains, tropical rain forests and crocodile-infested rivers.

Dr Moloney

At one stage, the Expedition ran out of food, while violent thunderstorms often put out the camp fires at night. After five months of marching, the Expedition encamped near Bunkeia, which was the capital of the tribal Kingdom of King Msiri. Stairs hoisted the Belgian flag to claim the area for King Leopold’s Congo Free State. However, a bungled attempt to capture King Msiri ended in the native chief being killed, while the Expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Bodson, died from wounds inflicted by Msiri’s slaves. Moloney took a major risk to retrieve Bodson’s body under fire.

Further misfortune occurred. Stairs became very ill, so it fell to Moloney to start negotiating with the local tribes and buy time, which he did successfully by concluding fifteen separate treaties. Christmas, 1891, though, brought further misery. The native porters had scoured the countryside for food but it became very clear that none was available. For the next three weeks, the Stairs Expedition had to exist on a diet (to use Moloney’s own words) of ‘leaves and grass, varied by fired locusts and ants’. Fever, hunger and desertion reduced the caravan down to 200 people. The Marquis de Bonchamps caught fever and, according to Moloney, both Stairs and Thomas Robinson also ‘lay at death’s door’.

In early February, 1892, Stairs decided that the Expedition would have to retrace their steps and try to return to the coast and to safety. This was extremely difficult because the rains had dramatically altered much of the landscape, making much of it swamp water, which they reluctantly had to wade through while the sun above took its toll. Many of the native porters died, and the four remaining Europeans were all sick with fever.

It was largely down to Moloney, who effectively took command, that the Expedition finally made it back to a Portuguese port (‘Vincenti’) on June 3rd, 1892. Shortly after this, on June 9th, Stairs died. In his memoirs, the ever-loyal Moloney was generous in his praise of Stairs, but later critics suggested that Stairs had been too brutal in his conduct towards the natives and incompetent in some of his decision-making. Moreover, when the Royal Geographical Society met in June, 1893, to hear an account of the Expedition, they decided that Moloney had been ‘the backbone of the expedition’, acting bravely under fire, using his diplomatic skills wisely and, against tremendous odds, he had managed to lead the dying men back to safety.

While care must be taken not to convert Moloney’s career into a ‘Boy’s Own’ style romantic adventure, the historical evidence suggests (to me, at least) that the modest Dr. Moloney was an astute and brave individual, who managed to show leadership in circumstances that would have defeated many other people.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Note: Much of the above was first published in my article for Ancestors, no. 73 (2008)




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New Study of Stalin’s ‘War’ on Ukraine

A major new study of one of the most murderous episodes in Joseph Stalin’s time as dictator of Soviet Russia, entitled Red FamineStalin’s War on Ukraine (Allen Lane, 2017), offers new perspectives on the still relatively under-researched ‘Holodomor’ (the Ukraine word for ‘death by hunger’).

Anne Applebaum Red Famine

Written by the award-winning historian Anne Applebaum, whose previous books include GulagA History of the Soviet Camps (2003) – a ground-breaking study which won the Pulitzer prize – Red Famine explores (to use Applebaum’s own words) Stalin’s ‘disastrous decision’ to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms, and the huge and negative impact this policy had on the Ukraine in 1932-33, bringing key parts of the countryside to the brink of mass starvation.

It has been estimated that the decision by Stalin and the Communist Party to force general ‘collectivisation’ on the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934 led to the deaths of at least 5m people across the whole country, and 4m of these were Ukrainians. Moreover, the Communist state sought to cover all this up, preventing foreign journalists reporting on it to the wider world, and altering official census records within the country. In fact, the Communist regime engaged in a blatant attempt to re-write history.

However, despite this, according to Applebaum, thousands of archival records remained in existence, while the Ukrainians themselves kept alive their memory of these horrific times over subsequent generations. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1985 Chernobyl nuclear accident, a new generation of Ukrainian intellectuals began to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the Soviet system, especially given its toxic industrial policies and notorious secrecy. Part of this involved a ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Holodomor’.

