Margery Corbett Ashby

Margery Corbett Ashby

Margery Corbett Ashby, the daughter of Charles Corbett and Marie Corbett, was born at Danehill, Sussex in 1882. Margery and her younger sister, Cicely Corbett, were educated at home by Lina Eckenstein. Charles taught the girls classics, history and mathematics and Marie taught them scripture and the piano. A local woman gave them lessons in French and German.

For many years Charles Corbett and Marie Corbett made public speeches on the subject of women's rights in East Grinstead High Street. East Grinstead was a safe Conservative seat and the crowds were usually very hostile. A survey carried out in 1911 suggested that less than 20% of the women in East Grinstead supported women having the vote in parliamentary elections. In her autobiography, Margery described how the people of East Grinstead reacted to her parents support of women's rights: "My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread."

At the age of eighteen, Margery and her younger sister Cicely and a group of friends formed a society called the Younger Suffragists. In 1901 Margery won a place at Newnham College, Cambridge to read Classics. At university she joined the Cambridge branch of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and by the time she was nineteen she had become secretary of the Constitutional Suffrage Movement.

Her friend, Mary Hamilton, explained: "At college Margery was intensely keen on civil liberties, free trade, international good will, democracy… She spends time and energy without stint or personal ambition… She has an immense sense of duty, and must have spent a very large part of her entire life on committees and at meetings."

Although Margery Corbett passed her examinations, because she was a woman, Cambridge University refused to grant her a degree (Cambridge University granted the first degrees to women in 1947). In 1904 Margery obtained a place at the Cambridge Teachers Training College but after completing the course she decided that teaching was not for her.

In 1907 Margery Corbett was appointed Secretary of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies and was giving the responsibility of editing their journal. Disappointed with the poor record of the Liberal Party with respect to women's suffrage, Margery left the Women's Liberal Federation and with her mother and sister helped form the Liberal Suffrage Group. Margery also played an active role in the by-election where Bertrand Russell unsuccessfully stood as the women's suffrage candidate. The following year Margery became a member of the National Committee of the NUWSS.

In 1909 Margery became involved in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and was a speaker at their conferences in Berlin and Stockholm. Margery married the barrister, Brian Ashby in 1910. In November 1914, Margery gave birth to her only child. This restricted her activities during the next few years but she was to do war work in hospitals and on the land. Margery also ran a canteen at an outbuilding of Woodgate, in an attempt to provide good food for local schoolchildren.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 Margery Corbett Ashby became one of the seventeen women candidates that stood in the post-war election. Margery was the Liberal candidate for Ladywood, Birmingham. During the election campaign Margery advocated feminist policies that would have given women full political equality with men. This was the first of seven unsuccessful attempts by Margery Corbett Ashby to get into the House of Commons.

In 1919 Margery was a member of the International Alliance of Women who attended the Versailles Peace Conference. The following year she took part in the first post-war congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. In 1923 she was elected president of the organisation and she held the post until her retirement in 1946.

In 1932 she was the British delegate to the Geneva Disarmament Conference. Margery resigned from this position in 1935 in protest at the British government's refusal to support any practical scheme for mutual security and defence. In 1937 she was one of the signatories of as declaration in the press asserting that war could be avoided if the League of Nations took positive action. She was also president of the National Union for Equal Citizenship.

Margery continued to be active in politics after the Second World War. In 1952, at the age of seventy, she became editor of International Women's News. Margery continued to be active in politics and was probably the only woman in Britain to be involved in suffrage campaign before the First World War and the Women's Liberation Movement in the 1970s. Margery's last political demonstration was at the age of ninety-eight when she took part in the Women's Day of Action in London.

Margery Corbett Ashby died at Danehill on 22nd May 1981.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her childhood in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.

No one can have had a happier childhood than myself, brought up, with a younger brother and sister, in a large, old-fashioned, country house. In my youth I shared every advantage with my brother equally - from love and affection to the best possible education and opportunities, and the critical but unstinted encouragement which to the young is like sunshine to a plant.

My mother became an energetic cyclist, rebuked by her neighbours for showing inches of extremely pretty feet and ankles; regarded as highly indecorous. It was not only to the ankles that the neighbours objected. My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread.

(2) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her childhood in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.

We were educated at home. Lessons were divided. Mother took scripture and music. My father taught us history, geography, mathematics and Latin. From the age of four I read everything I could lay my hands on. I remember lying on the floor reading contemporary accounts of the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War in my grandfather's library, where there was a complete set of Illustrated London News. He had bookshelves to the ceiling… In my father's library the big bookcases also went up to the ceiling.

(3) When Mary Hamilton was at Newnham College she used to stay with her fellow student, Margery Corbett at her home at Danehill. Mary Hamilton wrote about these experiences in her book Remembering Good Friends.

Margery's mother, Marie Corbett, was an ardent Feminist, one small external sign being the fact that she regularly wore the breeches she had taken to when bicycling came in, at least a decade before war-time made them permissible. She was a woman of great drive, active in local affairs and local government and all good causes. The house was apt to swarm with people. The Corbett's hospitality was in the best English tradition. Friends of Margery, of her younger sister Cicely - extravagantly pretty, and at the time we were at Cambridge, preparing to go Oxford and of her elder brother Adrian, then at Oxford, assembled for dances and week-end parties…. At college Margery was intensely keen on civil liberties, free trade, international good will, democracy… She spends time and energy without stint or personal ambition… She has an immense sense of duty, and must have spent a very large part of her entire life on committees and at meetings. Not to like her is and always has been impossible; she has charm and complete sincerity, and has made a success of life, in its essential relationships. She was a good daughter: she is a good wife and mother. The one boy, born during the 1914 war, when his father was in France with the B.E.F., was, as a baby, so delicate that it did not seem possible he should live; Margery insisted that he should; he has grown up a superb physical specimen.