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Frederick Pethick Lawrence

Frederick William (Fred) Pethick-Lawrence (1871 - 1961) was a British Labour politician and leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, with both of the Pethick Lawrences being key figures in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Frederick Lawrence inherited a fortune when his older brother died, and used it to support a range of liberal and radical causes, starting with purchasing the newspaper The Echo, through which activities in connection with the South African War led to his friendship with Olive Schreiner. On marriage, the Pethick Lawrences joined their names. Later, he became a prominent Labour politician, including as Secretary of State for India and Burma and involved in the plans for India’s independence.  He was also a pacifist and one of the founders and Treasurer of the Union of Democratic Control in the First World Ear, one of the pacifist organisations Schreiner supported.

A set of letters which Olive Schreiner had written to Fred Pethick-Lawrence, together with some photographs, were sent to Cape Town, to feature as part of centenary events celebrating her birth, an event which was organised by May Murray Parker, Daisy Solomon and others of the younger women Olive Schreiner had known there. After their arrival, 41 letters were transcribed and typewritten by May Murray Parker, although whether she transcribed all or just some of those sent by Pethick Lawrence cannot be established. The original letters were then returned and arrived safely: in April 1955 Pethick Lawrence’s private secretary, Esther Knowles, thanked May Murray Parker for letting her know the photographs and letters were on their way back, and then in May their receipt was acknowledged. However, Fred’s second wife, after Emmeline died in 1954, Helen Craggs, destroyed many papers immediately following his death in 1961, with Schreiner’s original letters among many others being casualties of this. He had left instructions with his secretaries that various of his papers were to be preserved but, not knowing about this, Helen destroyed many before the secretaries could safeguard them. The typescripts are however located within the Schreiner collections at UCT.

The typescripts are quite formal and business-like in some ways, but also warm and affectionate. A 1905 visit to South Africa by both Pethick Lawrences ‘sparks off’ the exchange of letters, with the early ones showing something of the workings of networks and introductions, as Schreiner goes about plugging the Pethick Lawrences into her South African political networks, the middle letters showing the international connections of the women’s movement and the importance of the British movement for that in South Africa, and the later ones demonstrating shared feminist and peace networks during the First World War.

Many of the typescripts have no salutation or signature but just start and end, presumptively because these were omitted when the typescripts were made. Their overarching concern is with national and international women’s movements, the relationship of these to the other great ‘questions’ of the age (of labour and race as well as woman). More specific concerns include managing tensions around Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and her political and ethical ‘misunderstandings’ while also not upsetting Fred nor rejecting Emmeline, but with most emphasis and detail given to women’s suffrage campaigns in South Africa and Britain. Three key areas dealt with in Schreiner’s typescripts are as follows.

Firstly, Schreiner’s letters repeatedly comments on the great differences between the South African and the British situations with regard to women’s suffrage matters: in South Africa, white women themselves were not ‘roused’ while many of their menfolk were strong supporters, unlike in Britain; and in South Africa women’s suffrage was white women’s suffrage and had to be seen as part of the wider franchise question and it was not to be promoted or supported on same terms as (white) men. Secondly, the idea that the vote only but one small part of the much wider woman question, which for Schreiner also involved among other things education, labour issues and the character of marriage, is articulated and repeated. And thirdly and relatedly, for Schreiner the fight for the vote itself is commented on as being at least as important and ‘educational’ (more so perhaps) as gaining the franchice, for it encourages and educates women to take charge of their own destinies.

For more information see
Brian Harrison (2004) ‘Lawrence, Frederick William Pethick-, Baron Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35491
Frederick Pethick Lawrence (1943) Fate Has Been Kind London: Hutchinson & Co
Melanie Phillips (2004) The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement London: Abacus
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