Applebaum’s new study reveals that she first encountered the story of the famine shortly after the Chernobyl events, when the Ukraine’s independence movement was beginning to flourish in the late 1980s and when, as part of the search for a new national identity and a reclamation of Ukraine’s history, a huge national effort was getting underway to collect the memories of famine survivors. Ukraine achieved its sovereignty in 1991, as part of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and this opened up new research possibilities for Western historians to gain access to previously-closed archives and other invaluable primary sources.

Stalin and team

What Applebaum’s study also confirms is the long-standing suspicion held by Western scholars that the famine in the Ukraine was not just a result of the stupidity or naive ideological ambitions of the Communist State’s ‘collectivisation’ programme, but was a tool deliberately used by Stalin to stamp on any signs of Ukrainian nationalism. In other words, as Applebaum puts it, the elite leadership of the Communist Party, firmly under the iron grip of Stalin, decided to use the famine in the Ukraine to crush Ukraine’s desire for sovereignty and nip in the bud any future rebellions by Ukrainian peasants, class traitors or ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

As well as decimating the peasant class, this ‘war’ on the Ukraine by Stalin was also underpinned by other harsh and deliberately planned measures: every Ukrainian nationalist leader was executed or imprisoned in labour camps, the Ukrainian language was ruthlessly repressed, and many thousands of Ukrainians and their families were deported to other distant parts of the Soviet Union, many of them dying as a consequence.

All in all, Red Famine will undoubtedly reinforce Anne Applebaum’s reputation as one of the West’s leading historians of Stalinist crimes and, in particular, will introduce the ‘Holodomor’ to a new generation of students and other readers. And, given the recent and worrying revival of interest in Stalin and other ‘strong men’ in some parts of the former Eastern Communist Bloc, it is arguably more important than ever to understand the nature of authoritarianism, and the reasons why dictators always prefer physical force rather than reason and democracy.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)




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Kingston History Lecturer speaks on Robespierre at Oxford research network

Dr. Marisa Linton, Reader in History at Kingston University, London, and one of the U.K.’s leading experts on the French Revolution, recently gave a talk on Robespierre to a new research network at the University of Oxford, and a summary of her talk has been made available by the Voltaire Foundation.


The concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘apocalypse’ have reappeared rather abruptly in recent times. Yet, as the Voltaire Foundation has pointed out, they have never been completely absent: merely in retreat from our prevalent belief in ‘progress’.

‘Crisis, extremes and apocalypse’ is a new research network at the University of Oxford that, in the words of the network, ‘seeks to shed light on and engage with themes that are more timely than ever’. These themes have a long history and include key events from the French Revolutionary period.

The network was therefore very pleased to welcome Marisa Linton from Kingston University in April to discuss the French Revolution and the ‘politics’ and ‘language’ of virtue in a talk on ‘Robespierre and the politician’s terror’.


Moreover, after a very successful session in April, the network at the University of Oxford will be hosting Dr. Linton once again in late Autumn, 2017, alongside Olivier Tonneau and Sophie Wahnich for a workshop on Saint-Just.

This promises to be an unmissable event for all scholars of the French Revolution. Set your diaries now.

An overview of Marisa Linton’s Spring talk on Robespierre, provided by the Voltaire Foundation, can be found here:

(All images: Audrey Borowski, Voltaire Foundation)



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History as Heritage: UK’s War Memorial Trust celebrates its 20th birthday

As a historian, I have long been fascinated by memorials of all kinds, including the many war memorials that can be found in numerous towns and villages and other locations across the United Kingdom. On many occasions, when visiting some remote part of the country, I have often found myself being drawn to a local war memorial like a bear to honey.

I was therefore very pleased to see that the UK’s ‘War Memorials Trust’ (WMT) has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and has issued a special edition of its well-written quarterly Bulletin to help explain some of the excellent work that the Trust has carried out since its creation.

