Isabella Ormston Ford (1855-1924) was a British social and political activist, close friend of Olive Schreiner, and a mutual friend of Schreiner’s and Edward Carpenter. Ford came from an affluent Quaker family in Leeds, and from a young age she was encouraged by her socially conscious mother to take an interest in the employment conditions and educational opportunities of working women, especially in the surrounding mills. By the age of sixteen she was teaching at a night school for mill girls established by her parents, and she was later prominently involved in trade union activities. Ford was a founder member of the Leeds Independent Labour Party, and became part of the circle of ‘Fellowship of the New Life’ socialists and a particular friend of Edward Carpenter’s, which is how Schreiner came to meet and know her. According to Rowbotham, “Carpenter acted as a lodestar in Isabella’s life” (Rowbotham 2008: 49). Between 1903 and 1907 she was elected to the national administrative council of the ILP, and she involved herself actively in the campaign for women’s suffrage. During the First World War Ford was a pacifist and a member of the Union for Democratic Control.
Although there are no known extant letters from Schreiner to Isabella Ford, it is apparent from Schreiner’s letters to other people that she and Ford maintained a correspondence, and there are a few extant letters from Ford to Schreiner showing that they did indeed correspond. Schreiner introduced her friends Betty Molteno and Alice Greene to Isabella Ford, calling her a “splendid woman”, and “a noble woman”. However, in 1901 Ford published a portion of one of Schreiner’s wartime letters to her in a British newspaper, presumably to expose the conditions under which Schreiner was living. Schreiner was deeply upset at this breach of privacy, particularly so regarding at the possible danger it exposed people in Hanover to given, that she and they were living under Martial Law and that some Hanover men had been executed as the result of false information. She commented to Betty Molteno, “But whatever she has published it is absolutely unjustifiable to put parts of private letters in papers, & Isabella of all people I know is the most refined & sensitive in such matters.” Schreiner and Ford remained friends, however, and a letter from Ford to Schreiner in 1919 indicates that Schreiner had asked Ford to meet with Solomon Plaatje and other members of his delegation, to which she warmly agreed, remarking “coloured people’s wrongs lie even nearer my heart - I think I was a dark person in some former incarnation!”
For further information see:
June Hannam (2004) ‘Ford, Isabella Ormston (1855-1924)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39084
June Hannam (1989) Isabella Ford, 1855-1924 Oxford: Basil Blackwell
Sheila Rowbotham (2008) Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love London: Verso