War Memorial

The charity was registered on 7th May, 1997. Before that year, although there had been valuable work by both the much older Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to help maintain war graves and military cemeteries, there was no dedicated organisation in the country that focused specifically on supporting (to use the WMT’s words) the ‘local custodians’ of the estimated 100,000 war memorials of all shapes and sizes in the UK.

Sadly, while some towns and villages in Britain have lovingly maintained their war memorials in tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, recent decades have witnessed other memorials falling victim to neglect and disrepair, with a fair number even being destroyed. In 2003, for example, the Trust helped save a memorial that had been broken up and dumped in a builder’s skip. The WMT stored the broken pieces and then found a company who agreed to fund repairs.

According to the WMT’s Bulletin, the Trust today is now managing £4 million of UK and Scottish government centenary funding to help support the repair and conservation of Britain’s war memorial heritage, in addition to helping fund individuals and communities across the country.

Over the first 20 years of its existence, the WMT mainly relied on its funding coming from a combination of charitable trusts, foundations, and generous individuals (it has about 2,700 individual members today). There were also various fundraising events over the years, sometimes with talks by leading military and other historians. Naturally, it was often very challenging to get sufficient money to carry out all the work the WMT wished to do, but in 2002 the Trust received a significant boost to its fundraising when an article about the organisation and its determination to preserve war memorials appeared in a leading British daily newspaper, written by the late journalist David Graves. It led to over £10,000 being donated to the Trust by individuals.

Another initiative taken by the WMT, and welcomed by historians and other conservation experts, was to develop a youth-focused ‘Learning Programme’ which was aimed at schools, colleges and youth groups, and continues to thrive today. In 2011, sufficient funding had been secured to also appoint a Learning Officer and, since then, the Learning Programme has arguably become a core part of the WMT’s important work.

In addition, the WMT’s volunteer Conservation Officers have offered a wide range of free advice and guidance to anyone who has had concerns about the condition of memorials, or are in search of guidance on best conservation practice. As well as providing such invaluable advice to members of the public, in 2012 the WMT also set up a War Memorials Officers project. This has sought to identify relevant individuals to contact in each local authority across Britain, which in turn has also helped raise awareness of conservation issues in local communities.

War Memorials Trust

Regrettably, one problem that has emerged in recent years, and has created additional pressure on the WMT’s limited resources, is theft: according to the WMT’s special Bulletin, the Trust has had to deal with a high number of reported thefts at war memorials across the UK, with metal elements such as plaques being stolen from a variety of memorials. In response, the WMT has started working with the SmartWater Foundation, which has provided free crime prevention fluid to war memorial custodians across the country. The problem was also raised at Parliamentary level, and the WMT helped provide advice to the All Parliamentary Group on Combating Metal Theft. Such work appears to be showing success, as there has been a reported decline in metal theft in 2016-17.

As the WMT has pointed out, and I am sure many historians will agree, war memorials in many ways are located in ‘shared spaces of remembrance’, whether it be at a cenotaph on a village green, a plaque inside a Church or Post Office, or at a cross or statue in the middle of a town, and such sites remain very much a part of Britain’s national historical culture.


The recent centenary of the First World War, which saw a wide range of events and exhibitions, also provided the WMT with an opportunity to produce further learning materials covering the key battles and other events of the war, including the location of the memorials that were subsequently constructed in tribute to the many thousands of soldiers who fought in the conflict. Building on this, and in recognition of the tremendous interest shown by the public in such aspects of our shared history, the WMT’s centenary Bulletin reveals that the Trust has now extended its educational provision to include wider historical events, as well as local history and present-day conservation issues.

I have no doubt that the WMT will continue to flourish in its conservation and educational work in future years, and will be equally as active when it comes to the centenary of the Second World War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: the War Memorials Trust and WikiMedia Commons)

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